The Erosion of Critical Thinking Development in Post-Secondary Education: The Need to Return to Liberal Education

The Erosion of Critical Thinking Development in Post-Secondary Education: The Need to Return to Liberal Education

Michael Robert Hepner (St. Louis Community College, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8411-9.ch004
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A quick look at virtually any list of college-level learning outcomes will almost certainly uncover the desire to develop critical thinking skills. While prioritizing the development of critical thinking skills on campuses nationwide is a noble cause, issues quickly arise because the definition of critical thinking varies widely amongst the different disciplines, so this chapter provides a history of the idea of critical thinking in higher education, as well as various critical thinking development strategies and assessment instruments. This chapter also outlines the need for the academe to move from simply mentioning the development of critical thinking skills in various institutional documents to prioritizing such skills through the return of liberal education.
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The Slow Erosion of Critical Thinking Skills in American Undergraduate Education

A brief examination of college mission statements almost always reveals the goal of improving undergraduate students’ critical thinking skills. In fact, according to former Harvard University President Derek Bok (2006), various “nationwide polls have found that more than 90 percent of faculty members in the United States consider it (critical thinking) the most important purpose of undergraduate education” (pp. 67 – 68). Such a goal is admirable as most employers and highly regarded graduate schools seek evidence of solid critical thinking skills in potential employees and students (Kavanagh & Drennan, 2008; Saavedra & Saavedra, 2011; Yeh, 2001).

Post-secondary education in America was originally patterned after the offerings of the medieval university, a pattern that persisted with great success since its creation around the year 1200 in Paris, Oxford, and Bologna. The medieval university curriculum was bi-level in nature and centered on the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). All students were required to take the same courses to meet graduation requirements. At the medieval university, students explored higher-order skills, known as majors today, only during graduate studies, which were then limited to medicine, theology, and law. In explaining his Idea of a University, which is modeled after the medieval university, Newman (1852) posited that liberal education should not be contrasted with the word ‘useful’, as is commonly done; instead, he determined that cultivating the intellect is an end distinct and sufficient in itself. Newman posited that a child’s business when he or she goes to school is to learn and store up facts and that the child’s intellect is little more than a receptacle for storage. However, upon passing from school to the university, students are moving from storing intellect to cultivating knowledge the development of critical thinking skills, which for Newman is the “indispensable condition of expansion or enlightenment of the mind” (p. 130).

A pivotal point in the history of higher education was when Harvard University instituted the nation’s first undergraduate elective system in 1900 after a proposal published by then-president Charles Eliot (1899) in the Atlantic Monthly. Dr. Eliot had studied the elective-based system in Europe and pushed for its adoption in the United States. Arum and Roksa (2011) note that the effects of Dr. Eliot’s decision to move to an elective-based system are being felt today as expressed by the comments of former Harvard University President Derek Bok (2006) in which he pointed out that “many students graduate college today without being able to write well enough to satisfy their employers, reason clearly or perform competently in analyzing complex, non-technical problems” (p. 3). Dr. Bok’s comments are supported by various datasets that have shown a slow erosion of American undergraduate critical thinking skills.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Trivium: The trivium was a major part of the medieval university consisting of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, all of which were taught first to new students before they moved on to the Quadrivium.

Primary Sources: “The materials that were created by those who participated in or witnessed the events of the past” (Potter, 2003 AU63: The in-text citation "Potter, 2003" is not in the reference list. Please correct the citation, add the reference to the list, or delete the citation. , p. 372).

Great Books Curriculum: A curriculum employing a canon of books and primary documents that best express the foundations of Western civilization.

Degree Specialization: Commonly known as an academic “major” in the United States, degree specialization refers to a student’s concentration within one academic discipline.

Liberal Education: “Liberal Education is an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings” ( AACU, 2005 ).

Quadrivium: The Quadrivium consisted of four subjects at the medieval university, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, which, along with the trivium, formed the seven liberal arts, which were set apart from the practical arts, such as medicine, theology, and law.

Critical Thinking: The “Delphi Report,” a research project developed by 46 scholars across various disciplines, defined critical thinking as “purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based” ( Facione, 1990 , p. 2).

Secondary Sources: A secondary source is an outside interpretation or analysis of an event from the past ( Wyman, 2005 ).

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