Everyone thinks. It is simply within our human nature to do so. From a young age many of us are taught to be critical thinkers; a fact that is stipulated in the UNESCO Declaration of Principles on Tolerance which affirms that education assists “young people to develop capacities for independent judgement, critical thinking and ethical reasoning” (1).
For students, both within schools and higher education institutions, intellectual engagement is crucial, and thus critical thinking skills need to be developed. This means that within these institutions of learning students must be encouraged to do their own thinking given that it assists in them constructing and developing their own knowledge base. In fact, a good teacher knows this and will provide materials that will stimulate the mind. Unfortunately, much of our thinking suffers from all kinds of complications, for instance, we find ourselves susceptible to bias and prejudice, and our thinking can also be distorted and uninformed. Linda Elder, an educational psychologist and a prominent authority on critical thinking, explains that people can often fall “prey to mistakes in reasoning, human irrationality, prejudices, biases, distortions, uncritically accepted social rules and taboos, self-interest, and vested interest” (2).
As mentioned, critical thinking works from the assumption that human beings are capable of good reasoning of which can be developed through educational processes. At its core critical thinking “includes a commitment to using reason in the formulation of our beliefs” (3). Thus, part of critical thinking is to be rational, the ability to reason logically, and to be able to make decisions and judgements, both small and big, based on facts or reason (4). However, critical thinking encompasses a rather broad domain, for example, scholars Kompf & Bond suggests that parts of the process involves decision making, problem solving, rationality, metacognition, rational thinking, reasoning, knowledge, intelligence, as well as a moral component of reflective thinking (5). They believe that critical thinking is based upon the foundation of maturity, attitudes, and one’s ability to access a set of taught skills.
Similarly, the philosophers Joe Lau and Jonathan Chan identify what they believe are traits inherent to any critical thinker (6). Important is his or her ability to identify, evaluate, as well as construct arguments, to be able to observe and comprehend the logical connections between ideas, detect mistakes and inconsistencies in reasoning, as well as be able to reflect on the justification of one’s own beliefs and values. Moreover, a number of scholars at the Foundation for Critical Thinking suggest that the critical thinker is one who raises vital questions, identifies problems, and comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions (7). However, Lau and Chan, observe that critical thinking is not simply a matter of accumulating information and facts. Anyone who knows a lot of facts or who has a good memory isn’t necessarily someone good at applying critical thinking.
Many would agree that being a critical thinker is an important feature when both practical and philosophical scenarios present themselves. Epistemically, for many of us it is quite easy to hold to beliefs that we haven’t examined, and it is therefore easy to hold to beliefs that aren’t rationally justified. Many people live unexamined lives in a number of ways, probably because it is easier and much more comfortable to do so. It is often not so simple to apply critical thinking to one’s own beliefs. Why? Because many people can be afraid of what conclusions they might reason to, or they might prefer holding to a specific set of beliefs even though they are aware that those beliefs are probably false. Critical thinking can therefore bring one’s attention to the uncomfortable facts of self-deception, prejudice, and bias (8).
However, the opposite of this could be true too, for if we can master the skill of critical thinking we can improve our own lives in numerous ways. Not only can we seek for truth and iron out self-deception and unjustified beliefs, but we can also take command of our own lives in that we can live rationally and reasonably. We should use our thinking skills to examine arguments for and against philosophies and theologies. The more we learn about such things the greater confidence we can have when we reason to conclusions.
Moreover, it is important that with critical thinking comes a sense of intellectual humility. Though we might think see ourselves as being reasonable in certain areas of our lives, we should also be cognizant that we all have those areas where we know few things, or have limited experience in engaging with. Intellectual hubris is a trap that many intelligent people fall into which often results in smart people sometimes saying silly and outright false statements. Therefore, a humble spirit is a good one, and is the mark of a mature thinker.
1. UNESCO. Available.
2. The Critical Thinking Community. Our Concept and Definition of Critical Thinking. Available.
3. Encyclopædia Britannica. Reason. Available.
4. Mulnix, J. 2010. “Thinking critically about critical thinking,” in Educational Philosophy and Theory. p. 471.
5. Kompf, M., & Bond, R. 2001. “Critical reflection in adult education,” in The craft of teaching adults. p. 21-38.
6. Lau, J. & Chan, J. What is critical thinking? Available.
7. The Critical Thinking Community. Ibid.
8. Lau, J. & Chan, J. Cognitive Biases. Available.