Our entire educational system focuses on developing “critical thinking skills.” Yet, I have heard academics complain incessantly about their failure to get students to adequately engage in and conceptualize classroom materials. And instead of reexamining the core educational principles which inform their teaching methods, they tend to blame this apparent intellectual complacency on external cultural, political, and economic forces. However, my background in philosophy leads me to believe that the sacrosanct yet vaguely defined concept of critical thinking actually undermines intellectual development.
By not recognizing first principles of inquiry, the modern educational approach fails to provide an adequate epistemology. According to Aquinas’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, a scientific or philosophical understanding depends upon the ability to imagine the organizational unity of a subject studied in light of contrary opposition and Aristotle’s four causes. Instead, academia has largely embraced an Enlightenment notion that there are no causes that form the unity of an organization and give it intelligibility.
Without causal knowledge, you cannot claim to possess a truly scientific or philosophical habit of the mind. Students are struggling because they are immersed in an academic culture with no formation for developing their natural abilities. The modern conception of critical thinking is at best, an “art” or “knack,” as Plato might say—a skill that cannot be taught because the process is not fully understood by those who preach it.
My professors believe allowing students to analyze a concept without direct instruction creates critical thinkers. In my experience, such an arbitrary approach more often leads to misguided conclusions. Rather than relying entirely on my instructors’ expertise, my understanding of metaphysics gives me the intellectual framework to analogously relate the sciences to one another and see the underlying principles that give them intelligibility. To my surprise, my professors compliment my “critical thinking skills” the more I adhere to this approach. By rejecting the idea that a person can conceptualize without recognizing the existence of self-evident first principles, they ironically believe I am confirming the wisdom of their postmodern educational model.
Critical thinking skills cannot be taught because the majority of its advocates have eliminated any rational basis for how the human person makes rational judgments. This paradox has given us the current existential crisis in higher education. The lack of enthusiasm, creativity, and engagement by today's students is due to their disillusionment that any spiritual fulfillment can be obtained through their studies. Instead of producing enlightened individuals, the modern university wilts the scientific, philosophical, and moral imagination before it can be fully developed.
Only by returning to an educational model grounded in metaphysics can the minds and spirits of our students fully flourish.