Critical thinking is a tragically undervalued skill in the current approach to education, yet it is quickly becoming one of the most important tools for a young person seeking to make sense of the world. In fact, because of the internet, students now have access to a wider amount of knowledge than their parents ever could have imagined. This is the most revolutionary technological development of the modern times, and schools are failing to teach students how to navigate it. Instead of learning being measured largely through memory, there should be an increased attention towards the abilities of students to assimilate information to form their own views of the world. For this purpose, the humanities can be a useful tool for the practice of analyzing sources and critically thinking about their value, by questioning authors and their motives. Therefore, with young people having access to an unthinkable amount of immediate information, the education system should construct curriculums focused on helping them to navigate this enormous source. This can especially be achieved through the study of the humanities.

A shift away from retention

Before determining how to reform the education system to value critical thinking, it is essential to understand why the current system relies so heavily on memory. Before the internet existed, before research engines made any information easily accessible, knowledge was measured through how much one was engaged with academic discussions. And the first step in demonstrating that knowledge was memorization. For proof of this, there is no need to look beyond the generation that went to school in the 1950s-60s. In the study of literature for example, the most important exercise was to memorize poems. And while that might have been possible at the time, today we are asking students to learn an additional 70 years of poems. And this goes for other humanitarian subjects as well: it is not sustainable to keep focusing the study of history, for example, only on memorizing dates and events. Therefore, the question is not only whether memorization as the foundation of learning is possible, but whether it is even necessary. Why memorize the entire Divine Comedy, when the text a mere click away?

The importance of critical thinking

However, as anyone with access to the internet will know, not every information found on there is reliable. This is especially true in the era of social media: according to an ANSA report, most American adults gather their news from social media, rather than newspapers. And while only reading one newspaper does not always confer a well-rounded view of the facts, social media is not much better. For example, Facebook system of targeted content create “bubbles” which increasingly isolate individuals, creating an “us vs them” dynamic. This is increasingly evident in the rise of populist parties and ideals in politics, with a lot more people being convinced of having the only version of the truth, while dismissing others as ignorant. In fact, even though the information found on the internet is not often accurate, people often rely on it for a sense of superiority. This behaviour can be addressed by schools through the practice of critical thinking. According to William Graham Sumner, this entails «the examination and test of propositions of any kind which are offered for acceptance, in order to find out whether they correspond to reality or not» (Pipero 2009). This will not only help students to identify “fake news”, but will also train them to question their own beliefs. In practice, this could take the form suggested by Robert H. Ennis, which consists of three stages: reflection, which allows students to stop and think, instead of giving rushed judgments; reasoning, by questioning students on how they reached a certain decision; and alternative, by presenting other possible conclusions. By observing this process, it becomes clear why Linda Elder stated that «people who think critically consistently attempt to live rationally, reasonably, empathically» (Elder 2007): it trains students to become empathetic people, through questioning their perspective and considering someone else’s.

The role of humanities in implementing critical thinking

Having established how important critical thinking is, and the general approach that should be adopted in teaching, it can be observed that the humanities are naturally predisposed to this new method. Critical thinking and the humanities go hand in hand: one cannot be fully achieved or understood, without the other. As questioned by Tullio De Mauro (2015): «Can knowing the principle of Archimede teach us to swim? Will knowing everything about photons improve our sight?». In much the same way, simply knowing what happened during World War II does not have any intrinsic benefits. Instead, teachers should focus more on questioning the students, in order to help them develop their own view of the world. While students are often taught history in a way that does not leave room for interpretation, the realities of historical knowledge are much different. While facts cannot be disputed, the narratives provided in the lead up to certain events can vastly differ from one historian to another. A useful example is the study of the rise of dictatorships. Instead of simply telling students the main factors caused Hitler to become a popular figure in Germany in the 1930s, it might be more informative to ask students, after proper study, what they think the most important factor was. Was it the humiliation experienced by the Germans following World War I? Was it Goebbles’ effective use of technologies to reach as many people as possible? Teaching students to think critically about history will help them apply it to current times. For this purpose, studying history from the point of view of different historians, rather than relying on one single textbook, will be more effective. Moreover, the study of literature openly predisposes the student to questioning motives and themes, connecting them to the author’s experience. This proves valuable in the questioning of narratives we are presented with by politicians or the media. In fact, while critical thinking is an important tool, Michael Scriven and Richard Paul warn against the dangers of it: «when grounded in selfish motives, it is often manifested in the skillful manipulation of ideas in service of one’s own, or one’s groups’, vested interest» (Scriven and Paul 1987). However, this can be avoided as long as students are used to remain «grounded in fairmindedness and intellectual integrity» (Scriven and Paul 1987). Philosophy enriches the student’s understanding of the world. Similarly to literature, it helps drawing a connection between statement and motivation, by flashing out the elements of the thought process the source might have experienced. Once again, the questioning of sources proves essential in the formation of empowered individuals who are not easily swayed by simplistic narratives.

In conclusion, critical thinking encourages «a dialogue between teacher and student, where they are both habitually asked form a perspective on data, while supporting what is being stated with the facts that came before it» (Bassani 2011). Although in this quote by Paoli Bassani refers to mathematics, the process is applicable to the humanities too. In fact, while in sciences this process is used to formulate thesis from the observation of hypothesis, in the humanities it can be used in the interpretation of a text.

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