Liberal Education

Cultivating Critique: A (Humanoid) Response to the Online Teaching of Critical Thinking

The Turing era, defined by British mathematician and computer science pioneer Alan Turing’s question about whether or not computers can think, is not over. Philosophers and scientists will continue to haggle over whether thought necessitates intentionality, and whether computation can rise to that level. Meanwhile, another frontier is emerging in one small but expanding corner of the universe: the introductory-level, undergraduate courses that colleges and universities require students to take for general education credit in the area of critical thinking. On this frontier, similar questions arise, but with an added conundral twist: Can we program computers to teach humans how to think? Can we program computers to think critically? Can we program computers to teach humans how to think critically? In the artificial intelligence debates of the past, everything hinged on the meaning of thinking; in the present debate, everything hinges on the meaning of critique.

Critical thinking 2.0

Critical thinking textbooks the size of department store catalogs have been used in the past to teach readers how to identify, analyze, and evaluate arguments, and how to craft arguments. These books tend to operate in the tradition of Robert M. Ennis’ 1962 Harvard Educational Review article that defined critical thinking as “the correct assessment of statements.” The science of assessing statements and of analyzing how conclusions can be reached through logical reasoning is called argumentation theory, or argumentation (also informal logic, when applied to everyday language). Ennis paved the way for defining “critical thinking” as the skill of logical argumentation.

Assessing premises, reasoning, and claims demands a body of knowledge and a skill set that critical thinking textbooks can provide, along with opportunities to practice and improve those skills. Promising broad application across the arts and sciences, and responding to pressures to verify student learning outcomes, critical thinking defined as argumentation has emerged as a core component of many college and university liberal arts curricula.

The New York Times reported that the college textbook industry earned about $4.5 billion in profits in 2010, with the average student paying $900 per year for books on top of tuition (Scheutze 2011). In recent years, more and more textbooks, including critical thinking textbooks, offer online versions, which accounted for over 23 percent of the industry’s profits in 2010, nearly doubling the profits of the year before. When Mark Majurey of Taylor and Francis publishers said that “textbooks as e-books ought to be seen as a stepping stone to the future” (quoted in Scheutze 2011), he was not kidding, but he also did not elaborate on what that future will look like. What Mr. Majurey did not say is this: it is not only likely that higher education will more fully acquiesce to online delivery of courses (and e-book usage) in order to meet its bottom line; it may also become routine for mainframe servers in Arizona to administer online teaching to students in Alabama, all the way down to the form responses students get when they fail to recognize the difference between induction and deduction.

Computers and argumentation

Many professors believe that there are things that make up a liberal arts education that software programs cannot compute the way humanoids can. They ask, can you computerize a composition or literary interpretation course the way you can computerize a math or statistics course? They may also believe that critical thinking has to do with more than logical argumentation, and be led to ask, are we adjusting our concept of a liberal arts degree to make it amenable to software delivery and assessment systems? Did we change the job description to fit the candidate’s qualities?

Maybe those who ask such questions are clinging to exactly the kind of vague, indefinable characteristics that an arguments-based approached to critical thinking is intended to correct. Presumably, one of the reasons that colleges and universities are mandating a critical thinking curriculum (and working hand in glove with large textbook publishers to provide standardized approaches to teaching critical thinking) is because too many of us have been unclear about what critical thinking entails, and have therefore been unable to provide meaningful evidence that our students are doing it.

Many of us have been vague about what it means to think critically, about what it means to teach critical thinking, about how students can demonstrate it, and about how we can assess it. The arguments-based approach to critical thinking is, in my view, a necessary correction to an otherwise hoary domain of higher education pedagogy that has been used to justify everything from a simplistic approach to workplace problem solving, to anything that looks like effort on the part of students to analyze a poem or a play, to a biased pedagogy aimed at getting students to adopt various cultural and political views without fully understanding or being able to explain why they should hold those views.

Whatever else critical thinking is, it includes the ability to engage and make arguments, and we can teach this. For decades it has been happening in philosophy and composition courses. The notion that all students should take a class that devotes a good chunk of its time to teaching these skills more effectively hardly seems debatable to me.

The choice to limit critical thinking to the correct assessment of statements is another matter, and those professors may be right who wonder about the extent to which this choice is the result of lobbying by publishers rather than by teachers or the universities and colleges they work for. The push to digitize instruction, demonstration, and assessment of critical thinking favors the argumentation approach precisely because it is more similar in structure to math and logic, and therefore to the indigenous language of a robot.

I see no conspiracy to water down the meaning of critical thinking. I see only a set of systemic factors colluding with each other—for example, online instruction, commercial interests, heavy teaching loads for those who teach the bulk of the courses in question, and assessment needs. However, the lack of conspiracy or intent on the part of individual actors in the university teaching machine does not mean that a diminishment of the concept of critical thinking is not happening.

The question that needs to be asked is whether or not there is anything missing from this approach. Is there a supplemental je ne sais quoi of critical thinking that logical argumentation alone cannot account for, and that robot co-professor has a hard time computing? This is by no means a novel question. Literature on the subject has long been split between “critical thinking” as the logical assessment of statements and “critical pedagogy,” which largely analyzes power relations (Burbules and Berk 1999). Critical pedagogists accuse critical thinking experts of upholding a traditional (modernist and/or positivist) model of universality, impartiality, and individualism, as though critique relies on a solitary act of logical analysis of inert facts. Critical thinking experts accuse critical pedagogists of politicizing critique, passing off political conviction as “critical,” and downplaying the process of justifying the conclusions at which one arrives.

I suggest that the arguments-based approach insufficiently cultivates one crucial aspect of critical thinking, and it is an aspect that computers cannot compute. Critical thinking is not only an act of following the rules of logic; it is also both an act and an attitude of rebellion. Rebellion lies at the root of all criticism. It is, and historically was, the basis of the great revolution in thinking that resulted in the turn from tradition and authority to logic and reason. It has also been the cornerstone of every analysis of, and confrontation with, relations of power and ideology.

Rebellion is not party to the blackmail of choosing either logic or protest as the lingua franca of critical thinking. It is instead a particular bent of the self toward all claims, in all the many forms they take (e.g., propositional, discursive, structural, ideological, scientific, religious, political, economic, and cultural). Rebellion by itself does not make one critical, but without rebellion there can be no critique. Moreover, rebellion necessitates another kind of pedagogy than the one that computers have the capacity to facilitate. It requires contexts that encourage dialogue, that incite response, that challenge views, and that model the courage to “think otherwise” (Burbules and Berk 1999).

Courage to think

I can recall a formative moment during my own days as an undergraduate philosophy major. Another student presented a paper in an ethics seminar outlining reasons for opposing the death penalty. As an eighteen-year-old from Texas, where the death penalty is as much a part of the culture as hunting and high school football, I remember experiencing an internal conflict between the sound logic of the student’s arguments and the anxiety they provoked for me, because they challenged my worldview. I also remember that the ensuing discussion, moderated by the professor, created a climate in which I was not able to skirt the issue of my cultural and emotional inhibitions. I was challenged to respond to both the student’s presentation and to my upbringing in a way that demanded intellectual rigor and courage.

What often inhibits us from arriving at logical conclusions is timidity, fear, habit, training, and what one writer called the “overwhelming objectivity” of the world around us. Critical thinkers are those who apply the rules of reason, but who also learn to follow good reasoning into places that they have not felt comfortable going, places that forbid entry. We can program computers to teach us the rules of logical reasoning, but we cannot program computers to teach us how to muster what it takes to challenge the self-evidence and/or security of deeply held convictions, acculturated world views, habituated beliefs, and discursive regimes of truth.

In one historically well-founded sense, critique is about thinking negatively, because it is about doubting, fault finding, questioning bias, and questioning authority. In another historically well-founded sense, critique is about thinking positively, because it involves acquiring some degree of certainty about the correctness of the claims that we and others make, the rules of debate, proper form, and what warrants assent to belief.

The direction of high-level humanities since the 1960s (i.e., its nebulousness and political commitment) often solicits the complaint that students are only taught that critical thinking means the skill of debunking any claim put before them. On the other hand, the critical thinking textbook industry explicitly favors a positive interpretation of critique. They sometimes assert at the outset that critical thinking does not mean negative thinking (see, for example, Facione and Gittens 2010).

It is not just the textbook industry that promotes positive critical thinking. Michael Roth (2010), president of Wesleyan University, delivered a speech at the fiftieth anniversary of Wesleyan’s Center for the Humanities in which he appealed to faculty to move “beyond critical thinking” (by which he seems to have been referring to critical pedagogies that aim to criticize ideologies of power) by declining to teach a negative, debunking-style approach. This fault-finding tendency is usually associated with critical theory and/or deconstruction, despite the fact that prime suspects in those traditions such as Theodor Adorno (1983), Raymond Williams (1976), and Judith Butler (2002) all criticized the notion of critique as fault finding and demythologizing.

In my own teaching experiences, the discrepancy between positive and negative cultures of critique has had less to do with adherence to theoretical orientations and more to do with class. Upper-middle-class students ready to rebel from the stable environments of their well-off parents and with little skin in the game seem ready and eager to debunk everything, including the systems they knowingly benefit from. Poor and working-class students hoping to break into an increasingly elusive middle class with all of its expectations about literacy, articulateness, and job skills often show a tendency not to question the systems they are working so diligently to get a fix on.

The problem is not with either the negative or the positive approach to critical thinking, but with the choice to emphasize one at the expense of the other. The tendency to choose a side reflects student backgrounds, technological limitations, institutional pressures, political bias, philosophical allegiance, commercial interests, and other factors. But I would submit that it does not reflect a well-reasoned approach to what critical thinking means and has meant. Rather than choosing sides, we should take this impasse as an opportunity to revisit the historical legacy of the critical tradition, paying attention to the complex and intriguing relationship at its core between obedience and rebellion.

Obedience and rebellion

There is no better place to turn for an appreciation of the fascinating promiscuity between obedience and rebellion in critical thinking than the late-eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. The story is often told of how townsfolk in the place where he lived used to set their clocks by the obsessively regular walks he took every day. He lived and died a bachelor, he never ventured more than ten miles from the town of Königsberg where he lived, and he wrote in a way that reflected his personality, which is to say, with an almost neurotic attention to precision and detail. He was, in a manner of speaking, a robot.

Kant defined enlightenment as thinking for yourself, which, he made a point of insisting, does not happen merely because you have been taught how and given the freedom to do so: “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’—that is the motto of enlightenment.”

Critique is an attitude of rebellion, and what people often lack when it comes to critical thinking is not the know-how of rational deliberation, but courage. Who is to blame for our lack of courage to think out on the limb? For one thing, Kant thought that we have to blame ourselves for finding it too painful or tedious. We often practically beg others to do our thinking for us.

Kant also blamed guardians of knowledge (priests, politicians, professors) who warn that if we venture out too far on our own we will fall, and who ensure us that we need their safety nets of social, scientific, religious, and cosmological stability. Kant was certain that, more than anything, fear is the thing that keeps us unenlightened and uncritical, adding that even if the revolution came and righted the world’s wrongs, our minds would still be paralyzed by the inertia of habit and by the treachery of what it is like to have a thought that we could call our own.

In the face of personal, social, cultural, political, and habitual inhibitions, how are we ever to become critical thinkers? In the remainder of his essay, Kant suggested that the way forward is through gradual, trial-and-error movement toward free thinking in the public sphere. Our leaders should call off the guardian watchdogs and create a more permissive environment for critical inquiry. We should be given the freedom to think, talk, believe, and question as we wish. Sometimes we will fall, but we will learn from it, and those of us who are reluctant to take the plunge will find inspiration and motivation in the others among us who, for whatever reason, take to critical thinking more easily. The net effect over time will be something like what Adam Smith, earlier in Kant’s century, proposed in the economic sphere: the rising tide of enlightenment will lift all boats.

For Kant, there can be no critique without rebellion against internal and external forces exerted against the free use of our minds. Such rebellion takes courage, and it has to be fostered by open dialogue and modeled by other courageous thinkers. The use of reason (or logical argumentation) is a necessary but insufficient feature of critical thinking. In order to become critical thinkers, we must learn to obey the rules of reason, which is an act of freedom, but this cannot happen in Cartesian solitude. Obeying reason requires more than computation; it requires cultivation.


Some of what we teach in liberal arts settings is not only a skill but a habit, and requires not just didacticism and problem sets but the establishment of environments that provide occasions for ruthless questioning, exposure to different viewpoints, opportunities to go out on limbs, and models of the courage to rethink and unthink everything that has presented itself to us as self-evident. We cannot create these environments with software and hardware alone. We create them with dialogue and conversation between students and professors, between students and other students, between students and contemporary voices, and between students and voices from the past. These are the conversations that cultivate both the skills and the attitude of critique.

I do not see the danger of plug-in professors as one having primarily to do with commercial interests co-opting the meaning of critical thinking, although that is something to keep an eye on. I also do not see critical thinking threatened by increased expectations to generate measurable assessments of student learning outcomes, which a computer-delivered, arguments-based approach to critical thinking can certainly streamline. The question is instead whether or not we will know where the appropriate limits of computation lie, and what its appropriate uses are, as we venture into the future of an increasingly artificial intelligence–style higher education.

If we see the capacity for enlightened critical inquiry diminish in the years to come, it will not be because of computers, which, after all, do what we tell them to do. It will be because we lacked the courage to tell computers at what point they must let humanoids do humanoid things. Had Kant had any experience with them, he would have included computers on the list of things that we are too eager to let do our thinking for us—and, we might add, let do the teaching for us..


Adorno, T. W. 1983. “Cultural Criticism and Society.” In Prisms, 17–34. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Burbules, N. C., and R. Berk. 1999. “Critical Thinking and Critical Pedagogy: Relations, Differences, and Limits.” In Critical Theories in Education, edited by T. S. Popkewitz and L. Fendler, 45–65. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. 2002. “What Is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue.” In The Political: Readings in Continental Philosophy, edited by D. Ingram, 212–26. London: Basil Blackwell.

Ennis, R. M. 1962. “A Concept of Critical Thinking.” Harvard Education Review32 (1): 81–111.

Facione, P., and C. Gittens. 2010. THINK Critically. 2nd ed. New York: Pearson.

Roth, M. S. 2010. “Beyond Critical Thinking.” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 3. 63288.

Scheutze, C. F. 2011. “Textbooks Finally Take a Big Leap to Digital.” New York Times, November 23.

Williams, R. 1976. Keywords. New York: Oxford University Press.

Matt Waggoner is associate professor of philosophy and religion at Albertus Magnus College.

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