Independent thinkers believe what they do on the basis of evidence and argument and not as a result of psychological or social pressure. One way in which Critical Thinking courses help students to become independent thinkers is by making the analysis and evaluation of arguments an exercise that leaves their own beliefs alone.
Toddlers might, as a rule, be independently minded. But many people, as they age, come increasingly to take their beliefs and values from others. Adults who regularly and happily think for themselves are surprisingly rare.
Thinking for oneself, or being intellectually and morally autonomous, is an accomplishment. It takes hard work. And the rewards of thinking for oneself might not outweigh the costs.
Thinking for oneself is having one’s own evidence and arguments for one’s beliefs and values, evidence and arguments that meet one’s own high standards. To be able to think for oneself requires one to be able to hold one’s beliefs and values at arm’s length, to examine them as though they weren’t one’s own despite their importance to one’s identity. People who think for themselves take a critical attitude to what they hear, even when they are listening only to themselves.
We fail to be independent thinkers for one or both of two causes. The first is that we humans are prone to cognitive biases and certain varieties of fallacious reasoning. Psychologists who study thinking have been shocked at what they’ve found. Some examples: We frequently generalize from very few cases. We expect the odds to turn in our favour after a string of bad luck. We value confirming evidence much more highly than we value disconfirming evidence. We’ll judge a weak argument strong just because we like its conclusion. Most of us are terrible at interpreting statistics.
The second cause of our failure to think independently is our desire to fit in and be liked. Humans are susceptible to psychological and social pressures stemming from our fear of being put aside or cast out. Throughout history, group leaders and other authorities have been good at exploiting our desire to fit in and, even more, at exploiting our fear of exclusion.
If the people we admire or who have power over us believe X and value Y, we are likely to believe X and value Y too. Failing to believe X can put us on the outs with them; valuing something other than Y can make us pariahs in their eyes. Refusal to conform our beliefs and values to the preferred ones can bring mockery and insults. We are especially unlikely to ask hard questions or to make up our own mind if there is an official sanction for failing to conform.
Those who look after the group might have excellent reasons for wanting the group to think one way rather than another. Racist or sexist beliefs or values can cause pain and hardship to people. Best to keep such beliefs and values down. Why not undermine them, then, by openly and freely discussing them? Because discussion is both difficult and unsure. Instead, by wielding their power to include and exclude people according to their beliefs, our leaders can more reliably promote good feelings and good habits within the group and prevent harmful ideas from taking hold.
Thinking for oneself requires being aware of how reasoning can go off track and having the fortitude to endure the shaming, shunning, or worse that can result if one’s research brings one to conclusions not endorsed by the group or its leaders.
Not surprisingly, if one aspires to become independent of mind and an autonomous thinker, one is well advised to find others who share the same aspiration. Social creatures that we are, primed as we are to respond to social pressures, we can take advantage of the support we find among other people keen to think for themselves. Universities are human institutions, and, the manufacturing of consent through psychological and social pressure goes on in them as it does elsewhere. But universities have as their mission to support independence of mind. The chances that one will find autonomous thinkers and people who value autonomous thinking are, despite recent trends, still higher at a university than at most other institutions. Indeed, in line with its mission to be hospitable to independent thought, virtually all universities offer courses on critical thinking.
An important objective of a critical thinking course is to make students aware of the cognitive biases that people are prone to hold. Another goal is to make students aware of fallacies in reasoning. Being aware of the cognitive biases they might have and of the ways reasoning sometimes goes wrong, students will be able to avoid common mistakes in thinking.
A further aim of instruction in critical thinking is to encourage students to focus on the arguments themselves and not to be concerned about the impression they would give to their peers or superiors were they to endorse unpopular conclusions. It’s this aspect of critical thinking that addresses our tendency to conform our thinking, not to what we take to be true or well argued, but to what we suspect will help us maintain our social standing. Students worry that if they say something in their own voice, others will be offended or will ridicule them. But if they are asked to examine claims for their meanings and to evaluate arguments according to canons of evidence or argument, the worry departs. Analyzing and evaluating arguments in class is simply to participate in an exercise. As such, the social and emotional stakes are fairly low.
But gaining proficiency in analyzing and evaluating arguments can have a profound effect on one’s values and self-image. Being comfortable with arguments and having the skills to understand them can bring one to care about truth—to care maybe even more than about one’s social standing or the approval of others. When you care more about believing for reasons of evidence and argument than you care about holding ideas that will make you look good in the eyes of others, you have become an independent thinker.
Finally, there can be no compulsion in education. Were there compulsion, it would be indoctrination, getting you to believe or value something independently of whether it’s true or fits well with your other values. So, the task of a critical thinking course cannot be to make you an independent thinker. The goal cannot be to produce an intellectually and morally autonomous person. Rather, the task is to help students experience what independent thinking is like. Whether students commit themselves to thinking independently must remain entirely up to them.
Mark Mercer is a professor of philosophy at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship. This article is taken from the book In Praise of Dangerous Universities and Other Essays (2022), by Mark Mercer, published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and available at Amazon.