Critical thinking is defined as the “intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action” (Criticalthinking.org, p. 1).
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This definition comes from the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking and is the most comprehensive to date.
In simpler terms, critical thinking is usually defined as the process of “thinking about thinking”. This description means that critical thinking is the process of observing thinking, and trying to understand whether it is rational or fallacious.
Critical thinking has developed over the last three millennia through the endeavors of philosophers who, in an effort to determine whether claims to knowledge were credible, tried to investigate issues using logical consistency. This philosophical approach was especially common in ancient Greece where a philosophical school hitherto unsurpassed thrived for several centuries since ancient times.
The process of transferring rational thought from the hallowed halls of academia to the public realm and ordinary discussions was also greatly facilitated by the global explosion of universities over the last 100 years.
The greatest spur to critical thinking among the ordinary global populace was facilitated by American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey, who introduced the branch of knowledge to American education in the early 1900s, “So faithfully did Dewey live up to his own philosophical creed that he became the guide, the mentor, and the conscience of the American people: it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that for a generation no major issue was clarified until Dewey had spoken” (Casil, 2006, p. 14).
Later, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) encouraged teaching of the subject in universities across the world, leading to increased adoption or rationalism among the global population.
As a result, ordinary people being trained as professionals were inducted into the processes of rational reflection within their studies. This spread rationalism into the public domain in every nation that has a modicum of higher education.
Critical thinking involves a number of processes which can be briefly summarized as; accepting problems and seeking their solutions; seeking related information to possible solutions; appreciating existing assumptions and trying to expose all of them; identifying similarities or differences in arising propositions; drawing conclusions from the aforementioned related proposition; testing conclusions; and adapting thinking to the new knowledge.
A personal example of the application of critical thinking comes from my work in the media four years ago. A local Non-governmental organization (NGO) that was advocating for the legalization of abortion brought a statistical report to our newspaper in the hope that it would be serialized over a number of days. When the editors obtained the report they gave it to me since I am trained in statistical analysis.
Our stated problem was that illegal abortions were too many and thus justifying legalization of the process since “they are going to happen whether you like it or not”, they said. The assumption in this case was that the statistics were credible, and all we had to do was proceed with the serialization.
The comparable numbers that we could rely on were the birth and death rates of children in Kenya. If the statistics of the report were credible then what it meant was that Kenya had a negative population growth which the National Planning Ministry had discounted a few months earlier.
Our conclusion was that the report was either shoddily prepared or deliberately tampered with to misinform. As a result the newspaper became increasingly vigilant whenever such reports were passed on to us and to this day it rarely serializes such publications.
Critical thinking has been the most powerful force behind the adaptation of democracy in most countries across the world over the last 70 years. The recognition that dictatorship, the loss of freedom, poverty, ignorance, and disease go hand-in-hand with irrationalism has facilitated the birth of an age of freedoms and development unparalleled in the history of mankind.
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The trickle-down effect of dialogue, which is entirely based on rational thought, has precipitated an improvement in quality of life never seen before. Knowledge, science and technology have spread far and wide as humanity abandons superstition and unscientific thinking for reason
Critical thinking now faces a bright future with more and more swathes of humanity embracing its tenets. In the Middle-East, ordinary citizens in three different countries took to the streets in peaceful protests and ejected their long-serving dictator rulers, heralding a new era of freedom, democracy, dialogue, and hopefully, good governance.
Elsewhere, scientists are busy seeking solutions to numerous global problems such as disease, scarcity of energy, famine, drought and many other challenges. All these efforts are the result of a new rational thought that has been triggered by the adoption of critical thinking processes.
Casil, A. S. (2006). John Dewey: The Founder of American Liberalism. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group.
Criticalthinking.org. (n.d.). Defining Critical Thinking. Retrieved from Critical Thinking Community: http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/defining-critical-thinking/766