Truth, Lies, and Critical Thinking
When we teach, we strive to equip our students with the knowledge and skills they need, for the future they face. We aspire to help them develop intellectually, professionally, and personally. So as events unfold in our country, in both politics and public health, we are dismayed to see so many of our fellow citizens believing, and making decisions based upon, information that is demonstrably false. Many educators wonder, what can we do? How can we help our students to navigate a landscape awash with conspiracy theories, disinformation, and propaganda? How can we ensure that our graduates can distinguish truth from lies?
Grant Cornwell, President of Rollins College, shares these concerns. In 2018, he wrote:
In the anti-intellectualism of our current political culture, I see a…disregard for the value of truth and its pursuit with integrity. Maybe worse, I see a dismissive attitude toward the knowing of facts…What is true has been displaced by what reinforces one’s ideology and politics—and ideology trumps facts. I see this as a threat to democracy.
This is where the university—with its core principles of freedom of inquiry and expression, and its capacity to educate graduates with the independent and critical acumen to deliberate about all manner of issues—plays a vital role.
Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, asserts that the siege on the Capitol is evidence that colleges have not yet done enough: “We colleges educate the leaders who have the power to move the crowd to good purposes, or to inflame the mob for evil. In owning the educational failure that January 6 reflects, we must resolve to act more courageously to improve the ability of our graduates to be stewards of truth, leading this nation forward more affirmatively along the arc of justice.”
Cornwell suggests we be more intentional in carrying out our universities’ missions of truth-seeking, saying:
I want our students to know not only how to exercise intellectual skills but also that certain things are true. Again, the intellectual skills we embrace as learning goals— information literacy, critical thinking, ethical reasoning, mathematical thinking and scientific literacy—are exactly the tools we would select to combat the abuses of a post-truth era. As educators, our job is to encourage students to understand how widely they should be applying those skills in the classroom and as citizens to evaluate information and sources, to reckon with credibility of evidence, and to consider both one’s own assumptions and the claims of others.
A college education can help students sharpen their reasoning, identify and evaluate evidence, and develop critical habits of mind—including checking their own thinking for logical fallacies like confirmation bias—but only if we build that education effectively and intentionally. Critical thinking is a fuzzy concept: We all have a sense of what we mean when we say it, but it can be difficult to articulate or unpack for students. It is not one skill—it is not even a one-size-fits-all set of skills that we can teach in any course, but a portfolio of skills that vary based on discipline and that need to be defined and applied in context . Also, thinking skills do not develop divorced from knowledge; students need foundational knowledge in order to think critically, and their knowledge and thinking skills develop best together.
Thus, part of our work as faculty and as teachers is to come together with our colleagues and define the kinds of thinking and the ways of knowing that are valued in our disciplines. (Here’s an example from History, created by faculty and teachers for the Historical Thinking Project.) Then, we need to clearly and consistently explain these ways of thinking to our students; provide examples—from the excellent to the very flawed—for them to analyze and evaluate; and most importantly, give them ample opportunities for growth through practice.
When we’re training our students to think like scientists, like humanists, like scholars, one course is not enough. And watching us think like experts is not enough. We cannot do the thinking for them. Students need practice, feedback, and opportunities to apply the feedback. They need to reflect on and articulate what they have learned. They need to examine why experts believe what they believe in the discipline. And as they’re acquiring and examining disciplinary epistemologies, we also need to help them transfer their new habits to other realms. Rigorous thinking is a habit we can—we must—all practice outside of a lab or a research paper. So students also need explicit practice applying critical thinking to life.
Teaching truth-seeking goes beyond coaching thinking, though; it includes helping students to arrive at conclusions, and to revise those conclusions, based on evidence. That way they can develop an understanding of what is true, and what is not, and explain and justify their beliefs. Cornwell says, “Students need to graduate with more than knowing how; they also need to know that. We academics are quite good at being able to talk about the architecture of the liberally educated mind, but we are too shy in talking about the content knowledge, the furniture, of a liberally educated mind. What does a global citizen and responsible leader know?”
If you’d like support as you determine what students who take your course(s) should know, what kinds of critical thinking they should be able to do, and what kinds of practice can help them achieve those goals, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to working with you!