Peter Smith

Publications, Lectures and Other Stuff

Graduates & Critical Thinking

1. According to the Chronicle for Higher Education, a US survey found that ‘adults and employers want colleges to produce graduates who can think critically and creatively, and can communicate orally and in writing‘ [N1]. These skills were regarded as more important than more specific work-related skills which could often be learnt on the job.

My take on this is that graduate employability in Western democracies at least is likely to be increased by including the ‘3 Cs’ (critical thinking, creativity and communication skills) in all degree courses. That does not mean that students should not learn both specific work-related skills and the ‘3 Cs’, of course. We could also argue that in the modern world many individuals will end up having a succession of jobs as the labour market changes over time, and that whilst specific job-related skills may become obsolescent, the 3 Cs are always relevant to most jobs and will not become outdated through the graduate’s career path.,

If the 3 Cs are important for all graduates what requirements does this place on Higher Education? I will deal here only with critical thinking.


2. Why is critical thinking important? If students learn to think critically they become better able to analyze the situations they are in and think creatively about possible alternatives.


3. What is critical thinking? I would say that critical thinking is thinking for yourself, and subjecting all ideas (both your own and those of others) to critical analysis. Necessarily, that involves both trying to avoid simply agreeing with others because it is the easy thing to do (‘group think’) and questioning received tradition.

The need for evidence. I would add that critical thinking needs to be linked to some sort of evidence, both for the shortcomings of existing frameworks of ideas and (ideally) for constructive alternatives.  One of my models for critical thinking here is the work of early modern scientists like Copernicus, Vesalius, Kepler, Galileo and Newton, all of whom thought for themselves and questioned tradition, or at least certain aspects of it, and presented substantial evidence for their ideas. Critical thinking is not confined to the sciences, however.

The need for debate. Critical thought is more likely to be effective if it itself is open to critique. People who think for themselves also need to be self-critical and be open to the criticisms of others. Open debate enhances effective criticality.


4. Social contexts. Disagreeing with others and questioning received tradition will not necessarily make you popular of course. My view is that productive organizations are those which encourage or at least permit critical discussion and debate and unproductive organizations are those which stifle it. When open debate is allowed participants are empowered and new and creative ideas may emerge. When it is stifled, employees may feel unable to speak and there is no one to question the ideas of those in control. This leads to what may be a fatal inflexibility.


5. Two recent educational examples. 5A. In a recent article in THE [N3 below], there is a discussion of the dysfunctional consequences of authoritarian educational systems in the Arab world. Some of the main points are as follows:

-According to Khaled Fahmy, professor of history at the American University in Cairo who was speaking at the European Association for International Education’s annual conference in Istanbul, students in many Arab countries were failing to get a proper university education because they still felt unable to challenge their tutors. The ‘culture of deference to lecturers was more damaging to student development than overcrowded classrooms or the general lack of university resources’. Moreover, students were “keen not to embarrass their instructors by asking them hard questions or probing the limits of their knowledge, … so made huge efforts to dumb themselves down”‘. (Fahmy traced this culture of undue deference toward academics ‘back to the hierarchy between teachers and students found in the French academy, which was the model for most Egyptian universities’).

-‘Fahmy also believed the current status quo was “untenable” but that vibrant democracies could not be established unless liberal arts began to flourish within universities’. There was actually no term in Arabic for liberal arts. Moreover, universities were too focused on providing degrees in science, engineering and medicine. The result was that it is very difficult for critical thinking to take place on campus. Without new ideas arising from the humanities subjects, more vocational skills could not be effectively applied to real-world problems: “In engineering, our expertise is how to pour concrete, but there is no knowledge of urban planning or how to organize public space”. Again, it was a common critique of the recently ousted Muslim Brotherhood government that there wasn’t “a single poet, artist or writer” in the movement’s leadership — 85 percent of them held  qualifications in engineering or medicine.

-Michael Willis, King Mohammed VI fellow in Moroccan and Mediterranean studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford, noted that what depressed him most about living and teaching in Morocco was the sense of fatalism in young people: ‘They felt the future could not be changed and everything was fixed and tied down by self-appointed elites’ — but added hopefully that there was now a sense things can be changed.

[Read more:]

5B. I was also interested in this recent article in the Economist [N4, below] about Chinese high schools:

-Traditionally, Chinese students ‘rarely question teachers—part of a broader deference to authority in Chinese society’. Yet Western-style debating was now becoming more common in some schools, ‘in which participants sometimes argue against prevailing Communist Party policies’.

‘Many schools, especially in the big cities, have teams that debate, in English and Chinese. Educators say the aim is to develop some of the skills they know are lacking: critical thinking, spontaneity and public speaking. Many students also believe taking part in debating as an extra-curricular activity can help with applications to universities in the West’.

-‘Chinese universities [also] have debating teams but there are more political sensitivities at higher levels of education so the debates tend to be less wide-ranging’.

-Some motions may be deemed too political & therefore be rejected: there were certain “red lines” that could not be crossed, but participants found even this limited freedom empowering.


N2. These results were taken from a public-opinion survey released by Northeastern University. See:




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This entry was posted on September 21, 2013 by in Education, Universities and tagged .
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