Viewpoints: The essence of critical thinking

Clarence Burton Sheffield Jr., associate professor and Eugene H. Fram Chair in 
Applied Critical Thinking

John Dewey, the prolific American philosopher and educational theorist, recognized the importance of critical thinking in his classic book How we Think (1910). I read it again recently and was pleased to discover that his ideas have not lost their relevance. I turned to Dewey’s pragmatism as a way to come to terms with the “applied” 
aspect of critical thinking, since he was greatly concerned with the relevance of critical thinking to real problems and everyday life. 

This month marks the end of my first year 
as the inaugural recipient of the Eugene H. Fram Chair in Applied Critical Thinking. It’s been a very exciting, productive and busy assignment and I’m very honored to serve in this capacity. The Fram Chair is responsible for collaborative leadership, advocacy and oversight for critical thinking across the entire RIT campus. 

Named in honor of Eugene H. Fram, the J. Warren McClure Professor of Marketing Emeritus in Saunders College of Business where he taught for 51 years, it was endowed by an anonymous alumnus and former Fram student 
as an expression of gratitude for the consistent 
rigor and demanding quality of his teaching. It signals a deep commitment to make critical thinking a core aspect of our curriculum, as 
well as a life-long ability obtained and practiced by all of our graduates. RIT intends to be a 
leader in the field and we hope to establish a 
national and, hopefully, international Center
 of Excellence in applied critical thinking. 
We aim to become a vital resource for other 
institutions as well as to satisfy the many 
challenges with respect to critical thinking 
and the hiring needs of employers.

Defining critical thinking is 
notoriously difficult, as is establishing 
a reliable and valid test to assess it. Most experts agree, however, that critical thinking is to some extent meta­cognitive. In other words, it is reflexive, or more precisely, self-reflexive. It suggests the ability to think about one’s thought and to question, probe and reflect about how one comes to know or to 
entertain certain beliefs. 

The famous Socratic dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living” epitomizes this approach. It encompasses abilities as well as attitudes or dispositions. Obviously such continuous self-scrutiny is extremely hard to maintain. Far too often we fail to question authority or expert opinion. We go along with the crowd or succumb to peer pressure. We take the easy road and over confidently assume that we 
are free from cognitive bias, delusions, irrational impulses and error. Ever more frequently 
we employ a search engine for a quick answer, 
often with astonishingly prescient and helpful 
results, but not always. 

The advent of the Internet, social media and the ubiquitous global infoscape doesn’t relieve 
us of our responsibility and obligation to engage in rigorous critical reflection even as the modes 
of human attention are dramatically shifting, 
and as spatial distance continues to be shortened 
into ever-shattered, fleeting temporal moments. 

I believe that critically assessing 
the quality of information and 
discriminating its meaning and 
significance is paramount as the 
quantity, robustness, ease and speed 
of its retrieval exponentially expands. Technology and digital media—
omnipresent and ever changing—
have transformed the way we think 
as one of RIT’s most distinguished alumni, N. Katherine Hayles ’66, 
of Duke University, has astutely argued. 

The philosopher Hannah Arendt characterized thinking as the “quintessence of being alive,” 
and she suggested that the process of thinking is synonymous with the notion of being “fully alive.” I agree. While I hope that we can instill 
in all of our students an appreciation for the 
importance of logical argument, intellectual 
rigor and rational judgment, first and foremost, 
I contend that critical thinking will help them 
to become more fully engaged global citizens, more resilient, and better equipped to cope with uncertainty and sudden change.

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