Essay: Critical Thinking Is a Most Critical Skill

To become good writers — or even good citizens — students must first learn to question and explore issues fully.

Those who have never taught expository writing — which I consider the most challenging subject to teach — might assume that writing teachers require students to purchase a basic grammar primer before we drill our classes as one would a sports team or marching band, and before long even the most remedial writer will morph into a competent college-level essayist.

It’s certainly true that our students practice the rudiments of grammar and master the ability to write short, clear, sentences. But after more than 25 years of teaching English and writing on a college level, I am convinced that critical thinking — not rote learning or even incessant writing practice — is the key to turning insecure students into confident writers, professionals, and adults.

On the first day of classes I inform students that no one can teach them how to write; this surprises them. I tell them they will read difficult, challenging books and will be asked to determine whether the author is a reliable narrator. If students decide that a particular author is or is not trustworthy, they must explain why.

In short, students will spend the semester learning to think critically. Critical thinking compels them to examine their most cherished beliefs. It forces them to look closely at the fundamental difference between thinking and collective agreement, and to take responsibility for their own ideas.

I ask students to engage in constructive dialogue with other students, with friends and family. I encourage them to explore why our nation is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. We discuss and deconstruct what they may have learned in secondary schools about the environment, global warming, poverty, violence, and nonviolence. I urge them to conduct an honest inventory of their feelings about race, religion, capitalism, gender, and sexuality.

Most young men and women enter college believing it is not good form to challenge authority. They seem to feel that their survival (meaning good grades) depends upon high scores on standardized tests and upon writing essays designed not to provoke debate or dialogue, but to please their professors.

I urge students to question authority and to summon the courage to reexamine everything they believe to be inviolable. After seeing thousands of insecure students turn into competent writers, I am convinced that critical thinking is the key to good, sound, and even beautiful expository writing.