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Part I

What Is Critical Thinking in

Higher Education?

Just what is it that counts as critical thinking, especially in the context of

higher education? A belief of ours, and one that has provided much of the
motivation for this volume, is that critical thought is a defining condition of
higher education. Unless efforts to promote criticality are present in the design
of curricula, especially in teaching and in the teacher-student relationship, we
cannot say we are espousing the cause of genuine higher education. But then
we are faced at the outset with the need to try to give some account of the very
idea of critical thought.
It will be noted that, in this opening paragraph, we have used the terms “crit-
ical thinking,” “critical thought,” and “criticality.” Are these terms synonyms
or are there significant differences between the concepts that underlie them?
The welter of different terms is one of the features of the debate here; and
to the three terms just used can be added “critique” and “critical pedagogy”;
and there are yet others, as the chapters in this opening section display. Such
differences—in sheer terminology—across the scholars who have made signifi-
cant contributions to the debate on critical thinking are not happenstance but,
as our Introduction intimated (1–25), spring out of different perspectives and
different interests, and those differences in terminology reflect, too, the stages
that the debate has traversed.
Some of these different perspectives are apparent in the four chapters in
this section. Robert Ennis can be considered to be one of the founders of
the field of inquiry into critical thinking and has been working on the topic
for some decades. Over time, Ennis has refined his position such that it has
evolved into a depiction of critical thinking as residing in certain dispositions
and abilities; and Ennis distinguishes twelve dispositions and eighteen abili-
ties. While both the dispositions and the abilities overlap and interact, Ennis
holds to their individual distinctiveness and exemplifies them each in turn
by recounting the story of a jury faced with a defendant charged with murder
and manslaughter. The narrative shows how the jurors, both individually and

28 Part I: Critical Thinking in Higher Education

collectively, displayed to a greater or lesser extent the dispositions and abilities

in Ennis’s theory and, thereby, demonstrated the significance and practical
power of critical thinking.
Richard Andrews takes a different tack. His title, “Critical Thinking and/
or Argumentation in Higher Education?” indicates the direction of travel. For
Andrews, critical thinking is a necessary component of argumentation: get
the argumentation right—and get students to acquire understanding of and
competence in argumentation—and critical thinking will be in evidence pari
passu. Here, on this view, the very term “critical thinking” is something of a
misnomer, being “tautological,” since “to think clearly is to be critical.” If stu-
dents can be helped to think clearly, and to acquire all the self-discipline that
accompanies rigorous clear thought, then they will become not only critical
thinkers but self-critical thinkers.
Notably, both Ennis and Andrews deploy a language of dispositions and abil-
ities (or skills) but they do so through differing perspectives and with differing
motives. Partly, going back to our earlier point about perspectives and inter-
ests, the difference here can be explained in Ennis coming at the matter pri-
marily through philosophy and Andrews coming at the matter primarily as an
educator. For the one, teaching critical thinking is a matter of the application
of a philosophical conception of critical thinking whereas for the other, the
originating concern is that of enabling higher education students to develop
and to realize their potential.
Benjamin Hamby attempts to cut through much of the complexity of this
debate by arguing trenchantly for there being one cardinal, “necessary and
central,” virtue that lies at the heart of critical thinking, namely a “willing-
ness to inquire.” Hamby teases out this idea, referring to individuals having
“passion,” “perseverance,” “motivation,” and “willing engagement.” This vir-
tue “stands behind other critical thinking virtues,” such as open-mindedness;
after all, “I could be the most open-minded person yet not at all interested in
critical inquiry, being open-minded only for the sake of making friends [and
other such instrumental reasons].” Equally, the display of critical thinking is
not in itself indicative of a critical thinker in our midst. A critical thinker has
to want to be critical, has to be stirred up to be critical and be energized so to
do, even (so we might add) to do so when no one is watching.
Implicit, therefore, in Hamby’s account is a fundamental distinction between
dispositions and skills (or abilities), and it is this distinction that Barnett drives
forward in introducing the concept of criticality into the debate. For Barnett, the
full realization of critical thinking resides in three domains, critical thought,
critical action, and critical being, which together amount to criticality. The
fully critical student not only can think critically but can also exemplify that
capacity in action in the world—say in professional life—and also be ener-
gized in that way, having the appropriate set of dispositions so to act. These
Part I: Critical Thinking in Higher Education 29

dispositions include, for instance, the virtue of courage since the enactment of
critical thinking may run against dominant ideologies and power structures.
Such criticality can be displayed at a number of levels, and Barnett identi-
fies four levels: it might be exemplified in a rather perfunctory way, but at the
highest level, it would amount to critique, in which students were able to see
their studies in the widest possible way, enact their criticality on the largest
and even global stage, and be fully committed to the critical way of life, even
at some personal cost. “The critical spirit” (Siegel 1988) is a way of capturing
such a large conception of criticality.
Cognition, skills, abilities, dispositions, and ways of being in the world: these
are just some of the fault lines that have permeated the critical thinking debate
for thirty years. These are apparent in the chapters in this opening section, and
these chapters serve, accordingly, to set the scene for the sections to come.