Modest Proposals: A High School Course in Critical Thinking

If there is a single element of educational curriculum that WC would like to see added, it’s critical thinking. Because if there is a single critical skill that Americans seem to lack it’s the ability to think critically.

WC was reminded of this by the claim of Senator Jim Inhofe (R, Invincible Ignorance) that the Environmental Protection Agency was “brainwashing” – the Senator’s word – children.

“Brainwashing” in the sense of mind control has a scientific definition. It’s a theory that human subjects can be indoctrinated in a way that causes “an impairment of autonomy, an inability to think independently, and a disruption of beliefs and affiliations. In this context, brainwashing refers to the involuntary reeducation of basic beliefs and values.”1 Obviously, what the EPA’s educational programs are doing isn’t “brainwashing;” in fact, it’s the opposite. The EPA is offering access to scientific data. Neither the EPA nor anyone in it is engaging in the “involuntary reeducation of basic beliefs and values.”

Which takes us to critical thinking. The phrase has several definitions; a representative one would be “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.”2

Critical thinking can expose the falseness of conspiracy theories, dismiss straw man arguments and, in the case of Senator Inhofe, identify hyperbolic claims. For example, Senator Inhofe’s unsupported claim that exposure to EPA data on the environment is “brainwashing” amounts to resentment that school children have access to information that contradicts his unsupported beliefs. Senator Inhofe doesn’t want kids to have critical thinking skills – they might not vote for him then – so his solution is to cut off data with which he disagrees.

Educational psychologist and author Edward M. Glaser proposed that the ability to think critically involves three elements:3

  1. An attitude of being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one’s experiences
  2. Knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning
  3. Some skill in applying those methods.

If WC were in charge of high school curricula, there would be a mandatory semester-long course built around these three elements, drawing from historical and current events for examples of applications of the rules.4 Critical thinking skills would be a lot more useful and practical – and better preparation for living in the United states today – than a considerable part of what passes as high school education today.

Among other things, such a course would teach Senator Inhofe’s constituents to vote for someone with better critical thinking skills.

UPDATE: WC recognizes it’s not just the inability to think critically that is hurting our country. Simple ignorance is, too. A December 2015 poll revealed that 30% of Republicans and 19% of Democrats say they support “bombing Agrabah” – the fictional nation portrayed in the Disney movie Aladdin.


  1.  Kowal, D. M. (2000). Brainwashing. In A. E. LOVE (Ed.) , Encyclopedia of psychology, vol. 1 (pp. 463-464). American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/10516-173
  2.  “Critical – Define Critical at”. 
  3.  Edward M. Glaser (1941). An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking. New York, Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University. ISBN 0-404-55843-7. Prof. Glaser was a guest lecturer in WC educational development class. 
  4. The second semester would be practical financial skills. But that’s a different blog post. 

One thought on “Modest Proposals: A High School Course in Critical Thinking

  1. Too late, WC, needs to begin earlier if you have any hope of inculcating with lasting effect as to your item # 2, methods of inquiry/critical thinking.
    Do you not believe that curricula could be devised to introduce age-appropriate skeptical inquiry? If they’re introduced to science and to math, in Middle or Elem Sch., then they can be introduced to thinking critically about those subjects and others. By HS, I’m afraid that too many have succumbed to Death By Rote Learning.

    Paul Eaglin

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