Critical Thinking: A Streamlined Conception

Robert H. Ennis


Critical thinking under that name was inspired by pragmatic philosopher John Dewey (1910) and endorsed by analytic philosopher Max Black (1946). Dewey was revered by the progressive educators, who re-labeled his "reflective thinking" as "critical thinking," a name I believe they originated and that persists to the present (see Aiken (1942) for a mixture of both terms). Black (1946), insofar as I can determine, wrote the first college text including the words "critical thinking" in the title.

But critical thinking did not assume extensive prominence until the early 1980s. The California State University system in its "Executive Order 338" (Harmon 1980) required that all students study critical thinking in order to graduate from its units. The Commission on the Humanities ("Rockefeller Commission") asserted, "The Department of Education should define critical thinking as one of the basic skills that provides the foundation for advanced skills of all kinds" (1980, 37). There is not enough space here to report the many other strong expressions of support for critical thinking since then (see Ennis 2011), but I should mention the rapid development of interest in critical thinking worldwide since the 1970s. Also especially noteworthy is the support for critical thinking from both major US political parties in the form of statements by two presidents, George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama. Critical thinking was an explicit expressed goal in America 2000 (1991, 40), an education policy statement endorsed in its preface by then-president Bush. President Obama, in his State of the Union Address (2014), listed critical thinking as one of the six basic goals of education.

But what is this critical thinking concept (using Rawls's [1971] distinction between concept and conception) that has been receiving increasing support? After careful consideration of its use in the previous century, I proposed this definition of the concept in the mid-1980s and still think it fits what most people were and are talking about:

Critical thinking is reasonable reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do.

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