In various communities throughout the world, the capacity and ability to critically think is admired as one of the most valuable skills one can obtain in his or her life.
Someone who accepts virtually everything he or she is told and challenges very little to nothing is held to be one who has weak critical thinking skills.
Critical thinking, also known as mental dexterity, out-of-the-box thinking, mental synthesis, logical thought and open-mindedness, involves the “objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.”
In addition, critical thinking is a skillset believed to be taught in America’s public-school system. Accordingly, students are expected to develop into exceptional critical thinkers as they transition into mature, productive citizens of society.
However, a number of education historians, academics, scholars and public intellectuals concur that critical thinking has not seemed to exert much of an influence in American classrooms, and in American society in general.
Diane Ravitch, an education historian and research professor, opined on what she believed to be one of the more prevalent issues in U.S. classrooms in an opinion piece published in the Boston Globe in 2009.
“We [educators] have neglected to teach them [students] that one cannot think critically without quite a lot of knowledge to think about,” Ravitch argued.
“Thinking critically involves comparing and contrasting and synthesizing what one has learned. And a great deal of knowledge is necessary before one can begin to reflect on its meaning and look for alternative explanations.”
While critical thinking is a widely discussed issue in academic circles and otherwise, it remains a rarely addressed topic in the Black community. As Black intellectual leaders place a stronger emphasis on the importance of critical thinking to Black millennials, it won’t eliminate all of Black America’s problems, but will certainly be more beneficial than injurious.
Alvin Mitchell, a Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Black scholar, agrees that most of Black America has not been taught to critically think, but has instead followed to the ‘status quo.’
Mitchell, a New Orleans native, has a doctorate from Union Institute (Cincinnati) in interdisciplinary studies with a dual concentration in political science and social justice. He has taught on numerous subjects relating to criminal justice and political science at Delgado College in New Orleans, Shaw University (Raleigh, N.C.) and currently serves as an associate professor in Winston-Salem State University’s department of history, politics and social justice.
Based on his research and observations, Mitchell simply defined critical thinking as “when a person thinks ‘beyond the surface.’”
He added, “In my opinion, most of us don’t even think critical. We just run with what we’re taught, and don’t do any research… When you think critically, you’re going to think outside of what’s in front of you – of what you’ve been taught – because you’re really going to delve into it.”
Mitchell said he didn’t become a critical teacher until after he received his doctorate and began teaching, adding that he was never taught to critically think, but certain life experiences prompted him to think more critically and analyze everything he confronted.
“The typical Black American is not a critical thinker. And the reason why is because critical thinking does not resonate in a person until certain things happen to that person and they understand what life is really about. A lot of times they get that in college or later on in life,” Mitchell said.
“Critical thinking is definitely uncommon among the Black race,” Mitchell said, as he mused about how Black Americans have historically been forced to conform to Eurocentric culture and beliefs, and dissuaded from thinking for themselves.
Furthermore, Mitchell said the lack of critical thinking and analytical skills has had a troubling effect on Black America, as he argued that Black people – not openly, but subtly – “were taught how to think…We were taught that we are second. We were taught that we are inferior.”
He said in addition that Black people were taught that they need the aid of a White institution or entity to be successful. “The status quo is that you should graduate from a White school. Why is it that a White person does not have to have a degree from an HBCU on their transcript to be successful, but a Black person feels they have to have a predominately White institution on their transcript to be successful?”
Though the courses that Mitchell teach heavily emphasize critical thinking, he said he finds it disturbingly difficult to get that concept through to his students, and that the school system has miserably failed our students in regards to critical thinking development.
“We would not be doing a lot of the things we’re doing if we thought critically about it. We just wouldn’t be doing it.”
According to Mitchell, some of the most identifiable consequences of not thinking critically in the Black community includes prison or jail time, using and selling drugs, ill-advised judgment, low self-esteem and discrimination.
Mitchell, one who is perceived to be radical by some of his colleagues and students, esteemed Black influential figures Malcolm X, Carter G. Woodson and WEB DuBois to be leading critical thinkers in American history.
Mitchell, in conclusion, said the responsibility lies on whomever knows about critical thinking – whether they be parents, educators, community leaders, social activists or otherwise – to accentuate the significance of critical analysis and thinking to Black America’s youth.
James Baldwin – a well-regarded Black scholar, civil rights activist, and perhaps most prolific essayist of the 20th century – was rather outspoken as it related to prevailing issues in the Black community. He was also a perceptive critical thinker, and addressed the need for Black educators in particular to emphasize critical thinking to the Black youth in his essay “A Talk to Teachers” (1963).
“The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity,” Baldwin wrote.
He adeptly continued, “But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.”
Despite the countless disagreements, schisms and contention prevalent among Black America’s foremost leaders, most – if not all – can agree on as least one thing concerning the progression of Black America: that empowerment begins with thinking critically.
Demetrius Dillard is a recent graduate of Winston-Salem State University and a North Carolina-based freelance writer.