by Dr. Charles D. McKenna
Dean, Command and Staff College
I wish to state for the record that this is the first time I have made an entry on any blog for any reason. Nothing generational in that comment!! I thought that a blog was something you may have stepped in and had to wipe off your shoes. Now I realize that it is something that is not only a noun, it is also a verb. And is part of the current landscape of communication among sentient beings. “Look Mom, see me blogging!” In any case, they created this forum as a place to add another dimension to the educational experience of an increasingly technologically savvy student body, and who am I not to climb aboard the blog train.
The subject about which Drs. Johnson and Jensen asked me to write is “Thinking Critically.” Perhaps it is just a quirk of mine, and is little more than a semantic exercise, but the sequence of the words is important to me. Usually the two terms appear as “Critical Thinking.” I reverse them for two reasons. First, as a good staff officer I want the action verb to lead, not the descriptive adverb. Second, and directly related to the first reason, is that it puts the emphasis on “thinking,” namely, reflecting, pondering, and paying attention to that before characterizing what kind of thinking we may be emphasizing. There is another consideration that again may just be a personal quirk. The first definition in Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary for the term “critical” is, “Tending to judge harshly and adversely.” The second definition is, “Marked by careful and exact evaluation.” The second definition is consistent with the approach we try to take here at the College when we use the terms “thinking critically.” But my own experience runs more to the first definition when we use the term critical thinking.
There are multiple parts to, and multiple levels of thinking critically. The presentation you will receive on 3 August is meant to introduce you to some of the definitions and concepts of thinking critically, but is only an introduction, and a brief one at that. The rest of the academic year, heck, the rest of your lives will give you innumerable chances to practice and improve abilities that are already existent in various stages of development within you. Part of the success you have experienced, part of what got you selected to be in this year’s student body, involved the decision on the part of those making the selections that you have already demonstrated the ability to think critically. Remember that. We are about helping you to refine talents you possess, not necessarily to create something that doesn’t currently exist.
Reduced to its essence, to its core, thinking critically is a process, a learned skill, a developing habit of taking charge of the structures inherent in the act of thinking and imposing rigorous standards on them. It is a disciplined mental activity of evaluation and judgment that can guide the development of beliefs and actions. It is also the process of developing the ability, and using it routinely, to think about how you are thinking about issues, arguments, etc. I did not jut type the same thing twice. The process referred to is called “meta-cognition,” which sounds like an egg-head’s term to make the uninitiated feel intimidated, but it is actually pretty cool stuff (where but on a blog could I actually write words like that and expect them to see the light of day?). It means you reflect on the process you used to get to an answer or develop an understanding of a concept or an environment. It helps you come to grips with the reality of how you approach the world around you, and can have very practical applications … but that will be for tomorrow’s presentation, and for the remainder of the academic year. For now, take a deep breath, enjoy the fact that the sun actually did come up and the grass is still mostly green, even after a hectic first day of school.