OPINION – Three cheers for critical thinking

Macau Business | April 2021

Many years ago I had the privilege of hearing the late famous UK educationist, Harvey Goldstein, give a keynote lecture. He calmly, politely and with surgical skill, dissected out and demolished the then UK government’s policy on assessment in schools.

Opinion | Keith Morrison – Author and educationist

It was a model of its kind. He set out, analyzed, argued, questioned, evaluated, critiqued and judged the policy, weighing up its pros and cons, implications and consequences, exposing its assumptions, aporias and underlying ideology, leaving it all in ruins on the dissecting table. Working like a filigree jeweller, he exposed it for what it was: a piece of dogma, a shibboleth, wrapped up in high‑sounding, pejorative phrases. It was a delight to be there.

Societal progress needs skills of careful, informed, transparent analysis, evaluation, judgement and, yes, critique. Western academics often bemoan the fact that school and university students in this part of the world lack the will, ability and engagement to adopt a critical stance to what they read and hear: ‘if it’s written in a book, or if the teacher says it, then it must be true, and who am I to have the temerity to challenge them’. Students adopt an all‑too‑accepting, disengaged stance, and only a few read critically rather than simply to find some words to copy and paste into an academic assignment. Many are almost constitutionally unable to critique, or fearful of constructively critiquing a text, an idea, a proposal, an argument, and so on. This is hardly surprising, as, in a marks‑obsessed society, they lose marks for daring to question or, heaven forfend, for having or disclosing their own opinion.

If ever there were a time when critical thinking, higher order thinking, and their partners, creative and alternative thinking, were required for Macau’s business development, it is now. Why, for example, is so little attention given to heterodox economics in the face of failures of neoliberalism? Whatever happened to ideology critique, so beloved by Marxists? Indeed, an era that elevates science to scientism should remind us that Popper’s ‘conjectures and refutations’ are essential for scientific progress. In Macau’s climate of applied sciences, business uncertainty and would-be diversification and development, we need powerful critical thinking, creativity, constructive disagreement and new ideas, and the seed corn of these lie in education, suffusing our thinking.

Critical thinking resurfaced in Macau in February of this year. In September 2019, the director of Macau’s former Education and Youth Affairs Bureau (DSEJ) advocated critical thinking for students to ‘think in different ways and not just follow the teacher’s ideology’. However, at the end of 2020, the head of the former DSEJ’s Department of Youth suggested that critical thinking should be interpreted as ‘the ability to examine and distinguish’, thereby eliminating constructive critique, on the grounds that the term ‘critical’ carried ‘implications of negation, opposition, defiance and conflicts’. What a loss. The term ‘critical’ is polysemic; why narrow it down, and, anyway, who says that ‘critical’ is negative, oppositional, defiant and conflictual, or that being so is such a bad thing? Critical thinking has contributed hugely to societal betterment, as thinkers from Bourdieu to Giroux have remarked, questioning dominant ideologies and their influence (but, of course, they are feared figures in some quarters, as they trade in ‘dangerous knowledge’, challenging the status quo).

Complexity theory in management literature tells us that, at a tipping point, such as now in Macau’s business development, we need more, not less, creativity, critical thinking, debate, thinking outside the box, higher order thinking, imagining that things can be different, disruptively beneficial ideas, and ‘what if?’ thinking. Critique is a spark to creativity. It is regrettable when, as now, hegemonic processes of a dominant ideology’s accommodation and incorporation of critical thinking by redefining, reducing and channelling it, risk confounding attempts to release creativity and innovation.

Critical thinking is a powerful force for engaged, positive change and development. It is investment in intellectual capital. It should be celebrated, not neutered. It is the friend of enlightenment and innovation. We should welcome it, not recoil for fear of it. Why, then, are people in Macau apparently afraid of critical thinking? I think I know some of the answer.