Beyond Critical Thinking

There’s a better phrase for what liberal arts colleges should be inculcating in students, R. Owen Williams argues: constructive thinking.


March 6, 2015

All of higher education has been under the gun for some time; with recession, out came the cannons. Liberal arts colleges have been especially battered, such that they could use a new narrative. At the Associated Colleges of the South -- a consortium of 16 nationally recognized liberal arts colleges -- we believe it is possible to provide tangible evidence of success and, perhaps more importantly, a clearer definition of liberal arts outcomes. 

Liberal arts colleges (in particular, the 130-plus colleges of the Annapolis Group) enroll about 1 percent of all postsecondary students, yet the influence of their graduates on American society seems disproportionately significant. 

With the growing demands for accountability and transparency regarding college performance, to say nothing of the rush to rank colleges in every conceivable fashion, the data on results are increasingly available.

And the numbers suggest that liberal arts college students are more successful before and after graduation than public university students.

Although many of the purported liberal arts outcomes defy measurement -- such as discovery of one’s life mission, or increased dedication to a life of learning -- there is a great deal of evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of a liberal arts education.

Among their most impressive outcomes, liberal arts college graduates are more likely to pursue postgraduate studies. Among STEM majors, for example, 57 percent of smaller-private-college graduates apply to graduate school, whereas only 40 percent of regional public university graduates apply.

Even more importantly, students at liberal arts colleges reach graduation more quickly than do students at public universities. The impressive completion rate at liberal arts colleges is due to various factors, including the constant and nearly exclusive level of attention paid to undergraduates. According to a study recently released, only 19 percent of full-time students at public universities earn a bachelor’s degree in four years; only 36 percent of full-time students at state flagship universities complete their degrees on time. In fact, the national six-year graduation rate for students at public universities hovers at around 50 percent.

By contrast, most of the top 100 liberal arts colleges maintain a 4-year graduation rate above 74 percent.

It is also important to note that first-generation students graduate faster from liberal arts colleges: 70 percent graduate within six years at liberal arts colleges, whereas 57 percent graduate in six years from public universities.

Consider too the employment and salary data for liberal arts graduates. In early 2014, the unemployment rate for recent liberal arts graduates was 5.2 percent and the rate for mature workers (ages 41-50) with liberal arts degrees was 3.5 percent, while the national unemployment rate was 6.6 percent.  

According to a recent study, “At peak earnings ages (56-60 years), workers who majored as undergraduates in the humanities or social sciences earn annually on average about $2,000 more than those who majored as undergraduates in professional or preprofessional fields.”

All this data tells a compelling story, no doubt. But there is one number that liberal arts educators don’t like to talk about -- namely the cost of tuition, which is higher than at public institutions. 

At What Cost?

Complaints about college costs are loud and growing louder, even after bigger and bigger tuition discounts. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that college education is bankrupting the middle class. At the same time, many liberal arts colleges face the unacceptable choice between becoming elitist or insolvent.  

Liberal arts colleges are private institutions that do indeed cost more than public universities. As such, many (though clearly not all) students who attend liberal arts colleges come from well-heeled backgrounds; many have attended better schools and received more individual nurturing than other students. Their parents are often successful people with networks and connections that can easily work to their children’s benefit. In other words, many of the students who attend liberal arts colleges start with a huge leg up.

So, however uncomfortable it is to consider, we must ask: How much of the success enjoyed by liberal arts students is a function of the cultural capital they bring to college and how much of it is attributable to the type of higher education institution they attend?

Do liberal arts colleges build upon or borrow from their students’ cultural capital? We do not really know how much colleges add to the skills and abilities students already possess. Nor do we know with certainty whether liberal arts colleges offer superior results to liberal arts programs at research universities. 

Parents are justifiably concerned. Tell us, they say, in clear and verifiable language, precisely what our children will get in return for the higher tuition at liberal arts institutions. They expect straight answers, echoing Voltaire: “If you wish to converse with me, define your terms.” But that is easier said than done. 

Definition of Outcomes

According to the traditional narrative, liberal arts students attain a breadth of knowledge, become lifelong learners and develop the skill of critical thinking.  

That’s all good, though vague. And the trope of critical thinking has been fighting over its weight class for so long that it has been pummeled meaningless. Worse, it never fully described the liberal arts experience anyway.

Critical thinking is actually just the first step in a larger process that we might want to call constructive thinking. Rest assured, this is not just wordplay.

Critical thinking represents the highly valuable inquiry and interrogation prerequisite to problem identification; it involves the analysis of an argument's merits and faults. It is the process of judging, approving or disapproving.  

Liberal arts colleges encourage students to ask lots of questions. Through questions, students unravel or deconstruct an argument in order to access its utility. 

While none of this is inherently negative, it too often becomes routinely condemnatory. It can also breed intellectual laziness; the job of taking something apart is far easier than the job of putting it back together again.

The identification of problems made possible by critical thinking is useful only if it gives rise to the problem solving of constructive thinking. The desired endgame is problem solving, not critical thinking for its own sake.

In the same way that critical thinking might be seen as a negative exercise, constructive thinking should be seen as a positive or productive process.  

Properly executed, the deconstruction performed through critical thinking gives way to contextual, compassionate, collaborative, creative and, eventually, constructive thinking. That process yields multiple forms of knowledge, solutions and open minds.

The beauty of the liberal arts is that they expose students to a myriad of academic disciplines and intellectual methods, which -- when rigorously engaged and intelligently aggregated -- enable valuable problem solving, personal growth and social progress. Students who have studied history, literature, social sciences, natural sciences and the arts have the distinct advantage of varied perspectives or approaches when confronted with complicated circumstances.

Depth matters, of course, but so too does breadth. Ninety percent of Nobel laureates in the sciences, for example, say “the arts should be part of every technologist’s education” and, indeed, 80 percent can point to specific respects in which the arts increased their innovative capacity.

Or, as was recently observed by the Rhodes College chemistry professor Loretta Jackson-Hayes, “Our culture has drawn an artificial line between arts and science, one that did not exist for innovators like Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs.... When introducing the iPad 2, Jobs... declared: 'It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough -- it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.'”

And this cuts both ways, as humanists cannot properly serve their purposes without understanding the sciences.

There is also an essential partnership between content and competency. When solving problems, we necessarily draw upon both knowledge and skills. One is useless without the other. As the proverb insists, to give fish is good, but to teach fishing is better. 

The marriages of depth and breadth, sciences and arts, content and competency, are at the heart of constructive thinking. The ability to draw upon multifarious perspectives and methods is what makes the liberal arts graduate stand out.

When we develop new assessment methodologies to measure constructive thinking (and whatever other outcomes we identify and highlight), they will point us toward better ways of nurturing those outcomes in the classroom and demonstrating its intellectual and social merit. By employing concepts like constructive thinking and finding more precise language that truly describes the liberal arts experience, there is great potential for increased accountability and improved results for students, faculty and institutions alike.

The numbers tell a compelling story. But we await a clearer explanation for what generates that success. Liberal arts educators need to better articulate exactly what it is they do and how they do it. They need to practice what they teach.


R. Owen Williams is president of the Associated Colleges of the South.


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