Beyond Critical Thinking–Toward Practical Reasoning?

Higher education purports to develop students into critical thinkers; the ultimate aim.  Employers say they want workers who can think critically and solve problems.  Given the multiple roles and responsibilities of adults’ lives—the messy, complex, and uncertain nature of them, I wonder whether critical thinking is ‘enough.’  Is it robust enough to really help people master what Kegan (1994) called the “curriculum of modern life?” As Lily Tomlin once said about reality, is critical thinking “not what it’s cracked up to be?”

For several decades I have worked in graduate liberal-professional programs with adult learners, working professionals, who are creating or reconfiguring wide-ranging areas of study. The emphasis in these programs is on students being able to integrate concepts and experiences for application to various contexts of their lives. Our students are simultaneously studying about and doing something about ill-structured problems that matter in the world. They are continuously engaged in practice. Is thinking critically enough to support this agenda?

Thankfully this isn’t an academic paper so I need not dissect the philosophical underpinnings of critical thinking (CT) or critique the numerous definitions that live in the literature.  I will, at least, name some components of critical thinking (here I draw on Brookfield, 1987, pp. 7-9): (1) identifying and challenging assumptions; (2) recognizing context; (3) imagining and exploring alternatives; (4) attending to feelings, emotions and intuitions (many authorities on CT don’t include this dimension); and, all the while, (5) maintaining a skeptical stance.  When we take critical thinking beyond the educational setting into the continuous contexts of adults’ lives—home, work, community—it seems to me that these components, while important, don’t go far enough.

I was drawn to Sullivan and Rosen’s (2008) book, A New Agenda for Higher Education, by its subtitle: Shaping the Life of the Mind for Practice.  Their concept of ‘practical reasoning’ extends critical thinking into the dynamics of thought, dialogue, and action.  The emphasis is on responsible action—“responsible deliberation and action in the social world” (p. 94). Persons with practical reasoning capabilities are able to tie together the general and the particular: “through the particular, the general achieves sensibility. Through the general, the particular achieves salience” (p. 114).   For me, the concept of practical reasoning is compelling because it extends the detached, knowing-about-things nature of critical thinking toward a self more engaged in the world and oriented to practical action.

‘Shaping a mind for practice’—takes practice. In higher education, especially the liberal-professional programs, what is our responsibility to adopt practical reasoning as a core capability expected of adult students? What are those particular skills and habits of mind; practiced when, how, and with what support? In the workplace, what expectations, structures, and supports might engage employees, including leaders, in exercising practical reasoning?  These same questions apply in the spheres of domestic and community life.

Practical reasoning suggests a repertoire of skills and habits of mind that can help adults figure out what to do when navigating the challenges of contemporary adult life. I invite all of us, in our various areas of practice, to help shape an agenda for ‘shaping a life of the mind for practice.’

Brookfield, S. (1987). Developing critical thinkers: Challenging adults to explore alternative ways of thinking and acting. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sullivan, W., & Rosen M. (2008). A new agenda for higher education: Shaping a life of the mind for practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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