4. Critical Thinking’s Dirty Secret: The Importance of Background Knowledge


In this lecture I want to talk about the fourth item on our list of the five essential components of critical thinking, five areas of study or personal development that you need to pay attention to if you really want to develop as an independent critical thinker.

Just to review, our list includes logic, argumentation, rhetoric, background knowledge, and finally a certain set of attitudes and values. Here we’re going to talk about the importance of background knowledge to critical thinking.

I titled this episode “Critical Thinking’s Dirty Secret”, but what I really mean is Critical Thinking instruction’s dirty secret. For anyone who teaches critical thinking, or for the industries devoted to cranking out textbooks on critical thinking, a guiding premise of the whole enterprise is that critical thinking skills can actually be taught, and the crude version of this view is that if students can master some formal and informal logic and some fallacies, they’ll be better critical thinkers.

The dirty secret of critical thinking instruction, which everyone knows if they’ve done it for a while, is that while logic and argument analysis are necessary components of effective critical thinking, they aren’t sufficient, not by a long shot.

What’s missing is the importance of background knowledge. Background knowledge informs critical thinking at multiple levels, and in my view it’s among the most important components of critical thinking. But you can’t teach background knowledge in a one-semester critical thinking course. Or at least, you’re very limited in what you can teach.

That’s the dirty secret that most textbooks avoid talking about. The most important component of critical thinking can’t be taught, at least not in the way you can teach, say, formal logic and fallacies. Background knowledge comes from learning and living in the world and paying attention to what’s going on. Mastering this component of critical thinking requires a dedication to life-long learning, a genuine openness to different points of view, and a certain humility in the face of all that you don’t know. This isn’t a set of skills you can master with worksheets and worked examples. This is a philosophy, this is a lifestyle choice. Textbooks don’t talk about this. Or at least not as much as they should.

There are at least two importantly different types of background knowledge that are relevant to critical thinking, and they each deserve attention. In this lecture I want to focus on background knowledge involved in evaluating arguments on a specific subject matter. Next lecture I’m going to talk about the kind of attitude you need to have if you want to really understand the background on all sides of an issue.

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