In this era of fake news, critical reading and thinking are more important than ever. In my previous career I was a professor of College Reading, and I am also the author of seven textbooks in that field. I regularly taught and wrote about critical reading, which is a skill that requires teaching because it does not come naturally to most people, and because it is usually not taught in primary and secondary schools.
Of course, the first and most crucial step in reading anything is to understand what the author is saying. But critical readers take a second step and recognize that anything spoken or written should be understood not as fact, but as the author’s point of view, which may or may not correspond with objective reality. For purposes of our discussion, we will define a fact as something that can be verified. For example, “The sun rises in the East” is a statement that can be verified by observation: thus far in human history on Earth, we are not aware of any times that the sun has failed to rise in the East. Few people would argue with the statement. On the other hand, “Trump is an embarrassment” is an opinion and cannot be objectively verified no matter how fervently we believe it. It also does not matter how many people agree with the statement; facts are not determined by majority rule either.
So how can we judge something we read or hear? A first step is to consider the source. I am regularly infuriated when listening to NPR in my car and they introduce a guest from a right wing think tank such as the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute without warning their listeners of the bias they are about to encounter. Listeners who are unaware of the point of view of these organizations might mistakenly think that their opinions were objective and maybe even condoned by NPR. This kind of mistake is one of the things that makes propaganda effective. A more responsible path would be to offer the opportunity for both right wing and left wing think tanks to address the same issues (and, to be fair, I have to acknowledge that NPR sometimes does this). The website ProCon.org is a great resource for people interested in a getting balanced points of view. They take controversial issues and give both sides; I highly recommend it as a resource for people who are interested in learning about the issues of the day in a responsible way, as well as for those interested in improving their critical skills.
After determining the writer or speaker’s point of view, the second step in critical reading or thinking is to identify the evidence used to support the point of view, and the third step is to evaluate that evidence. For example, on the issue “Should the death penalty be allowed?” ProCon lists arguments pro and con in 10 categories: Morality, Constitutionality, Deterrence, Retribution, Irrevocable Mistakes, Cost of Death vs. Life in Prison, Race, Closure for Victims’ Families, Attorney Quality, and Physicians at Executions. Some of these categories have evidence that is more factual, and that can therefore be more easily evaluated, than others. An example of evidence that not factual is the first category, Morality. Whether the death penalty is moral or not depends on the individual’s definition of morality. People who are motivated by an ”eye for an eye” view of morality would say that a person who took a life should pay with his own life. People whose morality is based on concepts like equality and human rights would disagree. (For a discussion of different levels of morality, click here.) If you think about it, you can imagine that the categories of Constitutionality, Retribution, and Closure for Victims’ families are likely to be matters of opinion or interpretation, without much factual basis. This, however, does not mean that only factual evidence is worthwhile in helping people make decisions. Opinions can also be helpful, for example in clarifying the readers’ or listeners’ thoughts and helping them understand what is at stake. However, opinion should never be mistaken for fact. An example of a category that has factual evidence that can be evaluated is Deterrence. We have statistics that provide credible evidence that the death penalty does not deter capital crimes. The categories of Irrevocable Mistakes, Cost of Death vs. Life in Prison, and Attorney Quality could potentially have factual evidence of a statistical nature. How well the particular arguments that are presented in the article utilize this potential evidence is another issue.
As you can see from the foregoing examples, critical thinking and reading are not difficult to teach. It would be easy to design a curriculum to teach those skills at every level from kindergarten through college, not only in reading instruction, but also in social studies and science. There is an obvious argument that critical thinking and reading are important skills for citizenship as well as for equipping students to lead productive lives. Societies educate children for the type of citizens they want them to become. Do we want to produce worker bees who will unquestioningly obey authority and do what they are told, or do we want to produce critical thinkers capable of taking part in democratic decision making?