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Critical thinking: Art criticism as a tool for analysing and evaluating art, instructional practice and social justice issues

Profile image of Adriane  Pereira

2018, The International Journal of Art & Design, 37(2), 265-276

Recent educational initiatives have emphasized the importance of fostering critical thinking skills in today’s students in order to provide strategies for becoming successful problem solvers throughout life. Other scholars advocate for the use of critical thinking skills on the grounds that such tools can be used effectively when considering social justice issues. In this paper we make the case that the teaching and learning strategies of analytic art criticism can serve as fundamental tools used not just for the study of art but can also centre critical thinking and analysis in all aspects of the art education curriculum. Our argument begins with a review of literature on the use of art criticism for critical thinking and meaning making. Then we describe our efforts to address critical thinking with our students by using the critical analysis model of art criticism and applying it to learning environments for forming reasoned judgments about teaching and learning, and also as springboard for examining social justice issues. We believe that promoting this form of affectively driven, intellectually guided critical thinking makes our students potentially more successful not just in their encounters with art and education, but also in their lives as human beings beyond school.

Related Papers

Nicholas Addison

This research is motivated by two central questions: 1) Why has the place of critical studies in secondary art and design been diagnosed as ‘fragile’? 2) Can practitioners from related fields inform a critical curriculum through interventionist strategies? To place the thesis in context, the National Curriculum is examined to indicate the place of critical studies within official art educational discourse. This analysis reveals a disjunction between official rhetoric and practice, one that stimulated the interdisciplinary, action research project, Art Critics and Art Historians in Schools. The researchers aimed to understand, inform and change the acritical practices of school art by instigating critical residencies drawing on the investigative and interpretative methods of (new) art history and the practices of critical pedagogy. Employing Bernstein’s theory of pedagogic codes, qualitative data drawn from the project is analysed to understand the insularity of the subject and the asymmetry in power relations between art education and the other professional discourses that dominate it. These disjunctions are the starting point for a genealogy that traces the development of modernist art education using Bourdieu’s concepts of ‘capital’, ‘habitus’ and ‘field’ to navigate its complexities. The unfolding narrative reveals the dialectical philosophies that produced modernist art education and made an acritical model in secondary education tenable, an acriticality that sits uncomfortably beside the critical discourses of modernist art. Related fields are examined to understand the social and cultural conditions that have succeeded in producing a critical education. The critical traditions for the interpretation of art (including art history and visual semiotics) are examined and assessed as potential critical resources. Evidence emerges of art teachers’ mistrust towards the role of writing in critical studies which has led to the current resistance. In response, the interventionist strategies of critical pedagogy and cultural studies are advocated as a means to overcome such resistance.

critical thinking in art criticism

Clorinde Peters

chapter for Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory (Springer 2016)

Terry Barrett

This collection of lessons is meant to be a practical guide to help teachers engage children in art criticism. The lessons generally follow a similar format. Most suggest an age group but may be modified for use with younger or older students. Several authors suggest variations and extensions for lessons that include studio activities. A broad range of topics is embraced including popular art, the built and natural environment, multicultural concerns, and formalist and political contemporary museum art. Most of the lessons stress contemporary artifacts. Lessons include: (1) "Creating a Climate for Talking about Art" (Sandra Kay Mims); (2) "A Potpourri of Questions for Criticizing Realistic Paintings" (Karen A. Hamblen); (3) "Constructing Meaning: A Gaming Strategy" (Richard A. Ciganko); (4) "Investigating Criteria for Judgments" (Sally Hagaman; Polly Wolfe); (5) "Collaborative Art Criticism: Not Mine, Not His, Not Hers-But Our Critique!&q...

The Journal of Social Theory in Art Education

Michael Emme

With 1ST 14.£ 14 the editorial team offers an innovation that we hope will be carried on by future editors, and will function as a provocation to the art education resean=h community. What follows are 11 pages of Images as well as a 12th work on the cover that have been selected for their relevance to the theme Eco · Techno. A review of academic publications in art education reveals extremely limited evidence of visual practice among the research. Of all the fields in academia, the one most suited to exploring the link between the many aspects of visual practice and the goals of research ought to be art education, but the tenn ' visual research' is not currently a part of our working vocabulary.

International Journal of Art and Design Education

Karen Maras

Roger Rothman , Pamela Fraser

Critique has long been a central concept within art practice and theory. Since the emergence of Conceptual Art, artists have been expected by critics, curators, and art school faculty to focus their work on exposing and debunking ideologies of power and domination. Recently, however, the effectiveness of cultural critique has come into question. The appearance of concepts such as the speculative, the reparative, and the constructive suggests an emerging postcritical paradigm. Beyond Critique takes stock of the current discourse around this issue. With some calling for a renewed criticality and others rejecting the model entirely, the books contributors explore a variety of new and recently reclaimed criteria for contemporary art and its pedagogy. Some propose turning toward affect and affirmation; others seek to reclaim such allegedly discredited concepts as intimacy, tenderness, and spirituality. With contributions from artists, critics, curators and historians, this book provides new ways of thinking about the historical role of critique while also exploring a wide range of alternative methods and aspirations. Beyond Critique will be a crucial tool for students and instructors who are seeking to think and work beyond the critical. https://bloomsbury.com/us/beyond-critique-9781501347184/ https://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Critique-Pamela-Fraser-dp-1501347187/dp/1501347187/ref=mt_paperback?_encoding=UTF8&me=&qid=1542138882

Studies in Art Education

Graeme Sullivan

James Haywood Rolling, Jr.

"An examination of systems of art-making and design behavior that together comprise a sociobiological response to the need for humanity to perpetuate life-sustaining ways of knowing and doing; these creative systems are characteristically altruistic, the enactments of our social responsibility to preserve our most effective patterns of behaving together for the common good in the shape of lasting yet ever-adapting cultures. Reframes the popular conception of critical thinking and its purpose. This article begins with the questions posed by John M. Wilson in his 1998 article, "Art-Making Behavior: Why and How Arts Education is Central to Learning." Wilson asks: The cultural behavior that has most piqued social biologists’ curiosity is altruism. Why does an individual knowingly sacrifice his or her own interest, or even life, for another’s survival?...When survival of the fittest is the law of nature, why would the “fit” on occasions struggle, at their own peril, to preserve the “unfit”?"

Hishochy Delgado

The critical dimension in university teaching and learning processes constitutes a higher stage of intellect and morality in educators and in educating. It finds its theoretical, epistemological and methodological base in the reconstructive and autonomous capacities of the free subject who thinks and creates. In this research we intend to tackle the contextual scaffolding that places critical discourse as an educational necessity in Graphic Design students. We will carry out an analysis of the curricular components that intervene in the decisions to form a critical apparatus towards the visual artistic object and answer the question: what is the meaning of critical education and its discourse on Visual Arts in Graphic Design students? To do this, we propose to rethink the notions of criticism, in diverse contexts through which visual culture travels for the sake of a more complex education, through stories that tell the intimacies of the visual arts.

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Book cover

Proceedings of the 2nd International Colloquium of Art and Design Education Research (i-CADER 2015) pp 339–349 Cite as

Visual Thinking Courseware: Enhancing Critical Thinking Skills Through Art Criticism

  • Harrinni Md Noor 7 , 8 &
  • Zarina Samsudin 9  
  • Conference paper
  • First Online: 23 March 2016

888 Accesses

Art criticism provides knowledge, skills, and understanding that enable students to have broad and rich experience with works of art by responding to and making judgments about the properties and qualities that exist in visual form. It requires higher-order thinking skills (HOTS) that integrate contents from the four disciplines of art (art aesthetics, art history, art production, and art criticism) that contribute to the creation, understanding, and appreciation of art. Findings from a survey conducted in three Malaysian public universities revealed that less than 30 % of the undergraduate art students are able to analyze works of art critically. This is an alarming state considering their involvement in art activities that require them critically to analyze and criticize works of art. For students undergoing teacher training courses the skill is very much needed as they will be going out to teach art subjects in schools. Because technology has taken a front seat in the teaching and learning of many art-related subjects in higher education courses in Malaysia, this research looked at how visual thinking courseware can aid in the teaching and learning of art criticism. In particular, this chapter looked at how the selection of visual images, Gagne’s 9 events of instruction, the flow theory, and Feldman’s art criticism model can be put together to design courseware that can help enhance the quality of learning about art criticism and increase students’ critical thinking skills.

  • Critical thinking
  • Visual thinking
  • Courseware development
  • Art education
  • Art criticism

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Acknowledgments

The author would like to acknowledge UiTM for the funding provided under the Formgiving Design REI research scheme.

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Faculty of Education, Universiti Teknologi MARA, 40200, Shah Alam, Malaysia

Harrinni Md Noor

Formgiving Design Research Group, Humanities, Design and Creativity, UiTM, 40450, Shah Alam, Malaysia

Centre for Instructional Technology, Universiti Sains Malaysia, 11800, Penang, Malaysia

Zarina Samsudin

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Correspondence to Harrinni Md Noor .

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Shahriman Zainal Abidin

Rafeah Legino

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Noor, H.M., Samsudin, Z. (2016). Visual Thinking Courseware: Enhancing Critical Thinking Skills Through Art Criticism. In: Abidin, S., Legino, R., Noor, H., Vermol, V., Anwar, R., Kamaruzaman, M. (eds) Proceedings of the 2nd International Colloquium of Art and Design Education Research (i-CADER 2015). Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-0237-3_34

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Proactive Creative – Guides for Visual Artists

Art Criticism Basics: A Beginner’s Comprehensive Guide

A painting of a woman working at a table.

Just as a detective unravels the mysteries of a crime scene, you, too, can dive into the intriguing world of art criticism. This is your chance to dissect an artwork, peeling back its layers to reveal hidden depths and meanings.

Art criticism isn’t just for scholars or critics; it’s for anyone willing to look beyond the surface of an art piece. It involves four key steps: description, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation.

You’ll start by describing what you see in front of you—the colors, shapes, and lines—and gradually delve deeper into the principles that make up the artwork. You’ll interpret its meaning based on these elements and your connection with it.

Finally, you’ll evaluate its worth. Remember that this isn’t about passing judgment but understanding and appreciating art more deeply.

So prepare yourself for a journey that will enrich your perspective on art!

What is it?

A painting with a woman's face on it.

At its core, art criticism is a rich and enlightening conversation about visual art. It involves a thoughtful evaluation and discussion of the artwork’s elements, principles, meaning, and impact. It’s not just about saying if you like or dislike an artwork. Instead, it requires you to engage deeply with the work. You need to describe what you see, analyze how the artist has used various elements like color or line, interpret what it could mean based on your analysis, and evaluate its overall success.

You’re essentially becoming part of a dialogue that extends beyond yourself. This dialogue includes the artist’s intentions and the viewers’ diverse perspectives. This process can enrich your understanding of art while honing your critical thinking skills.

Steps of Art Critique

Let’s cut to the chase, darling; critiquing a masterpiece isn’t exactly akin to judging your neighbor’s questionable choice of lawn gnomes; it has more depth and finesse. It involves four essential steps:

  • Description: Start by painting a vivid picture of the artwork with words. Describe its colors, shapes, textures – every tiny detail that catches your eye.
  • Analysis: Look closely at how the artist weaves elements like line and color to convey a certain mood or message.
  • Interpretation: Interpret what you think the artist intended to communicate through their work.
  • Evaluation: Lastly, evaluate – this is where you express your opinions on whether the art successfully achieved its purpose.

Diving straight into the first step, description, you’re tasked with capturing the artwork’s essence through your lens. This means describing the piece so that anyone who hasn’t seen it can visualize it.

Start by stating the obvious – the work’s title, artist’s name, medium used, and year created.

Then, give a detailed account of what is in front of you – colors used, shapes spotted, subjects portrayed, and any noticeable techniques applied. It may seem like a simple observation, but remember that your role here is to be an ‘eye’ for those not present at this viewing.

Your words should paint a picture as vivid as possible to set a solid foundation for further steps in art criticism.

After you’ve painted a vivid picture through description, it’s time to dig deeper into the piece with analysis. This part of your critique asks you to dissect the artwork into its elemental parts – line, color, rhythm, harmony, and variety.

Look closely at how the artist has used these elements and ask yourself what impact they have on the overall work. Does a bold use of color evoke certain emotions? Do distinctive lines direct your gaze in a particular way? Is there an exciting interplay between different shapes or textures?

Analyzing these details helps you understand the artist’s technical skills and gives insight into their creative process. Remember to take your time; good analysis requires careful observation and thought.

Next up, you’re tasked with interpreting the artwork in question. This stage requires a shift from objective analysis to subjective interpretation. Consider what the artist might be trying to communicate through their work. What emotions or themes do you perceive? How does the artwork relate to your own experiences or worldview?

It’s also crucial to remember that there isn’t always a definitive ‘right’ interpretation—art is inherently subjective, and different viewers may draw different conclusions. Engage deeply with the piece and consider its impact on you. The trick here is to view and feel the art, allowing it to resonate within you before drawing any conclusions.

Remember, your interpretation is unique and valid as long as it’s supported by thoughtful insight.

So, you’ve made it to the grand finale of your critique journey – evaluation. Now’s the time to don your judgmental hat and dish out some cold, hard truths about the piece. Is it a masterpiece that could bring tears to a stone statue, or is it more akin to something your toddler nephew scribbled during nap time? Remember, this is where you’re allowed to let your personal biases frolic freely – if you think the painting looks like a catastrophic color collision, say so!

But remember: as much as we love our opinions, they should be backed up by solid reasoning. No throwing senseless shade here! Ask yourself: What’s its worth? Does it make an impact, or does it leave you indifferent?

Elements of Art

After thoroughly evaluating the artwork, you might wonder what’s next. It’s time to delve deeper into the ‘Elements of Art’.

These elements are vital details that build up an art piece, including line, shape, form, value, color, texture, and space. They’re like the DNA of an artwork; without them, a piece can’t exist!

When observing a work of art closely, try to notice how these elements combine to create a cohesive whole. Look at how lines move your eye around the painting or how colors evoke certain emotions.

By understanding these fundamental components in every artwork you critique, you’ll develop a solid base for your criticism and gain better insights into an artist’s intention.

Imagine a painting without lines – it’s nearly impossible. Lines are the basic building blocks of any visual art form. They provide structure, define shapes, and guide your eyes through an artwork.

As you critique art, pay close attention to how artists use lines. Are they straight or curved? Bold or faint? Do they follow a particular direction? These choices can convey emotion, suggest movement, and create depth in the piece.

Also, consider line variation. Different thicknesses or types of lines (like dotted or dashed) can evoke different feelings. A powerful artwork often employs diverse line techniques to capture viewers’ interest and communicate its message effectively.

Remember, understanding lines is your first step towards insightful art criticism.

Dive deeper into the artwork’s narrative by exploring its use of value. Value in art refers to the lightness or darkness of colors. It’s a significant factor in creating an illusion of form and depth, making your subject appear three-dimensional on a flat surface.

Examine how the artist uses contrasting values to emphasize certain areas within their piece. Does the artwork have a wide range of values, from very dark to extremely light? Or does it limit itself to a narrow spectrum? Notice how these choices affect the mood and focus of the work.

Remember, there’s no right or wrong here – just different artistic decisions leading to unique effects. With each critique, you’ll gain insight into this vital element and enhance your understanding of art.

Having explored the importance of value in art critique, let’s now shift our focus to ‘Tone.’

The tone is a critical aspect to consider while critiquing artwork. It refers to the overall mood or atmosphere that the painting creates. This is conveyed through elements like color, lighting, and composition.

As you delve deeper into understanding an art piece, note how it makes you feel. Does it evoke a sense of calmness or induce anxiety? Perhaps it stirs up feelings of joy or melancholy? The tone set by the artist often guides these emotional responses.

Recognizing and articulating this can enrich your critique significantly as it shows your emotional engagement with the artwork.

Follow us on  Pinterest  for more tips, tutorials, and artist reviews! 

critical thinking in art criticism

Outmane is the founder of Proactive Creative. He is an artist/designer.

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critical thinking in art criticism

Decoding the Art Critic’s Journey: Skills, Education, and Career Insights”

  • Published: November 25, 2023
  • By: Yellowbrick

Are you passionate about art and have a keen eye for detail? Do you enjoy analyzing and critiquing artworks? If so, a career as an art critic might be the perfect fit for you. Art critics play a crucial role in the art world, providing valuable insights and interpretations of various artworks. In this article, we will explore the world of art critic jobs , including the skills and qualifications needed, potential career paths, and tips on how to break into this exciting field.

1. Understanding the Role of an Art Critic

Art critics are individuals who evaluate, analyze, and interpret artworks, providing their unique perspective and opinions. They offer insightful commentary on the artistic techniques, themes, and cultural significance of various artworks. Art critics often work for newspapers, magazines, art galleries, or online publications, sharing their reviews and critiques with a wide audience. Their reviews can greatly influence the public’s perception of artworks and artists.

2. Required Skills and Qualifications

To become a successful art critic, certain skills and qualifications are essential:

  • Deep Knowledge of Art History: A strong foundation in art history is crucial for understanding the context and significance of artworks. Familiarize yourself with different art movements, styles, and artists throughout history.
  • Strong Analytical Skills: Art critics must possess excellent analytical skills to dissect and interpret artworks. They should be able to identify artistic techniques, symbolism, and underlying themes within the artwork.
  • Excellent Writing Skills: Art critics need to effectively communicate their thoughts and opinions through well-crafted written reviews. Strong writing skills, including grammar, vocabulary, and clarity, are essential for this profession.
  • Critical Thinking: Art critics must have a sharp and discerning eye. They should be able to analyze and evaluate artworks objectively, offering constructive criticism and valuable insights.
  • Research Abilities: Art critics often need to conduct thorough research on artists, exhibitions, and art movements to provide informed reviews and analysis.
  • Passion for Art: A genuine passion for art and a curiosity to explore new artistic expressions are crucial for a successful career as an art critic.

3. Education and Training

While there are no specific educational requirements to become an art critic, a solid educational background in art history, fine arts, or journalism can be advantageous. Many art critics hold degrees in these fields, which provide them with a deeper understanding of art and the necessary skills to analyze and critique artworks effectively. New York University (NYU) offers various programs and courses that can be beneficial for aspiring art critics.

4. Career Paths for Art Critics

Art critics can explore various career paths within the art industry. Some of the common options include:

  • Journalism and Publishing: Many art critics work as staff writers or freelancers for newspapers, magazines, and online publications that cover art and culture. They contribute regular reviews and articles on exhibitions, artists, and art-related events.
  • Gallery and Museum Positions: Art critics can also find employment in galleries and museums, where they curate exhibitions, write exhibition catalogs, and offer their expertise in interpreting artworks.
  • Academic Positions: Some art critics pursue careers in academia, teaching art history or related subjects at universities and colleges.
  • Independent Criticism: Many art critics establish their own platforms, such as personal blogs or YouTube channels, to share their reviews and opinions independently.

5. Breaking into the Art Criticism Industry

Breaking into the art criticism industry can be challenging, but with persistence and dedication, it is possible. Here are some tips to help you get started:

  • Build a Portfolio: Start by writing reviews and critiques of artworks, exhibitions, or art events. Create a portfolio showcasing your writing skills and your unique perspective on art.
  • Attend Art Events: Visit art exhibitions, galleries, and museums to immerse yourself in the art world. Networking with artists, curators, and other art professionals can open doors to potential opportunities.
  • Submit Your Work: Submit your written reviews and articles to art-related publications, both online and print. Getting your work published can help establish your credibility as an art critic.
  • Learn from Experts: Consider enrolling in art criticism courses or workshops to learn from experienced art critics and professionals. Yellowbrick offers online courses that can provide valuable insights into the art criticism industry.
  • Stay Informed: Keep up with the latest art trends, exhibitions, and artists by reading art magazines, following art blogs, and attending art-related events. Being well-informed will enhance your credibility as an art critic.

Key Takeaways:

  • Art critics play a crucial role in evaluating, analyzing, and interpreting artworks, providing unique perspectives and opinions.
  • Skills such as deep knowledge of art history, strong analytical and writing skills, critical thinking, research abilities, and a passion for art are essential for aspiring art critics.
  • While there are no specific educational requirements, a solid educational background in art history, fine arts, or journalism can be advantageous.
  • Various career paths are available for art critics, including journalism and publishing, gallery and museum positions, academic positions, and independent criticism.
  • Breaking into the art criticism industry requires building a strong portfolio, attending art events, submitting work to art-related publications, learning from experts, and staying informed about the art world.

By following these key takeaways and putting in the necessary effort and dedication, you can pursue a rewarding career as an art critic. Stay tuned for more informative articles on the art industry and the numerous career opportunities it offers! To enhance your knowledge and skills further, consider enrolling in the NYU | Modern Journalism online course and certificate program offered by Yellowbrick. This program provides a comprehensive education in journalism and can provide valuable insights into the art criticism industry.

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critical thinking in art criticism

Parsons faculty, together with design experts from leading organizations, help you build knowledge and skills, explore key trends shaping the future of product design, and gain an understanding of how design, manufacturing, and marketing components work together within the product creation process.

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critical thinking in art criticism

Brittany Markle Choreographer/Mentor/Dancer I think my most rewarding experiences have included the success of former students. I take pride in making sure they have the necessary tools to move forward with a career in the entertainment industry and I hope to help them bridge that gap from amateur to professional.

critical thinking in art criticism

Briah Fowler Marketing and Sales Specialist, New York Giants What's success if you can't share your winnings? As a marketing specialist for the New York Giants, I learned the key to success is giving back. If you can utilize your skill set and talent to help give back to your community, it's one of the most rewarding accomplishments.

critical thinking in art criticism

Bill Carroll Production Director, Centennial Broadcasting I'm most proud of taking the courage to start a music foundation and help musicians with any kind of disability and who are on the spectrum. It's something close to me and very important to nourish.

Bethany caldwell custom stylist & merchandiser - sales, threadwell clothiers, under armour inc. i am a custom clothier who helps people create custom clothing to look & feel their best -- i like to create quality clothes with meaning -- and i pride myself in making the "experience" part of the process..

critical thinking in art criticism

Becca Brown NFTs & Collectibles Project Manager, Warner Bros Discovery I'm honored to work with an innovative team where I'm involved in bringing world-renowned brands like DC and Harry Potter to life through cutting-edge collectibles. Seeing our fans engage with our products is incredibly fulfilling and fuels my excitement to continue driving innovation and growth in the licensing space.

critical thinking in art criticism

B. Danielle Watkins Chief Programmer, iElevate Media Group Writing is my passion, creating is my heart, and telling stories gives me an escape I've never found anywhere else, so to be doing that for the masses is what success looks like for me.

critical thinking in art criticism

Anissa Lee Product Marketing Manager, Google I’m most proud of launching the 10th annual Google Economic Impact Report and leading its entire end-to-end production... The most meaningful part of this experience was getting the chance to highlight the stories of these incredible and diverse businesses, the majority of which were veteran, female, and BIPOC-run.

critical thinking in art criticism

Adrian Cantu CEO, CANTUSTUDIO Every day a new proposition arises, as a friend, as a designer, as a co-worker, and as a leader. I like to interpret any challenge as an opportunity that demands better exploration. I personally think you shouldn't live life by treating discouragements and setbacks as a negative force in your way. I think a positive and disciplined mentality helps you find interesting aspects of a "stuck-up" and tackle them as a new adventure.

critical thinking in art criticism

Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) faculty, alongside experts from Beauty Inc and leading entrepreneurs and beauty companies, help you learn industry practices on how to successfully take a beauty product to market. Lessons include understanding the beauty business landscape, developing a beauty product, formulation, packaging, and branding principles.

critical thinking in art criticism

Explore all areas of the hospitality and tourism industry with this new 100% online program from New York University (NYU), featuring leaders from across the hospitality, tourism, and travel world.

critical thinking in art criticism

Parsons faculty, together with entrepreneurs, industry experts and specialists from Printful and Shopify, uncover how to design a seamless, ecommerce enterprise. Lessons range from creating a marketing strategy, building a digital brand, designing a customer journey, optimizing SEO tools and paid media, utilizing data and KPI reporting, understanding distribution and logistics, and more.

critical thinking in art criticism

Learn how beauty products are developed, packaged and marketed. Understand what it’s really like to be a boss beauty entrepreneur and how to be a successful beauty influencer through this cutting edge online certificate program from FIT, featuring Allure editors and top beauty professionals from across the globe.

critical thinking in art criticism

Parsons faculty, together with design experts from Creative Bloq and across the industry, explore the critical stages of the UX journey with lessons covering a range of topics from usability research methods, design concepting, and wireframing, to the latest technologies shaping the future of modern user interface design. 

critical thinking in art criticism

Chanel Benjamin Founder, They Love My Splash LLC and Communications & PR Director, G.R.A.C.E. Inc. I am most proud of being named the Community Hero at Yankee Stadium because it was to highlight the iSmileForAngele Scholarship I created in honor of my late grandmother. It also highlighted my iniative #KickBackAgainstBullying Sneaker Drive and the proceeds go to local shelters.

critical thinking in art criticism

Leaders from across the gaming and esports world, together with faculty from Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), will teach you about the key areas, and related career opportunities in the rapidly changing gaming industry.

critical thinking in art criticism

Explore all areas of the performing arts industry with this new 100% online program from faculty at New York University (NYU), and featuring experts from Backstage and leaders from across the industry.

critical thinking in art criticism

Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) faculty, alongside experts from WWD and across the industry, help aspiring fashion stylists learn the skills needed to break into the fashion world.

critical thinking in art criticism

Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) faculty, together with insiders and experts from Footwear News and other leading brands, help you learn how to build a successful footwear company.

critical thinking in art criticism

Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM) faculty, alongside experts from WWD and the fashion industry, help aspiring fashion designers learn the skills needed to begin designing a fashion collection.

critical thinking in art criticism

Parsons School of Design faculty, together with leaders from across the fashion world, will teach you about the key areas, and related career opportunities in the ever-evolving fashion industry.

critical thinking in art criticism

New York University (NYU) faculty, alongside leading journalists from Rolling Stone and other news organizations, help you learn the industry practices and fundamental skills needed to produce news stories across audio, visual, and digital mediums.

critical thinking in art criticism

Explore all areas of the film and television industry with this new 100% online program from faculty at New York University (NYU), and featuring experts from IndieWire and Rolling Stone, and leaders from across the industry.

critical thinking in art criticism

New York University faculty, together with business leaders from across the sports world, will teach about emerging trends, and related career opportunities in the ever-evolving business of global sports and marketing.

critical thinking in art criticism

Fashion Institute of Technology faculty, together with leaders from Complex and across the sneaker world, will teach you about the key areas, and related career opportunities in the ever-evolving sneaker industry.

critical thinking in art criticism

Parsons School of Fashion faculty, together with insiders and experts from leading brands, help you learn the business side of fashion, explore key trends shaping the future of the industry, and gain an understanding of how fashion brands are built and launched. 

critical thinking in art criticism

Explore all aspects of the streetwear industry, discover related careers, and build your skills with this online program from Parsons School of Design and Complex, featuring many recognized leaders from across the streetwear world.

critical thinking in art criticism

Explore all areas of the music industry with this 100% online program from faculty at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, featuring experts from Billboard, and leaders from across the industry.

critical thinking in art criticism

Casey Butler Creative Activation Manager, Roku The industry is constantly changing and evolving. This is part of the excitement of the job, but it can also be very difficult to navigate. Persistence and dedication are some of the most important traits for success in this industry - you need to want to be there and willing to put in the work.

critical thinking in art criticism

Daniel Bouwhuis Marketing/Brand Manager, Warner Music I believe that my success is not just about achieving a high-status job title, but rather it's about the impact I can make in the lives of others through music. I want to... continue to contribute to creative projects that raise awareness for important issues such as mental health and women's and LGBTQ+ rights.

critical thinking in art criticism

Wendy Xie Producer - CN Ad Studio, Conde Nast As a Producer, I aspire to produce slice of life ads to increase visibility for ubiquitous or unsung brands founded by people of color and further overcome the bamboo ceiling that so many Asians continue to face in the creative industry. When there is a day where my original ad ideas are broadcasted in the real world, this is when I believe my voice is heard, my impact is valued and appreciated by peers, and that our society is progressively evolving the advertising, media and tech industry to be a more inclusive space for rising creatives of color.

Wendy Xie

Mehruba Haque Junior Research Fellow, Estonian Business School Women's insecurities have been used for decades to sell beauty products, which have been linked to eating disorders, anxiety, and depression... I would like to come up with a new way to market beauty products that emphasizes that feeling beautiful doesn't come from comparing yourself to other women. I want to be a key player in making these positive changes happen and making the world a better place for women.

critical thinking in art criticism

Timothy Clarke Mixshow DJ/Personality, Radio One/Urban One, Sirius XM I want to be able to help upcoming artists be heard and seen on a global level, and be known as one of the biggest DJs turned A&R in hip-hop culture.

Tiana brown director of broadcasting & production, university of pennsylvania game day broadcast staff, philadelphia eagles my biggest advice is that if no one wants to open the door for you, kick it off the hinges. most of the opportunities that i have been afforded thus far have come from creating my own and giving opportunities to other people. creating your own opportunities can take a lot of sacrifice, a lot of lost sleep, a lot of fun missed, but in the end it will all be worth it when you wake up every morning living out your dreams..

critical thinking in art criticism

Stefani Marie Clare Janelli Founder, The MIC & Artist Development Specialist (13 Seconds Music) Have tough skin, but be open to learning and adapting! This industry is constantly changing overnight, and adapting to however the wind blows is vital. It's also essential to have the willingness to learn. Being open to learning a new way to do something, or to listen to a new idea, even when it's not your own, is advice anyone at any age could benefit from!

critical thinking in art criticism

Shelby Gussman Senior Director, Social Fisch I define success as achieving my goals, assisting my team with achieving theirs, and then setting the bar higher and accomplishing more than before all while being able to enjoy life! I hope to have the opportunity to work in different global markets, travel, collaborate with new people, and continue to be challenged and learn.

critical thinking in art criticism

Sharrod Williams Actor, Writer, Producer - Neighbors, Hamilton, Moulin Rouge! The Musical There are no small parts. None. I have been fortunate enough to wear many different hats, big and small, on different projects. But like any machine, organization, or even the human body - each role I take on is in service of the one greater purpose, to tell a story. The hat i've worn the most is "actor". In this role, I am the vessel that conveys the humanity and experience of what each character I play is going through in the story being told. My goal is make the audience feel, relate, and or think about the aspect of life that is being reflected or challenged in the story.

critical thinking in art criticism

Shady Elsayed Guest Services, ASM Barclays Center Whether it’s through celebrity appearances, brand and apparel collaborations, sponsorships, in-arena entertainment, or business partnerships, being a part of this industry is a rewarding experience. With it’s fast paced nature, and event based daily routine tasks, the sports and entertainment industry is built on networking and creating long lasting relationships.

critical thinking in art criticism

Sabrina Assistant Project Manager, Dirt Rock Empire For me, success means continuing to learn and grow everyday. Next, I hope to become an even bigger voice in the industry and help encourage positive change.

critical thinking in art criticism

Rebecca O’Keeffe Content Partnerships Manager, TikTok My role is Content Partnerships Manager for TikTok Ireland. I work with creators, media partners and public figures to enhance the content ecosystem to ensure the best user experience for the people of Ireland. This includes content projects with Ireland's biggest creators and public figures, exciting hyperlocal tentpole projects and events, in-app campaigns for things like Black History Month and Pride.

critical thinking in art criticism

Rebecca Lu Business Development, Joes Footwear The biggest challenge is you never know when you will be challenged - they just pop out somehow, even you think you are doing the best. So don’t take challenge as monster, always be positive and do whatever you can.

critical thinking in art criticism

Pavlina Koleva UX/UI Designer, Pixum To be a designer means you give people better experience, you help people and you try to see things through their eyes. Creating flexible products even for people with disabilities is great achievement. Design was and always will be part of people's life.

critical thinking in art criticism

Natalie Turturro Mettouchi Costume Designer, IATSE Local 829 I am most proud of designing the costumes for a short film that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2021, called "Esther in Wonderland." I had a shoestring budget and was working on two other pretty huge projects simultaneously, but still managed to design creative outfits that allowed the dancers to move freely and help develop their characters.

critical thinking in art criticism

Meosha Enslow Seamstress, Cintas uniform company As a designer I pride myself on originality and creativity... The problem comes when I sit down to plan I begin to doubt myself and my capabilities...To avoid the setbacks filled with self doubt I think of the end result and how it always makes me feel so empowered and shuts the weak voice in my head saying I can’t do it.

critical thinking in art criticism

Matt Popper Music Touring/Business Affairs, United Talent Agency Be relentless - the most difficult part of the job is getting your foot in the door. Once you're in, your good work will speak for itself. Of course, there will be some days where you will feel defeated and want to give up, but if this is what you're meant to do, you'll find a way to make it happen.

critical thinking in art criticism

Deyonte Fashion Designer, DWC Project Runway Season 16 Contestant Everyone has challenges and obstacles they face in the industry. It's what you do with those minor situations that help you become better if you allow it. You have to fight for your vision and be relentless.

critical thinking in art criticism

Mathilde Garnier Product Manager Footwear, adidas AG To me, success is passion. I strongly believe you can only be sucessful if you truly love what you are doing. Passion is a magic fuel that can inspire and drive people towards their goals... [but] passion is not enough. Our world needs more than for us to just do what we love. In order to be successful, we need to make a difference. I need to make a difference.

critical thinking in art criticism

Lindsay Milner Sigmund Vice President of Design, Vida Shoes The highlight of my career was becoming a Vice President of Design at a respected industry company at a young age. It showed how all of the hard work I put into my career- including evolving and continuing my education in the field- really put me ahead of the curve.

critical thinking in art criticism

Leslie Peterson Coordinator - Center of Excellence, NBCUniversal One of the hardest parts of my journey was moving to New York City from a small town and learning how to navigate the corporate world. Everyday I am learning something new and need to be okay with not knowing everything.

critical thinking in art criticism

Kyle Rebucci Customs Team Trainer, Puma Fashion is a part of everyday life. You don’t have to like trends, brands, or designers to contribute to the giant that is the fashion industry. You can’t escape from it. My contribution will of course directly relate to fashion, but I hope to be part of some reform in the industry when it comes to sustainability and ethics.

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KeNisha Ruff Founder, Marie Hunter Beauty Less than 1% of luxury beauty founders are black. I am laying the groundwork for black founders to enter the prestige sector and using my company to inspire, break the stigma surrounding mental health, and fight climate change.

critical thinking in art criticism

Joseph Richert Manager - Corporate Development & Strategy, Universal Music Group Success to me is happiness, both professionally and personally. On the professional side, that means having an impact on helping artists and entrepreneurs bring their dreams to life in an industry I'm passionate about; which I'm lucky to say I'm doing now!

critical thinking in art criticism

John Paul Endab Physical Education Teacher, Joppa High School As an educator, I truly believe that learning is a continuous process. It give us an opportunity to satisfy our curiosity, pursue our interests, or try new things.

critical thinking in art criticism

Ilana Duboff Associate Media Director, OMG23 While I am proud of all the amazing films I've been fortunate to work on over the years, I am most proud of the growth I've had while working in this industry. I have been promoted three times in the past four years and now manage a team of people, which I never even thought could be possible when I first started working. I feel honored that I have the opportunity to lead a team as well as teach them and work with them.

critical thinking in art criticism

Haramritjot Singh Founder, Cash Cow NYC I’m a kid from the Bronx, I’m a first generation American, I’m a Sikh, I’m a father in his thirties, and now I’m the owner of a clothing brand. I serve as a prime example to many different people from so many different circumstances that starting a small business and following your dreams is possible.

critical thinking in art criticism

Giulia Baldini Fashion Journalist/Editor and Academic Researcher, Lehman College I represent the underrepresented with words. I report stories and narratives that center on the fashion industry, specifically when the protagonists are from the African Diaspora, when they are sustainable businesses, and when they are engaged in minorities' activism.

critical thinking in art criticism

Forbs West Associate Music Curator, SiriusXM/Pandora I think one of the biggest challenges that I've faced in my journey is patience. I think especially being in Generation Z, it is important to slow down and appreciate what we have accomplished so far. I think when you least expect things, it is a surprise yet it is also very rewarding.

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Elena Takmakova Manager - International Production, Universal Music Group The thing that keeps me on track is remembering how far I've come. Just that simple feeling of being proud of myself can make miracles.

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Dounesha Scott Product Manager, Anna Griffin Inc. Of my career achievements, I am the most proud of being a uniform fit specialist for the Delta Style Project... Delta only redesigns their uniforms every 5-10 years. The uniforms were designed by Zac Posen and manufactured by Lands End... We are in the Delta museum and will be a part of Delta airlines history.

critical thinking in art criticism

critical thinking in art criticism

Art and Critical Thinking

critical thinking in art criticism

critical thinking in art criticism

Arts Academy

in the Woods

How Art Education Fosters Critical Thinking and Why It Matters

critical thinking in art criticism

These days, the ability to grasp the logical connection between ideas is a necessary skill.

Unless you’re a hermit living in a cave, there is so much information coming at all of us at any given moment.

Being able to discern which information is of worth – and which is not based in reality – requires critical thinking.

So What Exactly Is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is often synonymous with reflective and independent thinking. It means knowing how to take in the data and then come to a reasonable conclusion. 

Those who engage in critical thinking are constantly questioning ideas and assumptions rather than just accepting what’s being peddled to the masses.

Critical thinkers want to know that the incoming information is representative of the bigger picture. If they determine that it’s not, they’ll take the necessary measures to get that additional information.

Critical Thinking Versus Being Critical

Critical thinking is not the same thing as being argumentative or critical/judgmental of other people. Sure, critical thinking can expose errors or poor reasoning.

But it’s also crucial for cooperative reasoning and then moving toward constructive tasks. Because acquiring more knowledge improves and strengthens one’s theories and arguments. And this subsequently leads to enhanced work processes.

How Art Improves Critical Thinking

Because critical thinking tends to incorporate logical and rational thinking and veers from instinct, many people see it as a hinderance to creativity.

After all, creativity requires breaking the rules, right? (Well, yes and no .)

Still, critical thinking truly requires out-of-the-box thinking. Rather than just taking popular approaches and swallowing them whole, critical thinkers challenge the consensus. This means they often have to pursue less popular thoughts or approaches.

So if you think about, critical thinking is an absolutely necessary component of creativity. Without it, how can the creative person continue to evaluate and improve upon his or her ideas?

critical thinking in art criticism

It’s this very process of observation and study that teaches students of the arts to more intensely observe and analyze the world. And it gives them the skills that build the foundation of critical thinking.

But Why Does It Matter?

You might think that if your path leads you to work in research, law, education, management, finance or medicine, then you’ll absolutely need this skill. And you’re right.

But no matter what you   choose to do with your life, the ability to think clearly and rationally is important.

Knowing how to receive information, clearly consider it and then use it to systematically solve problems is an asset for any career. Especially in light of this new knowledge economy. To be successful in such an economy requires one to able to handle changes quickly and effectively.

There is an increased demand for workers to be able to analyze a lot of information from diverse sources, then integrate it in order to find solutions. Critical thinking promotes these skills.

It also enhances language and presentation skills. The simple act of learning to think in a more systematic and logical fashion can also improve the way one expresses ideas.

Furthermore, in having to analyze the structure of different information sources, critical thinking also improves one’s ability to comprehend.

And as we mentioned above, critical thinking actually promotes creativity. Coming up with creative solutions is more than just having new ideas. There has to be an understanding that the new ideas are useful and relevant to the required task.   Critical thinking plays an important role in this.

critical thinking in art criticism

That’s right. Critical thinking is even important for this. It’s nearly impossible to structure a meaningful life without the ability to justify and reflect on our own values and decisions. And critical thinking provides the tools for this process.

So yeah, it’s safe to say that critical thinking definitely matters.

Learning Critical Thinking with an Arts Integration Education

Arts integration education merges the important skill of critical thinking achieved through art education and blends it in with academics.

There’s no disputing the importance of STEM. The above mentioned knowledge economy requires students to understand facets of science, technology, engineering and math.

With arts integration though, there’s the added importance of art – hence the term STEAM. Arts integration isn’t looking to bypass STEM. It strives instead to create an integrated program that includes all of those, while teaching the application of skills learned through the arts – such as critical thinking.

Arts integration helps students see the world from multiple angles, and to take a design-thinking approach in finding solutions.

Teaching young people to be careful and deliberate observers can go miles toward expanding their worldview. And this, in turn, can create a stronger democracy.

Do You Want to Explore An Arts Integration Education?

critical thinking in art criticism

So take a look at what our students have to say . And/or request a tour of our school and see what we have to offer.

Then get ready to put those critical thinking skills toward a higher purpose.

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[Writing About Photos] – Chapter 03: Unraveling Art Criticism: A Fundamental Guide

The genesis and progression of art criticism through history.

Navigating the intricate landscape of art criticism is akin to tracing the course of a river through its myriad tributaries. These ever-branching streams, enriched by countless artistic movements and social shifts, eventually converge into a contemporary discourse. To fully grasp the complex narrative of art criticism, it’s vital to delve into its historical progression.

Let us traverse this storied pathway together, starting from the germination of critique in ancient civilizations, sailing through tumultuous seas of revolution, and arriving at the bustling port of today’s digital realm. Here, we will unearth how the lens of criticism has evolved, continually reshaping our collective engagement with art.

In The Classical Age , art criticism found its rudimentary roots in the writings and dialogues of philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. Plato posited that art was essentially mimetic, a mere shadow of the “real world” as dictated by his concept of ideal forms. Aristotle, however, nuanced this concept by considering art as a vehicle for catharsis, facilitating an emotional release and providing a distinct form of wisdom.  Notably, these early forms of criticism were far more didactic than their modern counterparts. They were as much about instructing the viewer on moral and philosophical lessons as they were about interpreting the art. These classical thinkers laid the foundation for a rich tapestry of critical thought, their differing views highlighting the evolving complexities of what art could be and how it should be received.

Advancing to The Renaissance , the scope of art criticism broadened considerably, reflecting the era’s renewed focus on humanistic and aesthetic considerations. Giorgio Vasari emerged as a pivotal figure, fusing biographical narrative with evaluative criticism. His seminal work, “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects,” remains a cornerstone of early modern art criticism.  Vasari’s approach introduced a significant shift: the focus moved away from the didactic and philosophical underpinnings of the Classical era, veering toward the artistic techniques and the virtuosity of the individual artist. Instead of merely assessing art through the lens of moral or educational value, Vasari emphasized skill, innovation, and aesthetic allure. His work set a template for assessing art that was less about how art reflected the world and more about how the artist had mastered their craft to represent it. This emphasis on aesthetics and craft would continue to resonate through the ensuing epochs of art criticism.

In The Enlightenment Era , art criticism adopted a decidedly intellectual posture, fueled by the epoch’s overarching emphasis on reason and empirical analysis. Denis Diderot, a luminary of the time, extended the realm of art criticism beyond mere aesthetic evaluation to an intricate dissection of intellectual depth. Known for his exhaustive reviews of the Paris Salon exhibitions, Diderot integrated philosophy, psychology, and even sociology into his critiques.  In his writings, artworks’ aesthetic and intellectual facets were inextricably linked, reflecting the era’s dedication to rationalism. Diderot’s criticism emphasized coherence, thematic depth, and the moral implications of the art he reviewed. This period saw an expansion of the critic’s role—moving from being mere recorders of artistic events to offering layered, well-reasoned judgments that considered multiple facets of a work. The Enlightenment period thus left an indelible mark on art criticism, elevating it to a discipline that could engage not just with the form and craft of art but also with its intellectual and ethical dimensions.

In The 19th Century , art criticism underwent a seismic shift, pivoting away from the cerebral fixations of Enlightenment rationalism toward the emotional fervor and imaginative breadth of Romanticism. Critics like John Ruskin exemplified this metamorphosis. His reviews of J.M.W. Turner’s oeuvre were awash with emotional intensity, placing a premium on visceral reactions to art as much as, if not more than, intellectual discourse.  As the century waned and the early 20th century dawned, the advent of modernism ushered in yet another recalibration in the field of art criticism. Traditional molds were shattered, and forms hitherto unimaginable became the new norm, stretching the limits of both the artist and the critic. No longer was art criticism solely a meditation on beauty or morality; it now had to grapple with abstraction, fragmentation, and other avant-garde elements that defied easy categorization. This new vista prompted critics to cultivate novel approaches to appraise and interpret art, methods that could accommodate the complexities and challenges posed by modernist aesthetics. The 19th century, therefore, was a transformative epoch for art criticism, setting the stage for the manifold methodologies that would proliferate in the years to come.

After World War II , art criticism underwent a radical transformation. The advent of “New Criticism” aimed to cut through the haze of historical and biographical context, emphasizing instead the formal elements of artwork—the lines, colors, textures, and spatial relationships that give a piece its fundamental identity. Clement Greenberg stood at the forefront of this movement, articulating a rigorous formalism that dominated mid-century aesthetic discourse.  However, as the 20th century progressed, a cornucopia of alternative critical frameworks emerged alongside this formalist tradition. Feminist critics started to dissect the gender dynamics embedded in art, scrutinizing the absence or misrepresentation of women in the works themselves and in the annals of art history. Post-colonial criticism examined art through the lens of empire, culture, and identity, unearthing the influences and imbalances of power between colonizers and the colonized. Psychoanalytic approaches ventured into the labyrinthine corridors of the unconscious mind, seeking to elucidate the latent desires and fears manifest in artistic creation.  The post-war period thus marked an era of expansive pluralism in art criticism, an invitation to view art from myriad vantage points. No longer confined to a singular methodology or cultural context, art criticism blossomed into a rich tapestry of intersecting perspectives, each contributing to a more nuanced, multi-layered understanding of art and its role in society.

The Digital Era: The Democratization and Dissonance of Criticism

In the interconnected world we inhabit today, the internet and digital media have ushered art criticism into an era of unprecedented democratization. Now, anyone armed with a keyboard and an internet connection can offer their assessments, be it on social media platforms, blogs, or digital magazines. These online arenas have not only shattered the barriers to entry but have also introduced a plethora of voices into the critical discourse.

The result is a kaleidoscopic landscape, rich in variety yet at times dissonant in its cacophony of opinions. In this democratized milieu, the role of the critic has morphed from that of an authoritative gatekeeper to a guide, a facilitator who sifts through the noise to unearth nuanced insights. Yet, the flood of online criticism has also led to questions about credibility and expertise. After all, the democratization of the field has meant that critique is no longer the sole domain of scholars and art historians but is also the purview of amateur enthusiasts and even algorithmic bots.

This creates both opportunity and challenge. The expanded discourse allows for a more inclusive range of perspectives, incorporating viewpoints from different cultures, economic backgrounds, and lived experiences. Yet, it also raises questions about the dilution of critical quality and the potential for echo chambers, where pre-existing opinions are merely reinforced rather than critically examined.

As we navigate this digital era, the art of criticism is not just about interpretation but also about curating—sorting through an ever-expanding library of perspectives to find those that provoke thought, challenge norms, and contribute meaningfully to the collective dialogue about art. It’s an era of both democratization and dissonance, a testament to the complex relationship we hold with art in a world ever more interconnected yet increasingly divided.

The historical lineage of art criticism serves as an invaluable prism through which we can appreciate art with greater nuance and depth. No artwork exists in isolation; it’s intrinsically linked to the tapestry of time, societal evolutions, and intellectual currents. As we stand before a painting, sculpture, or digital installation, we are not just observers of a static object but participants in a dialogue that stretches back centuries and crosses cultural boundaries.

From the didacticism of classical philosophers to the aesthetic systematizations of the Renaissance, from the reasoned judgments of the Enlightenment to the emotional fervor of Romanticism, each era contributes a layer of complexity to our understanding of art. And now, as we step into a digital age of democratized discourse, this complexity is amplified further. We are forced to reckon not just with the artwork and its historical and aesthetic roots but also with a multitude of contemporary perspectives, each bringing its own shade of interpretation to the communal palette.

In critiquing art, we engage in a conversation that is at once deeply personal and strikingly universal. Our own insights are enriched by the wisdom of past critics and the perspectives of our contemporaries. We become both the inheritors of a rich critical tradition and contributors to its future, adding our voice to an ongoing, ever-evolving dialogue that seeks to decipher the unfathomable depths of human creativity. This dual role amplifies our responsibility and the joy in the art of criticism, illuminating not just the art we contemplate but also the multifaceted society in which it—and we—exist.

The critic’s sphere: understanding the roles and responsibilities in the art world

In the multifaceted world of photography, the critic holds a lens that can both magnify and refine how we perceive art. Bridging the gap between artists and audiences, the critic navigates a realm of aesthetics, context, and meaning. Let’s delve into the intricate responsibilities and invaluable contributions of the critic in photography’s ever-evolving landscape.

The Critic as an Interpreter: A Deep Dive Into the Unseen

The critic operates as a translator of sorts, a mediator between the visual language of photography and the textual discourse of art criticism. Often leveraging an extensive knowledge of the medium’s history, theory, and technique, the critic unearths layers of meaning enfolded within each frame. Whether dissecting the nuances of light and shadow, the choice of focal length, or the emotional resonance of color, the critic seeks to illuminate the multifaceted intentions of the photographer. By doing so, they render a service not just to the audience, but also to the photograph itself, amplifying its voice and expanding its reach.  Within this interpretive function lies the critic’s skill in reading both the overt and the covert, the said and the unsaid. For every photograph is, in a way, a complex code, a puzzle to be solved. And each solution is another narrative, another perspective that enhances our collective understanding of the image. In this capacity, the critic doesn’t just interpret; they add to the photograph’s overall life, ensuring it transcends its visual limits to engage in a rich, multi-layered dialogue with the viewer. The critic, in essence, reveals the myriad stories hidden within each click of the shutter, and invites us to engage with them, deepening our own understanding and appreciation of the art form.

The Critic as a Guide: Navigating the Cartography of Photographic Expression

A good critic performs a function not unlike that of a skilled cartographer. They map out the terrain of the photographic landscape—identifying landmarks, sketching borders, and charting pathways. As a guide, the critic provides us with the tools to navigate the sprawling field of photography, illuminating the interplay between emerging talents and established names, between innovative techniques and foundational principles.  More than just name-dropping or lauding technique, the critic opens doors to thematic rooms we might have otherwise passed by. They underscore the significance of a burgeoning movement or highlight how a particular image captures the zeitgeist of an era. They provide context, embedding a single photograph or photographer within a broader narrative that can encompass history, society, and culture. It’s akin to adding longitude and latitude lines to a map; these coordinates help us understand not just where something is, but also its relevance, its relationship to other points on the map.  Each critique, then, becomes a part of our navigational toolkit. The critic points out signposts, redirects us when we reach dead ends, and sometimes even accompanies us as we venture off the beaten path. Through this guided journey, we develop a more nuanced understanding of photography as an art form, enriching our own experience and enabling us to engage more deeply with the work. Thus, the critic ensures that our journey through the intricate world of photography is not just an aimless wander, but a meaningful exploration.

The Critic as a Mirror: Reflections on Self and Art

In the same way that a mirror captures your visage, refracting light to project an image, a critic serves as a reflective surface for both the photograph and your interaction with it. The critic’s analysis isn’t just an exposition on the frame captured by the artist; it’s a medium through which we can see our own contours, both intellectual and emotional.  Critics challenge our immediate responses, prodding us to consider why a certain image stirs particular feelings or thoughts. They ask us to question our biases, to confront the societal and cultural lenses through which we view art. This kind of reflection can be unsettling, even disorienting, akin to seeing your reflection in a distorted mirror for the first time. Yet, it’s a necessary disorientation, one that prompts us to consider the myriad influences that shape our reactions to art.  Critics draw us into a cycle of introspection and reflection. By dissecting an image’s elements—its use of color, texture, light, and shadow—they provide a vocabulary for our own emotional responses. Suddenly, we’re not just saying that an image makes us feel joyful or melancholic; we’re understanding that the interplay of certain colors or the specific use of light evokes these emotions. This introspective exercise does more than deepen our understanding of an individual photograph; it sharpens our emotional and intellectual faculties, enabling more nuanced interactions with art and, by extension, with the world around us.  Through the mirror of criticism, we become better viewers, better interpreters, and perhaps, better people. We come to recognize that our relationship with art is not a one-way street but a reciprocal dialogue, one that enriches both the viewer and the viewed.

The Critic as a Catalyst: Sparking Conversations in the Photographic Sphere

Critics aren’t just observers or commentators; they’re active participants in the field of photography, serving as catalysts that initiate and sustain conversations about the art form. Like a drop of water rippling across a pond, the critic’s analyses, insights, and provocations reverberate through the collective consciousness of artists, viewers, and fellow critics, each ripple amplifying the depth and breadth of discourse.  By questioning norms, celebrating innovations, and scrutinizing failures, critics energize the landscape of photographic criticism, offering new viewpoints and challenging existing paradigms. They invite public debate, inciting discussions that can range from the technical minutiae of aperture and depth of field to complex sociopolitical issues reflected through the photographer’s lens. The critic opens doors to rooms we might never have entered, offering new landscapes for our imagination to traverse.

And in today’s interconnected world, where images cross borders with a click, critics serve as international conduits for the global exchange of ideas. Their critiques can instantly reach a worldwide audience, initiating dialogues that span multiple languages, cultures, and belief systems. This transnational conversation enriches our collective understanding of photography, unifying a diverse range of voices under the broad canopy of visual storytelling.  In this way, critics function as both instigators and stewards of an ever-evolving discourse, their words serving as the flint that ignites the communal passion for photography. And like any catalyst, once they’ve sparked the reaction, their presence continues to be felt, shaping and influencing the conversation in ways both tangible and intangible.

The Critic as a Defender: Upholding the Craft in the Face of Commercialization

In a landscape increasingly overshadowed by mass-produced content and the commodification of creativity, critics assume the mantle of defenders of the art form. They serve as gatekeepers, tirelessly separating the chaff from the wheat, elevating works that merit attention while sidestepping the traps of commercialization and mediocrity. In this role, critics aren’t just appraisers but advocates, champions of the authentic over the superficial, the original over the derivative.

In defending the craft, critics lend a voice to photographers whose work might otherwise drown in the sea of ubiquitous visual content. They spotlight the diligence required to frame a shot just so, the skill needed to capture the ephemeral play of light and shadow, and the vision to tell a compelling story without uttering a single word. In their writings, they educate audiences on the intricacies and nuances that separate a snapshot from a masterpiece, fostering a broader public appreciation for the technical and emotional complexities of the craft.

Critics also serve as custodians of photography’s rich history and its ethical boundaries. They remind us of the pioneers who broke new ground and the traditions that have shaped the field. By connecting past and present, they offer a contextual lens through which to view contemporary works, adding depth to our understanding.

By advocating for the intrinsic value of photography as a form of artistic expression, critics help to sustain an environment where creativity can flourish unencumbered. They stand against the tide of commercial imperatives that threaten to dilute the art form, ensuring that photography remains a vibrant medium for individual expression and collective commentary. In so doing, critics protect the soul of photography, safeguarding its integrity for future generations to appreciate and explore.

Understanding these roles, the critic’s sphere emerges as a space of passion and insight, exploration and discovery. Critics offer a compass for navigating the vast sea of photography, shedding light on its depths and uncovering its treasures. So, the next time you read a photographic critique, remember the roles and responsibilities that the critic embodies, and let their words guide you on your own journey into the captivating world of photography.

An overview of methodologies and their application in art criticism: From formalism to postmodernism

Art criticism, as multifaceted as the art it interrogates, never remains static. Its evolution has birthed a wide array of methodologies, each offering distinct lenses for probing into the complexities of art. As we traverse this intellectual landscape, we will encounter the formalist’s preoccupation with structure, the socio-political dimensions of Marxist theory, and the enigmatic layers of postmodernism, among others.

Formalism posits that the aesthetic worth of a photograph or any artwork emanates from its internal components. This approach hones in on the photograph’s own architecture—its composition, its harmony of colors, the delicate play of light and shadow, and even the texture the lens captures. It eschews narratives about the photographer’s intent or the cultural backdrop against which the photo was taken. Instead, it seeks a form of purity, an understanding that the image can stand alone, entirely self-referential.  When formalists scrutinize a photograph, their questions are tightly focused. Does the composition direct the eye effectively? Does the interplay between light and dark elements yield harmony or evoke a particular emotion? Is there a balance of forms that creates a pleasing geometry? These are the attributes dissected in a formalist critique, isolated from the torrent of external factors that might cloud these essential aspects.

The formalist approach serves as a reminder that, before we are swept away by the stories and contexts enveloping a photograph, the image itself is a constructed entity. Its own internal coherence or dissonance is a form of language, silent but eloquent, speaking directly to the senses before the intellect takes over to process the broader implications.  When we employ formalism, we are, in essence, returning to the rudiments of visual literacy. We become absorbed in the grammar of line, the syntax of color, and the punctuation of light, allowing us to read each photograph as an independent, self-contained essay in visual eloquence.

Iconography

Iconography is like the archaeology of imagery; it digs beneath the obvious to unearth hidden strata of meaning. It’s not just a matter of decoding symbols; it’s about understanding the layered complexities that reside within a photograph’s frame. This approach asks us to be investigators, sifting through cultural and historical sediment to find out why a photograph communicates more than its overt subject matter.  Consider a photograph featuring an individual holding a lit candle in a dimly lit room. The formalist would focus on the interplay of light and shadow, perhaps the reflection in the person’s eyes. The iconographer, however, would probe deeper. Why a candle? Is it a symbol of enlightenment amid darkness, possibly hinting at a spiritual or intellectual journey? Is the setting itself—a nondescript room—indicative of isolation, emphasizing the solace found in small illuminations?

While a formalist analysis might concentrate on how the candlelight sculpts the individual’s face, an iconographic interpretation seeks to understand what that sculpting means within a broader context. It raises questions about cultural or religious rites, the history of portraiture, or even the psychology of solitude. Iconography delves into shared archetypes and the repository of imagery that society, history, or religious tradition provides.  By using an iconographic lens to view photography, we deepen our understanding of the image as part of a continuum. It’s not just a snapshot frozen in time but a link in a chain of symbols and meanings that stretch back through the ages and will continue to evolve. In this sense, iconography serves as both a looking glass and a time machine, revealing the many dimensions of meaning that a photograph can hold.

Psychoanalysis

In the context of psychoanalytic criticism, the photograph is not merely a static object to be observed but an emotional landscape to be navigated. It can become a psychological portrait of both the artist and the viewer, a mirror reflecting latent desires, hidden fears, and unresolved tensions. This is criticism at its most introspective, a journey into the mind’s labyrinthine recesses.  Consider a photograph of a desolate, abandoned house, its windows like vacant eyes staring into the void. The psychoanalytic critic would not just see an aesthetic study in decay and composition. Instead, they might consider this haunting image as a visual metaphor for isolation, loss, or even existential dread. Is the house a stand-in for the human psyche, its emptiness echoing inner voids? What do the shadows, lurking ominously in corners, tell us about our own hidden fears? What is it that haunts us as we look into those empty windows?

This methodology allows us to explore the concept of ‘the gaze’ — a term popularized by Jacques Lacan — referring to the power dynamics inherent in the act of looking. In this framework, the gaze is never neutral; it always signifies a complex interplay of desire, identification, and objectification. When we look at a photograph, we are not just observing; we are participating in an intricate psychological dialogue with the image and, by extension, with ourselves.  In applying psychoanalytic theory to photography, we go beyond surface interpretations and delve into the emotional and psychological core of the image. We engage in a form of visual psychotherapy, where each photograph opens the door to a myriad of psychological interpretations, inviting us to confront and examine our innermost thoughts and feelings. Thus, the photo serves not just as a work of art but as a catalyst for self-discovery and understanding.

In the Marxist lens, a photograph becomes a rich tapestry of societal clues, a freeze-frame capturing the intricacies of class, labor, and power relations. Take, for instance, a photograph of a bustling factory floor. To the casual observer, it may simply be a study in motion and machinery, but a Marxist critic would read it differently. They might consider how the factory setup, with workers arrayed before their machines, mirrors class structures. Who owns the machines? Who profits from the labor? Are the workers’ faces etched with fatigue or resolve, and what does that tell us about their working conditions?  Equally, a photograph of a lavish mansion isn’t just an architectural study for the Marxist critic; it’s a monument to capital accumulation, perhaps even exploitation. Who built this house, and from whose labor was the wealth derived? The mansion stands not just as an isolated structure, but as a symbol interconnected with a wider socio-economic web.  Marxist criticism goes beyond simply dissecting the components of an image to ask ‘who benefits?’ and ‘at what cost?’ A striking photograph of a beautiful garment becomes an invitation to scrutinize the fashion industry’s supply chain. A serene landscape raises questions about land ownership and environmental impact. Through the Marxist lens, every photograph is a window into the economic and social forces that shape our world.

In our digital age, where photography is more accessible than ever, Marxist criticism remains a crucial tool for understanding how power and resources are visually represented and often skewed. When we apply a Marxist analysis to the flood of images surrounding us, we engage in a form of social critique, challenging the structures that underpin the very act of creation and observation.  Therefore, Marxist criticism serves not just as an academic exercise but as a form of visual activism. It equips us with the critical tools to interrogate the status quo, compelling us not just to see but to look deeper, question, and, ultimately, to understand the complexities of the socio-economic landscapes captured in the frame.

Feminism and Gender Studies

As we traverse the realm of feminist and gender studies criticism, the photograph becomes more than a static image—it transforms into a dynamic interplay of identity, power, and cultural conditioning. Feminist critics delve into the politics of representation, asking questions like, “Who is depicted and how?” or “Who is the intended audience?” They seek to uncover the patriarchal or heteronormative biases that often underlie visual narratives.  Consider, for instance, a vintage photograph of a 1950s housewife—immaculately dressed, smiling as she vacuums her living room. A feminist critic might interrogate the image’s creation and dissemination, asking what norms it was intended to perpetuate. Is the photograph affirming traditional gender roles, idealizing domesticity as the pinnacle of feminine achievement?  Or take a more contemporary image: a close-up portrait of a non-binary individual adorned with makeup that defies conventional gender expectations. A gender studies critic might celebrate this photograph as a subversive act, a challenge to the binaries that society imposes upon us. What does the photograph say about the fluidity of identity, and how does it contribute to broader discussions on gender diversity?

Equally important is how feminist and gender critics examine who is behind the camera. Whose gaze are we inheriting as we view the photograph? Is it reinforcing a male gaze that objectifies, or does it shift towards a more inclusive, diverse perspective? These critics are interested not just in the artwork itself, but in the systems and structures that govern its creation, distribution, and reception.  In a world saturated with images, feminist and gender studies criticism feels increasingly relevant. It’s a tool for deciphering the coded messages that photographs transmit about gender roles, sexual orientation, and societal expectations. By peeling back these layers, we move closer to understanding the intricate ways that images can both reflect and shape our collective attitudes about identity and equality. Through this lens, every photograph becomes an opportunity for critical discourse, a stepping stone towards a more equitable visual culture.

Postcolonialism

Journeying into the territory of postcolonial criticism, the photograph shifts from mere visual representation to an arena where historical legacies and cultural dynamics intersect. When a postcolonial critic looks at an image, they see not just an aesthetic arrangement of light and shadow, but a constellation of power relations. The critic’s gaze digs beneath the surface to excavate the historical contexts, the stories of colonialism and decolonization, and the complex social fabric that the image either conceals or reveals.  Imagine a photograph capturing a moment from a Native American powwow. To the untrained eye, the image might seem a simple celebration of traditional culture. A postcolonial critic, however, would engage in a more complex reading. They might ask how this image circulates and to what ends. Is it commodifying indigenous culture for a non-indigenous audience? Does it serve as a form of cultural preservation or resistance? In posing such questions, the critic interrogates how the photograph contributes to ongoing conversations about indigenous sovereignty and identity.  Similarly, consider a photograph of a bustling marketplace in an African country. The picture might be aesthetically pleasing, capturing vibrant colors and the dynamic energy of the place. However, a postcolonial critic would look beyond the initial visual impact to explore deeper implications. Does the photograph exoticize the subjects? Does it carry the burden of representing an entire continent that is far too often misrepresented?

Moreover, postcolonial criticism is attuned to the power dynamics of the camera itself. Who is the photographer? From what cultural or ideological vantage point is the photograph being taken? The answers can significantly influence the image’s meaning, as the act of photographing can easily become an act of appropriation or exoticization.  The work of postcolonial criticism is both analytical and ethical, prompting us to confront uncomfortable realities and question our own viewing habits. It exposes the photograph’s role in perpetuating or subverting systems of domination, thereby opening up new avenues for appreciating art’s potential to effect change. Through this perspective, each photograph gains new dimensions, becoming a locus for discussions about power, representation, and cultural identity. Thus, the critic acts as both observer and activist, decoding images while also advocating for a more equitable and self-aware art world.

Postmodernism

As we alight upon the postmodernist realm, the familiar terra firma of defined categories and established norms give way to a fluid landscape where everything is perpetually in flux. In the world of postmodern criticism, the photograph is not just a mirror to reality, but also a labyrinth of meanings, a palimpsest of interpretations. Where a formalist sees composition, and a Marxist sees societal structures, the postmodernist sees a nexus of dialogues—often contradicting one another yet coexisting in the same frame.  Take, for instance, a photograph that superimposes a classical painting over a contemporary advertisement. A postmodern critic would revel in the juxtaposition, in the implicit commentary on art’s commercialization, and the way the image destabilizes our understanding of value, culture, and aesthetics. Such a photograph wouldn’t merely be a piece of art but an inquiry into what art could or should be.  Similarly, consider a selfie that’s been altered to mimic the style of an Old Master painting. A postmodern critic would find this intriguing not just for its technical merits but for the questions it raises about authorship, authenticity, and the democratization of art in the digital age. The selfie isn’t just an egoistic capture of a moment but becomes an artistic statement, challenging historical hierarchies and aesthetic paradigms.

Postmodern criticism thrives on deconstruction, questioning the very foundations upon which our understanding of photography and art rests. It asks us to look at a photograph not as a static object but as a dynamic event that occurs between the image, the viewer, and the surrounding culture. It understands that every photograph is layered with histories—of its subjects, its viewers, and the medium itself—and that each layer is fraught with contradictions that are as revealing as they are confounding.  With postmodernism, the role of the critic metamorphoses one final time. Here, the critic is less a judge and more a cartographer, mapping out the multiple routes through which an artwork can be explored, each path offering a different vista, a new set of questions, an alternate frame of reference. Thus, the photograph remains forever open, its meanings perpetually deferred, inviting us to revisit and reinterpret it through endlessly shifting perspectives.

Indeed, the myriad methodologies in art criticism serve as waypoints in our odyssey through the world of photography—a world rich in textures, tones, and tales. Just as a geologist employs different tools to understand the earth’s composition, or a historian utilizes varied sources to reconstruct past narratives, we too wield these critical methodologies to unravel the complexities inherent in every photograph.

The act of photography is itself a dialogue, a conversation between the artist’s vision and the world’s multifaceted realities. Similarly, art criticism sustains and enriches that dialogue, inviting us to partake in it. Every methodology becomes a dialect in this expansive language of visual literacy. With formalism, we discuss aesthetics; through iconography, we converse in symbols; using psychoanalytic theory, we delve into the subconscious dialogues of the mind; by employing Marxist criticism, we engage with socio-economic discourses; and the list goes on.

Even as we navigate the ever-expanding realms of digital photography, where everyone with a smartphone becomes a potential photographer, these methodologies become more pertinent. They help us separate the ephemeral from the eternal, the superficial from the profound. They ensure that even in an age of abundant images, we never lose sight of the power and purpose of each photograph.

So as we look through our viewfinders or admire a piece in a gallery, let’s remember that each photograph is an invitation—to explore, to question, to feel. And our methodologies, our critical compasses, guide us in accepting that invitation fully, making each journey a deep dive into the universe contained within the frame. It is through these multifaceted lenses of criticism that we become not just viewers, but voyagers, embarking on an endless exploration of the stunning galaxies that the world of photography holds.

The importance of critical thinking in art criticism

Critical thinking is, in essence, the intellectual lantern that lights our path through the labyrinthine corridors of art. It gives us the language to articulate our emotional and aesthetic responses, transforming what might initially be a gut reaction into a nuanced dialogue between the viewer, the artwork, and the broader cultural milieu. The role of critical thinking in art criticism is akin to that of a prism: it refracts a single beam of light into its constituent colors, helping us see the full spectrum of what the art has to offer.

Consider the act of standing before a photograph—a captured moment, fixed in time. On the surface, it may strike us as beautiful or haunting, perplexing or revealing. But it’s critical thinking that pushes us to probe deeper, to ask why it evokes these feelings and what techniques the artist used to elicit them. It encourages us to explore the history or cultural movements that may have influenced the work, or the societal norms it may be challenging. In this way, critical thinking expands our experience of the art, enriching our understanding and making the encounter far more rewarding.

Moreover, critical thinking provides us with a toolbox of analytical methods—ranging from formalism to postmodernism—that we can apply to various artworks. These methods serve as lenses through which to examine and critique art, each offering a unique perspective that reveals something new about the piece. In the hands of a skilled critic, these methods can unearth layers of meaning and beauty that might otherwise go unnoticed.

So when we engage in art criticism, whether we’re admiring a classic painting in a museum or a digital photograph in an online gallery, it’s critical thinking that transforms the experience from passive observation to active engagement. It equips us to participate in the broader conversation about art’s role in society, its historical development, and its capacity to challenge, inspire, and transform us. And in doing so, it elevates not just our understanding of the art we examine, but also our appreciation for the complex tapestry of human experience that it represents.

Critical thinking doesn’t merely invite us to this dialogue—it insists we take a seat at the table, equipping us with the questions and frameworks necessary to engage in a substantive conversation. No longer passive spectators, we become active participants. As we analyze and interpret, we contribute our own perspectives, adding new dimensions to the dialogue that enrich the overall discourse around the artwork.

Consider the iconic photograph “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange. On a cursory glance, it’s a powerful portrait of a woman weighed down by the burdens of the Great Depression. Yet, the application of critical thinking prompts deeper questions. What social conditions led to the emotions captured in the photograph? How does the composition—tight framing, the children’s turned heads, the woman’s gaze—amplify its impact? What ideologies, consciously or unconsciously, are projected onto the image by viewers from different backgrounds? The dialogue thus deepens and diversifies, becoming a nuanced discussion that encompasses history, sociology, ethics, and aesthetics.

Indeed, critical thinking allows us to dissect the various layers of an artwork, from the brush strokes on a canvas to the pixelation in a digital image, and everything in between. It is an intellectual scaffolding upon which we build our understanding of the artwork, whether that involves contextualizing it within a particular art movement or scrutinizing its sociopolitical implications. It equips us to distinguish between mere opinion and well-substantiated critique, encouraging an approach to art that is as rigorous as it is impassioned.

And let’s not forget that art is often designed to provoke, to challenge the status quo. It’s one thing to feel uncomfortable or uplifted when looking at a piece; it’s another to ask why the artist chose elements that would elicit such responses and what they’re communicating through this discomfort or joy. By pondering these questions, we don’t just interpret the art; we engage with it, opening ourselves to being moved, educated, and sometimes, transformed.

Thus, armed with critical thinking, we become not just consumers of art, but also its interpreters, critics, and, in a way, its co-creators. For every interpretation adds a layer of meaning, every critique influences future dialogues, and every individual perspective enriches the collective understanding. We find that the dialogue surrounding art is not a monologue dictated by the artist or the critic, but a symphony of voices, each contributing to a richer, more complex melody of understanding.

Critical thinking allows us to peel back these layers with the meticulousness of an archaeologist, sifting through every element as if it were a fragment of a larger, yet elusive, narrative. Every choice in a photograph—from the composition to the focus, from the depth of field to the timing—becomes a clue. These clues guide us deeper into the photographer’s intention, revealing the orchestrated ballet of light, angle, and subject that transforms a mere snapshot into a compelling story.

Take, for example, Ansel Adams’ iconic photograph “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.” At first glance, it is a striking image of a moonlit sky over a sleepy town. But questions of timing—why shoot at that particular moment when the moon was at that specific position?—or choice of grayscale over color, reveal the calculated decisions made to maximize emotional impact. Why grayscale? Perhaps to heighten the contrasts, to simplify the scene into its elemental forms of light and shadow, thereby creating an image that transcends its specific time and place to touch on something universal.

Moreover, critical thinking prompts us to consider the socio-cultural underpinnings of a photograph. When Gordon Parks captured the essence of American life during the Civil Rights era, each photograph wasn’t merely a depiction of what was, but a statement—sometimes a question—about what ought to be. In asking these kinds of questions, we don’t just see an image; we see the world that shapes and is shaped by that image. What are the conditions that made this photograph not only possible but necessary? What does it say about us as a society, and how does it fit into larger conversations about justice, equity, or beauty?

Thus, critical thinking elevates our engagement from passive reception to active interrogation. We’re no longer mere spectators; we’re detectives in an unfolding drama, parsing each visual cue to understand its significance. Whether we’re looking at a photojournalism piece that shakes us out of our comfort zones, or a landscape photograph that captivates us with its ethereal beauty, our critical faculties allow us to fully participate in the art, connecting the visual elements to larger themes of human experience. We come to realize that every photograph is more than a frozen moment in time; it’s a doorway into a complex world of intention, expression, and interpretation.

It’s crucial to acknowledge that critical thinking isn’t just a spotlight we shine outward on the art; it’s also a mirror reflecting our own predispositions and assumptions. Let’s consider a photograph capturing the life of an indigenous tribe in the Amazon. While one viewer might interpret it as a celebration of a close-knit community, another might see it as a commentary on the social isolation that stems from geographical remoteness. Why the difference? Each interpretation arises from a complex matrix of personal history, cultural background, and social values.

By actively engaging our critical faculties, we can peel back the layers of our own subjectivity. The goal isn’t to negate our perspectives but to enrich them, to add nuance and depth. We might ask ourselves: Why did I have this initial reaction? What elements in the photo triggered it? Is my interpretation influenced by stereotypes or cultural narratives? Am I bringing a set of ethical, political, or aesthetic assumptions to this viewing?

Asking such questions not only adds layers to our understanding of the photograph but also deepens our self-awareness. It’s a transformative, recursive process: the more we understand the image, the more we understand ourselves, and vice versa. It’s not uncommon to find that a photograph we initially dismissed becomes compelling upon a deeper, more introspective review. We may even find ourselves revisiting images time and again, discovering new facets as our own views and experiences evolve.

So, the act of critical thinking in art appreciation is both an external and an internal journey. It allows us to probe the depths of a photograph and the depths of ourselves, moving beyond a static view to an ever-evolving dialogue. It opens the door to a richer, more nuanced experience, creating a dynamic interplay between viewer, image, and artist—a symbiotic relationship that is the lifeblood of the art world.

Critical thinking is the linchpin that connects an artwork to the world at large, situating it within a broader tapestry of cultural and historical threads. Take, for example, Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph “Migrant Mother,” taken during the Great Depression. At first glance, the image is a striking portrait of a woman burdened by hardship. But the photograph takes on added layers of meaning when we consider it within its socio-economic context—namely, the grim landscape of 1930s America, marred by economic collapse and widespread displacement.

It’s as if each photograph exists at the center of a web of influences. Critical thinking enables us to trace these connecting strands back to their sources—be they cultural movements, historical events, or social issues. Are the geometric shapes and harsh shadows in a black and white photograph influenced by the stark realities of post-war urban decay, or are they an homage to the cubist movement? Is a striking photograph of a melting glacier merely an aesthetic choice, or is it a poignant commentary on climate change?

By situating a photograph within its larger context, we enrich its narrative. It’s no longer just a two-dimensional image; it’s a multidimensional story, woven into the fabric of its time and place. And it’s not just the image that gains in this exchange. We, too, broaden our horizons. We move from being passive viewers to active participants in the ongoing dialogue between art and life.

In doing so, we unlock the potential for art to be not just a reflection of reality, but a catalyst for thought, discussion, and even action. It elevates our role from mere observers to engaged citizens of a larger world, a world that art both mirrors and influences. It’s this active, engaged form of appreciation, fueled by critical thinking, that turns the act of viewing into a vibrant, enriching, lifelong pursuit.

The value of critical thinking extends beyond mere intellectual exercise; it reaches into the realm of the emotional and the communal. When we practice critical thinking in the context of art, we are also nurturing our empathetic faculties. We come to realize that art is not a monologue, but a dialogue involving multiple viewpoints and emotions—each equally valid in its uniqueness. The photograph of a war-torn landscape might evoke sorrow, anger, or even indifference, depending on who’s looking.

Embracing this ambiguity is liberating. It invites us to let go of the need for absolute truths and certainties, instead valuing the richness that comes from a multitude of perspectives. We might liken a photograph to a complex piece of music, with chords and melodies that resonate differently in each listener’s ears. To truly appreciate the composition, one must be open to its full range of emotional tones.

Moreover, by acknowledging the subjectivity inherent in art, we foster a climate of mutual respect and understanding. In a world that often feels sharply divided, art offers a space where diverse voices can converge in a shared experience of beauty, intrigue, or even discomfort. And it is critical thinking that enables this rich, collective interaction, making each of us not just consumers of art, but also its co-creators.

As we journey through the labyrinthine world of art criticism, armed with the tool of critical thinking, we do more than sharpen our aesthetic sensibilities; we also grow as individuals and as members of a larger community. We develop an openness to the unfamiliar, a willingness to engage with complexity, and a capacity for empathy that enriches not just our experience of art, but of life itself. In the end, the exercise of critical thinking in the realm of art criticism becomes not just an intellectual endeavor but a deeply human one.

Indeed, critical thinking turns art criticism into a living conversation—a participatory act that elevates both the art and those who engage with it. The photograph on the wall is no longer a mere object to be glanced at but becomes a subject deserving of our engagement. It gains a voice and an agency, pulling us into its complex narrative, urging us to peel back its layers of color, form, and emotion.

With critical thinking as our compass, each artwork becomes a focal point of inquiry. It beckons us to grapple with questions about its creation, its context, and, perhaps most importantly, its resonance with our own lived experiences. Every nuance, every shadow, every hue is an invitation to probe further, to step closer to the essence of the art and the world it reflects. It becomes a rich tapestry, woven together not just by the artist’s intent but also by the varied interpretations it engenders.

As we critically engage, we are engaging with more than just the artwork; we are also engaging with ourselves and our own complexities. The questions we ask of the art become questions we ask of ourselves: What matters to us? What moves us? What are we overlooking? Each critique, therefore, becomes a mirror reflecting our intellectual and emotional landscapes, both as individual viewers and as part of a broader collective.

So, when we stand before a photograph, armed with the power of critical thinking, we are not merely spectators. We become explorers, philosophers, and storytellers. And it is in this rich, multi-layered conversation that the true magic of art criticism lies—a space where intellect meets emotion, where individual perspective meets collective experience, and where, through our engagement, art is not just observed but truly seen. And in being truly seen, it is celebrated.

Practical exercises: Applying critical methodologies to photography analysis

Analyzing a photograph through the lens of critical methodologies deepens our understanding of the image far beyond its surface appeal. Formalism might draw our eyes to the nuances of lighting, while a Marxist reading can unearth socio-economic implications. These methodologies do more than just dissect an image; they broaden our emotional and intellectual engagement with it. They force us to reckon with our own biases and offer a window into the photographer’s intent and the subject’s reality. In this way, photography analysis evolves into a multidimensional experience that enriches both the viewer and the viewed, making each a more insightful participant in the broader conversation of art and life. Here are some practical exercises to help you hone your skills:

1. Formal Analysis Exercise:

Choose a photograph that intrigues you, any photograph. The objective of this exercise is to develop your eye for formal elements—those intrinsic components like composition, lighting, color, lines, and shapes that contribute to a photograph’s aesthetic and emotional impact.

  • Begin with the composition. Is the subject centrally placed or off to one side? What does this positioning reveal about the focal point of the photograph? Note how elements are arranged—does the composition adhere to the ‘Rule of Thirds,’ or does it intentionally flout this guideline?
  • Move on to the lighting. Is it harsh, creating stark contrasts? Or is it soft, lending a more nuanced feel? Notice how the lighting influences the mood of the photograph. Is it dramatic or subtle? Does it lead your eye to a particular area in the frame?
  • Color comes next. If it’s a colored photograph, how do the hues interact? Are they complementary, or do they create tension? In black-and-white photographs, consider how the absence of color emphasizes form and contrast.
  • Now turn your attention to lines and shapes. Are they geometric or organic? Do the lines direct your gaze around the image, or do they focus it on a specific subject? Are the shapes within the frame simple or complex? What emotional tone do they set?
  • Finally, assess the interplay between symmetry and asymmetry. Does the photograph employ one more than the other? What impact does this have on your overall interpretation?

By systematically breaking down these formal elements, you begin to understand the layered complexities that make a photograph more than just a two-dimensional image. You delve into the artist’s choices, appreciating the nuanced interplay of elements that create the unique visual language of the photograph you chose. This formal analysis serves as your foundational step into the world of photography critique, equipping you with the tools to read and understand photographs on a deeper level.

2. Contextual Analysis Exercise:

For this exercise, choose a photograph that has already captivated your attention, either the same one you used for the formal analysis or a different one. The aim here is to go beyond the visual elements and delve into the broader narrative enveloping the photograph.

  • Start with the photographer. Who are they? Learning about the artist can give you valuable insights into their stylistic choices and themes. Do some research: have they worked within a specific genre of photography, or have they ventured into various styles?
  • Then, consider the era in which the photograph was captured. Was it a time of social upheaval, technological advancement, or artistic innovation? Such historical markers can profoundly influence a photograph’s content and form. What does this era reveal about the techniques or subjects the photographer might have had at their disposal or been interested in?
  • Geography plays its part too. Where was the photograph taken? Delve into the location’s cultural and societal norms, its political atmosphere, and even its landscape. These aspects can shape not only the subject matter but also the perspective from which it is captured.
  • Lastly, any personal factors, like the photographer’s own life experiences or beliefs, can offer a more nuanced view of their work. If this information is available, how do these aspects add layers to your understanding of the photograph?

By examining these broader strokes that paint the context of your chosen photograph, you enrich your interpretive skills and deepen your overall appreciation of the image. Contextual analysis uncovers the backdrop against which a photograph is set, turning it from a standalone work into a complex narrative influenced by a multitude of factors. This is your gateway to becoming not just a viewer, but an insightful critic.

3. Emotional Analysis Exercise:

For this exercise, focus on the emotional resonance of a photograph you’ve selected. It might be the same one you’ve scrutinized formally and contextually, or a different image that beckons your emotional engagement. The key question is: what does the photograph make you feel?

  • Your initial emotional response is vital. Upon first glance, do you feel joy, sadness, anger, serenity, or perhaps a mix of emotions? It’s often an intuitive reaction, one that might change or deepen as you study the image further.
  • Next, identify the elements that contribute to this emotional response. Could it be the subject matter? For example, an abandoned building may evoke a sense of loss or nostalgia. What role do colors play in shaping your emotions? A stark black and white image may impart a sense of gravity, while a photograph awash in pastel hues might evoke a feeling of calm.
  • The interplay of light and shadow can also be influential. High-contrast images may create drama, while more uniformly lit photos could provide a sense of stability or monotony.
  • Finally, consider the less tangible elements. Sometimes, a photograph stirs emotions that are hard to pin down, influenced by more abstract qualities like composition or rhythm.

Emotional analysis isn’t just an exercise in introspection. It enhances your engagement with a photograph, encouraging a deeper appreciation. As you identify what draws out your emotions, you gain insights into the photographer’s ability to capture not just scenes but feelings. This enriches your experience as both a viewer and a critic, making your interaction with photography an emotionally rewarding journey.

4. Comparative Analysis Exercise:

For this exercise, the task is twofold—select two photographs that spark your interest. These could either be by the same photographer, offering an insight into their artistic evolution or recurring themes, or they could belong to the same genre, allowing you to analyze how different artists approach a similar subject.

  • Begin by looking at the formal elements of each image: the composition, lighting, and color schemes. Are they harmonious within each individual photograph and do they relate to each other when both images are compared? Notice if one photographer uses lines and shapes more effectively or if the lighting in one image seems to imbue it with a different mood compared to the other.
  • Next, dive into the emotions that each photograph evokes. Are they similar or are they at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum? What elements contribute to the feelings you experience? Is the subject matter different, yet somehow thematically linked?
  • Context cannot be ignored. Research the background of each photograph, which could include the artist’s intent, the time period, and the location. These factors may lend additional layers of meaning, adding depth to your understanding and appreciation.
  • Finally, engage in a synthesized analysis. Are there any recurring themes? Perhaps one photograph serves as a counterpoint to the other, bringing into focus the uniqueness of each. Alternatively, the images may echo each other, highlighting shared concerns or artistic pursuits.

Comparative analysis deepens your engagement with the medium of photography. It enables you to appreciate the complexity and richness of each individual work while providing a framework for understanding broader artistic currents or stylistic elements. And as you contrast and compare, you’re not just a passive viewer—you become an active participant in the nuanced dialogue between these two visual narratives.

5. Personal Interpretation Exercise:

For the final step in your photographic exploration, the focus shifts inward, turning the lens on your own interpretation. Choose a photograph that engages you and spend some quality time with it, allowing your thoughts and emotions to flow freely.

  • Begin by identifying the narratives or themes that stand out to you. Are there elements in the photograph that resonate with your personal experiences or beliefs? Do you see a story unfolding in the image that might not be immediately obvious to another viewer?
  • It’s crucial to acknowledge that interpretation in art is inherently subjective. Your personal history, cultural background, and even your mood at the time of viewing can all impact how you engage with a photograph. This subjectivity is not a hindrance but an asset, adding layers of meaning and emotional depth to your experience.
  • The objective of this exercise isn’t to discover a singular ‘correct’ interpretation. Far from it. The aim is to enrich your interaction with the art, allowing it to become a mirror reflecting your own life, questions, and understandings. In doing so, you’ll find that art criticism is not just an academic exercise but a deeply personal journey—one that brings you closer to understanding both the artwork and yourself.
  • By embracing your unique perspective, you’re contributing to the multifaceted dialogue that any piece of art—photography included—can inspire. In this sense, you become an integral part of the artwork’s ongoing story, told and retold through the eyes of each new viewer.

By engaging in these exercises, you do more than sharpen your analytical toolkit. You form an intimate bond with the art of photography itself, fostering a deeper understanding and, importantly, a personal connection. So embrace the journey. Let the various methodologies be your guideposts, leading you down unexplored avenues, unlocking new perspectives and, in the process, enriching your relationship with this versatile medium. Through this marriage of analysis and emotion, you’re not just a viewer but an active participant in the ever-evolving dialogue of photographic art.

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Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is a widely accepted educational goal. Its definition is contested, but the competing definitions can be understood as differing conceptions of the same basic concept: careful thinking directed to a goal. Conceptions differ with respect to the scope of such thinking, the type of goal, the criteria and norms for thinking carefully, and the thinking components on which they focus. Its adoption as an educational goal has been recommended on the basis of respect for students’ autonomy and preparing students for success in life and for democratic citizenship. “Critical thinkers” have the dispositions and abilities that lead them to think critically when appropriate. The abilities can be identified directly; the dispositions indirectly, by considering what factors contribute to or impede exercise of the abilities. Standardized tests have been developed to assess the degree to which a person possesses such dispositions and abilities. Educational intervention has been shown experimentally to improve them, particularly when it includes dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring. Controversies have arisen over the generalizability of critical thinking across domains, over alleged bias in critical thinking theories and instruction, and over the relationship of critical thinking to other types of thinking.

2.1 Dewey’s Three Main Examples

2.2 dewey’s other examples, 2.3 further examples, 2.4 non-examples, 3. the definition of critical thinking, 4. its value, 5. the process of thinking critically, 6. components of the process, 7. contributory dispositions and abilities, 8.1 initiating dispositions, 8.2 internal dispositions, 9. critical thinking abilities, 10. required knowledge, 11. educational methods, 12.1 the generalizability of critical thinking, 12.2 bias in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, 12.3 relationship of critical thinking to other types of thinking, other internet resources, related entries.

Use of the term ‘critical thinking’ to describe an educational goal goes back to the American philosopher John Dewey (1910), who more commonly called it ‘reflective thinking’. He defined it as

active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends. (Dewey 1910: 6; 1933: 9)

and identified a habit of such consideration with a scientific attitude of mind. His lengthy quotations of Francis Bacon, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill indicate that he was not the first person to propose development of a scientific attitude of mind as an educational goal.

In the 1930s, many of the schools that participated in the Eight-Year Study of the Progressive Education Association (Aikin 1942) adopted critical thinking as an educational goal, for whose achievement the study’s Evaluation Staff developed tests (Smith, Tyler, & Evaluation Staff 1942). Glaser (1941) showed experimentally that it was possible to improve the critical thinking of high school students. Bloom’s influential taxonomy of cognitive educational objectives (Bloom et al. 1956) incorporated critical thinking abilities. Ennis (1962) proposed 12 aspects of critical thinking as a basis for research on the teaching and evaluation of critical thinking ability.

Since 1980, an annual international conference in California on critical thinking and educational reform has attracted tens of thousands of educators from all levels of education and from many parts of the world. Also since 1980, the state university system in California has required all undergraduate students to take a critical thinking course. Since 1983, the Association for Informal Logic and Critical Thinking has sponsored sessions in conjunction with the divisional meetings of the American Philosophical Association (APA). In 1987, the APA’s Committee on Pre-College Philosophy commissioned a consensus statement on critical thinking for purposes of educational assessment and instruction (Facione 1990a). Researchers have developed standardized tests of critical thinking abilities and dispositions; for details, see the Supplement on Assessment . Educational jurisdictions around the world now include critical thinking in guidelines for curriculum and assessment.

For details on this history, see the Supplement on History .

2. Examples and Non-Examples

Before considering the definition of critical thinking, it will be helpful to have in mind some examples of critical thinking, as well as some examples of kinds of thinking that would apparently not count as critical thinking.

Dewey (1910: 68–71; 1933: 91–94) takes as paradigms of reflective thinking three class papers of students in which they describe their thinking. The examples range from the everyday to the scientific.

Transit : “The other day, when I was down town on 16th Street, a clock caught my eye. I saw that the hands pointed to 12:20. This suggested that I had an engagement at 124th Street, at one o’clock. I reasoned that as it had taken me an hour to come down on a surface car, I should probably be twenty minutes late if I returned the same way. I might save twenty minutes by a subway express. But was there a station near? If not, I might lose more than twenty minutes in looking for one. Then I thought of the elevated, and I saw there was such a line within two blocks. But where was the station? If it were several blocks above or below the street I was on, I should lose time instead of gaining it. My mind went back to the subway express as quicker than the elevated; furthermore, I remembered that it went nearer than the elevated to the part of 124th Street I wished to reach, so that time would be saved at the end of the journey. I concluded in favor of the subway, and reached my destination by one o’clock.” (Dewey 1910: 68–69; 1933: 91–92)

Ferryboat : “Projecting nearly horizontally from the upper deck of the ferryboat on which I daily cross the river is a long white pole, having a gilded ball at its tip. It suggested a flagpole when I first saw it; its color, shape, and gilded ball agreed with this idea, and these reasons seemed to justify me in this belief. But soon difficulties presented themselves. The pole was nearly horizontal, an unusual position for a flagpole; in the next place, there was no pulley, ring, or cord by which to attach a flag; finally, there were elsewhere on the boat two vertical staffs from which flags were occasionally flown. It seemed probable that the pole was not there for flag-flying.

“I then tried to imagine all possible purposes of the pole, and to consider for which of these it was best suited: (a) Possibly it was an ornament. But as all the ferryboats and even the tugboats carried poles, this hypothesis was rejected. (b) Possibly it was the terminal of a wireless telegraph. But the same considerations made this improbable. Besides, the more natural place for such a terminal would be the highest part of the boat, on top of the pilot house. (c) Its purpose might be to point out the direction in which the boat is moving.

“In support of this conclusion, I discovered that the pole was lower than the pilot house, so that the steersman could easily see it. Moreover, the tip was enough higher than the base, so that, from the pilot’s position, it must appear to project far out in front of the boat. Moreover, the pilot being near the front of the boat, he would need some such guide as to its direction. Tugboats would also need poles for such a purpose. This hypothesis was so much more probable than the others that I accepted it. I formed the conclusion that the pole was set up for the purpose of showing the pilot the direction in which the boat pointed, to enable him to steer correctly.” (Dewey 1910: 69–70; 1933: 92–93)

Bubbles : “In washing tumblers in hot soapsuds and placing them mouth downward on a plate, bubbles appeared on the outside of the mouth of the tumblers and then went inside. Why? The presence of bubbles suggests air, which I note must come from inside the tumbler. I see that the soapy water on the plate prevents escape of the air save as it may be caught in bubbles. But why should air leave the tumbler? There was no substance entering to force it out. It must have expanded. It expands by increase of heat, or by decrease of pressure, or both. Could the air have become heated after the tumbler was taken from the hot suds? Clearly not the air that was already entangled in the water. If heated air was the cause, cold air must have entered in transferring the tumblers from the suds to the plate. I test to see if this supposition is true by taking several more tumblers out. Some I shake so as to make sure of entrapping cold air in them. Some I take out holding mouth downward in order to prevent cold air from entering. Bubbles appear on the outside of every one of the former and on none of the latter. I must be right in my inference. Air from the outside must have been expanded by the heat of the tumbler, which explains the appearance of the bubbles on the outside. But why do they then go inside? Cold contracts. The tumbler cooled and also the air inside it. Tension was removed, and hence bubbles appeared inside. To be sure of this, I test by placing a cup of ice on the tumbler while the bubbles are still forming outside. They soon reverse” (Dewey 1910: 70–71; 1933: 93–94).

Dewey (1910, 1933) sprinkles his book with other examples of critical thinking. We will refer to the following.

Weather : A man on a walk notices that it has suddenly become cool, thinks that it is probably going to rain, looks up and sees a dark cloud obscuring the sun, and quickens his steps (1910: 6–10; 1933: 9–13).

Disorder : A man finds his rooms on his return to them in disorder with his belongings thrown about, thinks at first of burglary as an explanation, then thinks of mischievous children as being an alternative explanation, then looks to see whether valuables are missing, and discovers that they are (1910: 82–83; 1933: 166–168).

Typhoid : A physician diagnosing a patient whose conspicuous symptoms suggest typhoid avoids drawing a conclusion until more data are gathered by questioning the patient and by making tests (1910: 85–86; 1933: 170).

Blur : A moving blur catches our eye in the distance, we ask ourselves whether it is a cloud of whirling dust or a tree moving its branches or a man signaling to us, we think of other traits that should be found on each of those possibilities, and we look and see if those traits are found (1910: 102, 108; 1933: 121, 133).

Suction pump : In thinking about the suction pump, the scientist first notes that it will draw water only to a maximum height of 33 feet at sea level and to a lesser maximum height at higher elevations, selects for attention the differing atmospheric pressure at these elevations, sets up experiments in which the air is removed from a vessel containing water (when suction no longer works) and in which the weight of air at various levels is calculated, compares the results of reasoning about the height to which a given weight of air will allow a suction pump to raise water with the observed maximum height at different elevations, and finally assimilates the suction pump to such apparently different phenomena as the siphon and the rising of a balloon (1910: 150–153; 1933: 195–198).

Diamond : A passenger in a car driving in a diamond lane reserved for vehicles with at least one passenger notices that the diamond marks on the pavement are far apart in some places and close together in others. Why? The driver suggests that the reason may be that the diamond marks are not needed where there is a solid double line separating the diamond lane from the adjoining lane, but are needed when there is a dotted single line permitting crossing into the diamond lane. Further observation confirms that the diamonds are close together when a dotted line separates the diamond lane from its neighbour, but otherwise far apart.

Rash : A woman suddenly develops a very itchy red rash on her throat and upper chest. She recently noticed a mark on the back of her right hand, but was not sure whether the mark was a rash or a scrape. She lies down in bed and thinks about what might be causing the rash and what to do about it. About two weeks before, she began taking blood pressure medication that contained a sulfa drug, and the pharmacist had warned her, in view of a previous allergic reaction to a medication containing a sulfa drug, to be on the alert for an allergic reaction; however, she had been taking the medication for two weeks with no such effect. The day before, she began using a new cream on her neck and upper chest; against the new cream as the cause was mark on the back of her hand, which had not been exposed to the cream. She began taking probiotics about a month before. She also recently started new eye drops, but she supposed that manufacturers of eye drops would be careful not to include allergy-causing components in the medication. The rash might be a heat rash, since she recently was sweating profusely from her upper body. Since she is about to go away on a short vacation, where she would not have access to her usual physician, she decides to keep taking the probiotics and using the new eye drops but to discontinue the blood pressure medication and to switch back to the old cream for her neck and upper chest. She forms a plan to consult her regular physician on her return about the blood pressure medication.

Candidate : Although Dewey included no examples of thinking directed at appraising the arguments of others, such thinking has come to be considered a kind of critical thinking. We find an example of such thinking in the performance task on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+), which its sponsoring organization describes as

a performance-based assessment that provides a measure of an institution’s contribution to the development of critical-thinking and written communication skills of its students. (Council for Aid to Education 2017)

A sample task posted on its website requires the test-taker to write a report for public distribution evaluating a fictional candidate’s policy proposals and their supporting arguments, using supplied background documents, with a recommendation on whether to endorse the candidate.

Immediate acceptance of an idea that suggests itself as a solution to a problem (e.g., a possible explanation of an event or phenomenon, an action that seems likely to produce a desired result) is “uncritical thinking, the minimum of reflection” (Dewey 1910: 13). On-going suspension of judgment in the light of doubt about a possible solution is not critical thinking (Dewey 1910: 108). Critique driven by a dogmatically held political or religious ideology is not critical thinking; thus Paulo Freire (1968 [1970]) is using the term (e.g., at 1970: 71, 81, 100, 146) in a more politically freighted sense that includes not only reflection but also revolutionary action against oppression. Derivation of a conclusion from given data using an algorithm is not critical thinking.

What is critical thinking? There are many definitions. Ennis (2016) lists 14 philosophically oriented scholarly definitions and three dictionary definitions. Following Rawls (1971), who distinguished his conception of justice from a utilitarian conception but regarded them as rival conceptions of the same concept, Ennis maintains that the 17 definitions are different conceptions of the same concept. Rawls articulated the shared concept of justice as

a characteristic set of principles for assigning basic rights and duties and for determining… the proper distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation. (Rawls 1971: 5)

Bailin et al. (1999b) claim that, if one considers what sorts of thinking an educator would take not to be critical thinking and what sorts to be critical thinking, one can conclude that educators typically understand critical thinking to have at least three features.

  • It is done for the purpose of making up one’s mind about what to believe or do.
  • The person engaging in the thinking is trying to fulfill standards of adequacy and accuracy appropriate to the thinking.
  • The thinking fulfills the relevant standards to some threshold level.

One could sum up the core concept that involves these three features by saying that critical thinking is careful goal-directed thinking. This core concept seems to apply to all the examples of critical thinking described in the previous section. As for the non-examples, their exclusion depends on construing careful thinking as excluding jumping immediately to conclusions, suspending judgment no matter how strong the evidence, reasoning from an unquestioned ideological or religious perspective, and routinely using an algorithm to answer a question.

If the core of critical thinking is careful goal-directed thinking, conceptions of it can vary according to its presumed scope, its presumed goal, one’s criteria and threshold for being careful, and the thinking component on which one focuses. As to its scope, some conceptions (e.g., Dewey 1910, 1933) restrict it to constructive thinking on the basis of one’s own observations and experiments, others (e.g., Ennis 1962; Fisher & Scriven 1997; Johnson 1992) to appraisal of the products of such thinking. Ennis (1991) and Bailin et al. (1999b) take it to cover both construction and appraisal. As to its goal, some conceptions restrict it to forming a judgment (Dewey 1910, 1933; Lipman 1987; Facione 1990a). Others allow for actions as well as beliefs as the end point of a process of critical thinking (Ennis 1991; Bailin et al. 1999b). As to the criteria and threshold for being careful, definitions vary in the term used to indicate that critical thinking satisfies certain norms: “intellectually disciplined” (Scriven & Paul 1987), “reasonable” (Ennis 1991), “skillful” (Lipman 1987), “skilled” (Fisher & Scriven 1997), “careful” (Bailin & Battersby 2009). Some definitions specify these norms, referring variously to “consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends” (Dewey 1910, 1933); “the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning” (Glaser 1941); “conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication” (Scriven & Paul 1987); the requirement that “it is sensitive to context, relies on criteria, and is self-correcting” (Lipman 1987); “evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations” (Facione 1990a); and “plus-minus considerations of the product in terms of appropriate standards (or criteria)” (Johnson 1992). Stanovich and Stanovich (2010) propose to ground the concept of critical thinking in the concept of rationality, which they understand as combining epistemic rationality (fitting one’s beliefs to the world) and instrumental rationality (optimizing goal fulfillment); a critical thinker, in their view, is someone with “a propensity to override suboptimal responses from the autonomous mind” (2010: 227). These variant specifications of norms for critical thinking are not necessarily incompatible with one another, and in any case presuppose the core notion of thinking carefully. As to the thinking component singled out, some definitions focus on suspension of judgment during the thinking (Dewey 1910; McPeck 1981), others on inquiry while judgment is suspended (Bailin & Battersby 2009, 2021), others on the resulting judgment (Facione 1990a), and still others on responsiveness to reasons (Siegel 1988). Kuhn (2019) takes critical thinking to be more a dialogic practice of advancing and responding to arguments than an individual ability.

In educational contexts, a definition of critical thinking is a “programmatic definition” (Scheffler 1960: 19). It expresses a practical program for achieving an educational goal. For this purpose, a one-sentence formulaic definition is much less useful than articulation of a critical thinking process, with criteria and standards for the kinds of thinking that the process may involve. The real educational goal is recognition, adoption and implementation by students of those criteria and standards. That adoption and implementation in turn consists in acquiring the knowledge, abilities and dispositions of a critical thinker.

Conceptions of critical thinking generally do not include moral integrity as part of the concept. Dewey, for example, took critical thinking to be the ultimate intellectual goal of education, but distinguished it from the development of social cooperation among school children, which he took to be the central moral goal. Ennis (1996, 2011) added to his previous list of critical thinking dispositions a group of dispositions to care about the dignity and worth of every person, which he described as a “correlative” (1996) disposition without which critical thinking would be less valuable and perhaps harmful. An educational program that aimed at developing critical thinking but not the correlative disposition to care about the dignity and worth of every person, he asserted, “would be deficient and perhaps dangerous” (Ennis 1996: 172).

Dewey thought that education for reflective thinking would be of value to both the individual and society; recognition in educational practice of the kinship to the scientific attitude of children’s native curiosity, fertile imagination and love of experimental inquiry “would make for individual happiness and the reduction of social waste” (Dewey 1910: iii). Schools participating in the Eight-Year Study took development of the habit of reflective thinking and skill in solving problems as a means to leading young people to understand, appreciate and live the democratic way of life characteristic of the United States (Aikin 1942: 17–18, 81). Harvey Siegel (1988: 55–61) has offered four considerations in support of adopting critical thinking as an educational ideal. (1) Respect for persons requires that schools and teachers honour students’ demands for reasons and explanations, deal with students honestly, and recognize the need to confront students’ independent judgment; these requirements concern the manner in which teachers treat students. (2) Education has the task of preparing children to be successful adults, a task that requires development of their self-sufficiency. (3) Education should initiate children into the rational traditions in such fields as history, science and mathematics. (4) Education should prepare children to become democratic citizens, which requires reasoned procedures and critical talents and attitudes. To supplement these considerations, Siegel (1988: 62–90) responds to two objections: the ideology objection that adoption of any educational ideal requires a prior ideological commitment and the indoctrination objection that cultivation of critical thinking cannot escape being a form of indoctrination.

Despite the diversity of our 11 examples, one can recognize a common pattern. Dewey analyzed it as consisting of five phases:

  • suggestions , in which the mind leaps forward to a possible solution;
  • an intellectualization of the difficulty or perplexity into a problem to be solved, a question for which the answer must be sought;
  • the use of one suggestion after another as a leading idea, or hypothesis , to initiate and guide observation and other operations in collection of factual material;
  • the mental elaboration of the idea or supposition as an idea or supposition ( reasoning , in the sense on which reasoning is a part, not the whole, of inference); and
  • testing the hypothesis by overt or imaginative action. (Dewey 1933: 106–107; italics in original)

The process of reflective thinking consisting of these phases would be preceded by a perplexed, troubled or confused situation and followed by a cleared-up, unified, resolved situation (Dewey 1933: 106). The term ‘phases’ replaced the term ‘steps’ (Dewey 1910: 72), thus removing the earlier suggestion of an invariant sequence. Variants of the above analysis appeared in (Dewey 1916: 177) and (Dewey 1938: 101–119).

The variant formulations indicate the difficulty of giving a single logical analysis of such a varied process. The process of critical thinking may have a spiral pattern, with the problem being redefined in the light of obstacles to solving it as originally formulated. For example, the person in Transit might have concluded that getting to the appointment at the scheduled time was impossible and have reformulated the problem as that of rescheduling the appointment for a mutually convenient time. Further, defining a problem does not always follow after or lead immediately to an idea of a suggested solution. Nor should it do so, as Dewey himself recognized in describing the physician in Typhoid as avoiding any strong preference for this or that conclusion before getting further information (Dewey 1910: 85; 1933: 170). People with a hypothesis in mind, even one to which they have a very weak commitment, have a so-called “confirmation bias” (Nickerson 1998): they are likely to pay attention to evidence that confirms the hypothesis and to ignore evidence that counts against it or for some competing hypothesis. Detectives, intelligence agencies, and investigators of airplane accidents are well advised to gather relevant evidence systematically and to postpone even tentative adoption of an explanatory hypothesis until the collected evidence rules out with the appropriate degree of certainty all but one explanation. Dewey’s analysis of the critical thinking process can be faulted as well for requiring acceptance or rejection of a possible solution to a defined problem, with no allowance for deciding in the light of the available evidence to suspend judgment. Further, given the great variety of kinds of problems for which reflection is appropriate, there is likely to be variation in its component events. Perhaps the best way to conceptualize the critical thinking process is as a checklist whose component events can occur in a variety of orders, selectively, and more than once. These component events might include (1) noticing a difficulty, (2) defining the problem, (3) dividing the problem into manageable sub-problems, (4) formulating a variety of possible solutions to the problem or sub-problem, (5) determining what evidence is relevant to deciding among possible solutions to the problem or sub-problem, (6) devising a plan of systematic observation or experiment that will uncover the relevant evidence, (7) carrying out the plan of systematic observation or experimentation, (8) noting the results of the systematic observation or experiment, (9) gathering relevant testimony and information from others, (10) judging the credibility of testimony and information gathered from others, (11) drawing conclusions from gathered evidence and accepted testimony, and (12) accepting a solution that the evidence adequately supports (cf. Hitchcock 2017: 485).

Checklist conceptions of the process of critical thinking are open to the objection that they are too mechanical and procedural to fit the multi-dimensional and emotionally charged issues for which critical thinking is urgently needed (Paul 1984). For such issues, a more dialectical process is advocated, in which competing relevant world views are identified, their implications explored, and some sort of creative synthesis attempted.

If one considers the critical thinking process illustrated by the 11 examples, one can identify distinct kinds of mental acts and mental states that form part of it. To distinguish, label and briefly characterize these components is a useful preliminary to identifying abilities, skills, dispositions, attitudes, habits and the like that contribute causally to thinking critically. Identifying such abilities and habits is in turn a useful preliminary to setting educational goals. Setting the goals is in its turn a useful preliminary to designing strategies for helping learners to achieve the goals and to designing ways of measuring the extent to which learners have done so. Such measures provide both feedback to learners on their achievement and a basis for experimental research on the effectiveness of various strategies for educating people to think critically. Let us begin, then, by distinguishing the kinds of mental acts and mental events that can occur in a critical thinking process.

  • Observing : One notices something in one’s immediate environment (sudden cooling of temperature in Weather , bubbles forming outside a glass and then going inside in Bubbles , a moving blur in the distance in Blur , a rash in Rash ). Or one notes the results of an experiment or systematic observation (valuables missing in Disorder , no suction without air pressure in Suction pump )
  • Feeling : One feels puzzled or uncertain about something (how to get to an appointment on time in Transit , why the diamonds vary in spacing in Diamond ). One wants to resolve this perplexity. One feels satisfaction once one has worked out an answer (to take the subway express in Transit , diamonds closer when needed as a warning in Diamond ).
  • Wondering : One formulates a question to be addressed (why bubbles form outside a tumbler taken from hot water in Bubbles , how suction pumps work in Suction pump , what caused the rash in Rash ).
  • Imagining : One thinks of possible answers (bus or subway or elevated in Transit , flagpole or ornament or wireless communication aid or direction indicator in Ferryboat , allergic reaction or heat rash in Rash ).
  • Inferring : One works out what would be the case if a possible answer were assumed (valuables missing if there has been a burglary in Disorder , earlier start to the rash if it is an allergic reaction to a sulfa drug in Rash ). Or one draws a conclusion once sufficient relevant evidence is gathered (take the subway in Transit , burglary in Disorder , discontinue blood pressure medication and new cream in Rash ).
  • Knowledge : One uses stored knowledge of the subject-matter to generate possible answers or to infer what would be expected on the assumption of a particular answer (knowledge of a city’s public transit system in Transit , of the requirements for a flagpole in Ferryboat , of Boyle’s law in Bubbles , of allergic reactions in Rash ).
  • Experimenting : One designs and carries out an experiment or a systematic observation to find out whether the results deduced from a possible answer will occur (looking at the location of the flagpole in relation to the pilot’s position in Ferryboat , putting an ice cube on top of a tumbler taken from hot water in Bubbles , measuring the height to which a suction pump will draw water at different elevations in Suction pump , noticing the spacing of diamonds when movement to or from a diamond lane is allowed in Diamond ).
  • Consulting : One finds a source of information, gets the information from the source, and makes a judgment on whether to accept it. None of our 11 examples include searching for sources of information. In this respect they are unrepresentative, since most people nowadays have almost instant access to information relevant to answering any question, including many of those illustrated by the examples. However, Candidate includes the activities of extracting information from sources and evaluating its credibility.
  • Identifying and analyzing arguments : One notices an argument and works out its structure and content as a preliminary to evaluating its strength. This activity is central to Candidate . It is an important part of a critical thinking process in which one surveys arguments for various positions on an issue.
  • Judging : One makes a judgment on the basis of accumulated evidence and reasoning, such as the judgment in Ferryboat that the purpose of the pole is to provide direction to the pilot.
  • Deciding : One makes a decision on what to do or on what policy to adopt, as in the decision in Transit to take the subway.

By definition, a person who does something voluntarily is both willing and able to do that thing at that time. Both the willingness and the ability contribute causally to the person’s action, in the sense that the voluntary action would not occur if either (or both) of these were lacking. For example, suppose that one is standing with one’s arms at one’s sides and one voluntarily lifts one’s right arm to an extended horizontal position. One would not do so if one were unable to lift one’s arm, if for example one’s right side was paralyzed as the result of a stroke. Nor would one do so if one were unwilling to lift one’s arm, if for example one were participating in a street demonstration at which a white supremacist was urging the crowd to lift their right arm in a Nazi salute and one were unwilling to express support in this way for the racist Nazi ideology. The same analysis applies to a voluntary mental process of thinking critically. It requires both willingness and ability to think critically, including willingness and ability to perform each of the mental acts that compose the process and to coordinate those acts in a sequence that is directed at resolving the initiating perplexity.

Consider willingness first. We can identify causal contributors to willingness to think critically by considering factors that would cause a person who was able to think critically about an issue nevertheless not to do so (Hamby 2014). For each factor, the opposite condition thus contributes causally to willingness to think critically on a particular occasion. For example, people who habitually jump to conclusions without considering alternatives will not think critically about issues that arise, even if they have the required abilities. The contrary condition of willingness to suspend judgment is thus a causal contributor to thinking critically.

Now consider ability. In contrast to the ability to move one’s arm, which can be completely absent because a stroke has left the arm paralyzed, the ability to think critically is a developed ability, whose absence is not a complete absence of ability to think but absence of ability to think well. We can identify the ability to think well directly, in terms of the norms and standards for good thinking. In general, to be able do well the thinking activities that can be components of a critical thinking process, one needs to know the concepts and principles that characterize their good performance, to recognize in particular cases that the concepts and principles apply, and to apply them. The knowledge, recognition and application may be procedural rather than declarative. It may be domain-specific rather than widely applicable, and in either case may need subject-matter knowledge, sometimes of a deep kind.

Reflections of the sort illustrated by the previous two paragraphs have led scholars to identify the knowledge, abilities and dispositions of a “critical thinker”, i.e., someone who thinks critically whenever it is appropriate to do so. We turn now to these three types of causal contributors to thinking critically. We start with dispositions, since arguably these are the most powerful contributors to being a critical thinker, can be fostered at an early stage of a child’s development, and are susceptible to general improvement (Glaser 1941: 175)

8. Critical Thinking Dispositions

Educational researchers use the term ‘dispositions’ broadly for the habits of mind and attitudes that contribute causally to being a critical thinker. Some writers (e.g., Paul & Elder 2006; Hamby 2014; Bailin & Battersby 2016a) propose to use the term ‘virtues’ for this dimension of a critical thinker. The virtues in question, although they are virtues of character, concern the person’s ways of thinking rather than the person’s ways of behaving towards others. They are not moral virtues but intellectual virtues, of the sort articulated by Zagzebski (1996) and discussed by Turri, Alfano, and Greco (2017).

On a realistic conception, thinking dispositions or intellectual virtues are real properties of thinkers. They are general tendencies, propensities, or inclinations to think in particular ways in particular circumstances, and can be genuinely explanatory (Siegel 1999). Sceptics argue that there is no evidence for a specific mental basis for the habits of mind that contribute to thinking critically, and that it is pedagogically misleading to posit such a basis (Bailin et al. 1999a). Whatever their status, critical thinking dispositions need motivation for their initial formation in a child—motivation that may be external or internal. As children develop, the force of habit will gradually become important in sustaining the disposition (Nieto & Valenzuela 2012). Mere force of habit, however, is unlikely to sustain critical thinking dispositions. Critical thinkers must value and enjoy using their knowledge and abilities to think things through for themselves. They must be committed to, and lovers of, inquiry.

A person may have a critical thinking disposition with respect to only some kinds of issues. For example, one could be open-minded about scientific issues but not about religious issues. Similarly, one could be confident in one’s ability to reason about the theological implications of the existence of evil in the world but not in one’s ability to reason about the best design for a guided ballistic missile.

Facione (1990a: 25) divides “affective dispositions” of critical thinking into approaches to life and living in general and approaches to specific issues, questions or problems. Adapting this distinction, one can usefully divide critical thinking dispositions into initiating dispositions (those that contribute causally to starting to think critically about an issue) and internal dispositions (those that contribute causally to doing a good job of thinking critically once one has started). The two categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, open-mindedness, in the sense of willingness to consider alternative points of view to one’s own, is both an initiating and an internal disposition.

Using the strategy of considering factors that would block people with the ability to think critically from doing so, we can identify as initiating dispositions for thinking critically attentiveness, a habit of inquiry, self-confidence, courage, open-mindedness, willingness to suspend judgment, trust in reason, wanting evidence for one’s beliefs, and seeking the truth. We consider briefly what each of these dispositions amounts to, in each case citing sources that acknowledge them.

  • Attentiveness : One will not think critically if one fails to recognize an issue that needs to be thought through. For example, the pedestrian in Weather would not have looked up if he had not noticed that the air was suddenly cooler. To be a critical thinker, then, one needs to be habitually attentive to one’s surroundings, noticing not only what one senses but also sources of perplexity in messages received and in one’s own beliefs and attitudes (Facione 1990a: 25; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001).
  • Habit of inquiry : Inquiry is effortful, and one needs an internal push to engage in it. For example, the student in Bubbles could easily have stopped at idle wondering about the cause of the bubbles rather than reasoning to a hypothesis, then designing and executing an experiment to test it. Thus willingness to think critically needs mental energy and initiative. What can supply that energy? Love of inquiry, or perhaps just a habit of inquiry. Hamby (2015) has argued that willingness to inquire is the central critical thinking virtue, one that encompasses all the others. It is recognized as a critical thinking disposition by Dewey (1910: 29; 1933: 35), Glaser (1941: 5), Ennis (1987: 12; 1991: 8), Facione (1990a: 25), Bailin et al. (1999b: 294), Halpern (1998: 452), and Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo (2001).
  • Self-confidence : Lack of confidence in one’s abilities can block critical thinking. For example, if the woman in Rash lacked confidence in her ability to figure things out for herself, she might just have assumed that the rash on her chest was the allergic reaction to her medication against which the pharmacist had warned her. Thus willingness to think critically requires confidence in one’s ability to inquire (Facione 1990a: 25; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001).
  • Courage : Fear of thinking for oneself can stop one from doing it. Thus willingness to think critically requires intellectual courage (Paul & Elder 2006: 16).
  • Open-mindedness : A dogmatic attitude will impede thinking critically. For example, a person who adheres rigidly to a “pro-choice” position on the issue of the legal status of induced abortion is likely to be unwilling to consider seriously the issue of when in its development an unborn child acquires a moral right to life. Thus willingness to think critically requires open-mindedness, in the sense of a willingness to examine questions to which one already accepts an answer but which further evidence or reasoning might cause one to answer differently (Dewey 1933; Facione 1990a; Ennis 1991; Bailin et al. 1999b; Halpern 1998, Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001). Paul (1981) emphasizes open-mindedness about alternative world-views, and recommends a dialectical approach to integrating such views as central to what he calls “strong sense” critical thinking. In three studies, Haran, Ritov, & Mellers (2013) found that actively open-minded thinking, including “the tendency to weigh new evidence against a favored belief, to spend sufficient time on a problem before giving up, and to consider carefully the opinions of others in forming one’s own”, led study participants to acquire information and thus to make accurate estimations.
  • Willingness to suspend judgment : Premature closure on an initial solution will block critical thinking. Thus willingness to think critically requires a willingness to suspend judgment while alternatives are explored (Facione 1990a; Ennis 1991; Halpern 1998).
  • Trust in reason : Since distrust in the processes of reasoned inquiry will dissuade one from engaging in it, trust in them is an initiating critical thinking disposition (Facione 1990a, 25; Bailin et al. 1999b: 294; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001; Paul & Elder 2006). In reaction to an allegedly exclusive emphasis on reason in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, Thayer-Bacon (2000) argues that intuition, imagination, and emotion have important roles to play in an adequate conception of critical thinking that she calls “constructive thinking”. From her point of view, critical thinking requires trust not only in reason but also in intuition, imagination, and emotion.
  • Seeking the truth : If one does not care about the truth but is content to stick with one’s initial bias on an issue, then one will not think critically about it. Seeking the truth is thus an initiating critical thinking disposition (Bailin et al. 1999b: 294; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001). A disposition to seek the truth is implicit in more specific critical thinking dispositions, such as trying to be well-informed, considering seriously points of view other than one’s own, looking for alternatives, suspending judgment when the evidence is insufficient, and adopting a position when the evidence supporting it is sufficient.

Some of the initiating dispositions, such as open-mindedness and willingness to suspend judgment, are also internal critical thinking dispositions, in the sense of mental habits or attitudes that contribute causally to doing a good job of critical thinking once one starts the process. But there are many other internal critical thinking dispositions. Some of them are parasitic on one’s conception of good thinking. For example, it is constitutive of good thinking about an issue to formulate the issue clearly and to maintain focus on it. For this purpose, one needs not only the corresponding ability but also the corresponding disposition. Ennis (1991: 8) describes it as the disposition “to determine and maintain focus on the conclusion or question”, Facione (1990a: 25) as “clarity in stating the question or concern”. Other internal dispositions are motivators to continue or adjust the critical thinking process, such as willingness to persist in a complex task and willingness to abandon nonproductive strategies in an attempt to self-correct (Halpern 1998: 452). For a list of identified internal critical thinking dispositions, see the Supplement on Internal Critical Thinking Dispositions .

Some theorists postulate skills, i.e., acquired abilities, as operative in critical thinking. It is not obvious, however, that a good mental act is the exercise of a generic acquired skill. Inferring an expected time of arrival, as in Transit , has some generic components but also uses non-generic subject-matter knowledge. Bailin et al. (1999a) argue against viewing critical thinking skills as generic and discrete, on the ground that skilled performance at a critical thinking task cannot be separated from knowledge of concepts and from domain-specific principles of good thinking. Talk of skills, they concede, is unproblematic if it means merely that a person with critical thinking skills is capable of intelligent performance.

Despite such scepticism, theorists of critical thinking have listed as general contributors to critical thinking what they variously call abilities (Glaser 1941; Ennis 1962, 1991), skills (Facione 1990a; Halpern 1998) or competencies (Fisher & Scriven 1997). Amalgamating these lists would produce a confusing and chaotic cornucopia of more than 50 possible educational objectives, with only partial overlap among them. It makes sense instead to try to understand the reasons for the multiplicity and diversity, and to make a selection according to one’s own reasons for singling out abilities to be developed in a critical thinking curriculum. Two reasons for diversity among lists of critical thinking abilities are the underlying conception of critical thinking and the envisaged educational level. Appraisal-only conceptions, for example, involve a different suite of abilities than constructive-only conceptions. Some lists, such as those in (Glaser 1941), are put forward as educational objectives for secondary school students, whereas others are proposed as objectives for college students (e.g., Facione 1990a).

The abilities described in the remaining paragraphs of this section emerge from reflection on the general abilities needed to do well the thinking activities identified in section 6 as components of the critical thinking process described in section 5 . The derivation of each collection of abilities is accompanied by citation of sources that list such abilities and of standardized tests that claim to test them.

Observational abilities : Careful and accurate observation sometimes requires specialist expertise and practice, as in the case of observing birds and observing accident scenes. However, there are general abilities of noticing what one’s senses are picking up from one’s environment and of being able to articulate clearly and accurately to oneself and others what one has observed. It helps in exercising them to be able to recognize and take into account factors that make one’s observation less trustworthy, such as prior framing of the situation, inadequate time, deficient senses, poor observation conditions, and the like. It helps as well to be skilled at taking steps to make one’s observation more trustworthy, such as moving closer to get a better look, measuring something three times and taking the average, and checking what one thinks one is observing with someone else who is in a good position to observe it. It also helps to be skilled at recognizing respects in which one’s report of one’s observation involves inference rather than direct observation, so that one can then consider whether the inference is justified. These abilities come into play as well when one thinks about whether and with what degree of confidence to accept an observation report, for example in the study of history or in a criminal investigation or in assessing news reports. Observational abilities show up in some lists of critical thinking abilities (Ennis 1962: 90; Facione 1990a: 16; Ennis 1991: 9). There are items testing a person’s ability to judge the credibility of observation reports in the Cornell Critical Thinking Tests, Levels X and Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005). Norris and King (1983, 1985, 1990a, 1990b) is a test of ability to appraise observation reports.

Emotional abilities : The emotions that drive a critical thinking process are perplexity or puzzlement, a wish to resolve it, and satisfaction at achieving the desired resolution. Children experience these emotions at an early age, without being trained to do so. Education that takes critical thinking as a goal needs only to channel these emotions and to make sure not to stifle them. Collaborative critical thinking benefits from ability to recognize one’s own and others’ emotional commitments and reactions.

Questioning abilities : A critical thinking process needs transformation of an inchoate sense of perplexity into a clear question. Formulating a question well requires not building in questionable assumptions, not prejudging the issue, and using language that in context is unambiguous and precise enough (Ennis 1962: 97; 1991: 9).

Imaginative abilities : Thinking directed at finding the correct causal explanation of a general phenomenon or particular event requires an ability to imagine possible explanations. Thinking about what policy or plan of action to adopt requires generation of options and consideration of possible consequences of each option. Domain knowledge is required for such creative activity, but a general ability to imagine alternatives is helpful and can be nurtured so as to become easier, quicker, more extensive, and deeper (Dewey 1910: 34–39; 1933: 40–47). Facione (1990a) and Halpern (1998) include the ability to imagine alternatives as a critical thinking ability.

Inferential abilities : The ability to draw conclusions from given information, and to recognize with what degree of certainty one’s own or others’ conclusions follow, is universally recognized as a general critical thinking ability. All 11 examples in section 2 of this article include inferences, some from hypotheses or options (as in Transit , Ferryboat and Disorder ), others from something observed (as in Weather and Rash ). None of these inferences is formally valid. Rather, they are licensed by general, sometimes qualified substantive rules of inference (Toulmin 1958) that rest on domain knowledge—that a bus trip takes about the same time in each direction, that the terminal of a wireless telegraph would be located on the highest possible place, that sudden cooling is often followed by rain, that an allergic reaction to a sulfa drug generally shows up soon after one starts taking it. It is a matter of controversy to what extent the specialized ability to deduce conclusions from premisses using formal rules of inference is needed for critical thinking. Dewey (1933) locates logical forms in setting out the products of reflection rather than in the process of reflection. Ennis (1981a), on the other hand, maintains that a liberally-educated person should have the following abilities: to translate natural-language statements into statements using the standard logical operators, to use appropriately the language of necessary and sufficient conditions, to deal with argument forms and arguments containing symbols, to determine whether in virtue of an argument’s form its conclusion follows necessarily from its premisses, to reason with logically complex propositions, and to apply the rules and procedures of deductive logic. Inferential abilities are recognized as critical thinking abilities by Glaser (1941: 6), Facione (1990a: 9), Ennis (1991: 9), Fisher & Scriven (1997: 99, 111), and Halpern (1998: 452). Items testing inferential abilities constitute two of the five subtests of the Watson Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (Watson & Glaser 1980a, 1980b, 1994), two of the four sections in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level X (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005), three of the seven sections in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005), 11 of the 34 items on Forms A and B of the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (Facione 1990b, 1992), and a high but variable proportion of the 25 selected-response questions in the Collegiate Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017).

Experimenting abilities : Knowing how to design and execute an experiment is important not just in scientific research but also in everyday life, as in Rash . Dewey devoted a whole chapter of his How We Think (1910: 145–156; 1933: 190–202) to the superiority of experimentation over observation in advancing knowledge. Experimenting abilities come into play at one remove in appraising reports of scientific studies. Skill in designing and executing experiments includes the acknowledged abilities to appraise evidence (Glaser 1941: 6), to carry out experiments and to apply appropriate statistical inference techniques (Facione 1990a: 9), to judge inductions to an explanatory hypothesis (Ennis 1991: 9), and to recognize the need for an adequately large sample size (Halpern 1998). The Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005) includes four items (out of 52) on experimental design. The Collegiate Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017) makes room for appraisal of study design in both its performance task and its selected-response questions.

Consulting abilities : Skill at consulting sources of information comes into play when one seeks information to help resolve a problem, as in Candidate . Ability to find and appraise information includes ability to gather and marshal pertinent information (Glaser 1941: 6), to judge whether a statement made by an alleged authority is acceptable (Ennis 1962: 84), to plan a search for desired information (Facione 1990a: 9), and to judge the credibility of a source (Ennis 1991: 9). Ability to judge the credibility of statements is tested by 24 items (out of 76) in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level X (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005) and by four items (out of 52) in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005). The College Learning Assessment’s performance task requires evaluation of whether information in documents is credible or unreliable (Council for Aid to Education 2017).

Argument analysis abilities : The ability to identify and analyze arguments contributes to the process of surveying arguments on an issue in order to form one’s own reasoned judgment, as in Candidate . The ability to detect and analyze arguments is recognized as a critical thinking skill by Facione (1990a: 7–8), Ennis (1991: 9) and Halpern (1998). Five items (out of 34) on the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (Facione 1990b, 1992) test skill at argument analysis. The College Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017) incorporates argument analysis in its selected-response tests of critical reading and evaluation and of critiquing an argument.

Judging skills and deciding skills : Skill at judging and deciding is skill at recognizing what judgment or decision the available evidence and argument supports, and with what degree of confidence. It is thus a component of the inferential skills already discussed.

Lists and tests of critical thinking abilities often include two more abilities: identifying assumptions and constructing and evaluating definitions.

In addition to dispositions and abilities, critical thinking needs knowledge: of critical thinking concepts, of critical thinking principles, and of the subject-matter of the thinking.

We can derive a short list of concepts whose understanding contributes to critical thinking from the critical thinking abilities described in the preceding section. Observational abilities require an understanding of the difference between observation and inference. Questioning abilities require an understanding of the concepts of ambiguity and vagueness. Inferential abilities require an understanding of the difference between conclusive and defeasible inference (traditionally, between deduction and induction), as well as of the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. Experimenting abilities require an understanding of the concepts of hypothesis, null hypothesis, assumption and prediction, as well as of the concept of statistical significance and of its difference from importance. They also require an understanding of the difference between an experiment and an observational study, and in particular of the difference between a randomized controlled trial, a prospective correlational study and a retrospective (case-control) study. Argument analysis abilities require an understanding of the concepts of argument, premiss, assumption, conclusion and counter-consideration. Additional critical thinking concepts are proposed by Bailin et al. (1999b: 293), Fisher & Scriven (1997: 105–106), Black (2012), and Blair (2021).

According to Glaser (1941: 25), ability to think critically requires knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning. If we review the list of abilities in the preceding section, however, we can see that some of them can be acquired and exercised merely through practice, possibly guided in an educational setting, followed by feedback. Searching intelligently for a causal explanation of some phenomenon or event requires that one consider a full range of possible causal contributors, but it seems more important that one implements this principle in one’s practice than that one is able to articulate it. What is important is “operational knowledge” of the standards and principles of good thinking (Bailin et al. 1999b: 291–293). But the development of such critical thinking abilities as designing an experiment or constructing an operational definition can benefit from learning their underlying theory. Further, explicit knowledge of quirks of human thinking seems useful as a cautionary guide. Human memory is not just fallible about details, as people learn from their own experiences of misremembering, but is so malleable that a detailed, clear and vivid recollection of an event can be a total fabrication (Loftus 2017). People seek or interpret evidence in ways that are partial to their existing beliefs and expectations, often unconscious of their “confirmation bias” (Nickerson 1998). Not only are people subject to this and other cognitive biases (Kahneman 2011), of which they are typically unaware, but it may be counter-productive for one to make oneself aware of them and try consciously to counteract them or to counteract social biases such as racial or sexual stereotypes (Kenyon & Beaulac 2014). It is helpful to be aware of these facts and of the superior effectiveness of blocking the operation of biases—for example, by making an immediate record of one’s observations, refraining from forming a preliminary explanatory hypothesis, blind refereeing, double-blind randomized trials, and blind grading of students’ work. It is also helpful to be aware of the prevalence of “noise” (unwanted unsystematic variability of judgments), of how to detect noise (through a noise audit), and of how to reduce noise: make accuracy the goal, think statistically, break a process of arriving at a judgment into independent tasks, resist premature intuitions, in a group get independent judgments first, favour comparative judgments and scales (Kahneman, Sibony, & Sunstein 2021). It is helpful as well to be aware of the concept of “bounded rationality” in decision-making and of the related distinction between “satisficing” and optimizing (Simon 1956; Gigerenzer 2001).

Critical thinking about an issue requires substantive knowledge of the domain to which the issue belongs. Critical thinking abilities are not a magic elixir that can be applied to any issue whatever by somebody who has no knowledge of the facts relevant to exploring that issue. For example, the student in Bubbles needed to know that gases do not penetrate solid objects like a glass, that air expands when heated, that the volume of an enclosed gas varies directly with its temperature and inversely with its pressure, and that hot objects will spontaneously cool down to the ambient temperature of their surroundings unless kept hot by insulation or a source of heat. Critical thinkers thus need a rich fund of subject-matter knowledge relevant to the variety of situations they encounter. This fact is recognized in the inclusion among critical thinking dispositions of a concern to become and remain generally well informed.

Experimental educational interventions, with control groups, have shown that education can improve critical thinking skills and dispositions, as measured by standardized tests. For information about these tests, see the Supplement on Assessment .

What educational methods are most effective at developing the dispositions, abilities and knowledge of a critical thinker? In a comprehensive meta-analysis of experimental and quasi-experimental studies of strategies for teaching students to think critically, Abrami et al. (2015) found that dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring each increased the effectiveness of the educational intervention, and that they were most effective when combined. They also found that in these studies a combination of separate instruction in critical thinking with subject-matter instruction in which students are encouraged to think critically was more effective than either by itself. However, the difference was not statistically significant; that is, it might have arisen by chance.

Most of these studies lack the longitudinal follow-up required to determine whether the observed differential improvements in critical thinking abilities or dispositions continue over time, for example until high school or college graduation. For details on studies of methods of developing critical thinking skills and dispositions, see the Supplement on Educational Methods .

12. Controversies

Scholars have denied the generalizability of critical thinking abilities across subject domains, have alleged bias in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, and have investigated the relationship of critical thinking to other kinds of thinking.

McPeck (1981) attacked the thinking skills movement of the 1970s, including the critical thinking movement. He argued that there are no general thinking skills, since thinking is always thinking about some subject-matter. It is futile, he claimed, for schools and colleges to teach thinking as if it were a separate subject. Rather, teachers should lead their pupils to become autonomous thinkers by teaching school subjects in a way that brings out their cognitive structure and that encourages and rewards discussion and argument. As some of his critics (e.g., Paul 1985; Siegel 1985) pointed out, McPeck’s central argument needs elaboration, since it has obvious counter-examples in writing and speaking, for which (up to a certain level of complexity) there are teachable general abilities even though they are always about some subject-matter. To make his argument convincing, McPeck needs to explain how thinking differs from writing and speaking in a way that does not permit useful abstraction of its components from the subject-matters with which it deals. He has not done so. Nevertheless, his position that the dispositions and abilities of a critical thinker are best developed in the context of subject-matter instruction is shared by many theorists of critical thinking, including Dewey (1910, 1933), Glaser (1941), Passmore (1980), Weinstein (1990), Bailin et al. (1999b), and Willingham (2019).

McPeck’s challenge prompted reflection on the extent to which critical thinking is subject-specific. McPeck argued for a strong subject-specificity thesis, according to which it is a conceptual truth that all critical thinking abilities are specific to a subject. (He did not however extend his subject-specificity thesis to critical thinking dispositions. In particular, he took the disposition to suspend judgment in situations of cognitive dissonance to be a general disposition.) Conceptual subject-specificity is subject to obvious counter-examples, such as the general ability to recognize confusion of necessary and sufficient conditions. A more modest thesis, also endorsed by McPeck, is epistemological subject-specificity, according to which the norms of good thinking vary from one field to another. Epistemological subject-specificity clearly holds to a certain extent; for example, the principles in accordance with which one solves a differential equation are quite different from the principles in accordance with which one determines whether a painting is a genuine Picasso. But the thesis suffers, as Ennis (1989) points out, from vagueness of the concept of a field or subject and from the obvious existence of inter-field principles, however broadly the concept of a field is construed. For example, the principles of hypothetico-deductive reasoning hold for all the varied fields in which such reasoning occurs. A third kind of subject-specificity is empirical subject-specificity, according to which as a matter of empirically observable fact a person with the abilities and dispositions of a critical thinker in one area of investigation will not necessarily have them in another area of investigation.

The thesis of empirical subject-specificity raises the general problem of transfer. If critical thinking abilities and dispositions have to be developed independently in each school subject, how are they of any use in dealing with the problems of everyday life and the political and social issues of contemporary society, most of which do not fit into the framework of a traditional school subject? Proponents of empirical subject-specificity tend to argue that transfer is more likely to occur if there is critical thinking instruction in a variety of domains, with explicit attention to dispositions and abilities that cut across domains. But evidence for this claim is scanty. There is a need for well-designed empirical studies that investigate the conditions that make transfer more likely.

It is common ground in debates about the generality or subject-specificity of critical thinking dispositions and abilities that critical thinking about any topic requires background knowledge about the topic. For example, the most sophisticated understanding of the principles of hypothetico-deductive reasoning is of no help unless accompanied by some knowledge of what might be plausible explanations of some phenomenon under investigation.

Critics have objected to bias in the theory, pedagogy and practice of critical thinking. Commentators (e.g., Alston 1995; Ennis 1998) have noted that anyone who takes a position has a bias in the neutral sense of being inclined in one direction rather than others. The critics, however, are objecting to bias in the pejorative sense of an unjustified favoring of certain ways of knowing over others, frequently alleging that the unjustly favoured ways are those of a dominant sex or culture (Bailin 1995). These ways favour:

  • reinforcement of egocentric and sociocentric biases over dialectical engagement with opposing world-views (Paul 1981, 1984; Warren 1998)
  • distancing from the object of inquiry over closeness to it (Martin 1992; Thayer-Bacon 1992)
  • indifference to the situation of others over care for them (Martin 1992)
  • orientation to thought over orientation to action (Martin 1992)
  • being reasonable over caring to understand people’s ideas (Thayer-Bacon 1993)
  • being neutral and objective over being embodied and situated (Thayer-Bacon 1995a)
  • doubting over believing (Thayer-Bacon 1995b)
  • reason over emotion, imagination and intuition (Thayer-Bacon 2000)
  • solitary thinking over collaborative thinking (Thayer-Bacon 2000)
  • written and spoken assignments over other forms of expression (Alston 2001)
  • attention to written and spoken communications over attention to human problems (Alston 2001)
  • winning debates in the public sphere over making and understanding meaning (Alston 2001)

A common thread in this smorgasbord of accusations is dissatisfaction with focusing on the logical analysis and evaluation of reasoning and arguments. While these authors acknowledge that such analysis and evaluation is part of critical thinking and should be part of its conceptualization and pedagogy, they insist that it is only a part. Paul (1981), for example, bemoans the tendency of atomistic teaching of methods of analyzing and evaluating arguments to turn students into more able sophists, adept at finding fault with positions and arguments with which they disagree but even more entrenched in the egocentric and sociocentric biases with which they began. Martin (1992) and Thayer-Bacon (1992) cite with approval the self-reported intimacy with their subject-matter of leading researchers in biology and medicine, an intimacy that conflicts with the distancing allegedly recommended in standard conceptions and pedagogy of critical thinking. Thayer-Bacon (2000) contrasts the embodied and socially embedded learning of her elementary school students in a Montessori school, who used their imagination, intuition and emotions as well as their reason, with conceptions of critical thinking as

thinking that is used to critique arguments, offer justifications, and make judgments about what are the good reasons, or the right answers. (Thayer-Bacon 2000: 127–128)

Alston (2001) reports that her students in a women’s studies class were able to see the flaws in the Cinderella myth that pervades much romantic fiction but in their own romantic relationships still acted as if all failures were the woman’s fault and still accepted the notions of love at first sight and living happily ever after. Students, she writes, should

be able to connect their intellectual critique to a more affective, somatic, and ethical account of making risky choices that have sexist, racist, classist, familial, sexual, or other consequences for themselves and those both near and far… critical thinking that reads arguments, texts, or practices merely on the surface without connections to feeling/desiring/doing or action lacks an ethical depth that should infuse the difference between mere cognitive activity and something we want to call critical thinking. (Alston 2001: 34)

Some critics portray such biases as unfair to women. Thayer-Bacon (1992), for example, has charged modern critical thinking theory with being sexist, on the ground that it separates the self from the object and causes one to lose touch with one’s inner voice, and thus stigmatizes women, who (she asserts) link self to object and listen to their inner voice. Her charge does not imply that women as a group are on average less able than men to analyze and evaluate arguments. Facione (1990c) found no difference by sex in performance on his California Critical Thinking Skills Test. Kuhn (1991: 280–281) found no difference by sex in either the disposition or the competence to engage in argumentative thinking.

The critics propose a variety of remedies for the biases that they allege. In general, they do not propose to eliminate or downplay critical thinking as an educational goal. Rather, they propose to conceptualize critical thinking differently and to change its pedagogy accordingly. Their pedagogical proposals arise logically from their objections. They can be summarized as follows:

  • Focus on argument networks with dialectical exchanges reflecting contesting points of view rather than on atomic arguments, so as to develop “strong sense” critical thinking that transcends egocentric and sociocentric biases (Paul 1981, 1984).
  • Foster closeness to the subject-matter and feeling connected to others in order to inform a humane democracy (Martin 1992).
  • Develop “constructive thinking” as a social activity in a community of physically embodied and socially embedded inquirers with personal voices who value not only reason but also imagination, intuition and emotion (Thayer-Bacon 2000).
  • In developing critical thinking in school subjects, treat as important neither skills nor dispositions but opening worlds of meaning (Alston 2001).
  • Attend to the development of critical thinking dispositions as well as skills, and adopt the “critical pedagogy” practised and advocated by Freire (1968 [1970]) and hooks (1994) (Dalgleish, Girard, & Davies 2017).

A common thread in these proposals is treatment of critical thinking as a social, interactive, personally engaged activity like that of a quilting bee or a barn-raising (Thayer-Bacon 2000) rather than as an individual, solitary, distanced activity symbolized by Rodin’s The Thinker . One can get a vivid description of education with the former type of goal from the writings of bell hooks (1994, 2010). Critical thinking for her is open-minded dialectical exchange across opposing standpoints and from multiple perspectives, a conception similar to Paul’s “strong sense” critical thinking (Paul 1981). She abandons the structure of domination in the traditional classroom. In an introductory course on black women writers, for example, she assigns students to write an autobiographical paragraph about an early racial memory, then to read it aloud as the others listen, thus affirming the uniqueness and value of each voice and creating a communal awareness of the diversity of the group’s experiences (hooks 1994: 84). Her “engaged pedagogy” is thus similar to the “freedom under guidance” implemented in John Dewey’s Laboratory School of Chicago in the late 1890s and early 1900s. It incorporates the dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring that Abrami (2015) found to be most effective in improving critical thinking skills and dispositions.

What is the relationship of critical thinking to problem solving, decision-making, higher-order thinking, creative thinking, and other recognized types of thinking? One’s answer to this question obviously depends on how one defines the terms used in the question. If critical thinking is conceived broadly to cover any careful thinking about any topic for any purpose, then problem solving and decision making will be kinds of critical thinking, if they are done carefully. Historically, ‘critical thinking’ and ‘problem solving’ were two names for the same thing. If critical thinking is conceived more narrowly as consisting solely of appraisal of intellectual products, then it will be disjoint with problem solving and decision making, which are constructive.

Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives used the phrase “intellectual abilities and skills” for what had been labeled “critical thinking” by some, “reflective thinking” by Dewey and others, and “problem solving” by still others (Bloom et al. 1956: 38). Thus, the so-called “higher-order thinking skills” at the taxonomy’s top levels of analysis, synthesis and evaluation are just critical thinking skills, although they do not come with general criteria for their assessment (Ennis 1981b). The revised version of Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson et al. 2001) likewise treats critical thinking as cutting across those types of cognitive process that involve more than remembering (Anderson et al. 2001: 269–270). For details, see the Supplement on History .

As to creative thinking, it overlaps with critical thinking (Bailin 1987, 1988). Thinking about the explanation of some phenomenon or event, as in Ferryboat , requires creative imagination in constructing plausible explanatory hypotheses. Likewise, thinking about a policy question, as in Candidate , requires creativity in coming up with options. Conversely, creativity in any field needs to be balanced by critical appraisal of the draft painting or novel or mathematical theory.

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Critical thinking: the difference between ‘critique’ and ‘criticize’

Once upon a time, the art of criticism had the name critick in Englis

critique criticize

Written By:

Dot Wordsworth

Six years ago I wrote here about critique, as a noun or verb, and things have gone from bad to worse, as expected. I didn’t like it then, and even my husband was repelled. I had thought that people were trying to avoid the negative connotation of criticize. But both words are now used in precisely the same way.

Sportswriters often reveal the real way in which words are used. The other day Mary Waltz wrote: ‘This is not a critique. But the Finland goal was a save Schmeichel makes in his sleep.’ She probably meant the same…

Six years ago I wrote here about  critique , as a noun or verb, and things have gone from bad to worse, as expected. I didn’t like it then, and even my husband was repelled. I had thought that people were trying to avoid the negative connotation of  criticize . But both words are now used in precisely the same way.

Sportswriters often reveal the real way in which words are used. The other day Mary Waltz wrote: ‘This is not a critique. But the Finland goal was a save Schmeichel makes in his sleep.’ She probably meant the same as ‘This is not a criticism’ — i.e. not a negative criticism.

In America, Rep. Ilhan Omar said recently: ‘The United States and Israel are imperfect and, like all democracies, at times deserving of critique.’ But, as all democracies deserve analytical criticism, or critique, all the time, the suggestion here is of a negative verdict.

Once upon a time, the art of criticism had the name  critick  in English, often in the plural  criticks  (just as the study of what was called natural philosophy took the name  physics , following Aristotle). In  The   Dunciad , his satire on dullness, Pope wrote: ‘Not that my pen to criticks was confin’d.’ He meant the subject, not the people. That was in 1728. A new edition in 1729 changed it to: ‘Not that my quill to Critiques was confin’d.’ (The verse demands a stress on the first syllable of  Critiques .)

By an irony,  critick  or  criticks  was obsolete in English by 1781 when Kant published his  Critik der reinen Vernunft . (Modern German spells  Critik  as  Kritik .) It was translated into Latin, but not into English until 1838, under the title  Critick of Pure Reason . That must have been the last gasp for  critick , and now we call it  Critique of Pure Reason , hardly stopping to wonder why.

It seems to me, six years on, that the main motive now for using  critique  instead of  criticize  or  criticism is to acquire an academic aura. It makes casual remarks sound like that cynosure of critical race theory, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s paper from 1989: ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’ .

T his article was originally published in  The Spectator ’s  UK magazine.  Subscribe to the World edition here .

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‘You Can Hear a Pin Drop’: The Rise of Super Strict Schools in England

Inspired by the academic success of schools like the Michaela secondary school in northwest London, some principals are introducing tight controls on students’ behavior.

A class of students sitting at desks with their heads bowed and one hand raised, while a teacher stands at a whiteboard at the front.

By Emma Bubola

Emma Bubola visited the Michaela Community School in London and interviewed teachers, educational specialists and students from around England.

As the teacher started to count down, the students uncrossed their arms and bowed their heads, completing the exercise in a flash.

Listen to this article with reporter commentary

Open this article in the New York Times Audio app on iOS.

“Three. Two. One,” the teacher said. Pens across the room went down and all eyes shot back to the teacher. Under a policy called “Slant” (Sit up, Lean forward, Ask and answer questions, Nod your head and Track the speaker), the students, aged 11 and 12, were barred from looking away.

When a digital bell beeped (traditional clocks are “not precise enough,” the principal said) the students walked quickly and silently to the cafeteria in a single line. There they yelled a poem — “ Ozymandias ,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley — in unison, then ate for 13 minutes as they discussed that day’s mandatory lunch topic: how to survive a superintelligent killer snail.

In the decade since the Michaela Community School opened in northwest London, the publicly funded but independently run secondary school has emerged as a leader of a movement convinced that children from disadvantaged backgrounds need strict discipline, rote learning and controlled environments to succeed.

“How do those who come from poor backgrounds make a success of their lives? Well, they have to work harder,” said the principal, Katharine Birbalsingh, who has a cardboard cutout of Russell Crowe in “Gladiator” in her office with the quote, “Hold the Line.” In her social media profiles , she proclaims herself “Britain’s Strictest Headmistress.”

“What you need to do is pull the fence tight,” she added. “Children crave discipline.”

While some critics call Ms. Birbalsingh’s model oppressive, her school has the highest rate of academic progress in England, according to a government measure of the improvement pupils make between age 11 and 16, and its approach is becoming increasingly popular.

In a growing number of schools, days are marked by strict routines and detentions for minor infractions, like forgetting a pencil case or having an untidy uniform. Corridors are silent as students are forbidden to speak with their peers.

Advocates of no-excuses policies in schools, including Michael Gove , an influential secretary of state who previously served as education minister , argue that progressive, child-centered approaches that spread in the 1970s caused a behavioral crisis , reduced learning and hindered social mobility.

Their perspective is tied to a conservative political ideology that emphasizes individual determination, rather than structural elements, as shaping people’s lives. In Britain, politicians from the governing Conservative Party, which has held power for 14 years, have supported this educational current, borrowing from the techniques of American charter schools and educators who rose to prominence in the late 2000s.

The hard-right firebrand Suella Braverman , a former minister with two Tory governments, was a director of the Michaela school. Martyn Oliver, the chief executive of a schools group known for its strict approach to discipline, was appointed as the government’s chief inspector for education last fall. Ms. Birbalsingh served as the government’s head of social mobility from 2021 until last year, a position she held while running the Michaela school.

Tom Bennett, a government adviser for school behavior, said that sympathetic education ministers had helped this “momentum.”

“There are lots of schools doing this now,” Mr. Bennett said. “And they achieve fantastic results.”

Since Rowland Speller became the principal of the Abbey School in the south of England, he has cracked down on misbehavior and introduced formulaic routines inspired by Michaela’s methods. He said that a regulated environment is reassuring for students who have a volatile home life.

If one student does well, the others clap twice after a teacher says, “Two claps on the count of two: one, two.”

“We can celebrate lots of children really quickly,” Mr. Speller said.

Mouhssin Ismail, another school leader who founded a high-performing school in a disadvantaged area of London, posted a picture on social media in November of school corridors with students walking in lines. “You can hear a pin drop during a school’s silent line ups,” he wrote.

The remarks triggered a backlash, with critics likening the pictures to a dystopian science fiction movie.

Ms. Birbalsingh argues that wealthy children can afford to waste time at school because “their parents take them to museums and art galleries,” she said, whereas for children from poorer backgrounds, “the only way you’re going to know about some Roman history is if you’re in your school learning.” Accepting the tiniest misbehavior or adapting expectations to students’ circumstances, she said, “means that there is no social mobility for any of these children.”

At her school, many students expressed gratitude when asked about their experiences, even praising the detentions they received, and eagerly repeating the school’s mantras about self-improvement. The school’s motto is “work hard, be kind.”

Leon, 13, said that initially he did not want to go to the school, “but now I am thankful I went because otherwise I wouldn’t be as smart as I am now.”

With around 700 students, Michaela is smaller than the average state-funded secondary school, which has around 1,050, according to the government. It is so famous that it attracts about 800 visitors a year, mostly teachers, Ms. Birbalsingh said. A leaflet handed to guests asks them not to “demonstrate disbelief to pupils when they say they like their school.”

But some educators have expressed concern about the broader zero-tolerance approach, saying that controlling students’ behavior so minutely might produce excellent academic results, but does not foster autonomy or critical thinking. Draconian punishments for minor infractions can also come at a psychological cost, they say.

“It’s like they’ve taken 1984 and read it as a how-to manual as opposed to a satire,” said Phil Beadle, an award-winning British secondary school teacher and author.

To him, free time and discussion are as important to child development as good academic results. He worries that a “cultlike environment that required total compliance” can deprive children of their childhood.

The Michaela school made headlines in January after a Muslim student took it to court over its ban on prayer rituals, arguing that it was discriminatory. Ms. Birbalsingh defended the ban on social media, saying it was vital for “a successful learning environment where children of all races and religion can thrive.”

The high court has not yet issued its decision in the case.

Proponents of the strict model and some parents say that children with special education needs thrive in strict, predictable environments, but others saw their children with learning difficulties struggle in these schools.

Sarah Dalton sent her dyslexic 12-year-old son to a strict school with excellent academic results. But his dread of being penalized for minor mistakes created unbearable stress, and he started showing signs of depression.

“ There was this fear of being punished ,” she said. “His mental health just spiraled.”

When she moved him to a more relaxed school, he started to heal, Ms. Dalton said.

In England, government data last year showed that dozens of superstrict schools were suspending students at a far higher rate than the national average. (The Michaela school was not among them.)

Lucie Lakin, the principal of Carr Manor Community School in Leeds — which does not follow the zero-tolerance model — said that she realized the approach was spreading when a growing number of students enrolled at her school after being expelled. Her school earns high academic scores , but she said that was not the only goal of an education.

“Are you talking about the school’s results being successful, or are you trying to make successful adults?” she asked. “That’s the path you’ve got to pick.”

In the United States, charter schools that adopted similar strict approaches were initially praised for their results. But growing criticism from some parents , teachers and students in the mid-2010s triggered a reckoning in the sector.

In 2020, Uncommon Schools, an American network of charter schools and one of the pioneers of the “no excuses” approach, announced it was abandoning some of its strictest policies, including “Slant.” The organization said it would remove “undue focus on things like eye contact and seat posture” and put greater emphasis on building student confidence and intellectual engagement.

“A titan in the world of education falls to progressive pressure,” Ms. Birbalsingh wrote on social media . “Uncommon you have just let hundreds of thousands of children down.”

Audio produced by Patricia Sulbarán .

Emma Bubola is a Times reporter based in London, covering news across Europe and around the world. More about Emma Bubola

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The Nation

Oscar Wilde’s Art of Disobedience

Msn article rss.

Revisiting his critical writing, we learn a valuable lesson about the critic’s role in refusing bad taste and bad politics.

“Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue,” Oscar Wilde declares in his 1891 essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” “It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”

Books in review

The critical writings of oscar wilde: an annotated selection.

“Classic Wilde,” you might think. Isn’t it like him to argue that the betterment of civilization depends upon misbehavior? Since his death in 1900, at the age of 46, the writer’s popular image as a provocateur has only strengthened, and not without cause. In Wilde’s oeuvre, contradiction is not merely a rhetorical attitude, but an implicit intellectual challenge. Yet as a critic and essayist, his commitment to insubordination is also entangled with a lifelong philosophical inquiry into the conundrum of creating art on one’s own terms, unburdened by the demands of public opinion or by a milieu’s prevailing aesthetic conventions. If yielding to authority was tantamount to degradation, as Wilde believed, beauty and art could flourish only in conditions of freedom, which by his own definition constituted a utopia of socialist hedonism. “Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt,” he writes. Rather than brute, “unintellectual” labor, human life ought to be occupied by the sorts of activities likely to draw accusations of idleness: creative pastimes of one’s choosing or absolute contemplative leisure.

His body of criticism, newly collected in The Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde , cultivates an aesthetic of disobedience. Its language—sly, limber, epigrammatic—models the same rebellious individualism that it so fiercely advocates. In this annotated volume, editor Nicholas Frankel assembles a selection of Wilde’s most famous nonfiction writing, largely devoted to the matters of how an artist creates art and how others should receive it. Frankel divides this collection into four chronologized groups: reviews, essays and dialogues, letters to the press, and epigrams and paradoxes. Together, they illuminate a swaggering intellectual career that spans not just the novel, the play, and the poem but also, to a prodigious degree, the periodical.

As Frankel suggests in his introduction, “Wilde approached the writing of criticism with wit, irony, and a consummate sense of style, so much so that his critical writing is often hardly recognizable as criticism .” This flouting of rhetorical custom may itself be understood as a subtle form of defiance: a commitment to submitting language to a laboratory experiment of Wilde’s own devising. Take, for example, the argument that human progress requires disobedience, in which he invokes the latter’s “virtue,” as if the point of his writing is to yoke opposites, arousing tension through their unexpected alliance.

Wilde was no stranger to tension, or to scandal. The chutzpah of his criticism issues from his enduring friction with the cultural habits and assumptions of late Victorian England, from his resistance to complacency within a context he found sorely wanting. Yet inside that raucous rebellion, one cannot but discern a yearning impulse: that to obey, or not, could finally diminish as relevant modes of sociality; that an individual—queer, Irish, aesthetically flamboyant—could commit himself to beauty amid the peril fomented by an anxious nation scouting out transgression on every page.

By the late 19th century, Great Britain’s literary ecosystem was populated by a roster of venerated critics: Thomas Carlyle loomed large in the field, his sway unhindered by his death in 1881. Matthew Arnold’s 1865 essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time”—which Wilde would take to task 25 years later—famously champions the work of critics as crucial to literature in the wake of much public disparagement. John Ruskin and Walter Pater played crucial roles in art history and aesthetics, and each was uniquely indispensable to Wilde’s own thinking. But whatever intellectual debts Wilde owed to his critical forebears, he would not compound them through stylistic mimicry. Even the most recreational readers of Wilde could not confuse him for the author of The Stones of Venice (written by Ruskin in 1851) or Studies in the History of the Renaissance (written by Pater in 1873, and often referred to by Wilde as “my golden book”). Nor did the figure of “the critic,” chiseled in the Victorian imagination as a Carlyle-like symbol of sober wisdom, appeal to Wilde’s puckishness.

While he delighted in the role of the critic, Wilde was the first to admit his own limits. A critic cannot confer truth to his readers, nor should he attempt to do so, Wilde argued. At most, a critic can propose the terms of conversation. He implies that the power of language is essentially dialogic; it draws significance through its summoning of oppositions. Frankel delineates this impulse in Wilde’s criticism, identifying it as a proto-Bakhtinian “dialectical understanding of the truth”—an understanding that renders proof and reliability as red herrings. “No artist desires to prove anything,” Wilde asserts in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray , for “even things that are true can be proved.”

To scout out the precise coordinates of Wilde’s critical inconsistencies would be to miss his greater rhetorical point. (“Who wants to be consistent?” asks Vivian in his 1889 dialogue, “The Decay of Lying: An Observation.”) Still, his mercurial tendencies were not always choreographed. Early in his career, Wilde argued that artistic self-sufficiency existed in autonomous relation to one’s milieu. “Such an expression as English art is a meaningless expression,” he told the Royal Academy’s art students in an 1883 lecture. “Nor is there any such thing as a school of art even. There are merely artists, that is all.” Like the Greek deities depicted in Wilde’s beloved Hellenistic sculpture, artistic sensibility is born unto the artist with inviolable sanctity; it is a tidy, closed system, he suggests, dependent only upon itself.

Yet within two years’ time, Wilde changed his mind and began to acknowledge, even to insist upon the significance of cultural context. “An artist is not an isolated fact,” he writes in “Mr. Whistler’s Ten O’Clock” (1885), a withering review of the American painter’s lecture on aestheticism; “he is the resultant of a certain milieu and a certain entourage, and can no more be born of a nation that is devoid of any sense of beauty than a fig can grow from a thorn or a rose blossom from a thistle.” Wilde had once counted James McNeil Whistler among his friends, but the affection between them soured as Wilde’s views shifted to an irreconcilably opposing position. One blistering point of contention regarded the critic’s role in artistic discourse. In his lecture, Whistler laments the scourge of criticism, condemning its practitioners as “the middleman in this matter on Art.” Criticism, in Whistler’s estimation, amounts to little more than static interference: “It has widened the gulf between the people and the painter, has brought about the most complete misunderstanding as to the aim of the picture.”

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Wilde saw the matter differently. He also knew that Whistler had long harbored a grudge against Victorian critics. In 1878, Whistler had filed a libel suit against Ruskin for a mean review. The artist won the case, although the jury conveyed its disdain for the proceedings by awarding him only a farthing in damages. Nonetheless, as Frankel writes in his introduction, the ruling in such a public case imperiled the critic’s “hitherto unquestioned authority.” The case implied the triumph of the artist over the critic, which is a constant conflict that still produces a thorny question: Why should critics possess the authority to critique art they did not create?

Wilde pokes at this question in “Mr. Whistler’s 10 O’Clock” and attempts to settle it through a shift in vocabulary: “I say that only an artist is a judge of art…. For there are not many arts, but one art merely: poem, picture and Parthenon, sonnet and statue…he who knows one knows all.” This statement foreshadows a more explicit moment of philosophical departure, in which Wilde demands criticism’s recognition as an aesthetic equivalent to other artistic forms. Even Matthew Arnold, one of criticism’s most famous defenders, had declined to make this leap: “The critical power is of lower rank than the inventive,” he admitted. Arnold’s critic does not create art but instead evaluates, assembles, organizes.

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Liberties: A Magazine in Revolt Against the New Liberties: A Magazine in Revolt Against the New

Books & the Arts / David Klion

Although an admirer of Arnold, Wilde could not abide what seemed to him a diminishing of the critic’s role. A critic was no mere lens by which to reflect a superior creation, nor a pale imitation of literary artistry. The cultural contributions made by critics warranted appreciation on their own terms. Wilde issued his own apologia in 1890 by way of his famous dialogue, “The Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks on the Importance of Doing Nothing.” Initially titled “The True Function and Value of Criticism,” it delivers a pointed refutation of Arnold’s thesis.

The conversation unfolds between Wilde’s slick, in-dialogue proxy, Gilbert, and his skeptical interlocutor, Ernest, who feeds Gilbert a handy supply of queries and protestations that incite his elaboration on the art of criticism. “You seem to me to be allowing your passion for criticism to lead you a great deal too far,” Ernest protests. “For, after all, even you must admit that it is much more difficult to do a thing than to talk about it.” Gilbert, who shares the author’s love of sly contradiction, is prepared for this moment, epigrams loaded in his quiver: “Not at all. That is a gross popular error…. Anybody can make history. Only a great man can write it…. [Action] is the last resource of those who know not how to dream.”

Here is a defense of criticism that refuses all prior terms and is shaped instead by Wilde’s own pleasure-centered metric. Loath to accommodate an industrializing empire’s fetish for productivity, he casts the writing of criticism in opposition to exertion of any sort. As Gilbert and Ernest debate, they gaze at the night sky, where “the moon…gleams like a lion’s eye”; Egyptian cigarettes dangle from their fingers. As Frankel notes in his introduction, “The critic is an artist, to be sure, but he is also a corporeal creature, whose thoughts and ideas are extensions of his physical life, not a repudiation of it.” In the domain of Wilde’s dialogues, his speakers are at liberty to enact the conditions that Wilde understands as central to creative work. If it is the critical instinct, not the creative one, that breeds innovation, then the critic requires the stillness afforded by “doing nothing”—by settling into one’s flesh and heeding one’s own impressions, wherever they meander.

Gilbert’s position in “The Critic as Artist” is seductive, but it courts disagreement. When I’ve read this dialogue in the past, my reactions have sometimes eked into Ernest territory. One could dispense with Arnold’s solemn distinction between critical and creative abilities without landing where Wilde does. But why would one read Wilde in pursuit of intellectual mitigations? Rather, one turns to him because the extravagance of his theories begets the most enthralling possibilities. Or as Gilbert concludes, “To the critic the work of art is simply a suggestion for a new work of his own, that need not necessarily bear any obvious resemblance to the thing it criticizes.”

There are a few peculiar lines at the conclusion of Wilde’s 1885 essay, “The Truth of Masks: A Note on Illusion,” in which he offers a sly disclaimer to the argument he would make five years later:

Not that I agree with everything that I have said in this essay. There is much with which I entirely disagree. The essay simply represents an artistic standpoint, and in aesthetic criticism attitude is everything.

The critic shoulders many artistic and intellectual responsibilities, but always saying precisely what one believes is not among them. As the essay’s title implies, a writerly posture—a linguistic mask—might signify more than any so-called authentic claim. Performance, Wilde knew, was a reliably tangible fact of existence; another person’s truth was a glint on the horizon, easily contested and endlessly deferred.

In April 1895, during Wilde’s failed libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry, he was questioned about a line in his series of epigrams, “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young” (1894): “A truth ceases to be true when more than one person believes it.” Wilde explained that according to his “philosophical definition,” truth was “something so personal…that in fact the same truth can never be apprehended by two minds.” The court could not abide such vast ideological diversity, particularly when posited by a man who, soon after, would be convicted of gross indecency for homosexuality. Wilde’s truth—and his adherence to it—yielded criminal condemnation and punishment: It signified an illicit, unpardonable refusal.

In “The Critic as Artist,” Wilde also invokes the matter of necessary disobedience, although he draws on more strident language than he does in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” “What is termed Sin is an essential element of progress,” Gilbert declares. But lest the reader misinterpret the remark as equivocal, he presses the point: “Without it the world would stagnate, or grow old, or become colourless…. In its rejection of the current notions about morality, it is one with the higher ethics.” Perhaps these lines comprise a kind of beatitude, uttered for those who, like Wilde, resisted impossible assimilatory demands. Or perhaps they’re a nudge to the docile reader: The only route to Utopia is illuminated by disobedience.

Oscar Wilde’s Art of Disobedience

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