Critical thinking left out of college curricula—what’s that mean for employers?

According to test data, some of your new hires cannot think. Based on the complaints of my executive clients, this is not a biblical revelation.

I know you did your homework before hiring; you vetted those shining faces by scouring resumes, references, and (possibly) looking at transcripts. Well, all that does not work at finding the employee who can critically asses and solve a problem, which is the only reason to hire someone in the first place.

“Damn, damn, damn,” says one once proud Dad of two recent grads, adding: “I want a refund. We knew the kids (his) were having trouble with some pretty basic logic, but we really thought [prestigious, academic] University would help.”


Research shows that some of the country’s top colleges fail to teach their graduates to think critically at a level higher than their incoming freshman colleagues.* If you’ve ever encountered the critical thinking skills of a typical incoming freshman, well, you understand my client’s angst.

All this presents a terrific opportunity for colleges and universities to start doing right things, and for employers to demand what they need. We can think of several right things to do, the chief of which is to return to an ethical understanding of the academy’s place in the community. You, my academic friends, are teachers of advanced skills that students desire, employers hire, and for which parents pay you (know your customer, friends).

The task of the university is to equip men and women to lead the community to better days. One gets there only via critical thought. One gets there by listening to opinions that differ from one’s own and forming questions and sentences that root out whose argument best fits society’s needs. Your job is not to decide society’s needs, but to make arguments so that the people may decide what’s best.

One finds the better way by weighing the facts, claims, and results of proposed systems of thought one against the other (socialism vs. capitalism, Christianity vs. Islam vs. Secularism, for instance). The latter only happens when one trains the brain not to react emotionally to find offense at whatever one does not like, but to let the reasoning part of the brain take over.

One of the primary complaints my clients voice about their just-out-of-college hires is that college taught them to find problems to gripe about but not to solve them. Now we know why: because many students spend years at university doing something other than developing the skills of critical thought. They cannot solve complex problems. Sadly, when confronted with negative data, the colleges made excuses and stopped using the test (as you might imagine, universities whose graduates performed well lauded the test as a fine instrument). What to do?

As an employer, you get to do the work colleges left out. Start with hiring. Spend a hundred bucks testing the critical thinking skills of new hires for whom critical thinking is essential to job performance. While you’re at it, put that last sentence in their job description—it’s the right thing to do.

Once hired, develop people. Critical thinking skills, like any skill other than bicycle riding, stagnate from reading one-sided news feeds (I’m looking at you, Facebook). You, Employer, will fill the gap by spending your hard-earned money teaching your employees to think. I know this is not what you hoped for, but the alternative is to ignore the data. Where has that gotten us?

What else? Demand that academia deliver on its promise. If you stop hiring the graduate of Unthinking U., things will change (even if they don’t, your competitor will be hire the problem children, not you). You have a large stick to use on state universities and colleges where taxpayers subsidize education. It’s clear that some administrators prefer excuses to results—and this is their shining opportunity to raise hell with faculty who refuse to make their students think. I, for one, have great faith that the professors who want the right thing done outnumber those who want a lazier path.

One more? Insist that your direct reports offer critical thinking on your ideas. Make it part of their job description. Measure it. Include it in their development plan. Reward the ones who do it well and give them a reason to increase their tribe of thinkers.

Questions for The Ethics Award

  1. How do you measure critical thinking?
  2. What process do your executives use to make sure their direct reports think critically and avoid becoming emotionally driven parrots?
  3. How much does it cost to offer remedial education on critical thinking?
  4. How much does it cost if you don’t?

*Source: The Wall Street Journal.

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