The art of critical thinking

In a world where plenty different opinions are presented like they were universal truths, critical thinking might be one of the most important skills one can acquire. But what does critical thinking even mean? Do we have to criticize and look for faults in every theory, in every single aspect of how we see and organize the world? Maybe that is not what this is about. But then, how can we effectively practice the art of critical thinking?

What is critical thinking?

We could define “critical thinking” by looking at its most notable characteristics, that is, a certain amount of skepticism towards a given statement, established norm or mode of doing things. Additionally, looking for alternative solutions and possibilities might be just as important as questioning the original statement or norm.

The way our planet is organized into different states and countries is an example: if we think critically about the emergence of countries and ask the right questions, we will be able to see that it is not self-evident to organize ourselves this way. Maybe we discover that if history would have played out just a tiny bit differently, we would organize ourselves in completely different ways. This insight makes room for alternative forms of organization which would, perhaps, be an even better way of doing things.

Critical thinking in the Westernized University

A similar approach to critical thinking would be to combine “a determined skepticism with a profound openness to unfamiliar ideas and voices” (Cloke et al. 1999).

The second part of this definition is often overlooked in the academic context. In universities and higher education systems, these unfamiliar ideas and voices are often not well enough represented.

For example, if we were to study the origins of the United States through the lenses of Eurocentrism, Christopher Columbus would be seen as a great explorer and discoverer of a new continent. We would completely ignore the fact that this continent has been discovered and inhabited by indigenous peoples, long before Columbus reached its shores. At the very best, we would learn about the horrors and the violence of colonialization. But most likely, those who were affected by those horrors would be portrayed as victims of an extraordinarily cruel, but disturbingly still somehow necessary, act. In all these cases, indigenous peoples are, like Cupples and Grosfuguel write in their book “Unsettling Eurocentrism in the Westernized University” (2019: 19), portrayed as an object, rather than a knowledge-producing subject.

For how often do we hear the voices of these people in an academic context without their knowledge and contributions being distorted through the lenses of Westernization? How often do we hear about their ways of seeing history, their cultures and philosophies, their solutions to issues like climate change or their views of feminism, but also the struggles, racism and historical trauma that many indigenous peoples still experience (Klem 2019)?

How to think critically

Critical thinking is not a means to solidify our believes of what is right and wrong, but rather to challenge them. For some people, it may be quite easy to challenge old and entrenched ideas held by society or certain individuals, and even propose alternative solutions. But I would argue that it is just as important, if not more so, to think critically about our own beliefs and worldviews.

The human psyche is prone to “confirmation bias”- the tendency to search for, interpret, and remember information in a way which supports our beliefs and hypotheses (Oswald & Grosjean 2004: 79).

This should not imply to not trust our own thinking process. Rather, it means that in order to be critical thinking human beings, we have to make the humble confession that we too, could be mistaken. The mere act of questioning certain assumptions carries with it the possibility of being both right and wrong. Therefore, if we really want to pursue the truth, whatever that truth may be, we must not let our personal beliefs hold us back.

As scientifically minded people, critical thinking is crucial. It takes courage to ask certain questions, but it is much more rewarding than repeating something that has already been said. We need to think critically. But it must be done by oneself, not for oneself by others. Accepting the norms without questioning leads to stagnation. And stagnation is the true enemy of science.

So, in order to think critically as an individual, we must question our own beliefs and rid them of any fallacies. Doing this while maintaining a fine balance between skepticism and open-mindedness is the key to mastering the art of critical thinking.

Note: This text was initially written as an evaluation essay for the GEO 199 Small Group Teaching course. Dr. Daniel Henke is responsible for the course. PhD candidate Aline Meyer Oliveira was responsible for evaluating this essay. She encouraged Leonie to improve and publish the text in the GIUZ Blog, so more people could enjoy this intelligent and well-written text about critical thinking.


Cloke, Paul; Crang, Philip & Goodwin Mark (1999): Introducing Human Geographies. New York: Routledge.

Cupples, Julie & Grosfoguel Ramón (2019): Unsettling Eurocentrism in the Westernized University. New York: Routledge.

Klem, Sarah H. & Burrage, Rachel L. (2019): The Impact of Historical Trauma on Health Outcomes for Indigenous Populations in the USA and Canada: A Systematic Review. American Psychologist, Vol. 74, No. 1, 20–35.

Oswald, Margit E. & Grosjean Stefan (2004): Confirmation Bias. In: Pohl, Rüdiger F. (Hrsg): Cognitive Illusions: A Handbook on Fallacies and Biases in Thinking, Judgmend and Memory. East Sussex: Psychology Press, S. 79–96.

Leonie Wüest