Now out of Bloomberg’s top ten most innovative countries for the first time since it began, the U.S. will not rejoin innovation leaders until it recognizes that innovation itself isn’t the goal; it’s the product. And the path to that product is critical thinking. In fact, contrary to Bloomberg’s Alex Tanzi’s advice that the U.S. should “subsidize STEM degrees to a greater degree,” STEM courses and critical thinking don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

Take engineering, for example — a field often heralded for creating innovators. In their 2015 study, “Critical Thinking Development in Undergraduate Engineering Students from Freshman through Senior Year: A 3-Cohort Longitudinal Study,” Ralston and Bays found that “critical thinking was not being included as an explicit component in preparation and implementation in most [engineering] course lectures and syllabi.” In fact, the engineering educators only “assumed that students could learn to think critically by watching them” and they “never explicitly discussed the thought processes behind problem investigation, analysis of situations, synthesis of designs, and evaluation of alternatives.” 

Engineering is hardly the lone STEM field to fail at fostering critical thinking. In reviewing a number of studies demonstrating low critical thinking outcomes for biology students, Bustami, Syafruddin, and Afriani conclude that the field typically relies on “less optimal learning strategies” and “expository learning,” which typically involves “active teachers yet passive students.” And the same can be said of all STEM disciplines. They don’t inherently involve critical thinking at all, and the way they’re taught often favors a preponderance of rote learning over higher-order intellectual skills.

So, perhaps STEM in and of itself won’t solve anything. In “The Fuzzy and the Techie,” Scott Hartley makes a good case for the idea that “liberal arts majors,” not their STEM counterparts, “are particularly well equipped to take leading roles in innovation.” The reason is that innovation is less dependent on technology, and more dependent on “applying evolving technological capabilities to finding better ways to solve human problems” and “help people live healthier and happier lives.” Those are skills the liberal arts foster.

Even though Hartley’s correct that the liberal arts warrant incalculably more respect than they’ve received since the tech boom, the liberal arts are no panacea to the critical thinking problem. Across the disciplinary spectrum, educational research shows us that critical thinking is more fantasized than realized. For example, as Nicholas and Raider-Roth discovered in their study, “A hopeful Pedagogy to Critical Thinking,” faculty could offer no evidence, or even anecdotal certainty, that they improved their students’ abilities to think critically. Rather, they frequently invoked the idea that they could only “hope” they did so.

America’s innovation problem isn’t rooted in a lack of support for STEM, nor just in the disrespected liberal arts, but in the fact that teaching critical thinking is a specialized skill, and it is that skill on which U.S. education needs to focus. It needs to do so because other countries — many of which now occupy the top ten of Bloomberg’s innovators — have launched national initiatives to put critical thinking itself at the forefront of their educational goals. The U.S. needs to do the same and it needs institutions willing to take the lead in doing so.

Steven J. Pearlman, PhD and David Carillo, MA possess a combined 50 years of experience in higher education. They are the founders of TheCriticalThinkingInitiative.org, experts in critical thinking, and sought-after speakers and consultants. Pearlman is also the author of "America’s Critical Thinking Crisis: The Failure and Promise of Education." 

Published on Feb 18, 2021