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Why more college grads (and Christians) don’t know how to think

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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What’s the primary purpose of college? Is it just about getting the necessary credentials for the job you want, or should it be about something more? Unfortunately for many recent college graduates, potential employers increasingly want more than a diploma. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Douglas Belkin writes, “A survey by PayScale Inc., an online pay and benefits researcher, showed fifty percent of employers complain that college graduates they hire aren’t ready for the workplace. Their number one complaint? Poor critical-thinking skills.”

One example of this trend is the College Learning Assessment Plus (CLA+) test. It compares students’ ability to use critical thinking and analytical reasoning to solve problems as freshmen with their ability to do so as seniors. Students at some of the country’s best, or at least best-known, universities—such as several in the University of Texas system, Ohio State University, and the University of Kentucky—show either worsening or static results across those four plus years.

Some argue that the higher tier schools fare poorly in the test because their students come to school with a greater ability to think critically from the start, and thus don’t have much room for improvement. I don’t know too many eighteen-year-olds without some room to grow, however, so the problem seems to run a bit deeper than that.

The bigger issue seems to be that an increasing number of colleges fall into the trap of focusing so much on teaching students what to think that they’ve failed to teach them how to think. That balance can be difficult to maintain, as schools have an obligation to make sure their students learn the necessary material for their careers. The manner in which they learn it, however, is often up to the individual teachers or departments. Unfortunately, far too many would rather spend more time on research than on devising ways to better help their students grapple with the material.

Yet the students are not innocent bystanders in this process. The instances of campus-wide protests and outrage over what often amount to little more than a difference of opinion demonstrate a fundamental disregard for the value of beliefs that differ from one’s own. Such an environment cannot help but stifle critical thinking because open and honest discussion are indispensable to that process.

How can students learn to solve problems, especially in community with others, if they cannot genuinely consider the possibility that their first impression of the situation could be flawed? Ending a dialogue before the other person gets a chance to speak is cause for mourning rather than celebration. However, that attitude grows increasingly rare on college campuses around the country and graduates are paying the price for it when they start to look for jobs.

As Christians, it’s vital that we foster critical thinking in our churches, but far too often we fall into the same traps as universities and their students. Preaching and teaching on the easy passages, while avoiding those that require more work to understand, can be a difficult temptation to resist. Yet the whole of Scripture is necessary to form a whole Christian and ignoring those verses we don’t immediately understand prevents us from becoming the people God created us to be (2 Timothy 3:16–17).

Instead, consider for a moment how much more effective we could be for the kingdom if we were capable of wrestling with passages or topics that required serious thinking and prayer to understand. Those are abilities that our churches should foster rather than fear.

Pastors and teachers are not the only ones who bear that responsibility, however. God’s word is clear that, while we are meant to go through this life in community with other believers, each of us bears the ultimate responsibility for our own faith (Acts 17:11). If our first response when presented with a new or different understanding is to disregard it as necessarily incorrect simply because it differs from our own, we will never mature as believers. Instead, we should work to become more comfortable with the approach Paul showed in Athens where he reasoned with those around him and actively sought out conversations with those who did not share his beliefs (Acts 17:16–34).

A helpful first step in that process of maturation is to consider what it would take for someone to convince you to adopt a different faith. Do so and you’ll have some idea of what it will likely take to convince others to adopt ours. While we have the ultimate truth on our side (John 14:6), there’s no reason for others to believe that just because we tell them it’s so. The ability to reason and think critically is vital to any effective presentation of the gospel. How ready are you today?