Opinion: Critical thinking at university key for Year 12 graduates

Critical thinking at university key for Year 12 graduates

Friday January 23 2015, 5:00pm

It’s that time of the year when many Year 12 students engage in a whirlwind of indecision, confusion and uncertainty working out whether they should go to university and if so which course they should do.

Some go where their mates go. Some go to where their parents suggest or order, or to where their siblings went. Some go to universities which offer whatever vocational passion they might have developed.

This year has been more problematic than most.

A survey earlier this month revealed at about 30 per cent of university graduates will still be out of a job four months after finishing studies. And earnings will be lower than in the past.

Students also face the removal of caps in fees; the reduction of federal government subsidies of student places; and usurious rates of interest being charged by the Federal Government on student loans, meaning students will face higher debt.

Year 12 students might well ask: is it all worth it?

To the extent students feel that this is an economic equation we will be the poorer for it.

To the extent students feel choice of course must be predicated on employment and income prospects, again, we will be the poorer for it.

For the past 30 years or so Australian university education has slowly moved from the fundamental object of education – to educate – to a factory which produces employees – little computer programmers; little pharmacists; little golf course designers and so on. Naturally, some of the big courses have withstood the trend. Nonetheless, history, philosophy and languages are under siege. Pure sciences face an onslaught against employers wanting immediately employable technicians.

The result has been far more university graduates without a real university education – more technocrats who cannot, or will not, question.

Part of the trend has been a drive by employers to do it on the cheap – rather than learn on the job with a salary, however meager, how much better for employers to get the state to provide a lot of the basic vocational training.

This is counter-productive. Ultimately every employer is going to be better off with good graduates taught how to think than gradgrinders ticking the boxes of a vocational course.

We need graduates who can withstand the onslaught of irrationalism. 

The critical importance of university education is this: it only comes after high school in late teens extending to early 20s or later. It is usually only when someone gets to this age they are receptive to critical thinking. Much of the lead up to the end of Year 12 is churn and regurgitation. Only after 17 or 18 is someone able to critically receive and challenge. Before that, to a large extent, ad hominen rules: teacher says; teacher is right.

Even after that, it is difficult to encourage critical thinking. Having taught at UC and ANU for the past decade, I am often encouraged but often despair at the level of student willingness to challenge.

One of the problems with vocational courses is that students continue the regurgitation education of the secondary level. In an increasingly complex world they get to know an enormous amount about just one thing and remain  vulnerable to appeals to emotion – the indignant outrage of the radio shock jocks; the self-serving promises of politicians; the manipulation of advertising; the false promise of religion; the irrational rejection of science and so on.

In theory, any university course should equip students to resist these forces, but the recent decline in the portion of students taking liberal arts or pure science courses is decreasing in favour of courses that are geared to the job market.

It seems apparent, however, that even as universities gear courses to the job market, the number of out-of-work graduates indicates that it is not a very good strategy.

Maybe we should help students with some of their choices of subjects by making one first year course compulsory. Call it Reasoning 101 or Critical Thinking 101 or whatever. It would teach formal and informal logic; something about the scientific method; and perhaps something about statistics.

The course would be akin to a vaccination against charlatanism.


The Australia Institute has asked all political parties contesting next week’s Queensland election to subscribe to the Fitzgerald principles. The principles were crafted by corruption fighter Tony Fitzgerald. They are:

Govern for the peace, welfare and good government of the State.

Make all decisions and take all actions, including public appointments, in the public interest without regard to personal, party political or other immaterial considerations.


Treat all people equally without permitting any person or corporation special access or influence.

Promptly and accurately inform the public of its reasons for all significant or potentially controversial decisions and actions.

Labor, the Greens, Palmer United Party and Katter’s Australian Party all committed. The Liberal National Party has so far failed to respond. Even Alan Jones supported the princples.