Critical Thinking Before the Second World War
By Michael Boyle
One of the most frequently heard phrases in discussions of higher education today is “critical thinking.” Whether the setting is a college classroom, a presentation by a university administrator, a political speech, or reports concerning what skills employers are looking for, there’s a good chance that the phrase “critical thinking” will crop up somewhere. This ubiquity, however, may make the word seem rather empty. On the contrary, what we today call critical thinking arose as a reaction to a specific series of developments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in America. Moreover, an influential early approach –propaganda analysis- that struck at the heart of the problem of industrial democracy disappeared from critical thinking during WWII and never really returned, thus ideologically skewing the postwar treatment of critical thinking in a way still quite evident today.
The earliest developments (aside from general principles of reason known to us since Ancient Greece) in what we today call “Critical Thinking” go back to the late 19th and early 20th Century Progressives, a loose term referring to an American political movement whose primary goal was addressing the consequences of the confluence of emerging industrialization and mass democracy. (1) More simply, Progressives (who were both Democrats and Republicans) believed that at least some state economic regulation was necessary both to ameliorate the negative consequences of industrialization and to preserve the freedom of the individual citizen. They essentially tried to preserve a belief in mass democracy while simultaneously trying to square this with addressing the consequences of the Industrial Revolution via limited state intervention, addressing the consequences of industrialization through a variety of reforms, from labor laws to anti-monopoly regulations to food safety to financial regulations and regular exposes of corrupt business practices by investigative journalists known as muckrakers. (2) Historian Stephen J. Diner described Progressivism this way:
…a set of ideas that framed American politics, the way people thought about and debated political issues. Challenging the dominant laissez-faire and Social Darwinist ideas of the Gilded Age, progressive intellectuals, reformers, politicians, and journalists of diverse backgrounds argued for an activist government that would restore individual autonomy and preserve democracy in an age of industrial concentration. Progressives lost at least as many battles as they won; conservative opponents of change remained powerful in many places. But Progressives determined the language of political debate and set its agenda, defining the terms within which competing players argued their positions on corporate regulation, labor, conservation, welfare, women’s rights, representative government, and the other great issues of the day. (3)
What we regard as critical thinking today is the result of a number of different influences in the 1920’s and 1930’s, the abandonment of propaganda analysis, and some post-war developments. Prior to World War II there were at least four important movements afoot in what we would think of today as critical thinking: the attempt to quantify reasoning skills in the social sciences, the “straight thinking” movement, propaganda analysis, and various works dealing broadly with semantics. The social science influence (especially in terms of the quantitative measure of the process of correct thinking) would endure, as would elements of what was then known as straight thinking (especially the focus on things like informal fallacies) and some of the popular work on semantics survived, too. (4) What did not survive was the politically-engaged study of propaganda uses by government and business, considered by the time of the war to be too dangerous and subversive.
‘Critical thinking’ as a term goes back to John Dewey’s 1910 work for teachers entitled How We Think in which, advocating the teaching of reflective thought and dispositions, Dewey used modern science and its methodology as an exemplar. A pragmatist philosopher and Progressive educator first affiliated with the University of Chicago and then for decades with Columbia University, Dewey became the most famous of a number of Progressive educators at Columbia’s Teachers College. For Dewey, a critic of capitalism but never an advocate of radical political action, the core function of critical or reflective thinking was to provide citizens of modern democratic societies the tools for meaningful political engagement in the wake of industrialization and the rise of mass communications. Only one institution was capable of pulling off such a societal transformation: the school, revitalized so as not to teach mere rote learning or simply the intricacies of specialized knowledge, but to teach the young “to make distinctions that penetrate beneath the surface.” Such a transformed system of education required critical thinking and would be nothing less than the political revolution modern industrial and egalitarian America required to make democracy real and not a farce:
What will happen if teachers become sufficiently courageous and emancipated to insist that education means the creation of a discriminating mind, a mind that prefers not to dupe itself or to be the dupe of others? Clearly they will have to cultivate the habit of suspended judgment, of skepticism, of desire for evidence, of appeal to observation rather than sentiment, discussion rather than bias, inquiry rather than conventional idealizations. When this happens, schools will be the dangerous outposts of a humane civilization. But they will also begin to be supremely interesting places. For it will then have come about that education and politics are one and the same thing because politics will have to be in fact what it now pretends to be, the intelligent management of social affairs. (5)
A significant part of critical thinking prior to the war was, as we’ve noted, propaganda analysis. It was part of a larger critical look at propaganda in the US that arose following the First World War and especially the domestic experience with the Committee on Public Information (CPI) or the Creel Committee. The CPI was essentially a propaganda department of the federal government during the war and conducted one of the first national public relations campaigns using new mass communications technology as well as speakers who went all over the country. Widely successful but criticized after the war, it employed a number of individuals (Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann) who would become part of the public conversation regarding democracy, mass communications, advertising, and the ability of a free society to withstand the new forces of persuasion. In addition, the restrictions on civil liberties and free speech during WWI were also of great concern to Progressives, seen perhaps most famously in law scholar Zechariah Chafee, Jr.’s influential book Free Speech, published in 1920. (6)
The advent of the Great Depression deepened many Progressives’ conviction that continued reform was a must, especially now of capitalism itself. Columbia University was at the epicenter of much of the discussion, especially its famed Teachers College. (7) In line with the popularity of propaganda analysis, which by the year the Institute was founded had already become “the dominant curricular approach to critical thinking in the public schools,” (8) a number of Columbia educators and others decided in 1937 to establish the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, an organization charged with encouraging more awareness of critical thinking among citizens, particularly by things like the identification of argument fallacies used in persuasion and by a campaign to raise awareness of propaganda of all kinds in public life and to call out malefactors in public life.
Active until our entrance into the war, the Institute was begun partly through monies provided by progressive business and credit union entrepreneur Edward Filene (continued after his death by a charitable organization of his) and headed by Clyde Miller of Columbia, onetime opponent of labor leader and socialist Eugene Debs and instrumental in the latter’s bogus arrest and conviction during WWI for encouraging opposition to the draft. Although a highly successful businessman, Filene supported the Institute because he was troubled about the rising tide of anti-Semitism (the Institute would eventually publish a successful take-down of anti-Semitic radio demagogue Father Coughlin). Miller had turned away from his earlier commitment to ferret out supposed subversives to a firm belief that a greater awareness of propaganda techniques on the part of the American public was necessary to safeguard democracy.
Although able to overcome an initial period of difficulty and flourish by the end of the 1930’s, the Institute in the early 1940’s was unable to survive the pressure to become a more research-based group, avoid criticism that it was politically too far to the left, and abandon its impartial criticism of propaganda as America entered the war. Nonetheless, from 1937 through 1940, the Institute had had a surfeit of supporters in academia willing to help, was by its own account producing materials used in five hundred secondary and post-secondary courses and, according to the New York Times in 1941, the number of young people using its publications was north of a million.
1941 was the crest of its influence. As America’s involvement in helping the Allied effort while still formally staying out of the war increased, the war atmosphere and anti-Fascist sentiment became strong enough that many began to withdraw from involvement with it. Well known liberals criticized the Institute for merely creating cynical, uninvolved citizens and for its impractical approach at non-partisan analysis, seen as being more a hindrance than a help in the midst of Europe trying to survive the Nazi blitzkrieg. This kind of public criticism quickly started to take a toll on the Institute’s finances such that by 1942, it ceased publication of its magazine, Propaganda Analysis.
A second and initially less prominent critical thinking approach dubbed by one scholar textual rationalism, was known at the time as “straight thinking.” (9) Straight thinking, inspired in part by Dewey’s use of the scientific method as a model of rigorous and reflective thinking, focused on a drier, less political approach and put more emphasis on elements like informal fallacies, analogical reasoning, and psychological weaknesses exploited by persuasion. Its focus was on developing the capacities of the learner via an approach largely disconnected with the more direct work being done in propaganda analysis. Straight thinking’s goal was to take note of the importance of reason in the new industrial era, but without direct political criticism of business and government propaganda.
Dewey’s writings (as well as that of his primary public interlocutor, journalist Walter Lippmann) were an inspiration both to those working in propaganda analysis as well as those in the straight thinking approach, reflecting the twin concerns over the capacity of citizens to adequately exercise their rational abilities as well as the the pressures of modern mass communications. Although the division between textual rationalism (straight thinking) and propaganda analysis wasn’t always sharp and clear and their work overlapped to a degree, there was a key difference in terms of what each thought the primary problem was, reflected in their different areas of emphasis. Those in propaganda analysis believed that the problem was to a great extent one of public manipulation by unscrupulous business and political forces. Hence the popularization not only of the “Seven Propaganda Devices” but also important investigative pieces. (10) Straight thinking, in line with general work being done in semantics in the field of English,11 social science data on quantifying reasoning, and also in general agreement with the old tradition of formal logic itself, believed that the primary problem was the intellectual weakness of the citizen and how to inoculate them against rhetorical legerdemain.
In terms of the postwar development of critical thinking, the straight thinking material and some of the popular work on semantics would survive, with the quantitative social science aspect taking center stage in the form of the oldest and most famous of critical thinking tests, the Watson-Glaser Tests of Critical Thinking (now known as the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal) first published by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis itself in 1939 and now in its fifth generation.
Its initial publication by the Institute reflected the view that this work would strengthen the propaganda devices side of their educational effort, seen as foundational to any future effort at reform. In the words of the Institute’s Director of Education in 1940:
Scientific appraisals are impossible in any other framework than that which comprises both the freedoms and the responsibilities of the concrete democratic realities we have cited. It is only within this framework that the process of critical thinking can take place; and propaganda analysis is critical thinking; it is inquiry into the nature, the causes, and the effects of the conflicts with which propagandas inevitably are associated.
… Such a process is necessary to the maintenance and the development of our democratic society. In this process propaganda analysis, the building of effective techniques for thinking critically, is a means to an end- the participation by the common man in the solution of the major problems of his own life and of our contemporary society. (12)
In retrospect, while the Institute may have believed that social scientific analysis of how people reason and how to improve their reason was part and parcel of propaganda analysis, it became quickly evident in succeeding years that this more apolitical social science trajectory, with admixtures of straight thinking and semantics, was the one that would survive, while the messier and more direct analysis of propaganda in society was shelved, being unviable in a conformist America increasingly suspicious of progressive educators.
The story of Goodwin Watson (co-author of that first major Critical Thinking test alongside protégé Edward Glaser) is itself a tale of a politically engaged progressive who was chastened (13) by America’s red scare hysteria, a tale instructive because it in some ways mirrors the changes underway as critical thinking shifted more and more toward a non-political stance, leaving propaganda analysis behind. Interestingly, it was Watson in his role as objective social scientist rather than politically active progressive who helped move critical thinking away from propaganda analysis.
In the end, one can clearly conclude that propaganda analysis foundered because of larger anti-Progressive pressures directly related to anti-Communism and the worldwide conflict of WWII. With the equally conformist pressures of the Cold War, direct analysis of advertising and propaganda on the part of business and government disappeared and the more neutral, apolitical approach enshrined in the Watson-Glaser test was continued in an expanded and revised form by later critical thinking researchers in the 1950’s and 1960’s, most importantly philosopher of education Robert Ennis. The only thing left of the Institute’s work was some material on fallacies, whose treatment after the war came to largely mimic the dry discussions of other aspects of critical thinking.
- Although there was some early progressive work on argumentation in the fields of speech and rhetoric, these are not really connected to the main line of development in critical thinking, which is the focus of this short essay. After WWII, speech/communications departments would be revolutionized in terms of argument analysis, ironically by two individuals whose work on this went unnoticed in their own fields: philosophers Stephen Toulmin and Chaim Perleman.
- The four most important progressive leaders who facilitated much of this reform were Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR, Theodore’s cousin. Combined, they held the presidency for a third of the 20th Century, including during World Wars I & II.
- Stephen J. Diner, “Politics and People: The Historiography of the Progressive Era,” OAH Magazine of History 13:3 (Spring 1999): 7.
- It is important to highlight the fact that the social scientists and propaganda analysts we’re referring to saw propaganda in a negative light, unlike the “democratic realists” who including pioneering communications and propaganda expert Harold Lasswell, advertising maven Edward Bernays, and journalist Walter Lippmann. The propaganda realists had either already in essence written off democracy or would by the time of the war and had also abandoned any substantial faith in the capacity of the ordinary person to withstand the onslaught of modern forms of persuasion.
- John Dewey, “Education As Politics,” The New Republic (Oct. 4 1922): 141. As he grew older, Dewey realized that schools were not enough and that the public in a larger sense had to be on board. This was a primary purpose behind his pieces for the magazine The New Republic.
- Chafee belonged to the prominent Rhode Island Chafee family, which has produced senators, governors, and a candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2016.
- Note that by this time, propaganda as a concept for investigation was a significant part of American social science, particularly what we would today call communications. World War Two would see the study of propaganda set aside in favor of less polemical studies in communication. See J. Michael Sproule, “Propaganda Studies in American Social Science: The Rise and Fall of the Critical Paradigm,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 73 (1987): 60-78.
- J. Michael Sproule, “Ideology and Critical Thinking: The Historical Connection,”Journal of the American Forensic Association 24 (Summer 1987): 9.
- The term ‘textual rationalism’ comes from communications scholar J. Michael Sproule.
- The seven propaganda devices were: name-calling, glittering generality, transfer, testimonial, plain folks, and bandwagon.
- Important academic figures here include I.A. Richards, C.K. Ogden, as well as Californian S.I. Hayakawa, later a Republican senator.
- Violet Edwards, “Propaganda Analysis: Today’s Challenge,” ALA Bulletin 34 (January, 1940): 9.
- The chastening involved red baiting Congressmen, a Supreme Court decision, and FDR himself. Basically, Watson, a highly respected social scientist working for the FCC and looking at Axis propaganda, was drummed out of government service because of his past acquaintance with communist organizations and organizations who were thought to be communist. It also didn’t help that he had been very anti-capitalist during the Depression. Watson was highly regarded for his war work, said to be able to sometimes deduce German troop deployments just from analysis of their propaganda alone. Watson himself was told by a Congressman that he (and some others who were being investigated) were simply being used as a way to get at his boss, FCC Chairman James Lawrence Fly, who had been clashing with J. Edgar Hoover and others in Congress regarding wiretapping and civil liberties.
Brinson, Susan L. The Red Scare, Politics, and the Federal Communications Commission, 1941-1960. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.
Dewey, John. How We Think. Boston: D.C. Heath & Co. 1910.
_____________ “Education As Politics” The New Republic, (Oct. 4 1922): 139-141.
Diner, Stephen J. “Politics and People: The Historiography of the Progressive Era,” OAH Magazine of History 13 (Spring 1999): 5-9.
Edwards, Violet. “Propaganda Analysis: Today’s Challenge.” ALA Bulletin 34 (January, 1940): 8-10.
Gary, Brett. The Nervous Liberals : Propaganda Anxieties from World War I to the Cold War. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Peters, John Durham and Peter Simonson, eds. Mass Communication and American Social Thought: Key Texts, 1919-1968. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004.
Sproule, J. Michael. “Ideology and Critical Thinking: The Historical Connection,” Journal of the American Forensic Association 24 (Summer 1987).
___________________ Propaganda and Democracy : the American Experience of Media and Mass Persuasion. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
___________________ “Propaganda Studies in American Social Science: The Rise and Fall of the Critical Paradigm,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 73 (1987): 60-78.
Watson, Goodwin. Columbia Oral History Collection. Microfiche 1-3, 1972 [transcript of 1963 interview].