The 3 Levels of Critical Thinking Skill

While I was still a boy, I came to the conclusion that there were three grades of thinking; and since I was later to claim thinking as my hobby, I came to an even stranger conclusion — namely, that I myself could not think at all.William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies

Sometime back reader Sara pointed me to this fascinating essay by William Golding about the nature of critical thinking. Golding explains his intellectual development (including a personal encounter with Albert Einstein) and classifies critical thinking skill in three grades.

Grade-Three Critical Thinking

Grade-Three thought is often full of unconscious prejudice, ignorance and hypocrisy. It will lecture on disinterested purity while its neck is being remorselessly twisted towards a skirt. Technically, it is about as proficient as most businessmen’s golf, as honest as most politicians’ intentions, or –to come near my own preoccupation — as coherent as most books that get written. It is what I came to call grade-three thinking, though more properly, it is feeling, rather than thought.

Grade-Two Critical Thinking

Grade-two thinking is the detection of contradictions. Grade-two thinkers do not stampede easily, though often they fall into the other fault and lag behind. Grade-two thinking is a withdrawal, with eyes and ears open. It became my hobby and brought satisfaction and loneliness in either hand. For grade-two thinking destroys without having the power to create. It set me watching the crowds cheering His Majesty and King and asking myself what all the fuss was about, without giving me anything positive to put in the place of that heady patriotism…Grade-two thinking, though it filled life with fun and excitement, did not make for content.

Grade-One Critical Thinking

I found that grade two was the power to point out contradictions. It took the swimmer some distance from the shore and left him there, out of his depth. I decided that Pontius Pilate was a typical grade-two thinker. “What is truth?” he said, a very common grade-two thought, “but one that is used always as the end of an argument instead of the beginning”. There is still a higher grade of thought which says, “What is truth?” and sets out to find it.

This essay illustrates the most important reason to read — to clarify your own thoughts. We’ve all observed the three grades of thinking before, but Golding defines them perfectly. Having your thoughts confirmed by a renowned thinker builds confidence and strengthens the belief that nothing is truly original.

It also gives us perspective. I used to believe that the present was a terrible time to be born for creative thinkers. The more I read, the more I understand that grade-three thinkers always have and always will hold the majority. While this isn’t the cheeriest realization, it lead me to stop making excuses and start utilizing modern advantages like the internet.

Golding’s development is remarkably similar to my personal experience; starting at blind acceptance, moving to contradiction and cynicism, and finally reaching creative thought. I’m inclined to believe the development of all thoughtful people follows this pattern and I’d be curious to hear about other experiences.

For anyone interested in this subject I recommend reading the full essay. The quotes I’ve chosen fail to do justice to Golding’s elegant, humorous, and insightful writing.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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