Critical Thinking

The buzzwords these days in many colleges and universities around the country are “critical thinking.” At our university where I taught for 37 years a mandate came down from on high not long ago that critical thinking would be required of all graduates forthwith. It was a mandate to all state universities and each was allowed to determine just how to accommodate the requirement.  A great idea, no doubt. But the reality was that it was like throwing a handful of feed to a cluster of hungry chickens! Every department realized that such a requirement was a way to get students into the classroom and pretty much every department in the college proposed one or two of their own courses as a way to meet the mandate. In other  words, every department in the university, with few exceptions, insisted that they taught critical thinking in their courses.

Were that it were so. I have always thought that critical thinking can be taught across the curriculum, and have even led workshops in helping other faculty members see how it could be done. I thought, for example, that accounting and economics, not to say chemistry and even engineering were rich sources for the critical thinker to explore. The same can be said for several of the other departments in the university. But not all. Seriously: critical thinking in sports science??

The home of critical thinking is the philosophy department where logic and critical thinking have been housed since time began — or at least since such courses appeared on the scene. Logic, of course, was a part of the original “trivium” that comprised a part of the seven liberal arts that go back to the medieval period, the birth of the modern university in such places as Paris. But the mandate from on high failed to indicate just how the courses in critical thinking were to be implemented and in doing so they opened Pandora’s Box.

It is not the case that critical thinking is in fact taught in all (or nearly all) courses across the board — sad to say. Though, as I mentioned, I think it can be taught across the board. But the course demands that students be taught how to recognize arguments and distinguish them from simple exposition, locate suppressed premises or assumptions, identify conclusions and separate them from the support for those conclusions — how do we determine where the conclusion lies if we do not have “indicator words” like “therefore,” or “it follows that”? Most arguments appear without such indicators and a careful reader must be able to ferret out the point of the argument before she can begin to think about it critically. It has to do with asking the right questions.

And once the conclusion has been located and the support for that conclusion identified, how compelling is that support for that conclusion? Are any fallacies committed, formal or informal? What are the differences between formal and informal fallacies? These are questions that are central to critical thinking and these are questions that few disciplines with which I am familiar focus upon. For many people critical thinking means sitting around shooting the bull and letting the discussion go where it wants. Those same people seem to think that thinking itself just happens. It doesn’t, not careful thinking. It takes work. As Toynbee said, it is as difficult as is walking on two legs is for a monkey.

Thus we have the interesting but confusing situation in which a sensible mandate has come down from on high and has been met with a plethora of courses that all claim to teach critical thinking while, in fact, very few do. How do I know this? Because I have examined LSAT results over the years and the disciplines that stress critical thinking reward their students with excellent LSAT scores and therefore prepare them nicely for law school where critical thinking is essential. The majority of academic disciplines — even some of those traditionally regarded as the best disciplines to prepare students for law school — do not.

Unfortunately, these are the realities with which we must deal on a daily basis in today’s university. Good ideas become fluff. The demand that the student be prepared to think critically, in this case, is replaced by the demand on the part of faculty across the board that they be allowed a piece of the pie (in the form of what are lovingly called F.T.E. or “full-time equivalent”) — students who sit in the classroom and pay the bills. Instead of thinking about the students and their real needs, many in the faculty think only about their own chosen academic discipline and determine to protect their domain at all costs — even at the cost of the education of the young.

It is not the case that I have nothing good to say about todays universities and colleges. There are good people out there doing good things. But there are also these sorts of SNAFUs. My point here is to note a trend. There are always exceptions to trends and to generalizations (that’s something one learns in a good critical thinking course!). That is to say, there are excellent people in the classrooms across the nation doing excellent things. But not all mandates yield excellent results. Especially when those mandates come from administrators who are not themselves very well educated.

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Militant Multiculturalism

I have held forth on a number of occasions (too many, some might say) about the battles going on in the Higher Education since at least the 1960s when the wheels started to fall off. The battles take many faces but occur under the umbrella term “postmodernism,” a new age that will replace the old. One of those faces is that of “multiculturalism,” which has become increasingly militant and focuses on an attack against Western Civilization — regarded as the source of all major problems now confronting the world. It began with an attack on the “establishment” in the 1960s and expanded to take in the whole of Western Civilization, especially during the Viet Nam war, because of  the West’s consistent pattern of aggression and exploitation in an attempt to bring other peoples to their knees and force them to yield up their treasure  — exacerbated  by the presumption of greatness on the part of Western Europe and America and Western art, literature, and philosophy, in particular.

It’s a movement that is well intended, to be sure, though it tends to dwell all too intently on the failures of the Western way of looking at the world. To be sure, there have been terrible mistakes, such as genocide, greed, slavery, pointless wars, and intolerance of other ways of looking the world. But in the tossing out process something precious is being glossed over and in the tizzy to replace the old with the new some important elements are being ignored or forgotten altogether.

Beaten down by this attack, for example, are the “Great Books” of Western Civilization which are now regarded as the villains in the drama, the source of the ideas that have made our culture rotten at the core — though one must wonder how many the zealots have bothered to read any of those books. Indeed, it is mainly dwindling numbers of old geezers such as myself who continue to spit into the wind while defenders of the New Age proudly display their ignorance and triumph in their new-won victories. Their goal is to “rid the world of colonial oppression,” to convert students to one way of thinking, toss out the old, and pave the way to a new and more open way of engaging the world in an effort at what its called “globalization.” And they are winning. Indeed, they may have already won.

One of the old geezers to have joined the battle in a rear-guard effort save the humanities — where these battles have been fought for the most part — is Anthony Kronman of Yale University who has written a book that describes the battles in some detail in an effort to save what remains and perhaps even to resuscitate the humanities as they lie dying in agony from self-inflicted wounds. His book, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges And Universities Have Given Up On the Meaning of Life, points out some of the many ironies of the attack on the tradition that is being replaced. To begin with, there is the fact that replacing our culture with another, presumably superior, culture would require a total immersion in that culture, which is not possible — even in theory — for American students who have spent their lives inculcating scraps from the very culture they hope to displace. Furthermore, the attack on Western Civilization draws on the categories and ideals of that very civilization which also provides the intellectual framework, such as it is, for that attack. And ironically those ideas and ideals are endemic to most, if not all, of the cultures that are regarded by the militants as superior to our own from whence they arose. As Kronman points out:

“The ideals of individual freedom and toleration; of democratic government; of respect for the rights of minorities and for human rights generally; a reliance on markets as a mechanism for the organization of economic life and the recognition of the need for markets to be regulated by a supervenient political authority; a reliance, in the political realm, on the methods of bureaucratic administration, with its formal functions and legal separation of office from officeholder; an acceptance of the truths of modern science and the ubiquitous employment of its technical products: all these provide, in many parts of the world, the existing foundations of political, social, and economic life, and where they do not, they are viewed as aspirational goals toward which everyone has the strongest moral and material reasons to strive.  . . . all of them, all of these distinctively modern ideas and institutions, are of Western origin. . . . The ideas and institutions of the West, liberated from the accidental limits of their historical beginnings, have become the common possession of humanity.”

Moreover, as Kronman points out,

“The idea of tolerance [which the militants champion] finds support in many traditions, especially religious ones. But only in the modern West did it become — fitfully, hesitantly, but with increasing clarity and determination– an axiom of political life.”

I have often noted that we seem to be throwing out the baby with the bath water, but those who would do the throwing couldn’t care less as they reach left and right for the latest Western evil to be tossed. However, while there are indeed many reasons to feel disdain for our past, even terrible, mistakes that we in the West have made, there are also so many things that are worth saving and preserving. To be sure, the universities should be open to new ideas and make the students aware of the many cultures around the world other than their own — all of which also have made mistakes, by the way. But at the same time they should seek to preserve the best of what we have all learned from our own past in order to pass those things along. Healthy criticism is a good thing along with honest appraisal and a weighing of pros and cons, but a hysterical rejection of all things Western in the name of “tolerance” is itself the most intolerant view one can possibly exhibit.