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.


STEM And The Liberal Arts

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group in Washington, D.C. that is attempting to hold the feet of colleges and universities to the fire as far as academic core requirements are concerned, recently awarded a prize to the President of Purdue University, Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr.  The interesting thing about this is that Purdue is primarily an engineering school — or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, if you will — and it is taking the lead in finding a place for the liberal arts at the heart of its academic program while insisting that young people at that university be guaranteed the right to hear conflicting points of view: none shall be turned away (as is increasingly the fashion today). This is interesting  because the liberal arts around the country are suffering from neglect and in many cases those who are charged with their defense are the most active in their dissolution.

In any event, at Purdue whatever reform or restoration that might take place is happening from the outside since, as Daniels points out, help from the inside, from among those faculty who actually teach the Liberal Arts, is not likely. Growing numbers of them are intent on bringing down the tradition and replacing it with the latest fad popular among those who would refashion Western Civilization to conform to their own idea of what it should be.

Daniels recently addressed a group at the A.C.T.A. and some of what he says is worth quoting because I have said many of the same things, but I am a small voice and many might think it is an isolated voice and also somewhat strained and even frantic in its concern for what I regard as some of the most important factors operating within — and without — the Halls of Ivy. Daniels, for example, reminds us that:

“The concerns most often voiced about the current university scene — conformity of thought, intolerance of dissent and sometimes an authorial tendency to quash it, a rejection of the finest of the Western and Enlightenment traditions in favor of unscholarly revisionism and pseudo-disciplines — these and other problems are not unique to the liberal arts departments, but a host of surveys document that they are most common and most pronounced there.

“A monotonously one-sided view of the world  deprives students of the chance to hear and consider alternatives, and to weigh them for themselves in the process of what we call ‘critical thinking.’ . . .

“Former Stanford Provost John Etchemendy has written, ‘Intellectual homogeneity weakens the academy’; he labelled the ad hominem attacks that homogeneous tribes often directed at dissenters as ‘the death knell of inquiry.’ Perhaps Princeton’s Keith Whittington has stated the point most concisely: ‘Ignorance flourishes where free inquiry is impeded.’ . . . .

“Conformity of thought, enforced by heavy-handed peer pressure and reinforced by self-perpetuating personal practices, has by now achieved come-tragic proportions. At one prestigious eastern university a friend recounts that, when he asked the history department chairman if he had any Republicans on his faculty, the answer was, ‘Have any? We don’t know any.'”

Another recipient of an award from the A.C.T.A., Paul S. Levy, joined Daniels in his concerns over the state of the colleges and universities today. He began by quoting Yeats and then commented as follows:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

    Are full of passionate intensity. . . .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         “This is what is happening on our campuses today: group think, suppression of speech, knee-jerk conclusions, a disdain for facts and proof, assumptions of guilt rather than innocence.”

What Daniels and Levy are referring to here is the alarming tendency — even among so-called “prestige” universities — to refuse certain speakers to be heard on campus because their political leaning is not in the proper direction coupled with the presence on campus of those within the faculty who refuse to allow conflicting points of view to be heard. Critical thinking is not at the top of the list for those who see as the only worthwhile academic goal the radical transformation of the university, and ultimately contemporary society itself, to fit the mold they hold dear to their hearts — a mold that is not all that clear either to  themselves or those who listen to them rant.

Now I have voiced many of these  concerns over the years in this blog, but I think it important that my readers hear another voice or two — and voices at the forefront of the fight to preserve what is precious and vital to the continued existence of what we call “civilization.” This is not right-wing clap trap. It is a serious situation within the academy that threatens our free society. And while the battles that go on within the walls of the Ivory Towers of academe might seem trivial and unimportant to those without those walls, it is not. As Levy maintains,

“. . .we are living the fact that what happens at American universities and colleges affects our entire society. We are at risk.”

Daniels elaborates:

“The worn out jokes about the stakes being so low in higher education debates do not apply to this one. In the struggle to define what a genuine liberal education should be, the stakes could hardly be greater, because it can be argued that we have never needed effective teaching in the liberal tradition more than today. Even the most gifted young people often emerge from today’s K-12 systems appallingly ignorant of either history or the workings of their own nation’s free institutions. Authoritarians of both Left and Right are eager to take advantage of their ignorance. There was a reason that the last sultans of the Ottoman Empire banned the teaching of literature and history throughout their realms.”

And, indeed, in Huxley’s brave new world literature, philosophy and history are ignored by the citizens as they blindly seek pleasure and follow the lead of those who would establish the latest trend. But that, of course, is fiction.


Idiot America

In my various and assorted writings I have had occasion to borrow ideas from other thinkers. My advisor at Northwestern used to say that “we are all intellectual shoplifters.” But I have tried to acknowledge when I have shoplifted an idea here and there. I have even shoplifted my own ideas from time to time! But, as I say, I try to give credit where credit is due.

In any event, I have referred a number of times to the marvelous book by Charles P. Pierce titled Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue In The Land Of The Free. It is a book written by a journalist who knows how to put words together and who has his finger on the pulse of the country he loves.  Despite this love — or because of it — he worried that we have wandered far off the path that founders like James Madison set us on many years ago and are now wallowing in a sea of confusion where we no longer recognize the truth when it stares us in the face; where we have replaced confidence in reason and science with gut feelings and flagrant lies.

At one point in his book (and note here how I give attribution!) he holds forth:

“. . . Idiot America is a collaborative effort, the result of millions of excisions made and not made, to reduce everything to salesmanship. Debate becomes corrupted argument, in which every point of view is just another product, no better  or worse than all the others, and an informed citizenship is abandoned to the marketplace. Idiot America is the development of the collective Gut at the expense of the collective mind. It’s what results when we abandon our duty to treat the ridiculous with ridicule. It’s what results when politicians make ridiculous statements and we not only surrender our right to punish them at the polls but also become too timid to punish their ideas with daily scorn . . . . .

“The rise of Idiot America. . . is essentially a war on expertise. . . . [It] reflects — for profit mainly,  but also, more cynically, for political advantage and in the pursuit of power — the breakdown of the consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people we should trust the least are the people who know what they are talking about. In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a scientist, or a preacher, or a sage. And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert.

“This is how Idiot America engages itself. It decides, en masse, with a million keystrokes and clicks of the remote control, that because there are two sides to every question, they must both be right, or at least not wrong. And the words of an obscure biologist carry no more weight on the subject of biology than do the thunderations of some turkey neck preacher out of the Church of Christ’s Own Parking Structure in DeLand, Florida. Less weight, in fact, because our scientist is an ‘expert’ and, therefore an ‘elitist.’ Nobody buys his books. Nobody puts him on cable. He’s brilliant, surely, but no different from the rest of us, poor fool.”

Pierce is not ridiculing America, he is ridiculing the fact that America has allowed this to happen. And this was before a certain self-proclaimed business tycoon was elected to the Presidency, if you can imagine! Americans can little tell the difference between fact and fiction, they have allowed important distinctions between truth and opinion, between science and faith to disappear in a fog of indifference. Many today, even many teachers of high school biology, accept that dinosaurs lived alongside cavemen; they deny evolution and climate change; and they think science is simply someone’s opinion. Pierce attributes this to national apathy, an indifference to what is happening around us and a willingness to believe whatever we are told as long as it makes us comfortable. We do not allow that there are uncomfortable truths — like the truth about the warming globe we live on, for example.

I do think Pierce is on to something, though I would also fault the education system. That I respect his arguments should be obvious from the fact that I have quoted him repeatedly and at length. But George Berkeley said it long ago in a very few words: “Every opinion should be tolerated for what it is worth.” We need to engage our critical thinking faculties and submit every claim from whatever source it might arise to scrutiny to see whether or not it makes sense and whether or not we must accept it — like it or not. We might do well to bear in mind Curtler’s Law: consider the source: who said what and when? Above all else we need to teach critical thinking in our schools. All of them at all levels.

Truth its not opinion and science is not fiction. And there are some people who know more than others. There are experts and there are dunces. The latter may be entitled to their opinions, but critical scrutiny should allow us to dismiss their claims out of hand. If we do not allow these basic distinctions then we are indeed the idiots that Charles Pierce says we are.

Great Men Can Be Foolish

Can we call great men truly great if they have said things we now know are not only false but even offensive? For example, Aristotle thought that some men are “naturally slaves,” and that women should be subjects to men. Heidegger was a Nazi supporter, Plato supported a closed society in which the few ruled with little or no restraint, Ptolemy thought the earth was at the center of a finite universe. And so on. Are these men still “great”? This is an interesting question and it was raised in a comic I read on a daily basis, believe it or not.

But the issue fails to focus on one central point: we need not worry about who said what; we need to focus on what was said. I realize that Curtler’s Second Law states that we should consider the source of comments in weighing their worth — in the case of complex national issues involving, say, the future of the planet where special interests are involved. But in general, we are prone to the ad hominem fallacy in our culture, where we reject an argument because of who put it forward. “Oh, that can’t be true, the man’s a liberal.” Or, “that is absurd; after all she is known to be a loose woman.” Or whatever. We forget that liberals (and even conservatives) and loose women can put forward excellent arguments. In the vast majority of cases the arguments stand or fall on their own feet. It matters not who put them forward.

Aristotle said many foolish things. And he was certainly wrong to ignore what his predecessor Plato said about women: they can also be rulers of his Republic. But Aristotle also invented logic and was the first empirical scientist who was interested in all things living and dead. He invented the complicated system of taxonomy which is still used in the biological sciences.  One could say he is the father of modern science. He also observed that cities whose leaders become motivated by self-interest rather than the common good degenerate into base forms of political systems — democracies, for example, degenerate into oligarchies (as we are finding out to our chagrin). And Heidegger was a brilliant man who made important contributions to philosophy. The same could be said of Plato who wrote the book to which, according to John Dewey, the history of philosophy is merely a series of footnotes. In order to evaluate the greatness of a mind, no matter whose mind is in question, we need to read and consider carefully what that person said.

It has been said that because Thomas Jefferson had illegitimate children with Sally, one of his slaves, we should reject all he wrote and said. This is part of the P.C. movement that is sweeping the academies of “higher learning” as well as the country itself. Now, whether or not this is true, it is irrelevant. We need to separate the man from what the man said or wrote. He was a genius and his contributions not only to political philosophy but even to things as remote as agriculture and architecture are of seminal importance. Again, we need to be wary of the ad hominem argument. Aristotle, Heidegger, Plato, and Jefferson were extraordinary men and their contributions have made us all better informed and a bit wiser. But we need to work our way through their claims carefully.

Ideas stand or fall on the basis of the evidence and support that is offered in their behalf. Why did Aristotle think some men were naturally slaves, for example? It is not an absurd argument, after all, simply because it will offend some people. He looked around and saw a great many people who simply went along with the crowd, who seemed to lack autonomy, the power to think for themselves and take control of situations much less direct the actions of others. Other men, meanwhile, had those qualities and he concluded that some men were natural slaves while others were natural leaders. We blanch at the word “slave,” and well we should. But the fact that Aristotle points to is undeniable: some people would rather follow than to lead. We even find this in considering the corporate ladder where we discover men and women who are perfectly content to remain on the lower rungs rather than to step higher and take on more responsibility. It’s not a foolish thought or a weak argument. It is simply that we are today hypersensitive to certain words — like “slave” or “Nazi” or “closed society” to carefully consider the argument itself.

Real thought moves past the question of who put what argument forward and regards critically the argument itself. Ptolemy was wrong, but we do not dismiss him as a fool. We simply realize that we now know a great deal more than he knew and we realize the mistakes he made. Science, and knowledge generally, moves progressively forward by fits and starts. Trial and error. But the worst thing we can do is ignore the evidence and the argument altogether simply because we don’t like the person putting it forward. I will allow that in complex arguments where we cannot possibly follow the reasoning process we are warranted in rejecting the claims of those with vested interests in the outcomes. But, in general, critical thought demands that we focus on the ideas themselves regardless of who out them forward.

Logic Lesson

I taught logic and critical thinking for over forty years and while I knew neither could answer many of the deep problems we face as human beings, they always seemed to me to be a way to clarify things a bit so we might then find an answer or two.

One of the puzzles of our times is the claim we hear from time to time that “Since all great men are persecuted in their lifetime and since I am being  persecuted therefore I must be a great man.” This is what logicians call a false conversion. While we can certainly question the original claim that ALL great men have been persecuted it is none the less the case that many were. Jesus, Socrates, and Galileo leap to mind.

But even if we allow that all great men were persecuted in their lifetime (which I do not) we cannot infer that anyone who is persecuted is therefore a great man. Many a mediocre mind finds comfort in that thought, erroneous though it is. “I am being persecuted therefore I must be a great man (or woman).” Not so.

Consider these examples of false conversion:

All men are animals, therefore all animals are men.

All red-heads have quick tempers, therefore anyone who is quick-tempered is a red-head.

All triangles are geometrical figures, therefore all geometrical figures are triangles.

Bear in mind that we are not talking about whether any of those claims are true or false. Not all red-headed persons have a quick temper, for example. But we are simply asking that IF the first statement were true would the second statement follow from it? And clearly it does not. These are all what logicians call “a” propositions, universal affirmative propositions of the type All S is P, or SaP.

Therefore, just because a man or a woman is persecuted in his or her lifetime it does not follow that such a person is a genius. I can think of many who were and are persecuted in their lifetime who fully deserve it and they certainly were not geniuses. Geniuses, for example, do not spell “forest” with two “r’s.” And geniuses don’t threaten to discontinue funding FEMA since it has been found that some of the fires were started due to negligence on the part of park employees and THEN turn around and shut down the government so that Federal park employees are out of work and cannot possibly prevent fires in the future, much less improve on their past performance. Consistency is not this man’s strong suit. And consistency is a Cardinal Rule in logic and critical thinking. It is the sine qua non of genius. I’m just saying.

Once we have clarified the nuts and bolts of this particular puzzle we can move on to more important issues, such as, does such and such a person deserve to be persecuted — or at least pilloried — in his or her lifetime? As you can imagine, I can think of a couple.


Unreasonable Doubt

I recall reading years ago about the results of a study that showed beyond doubt that the self-esteem movement was based on a faulty assumption. Telling kids they were great because they breathed in and out on a fairly regular basis did not, in fact, breed self-confidence. In California, where the self-esteem movement was started, the study was denied by at least one city councilman who said: “I don’t care what the evidence shows. I know it works.” In fact, the study showed that the kids who were told they were great knew damned well they were not and what was bred was not self-confidence but contempt for their elders. I worked with kids for years and, believe me, they know when they are being duped. They sense falsehood the way a dog senses fresh meat on the floor. They may not be able to articulate it, but they sense falsehood and pretense.

In any event, the doubting of science is not new and it seems to have been given new life in recent years as people who should know better insist that scientific evidence about climate change is bogus and science, in general, ought to be dismissed out of hand as an attempt to alarm and upset the rest of us. The people who make these outrageous claims are obviously in denial (or the pockets of Big Oil) as they proceed to make their coffee in electric coffee-makers, make office calls to their local physician when in pain, drive their automobiles, fly around the world in airplanes — all activities involving faith in scientific ingenuity. In a word, we have here a case of denial in the form of selective beliefs. We reject those beliefs we find uncomfortable and we adopt as certain those that make us feel good.

This would not be a serious problem, of course, if we weren’t talking about the survival of the human species and possibly even the planet itself. Selective belief has been around, I dare say, since the dawn of time. For all we know the saber-tooth tiger fell victim to it! But we are now living in an age in which the rejection of science borders on the insane. Science is not THE answer to all our problems. Heaven knows, Horatio, there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in science. But, at the same time, science can provide us with a fairly certain guide to human conduct that will not only fly us anywhere we want to go, but also help us avoid the deep pitfalls that await those who insist upon walking around with blindfolds across their eyes.orwell-1

I am a firm believer in testing all claims to truth. Critical thinking is essential if we are to survive as individuals and as a species. But it is not critical thinking that insists upon the rejection of scientific truth; it is sheer stupidity, if not duplicity. There are certain things that are beyond doubt: the probability is so high as to approach certainty. When 97% of the scientific community agrees about the dangers of continued abuse of the planet, we can be fairly confident that this is true — even if we can’t follow their arguments and decipher their complicated data.

It pays us to be cautious when the stakes are as high as they are. And it pays to check for hidden agendas among those who deny climate change as well as those who insist it is a fact. The deniers have a great deal at stake, to wit, their increasing profits in the sort term. The affirmers are scientists who are simply concerned about the future of this planet and who have no hidden agendas — despite all the false charges laid at their feet. It might be the better part of wisdom to pay attention to those who are shouting alarms in increasingly louder voices and ignore those who insist on looking the other way. It just makes sense.

Corporate Intruders

Readers of this blog will attest that I have a high regard for the writings of Christopher Lasch. I do tend to refer to him a great deal because I am convinced that he saw deeper than most into the current malaise, the sickness that is at the heart of our culture and our society. But he is not always correct in his musings, despite the fact that I find myself agreeing with so much of what he says. Indeed, I would recommend any and all of his books to anyone who is seriously interested in seeing more clearly what is going on around them. But, as I say, he sometimes goes a bit too far. As an example, take the following passage from The Revolt of the Elites that deals with the corporate “takeover” of American universities:

“It is corporate control that has diverted resources from the humanities into military and technological research. fostered the obsession with quantification that has destroyed the social sciences, replaced English language with bureaucratic jargon, and created a top-heavy administrative apparatus whose educational vision begins and ends with the bottom line.”

I am not aware that corporations ever allowed monies to flow in the direction of the humanities. So it is not clear how they “diverted” it into military and technological research. But it is certainly the case that corporate monies have somehow found their way in that direction. In any event, I think Lasch makes an excellent point here. But he takes a step too far later in the same paragraph:

“One of the effects of corporate and bureaucratic control is to drive critical thinkers out of the social sciences and into the humanities where they can indulge in a taste for ‘theory’ without the rigorous discipline of empirical social observation. . . . Social criticism that addresses the real issues in higher education today — the university’s assimilation into the corporate order and the emergence of a knowledge  class whose ‘subversive’ activities do not seriously threaten any vested interest — would be a welcome addition to contemporary discourse. For obvious reasons, however, this kind of discourse is unlikely to get much encouragement either from the academic left or from its critics on the right.”

There’s a problem here: this sound a bit too much like conspiracy theory. In his book Lasch makes a good case that the left-leaning academics have become lost in the jungle of newspeak they have invented to discuss the finer points in culturally acceptable literature — without bothering to read any of the classics they reject out of hand because they smell of the stench of “dead, white, European males.” In a word, they are caught up in the unreal world of “metalanguages” and “texts” in order to allow them to detach themselves from the real world where good minds should be attending to real problems. I accept this much. I have always felt that academics generally shield themselves from the world in so many ways, indeed, that many of them have retreated into the ivory tower precisely to escape from reality which can at times create undue stress. And I also see the intrusion of the corporation into the academy in so many ways, and have seen first hand the trend away from any sort of course requirements in the academy that would result in real thought on the part of college graduates. But I fail to see how the corporations have somehow managed to “drive critical thinkers out of the social sciences and into the humanities.” How, precisely, is this supposed to have taken place? The implication is that the social sciences no longer have any critical thinkers and those in the humanities are wasting their time (and their students’ money) chasing academic butterflies while the world around them is falling apart. I suspect his claims are on solid ground, but Lasch does not argue for these claims here, which would make him vulnerable to the same sorts of criticism he levels against other academics — bearing in mind that he was one himself.

So while I find myself in agreement with so much of what Lasch says, I do find him giving vent to generalizations at times that almost certainly reflect the man’s own take on the world, which he may have grounds for but which he fails to share with his readers. I would love to know how we get from the truth that the corporations have intruded themselves into the academy to the claim that they have managed to shift “critical thinking” personnel from the social sciences to the humanities (by withholding funding perhaps??). And I resent the implication that none of us in the humanities have the critical acumen to deal with real problems in the real world, though I would be the first to admit that an increasing number of people in literature and philosophy seem to be chasing imaginary butterflies. Indeed, I would go so far as to question whether those in the social sciences, by and large, are now or ever were any more critical of what is going on in the “real” world than those in the humanities. After all, these people are all academics in the end — and that seems to be the reason they feel most at home dealing with academic problems.

But it is assuredly the case that the corporations play an inordinately large role in the academy, as they do in the “real” world. And this is to be deeply regretted and should receive the attention of all those who regard higher education as a matter of some importance to the preservation of what’s left of our culture and indeed to our way of life.