Saturday, March 25, 2017

Critical Thinking

The point-of-view will not be unfamiliar to readers here.  Critical thinking is not being taught to college students. Rob Jenkins has a bit different take on it that I found interesting.  They are being taught something else under the title Critical Thinking instead.

I was not surprised to read the research he references that students do not improve much in many areas by going to college, critical thinking being among the worst.  Yet I haven't attributed that to the colleges, as most critics would.  I think many people just can't learn it, because they won't learn it, or it takes to much expensive energy to learn it, or they just aren't wired that way.  I know plenty of fairly bright people who have the ability to apply critical thinking only in select circumstances, missing the obvious in other areas. Why do they hem and haw and hide and stop?  I do not know.  Go ask your Pop.

There may be something to the idea that colleges contribute to the problem by teaching something else instead, however.  Such things put the mind to sleep.  We can't learn everything, and will focus where need or interest directs. I think the first step is to set up the objective and dispassionate as an ideal, even while recognising all will fall short. The student might then engage in true life-long learning, reminding himself of the need.

(HT: Instapundit)


Grim said...

"Critical" has two distinct meanings in academia. "Critical studies" (which is the collective name for Women's Studies, African-American Studies, Latino Studies, etc.) are as he suggests them to be -- the criticism is always a variation of Marxist analysis, designed to teach students to think of the world in terms of conflicts between an oppressor and the oppressed.

Part of the lesson of such an approach is that it would be wrong to be dispassionate or detached. Everything -- all social relationships, all of history, economics, all of it -- is about injustice. You're supposed to take sides! Get involved! Change the world!

On the other hand, a philosophy department might well offer a course titled "Logic and critical thinking" (PHIL 2020 at the nearby University of Georgia). This course is about formal and informal fallacies, including common but invalid rhetorical techniques like the ad hominem. In theory, it should improve students' abilities.

In practice, though, logic applies imperfectly at best to practical problems. Identifying an informal fallacy in an argument doesn't mean the argument is wrong; it just means you can't base your assessment of its truth on that fallacious argument. Yet discounting the fallacy is often a mistake. Slippery slope arguments are often completely accurate predictions of the way the logic of a given approach to a political question is going to play out. The fact that they are informally fallacious does not change the fact that they frequently turn out to be 100% correct.

Ad hominem arguments are also sometimes quite important to consider. Susan Rice's character doesn't make her wrong about the importance of truth coming from the White House; but it does make her a bad candidate for a high position. The ad hominem fallacy will lead you astray in one case, but it's perfectly right in the other.

So it's a hard problem, even if you're on the right subject.

Texan99 said...

I attended college in the 70s. Obviously there was nothing called "critical thinking," but also I don't remember anything by another name that was much like any definition I'd give to critical thinking. Certainly there were professors who prized robust, original argument more than others, or who were better at promoting it or even more or less introducing it to recent high school grads who'd never met much of a challenge before.

Law school introduced me to what I'd call critical thinking much more systematically. Professors no longer were beguiled by essays that sounded original or thought-provoking or were simply elegantly expressed, unless the thread of argument really held up.

I don't remember much of a political bias in either college or law school. There were individual professors with bees in their bonnets, but no overwhelming trend. Nor do I remember very many professors with extreme views on either the right or the left. In most cases I couldn't tell much about their politics or religion at all.