more on critical thinking

First, my apologies to those who have commented here recently. Apparently when I hit the upgrade button on the latest version of Disqus, it altered some settings and I stopped receiving email alerts when comments were submitted. It's all fixed now, but as a result I dropped the ball on the possibility of a good conversation on this issue. I am returning to it now.

One of the things that came out of that conversation both here and elsewhere is the many concepts of critical thinking that exist. For a number of the commenters, critical thinking means something like this textbook or something like John Bean's book which is directed toward faculty. Both of these books reinforce the close connection between critical thinking and rhetoric/composition. Personally I find the textbook quite amusing with its section on "Fallacies and other rhetorical devices," which is then counterposed with a section on various kinds of logical argumentation. Essentially one is presented with a current-traditional (i.e. early 20th century) understanding of rhetoric and argument with a strong faith in the universal power of logic and reason. Bean's book focuses on helping teachers use writing to teach critical thinking. This is certainly one of the central memes of composition where we must now contend with the realization that there is no universal academic discourse and hence no common means of argument or critical thinking that can be articulated in writing. 

If you go to the Council of Writing Program Administrators Outcome Statement for First-Year Composition, there is a section on Critical Thinking, Reading, and Writing, which includes the following:

  • Use writing and reading for inquiry, learning, thinking, and communicating
  • Understand a writing assignment as a series of tasks, including finding, evaluating, analyzing, and synthesizing appropriate primary and secondary sources
  • Integrate their own ideas with those of others
  • Understand the relationships among language, knowledge, and power

We need to acknowledge that the first three items in that list need to be understood as discipline-specific. Yes, we can speak generically about writing's role in a series of activities or a writing process. That generic knowledge is part of the discipline of rhetoric. It establishes some of the paradigms of the field in the way all fields have paradigms that define their objects of study. But it's not really actionable knowledge. For example, I can find "appropriate" primary and secondary sources for research in my field. I know the databases, the journals, the search terms, and so on. I know that other fields have similar practices, but I don't know how to find appropriate material to conduct research in the field of economics or electrical engineering or whatever.  As the textbook mentioned above would indicate though, some people would believe I am lying in that last sentence. They believe that some generalizable concept of logical argumentation, plus a skepticism toward "rhetoric," can operate to evaluate texts universally. They might concede that highly specialized texts are an exception, but only to reinforce their belief that "critical thinking" can evaluate the mainstream texts that we encounter (e.g. news, political speeches, advertisements, popular nonfiction, websites, etc.).

The last bullet in the WPA list though demonstrates a different way of thinking about this. It suggests that logical argumentation and reason are not absolutes but are instead ideological products of the relations "among language, knowledge and power." This is a familiar view to anyone with experience in critical theory, postmodernism, cultural studies, etc. This view would suggest that the evaluative processes supported by logical argumentation and reason are not critical at all, or at least are not sufficient. I would go farther (as I have many times on this blog) and argue that critical theory is not sufficient, specifically in its bias toward textuality and representation. Hence my interest in a realist ontology. 

It is in that realist ontology that the founding premise for my view here can be found. I do not envision "thinking" as a disembodied, universal activity. Instead, I view thinking as situated, material, networked, and distributed. From that perspective it makes sense to teach critical thinking in the same way… Not as a common practice or general condition but as a series of specific activities. So, to be clear, I am NOT arguing that we shouldn't teach critical thinking, but only that we shouldn't teach it as if it were a particular thing. I have no problem with teaching introductory rhetoric or logical argument or cultural studies. I think students should learn how to evaluate statistics and scientific claims, though this will require specializing to a degree in those fields. If you are in business you ought to be able to crunch the numbers on a proposal. If you are in literary studies you ought to be able to read a poem through a number of methods. But we shouldn't imagine that those skills are translatable or even that they rest on some significant, common cognitive practice. 

So when an English department, for example, says that it teaches critical thinking skills, that's true. But it doesn't mean that it teaches skills that will help you be a critical thinker as a stock broker, for example. In the same way, you will learn to write as an English major but not in a way that will make you a better writer of public relations or business proposals. I don't mean these things as a criticism of English departments. I don't think they should do those things. Nor do I think that this means that English degrees are of no use in the "real world." That's really a topic for another day. I'll just say that one would need to think about the value of bringing new patterns of thinking and writing into a network.

Furthermore, as I indicated in my earlier post, I think it is potentially damaging to universities to imagine critical thinking as a basic, universal skill. Composition programs have to work hard against the belief that they provide some kind of innoculation against bad writing that will carry students through their many writing tasks. Writing doesn't work that way. We can teach writing (and critical thinking) in composition but it's just one version. One of the commenters on my earlier post mentioned the political battle against critical thinking in Texas. In part this arises out of the belief that critical thinking is one thing, separable from the other activities of education. Instead, it should be clear that thinking critically is an integral part of research. Again, the error is in failing to ask "Critical thinking as opposed to what?" One can no more remove critical thinking from a university than one can remove thinking (or reading or writing).  

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