When Non-Philosophers Teach “Critical Thinking”

When Non-Philosophers Teach “Critical Thinking”


“Critical thinking” means a very particular sort of thing to philosophers (mostly identifying, reconstructing, and evaluating arguments), but in the desperate struggle to stay relevant, other academic disciplines have started to appropriate the term “critical thinking” to describe what they do. I have read blog posts and articles by historians and literature professors, for example, who claim to teach critical thinking. But when non-philosophers say that they teach critical thinking, they seem to mean that they are teaching students how to question authority, challenge the dominant narrative, resist hegemony, and so on. These are obviously important things to teach, but they don’t have much to do with arguments and logic.  

In my philosophy department, we do not offer a course called “critical thinking,” but there is a course with that name offered in another department. I talked to a student who took that course, and she told me that she did not know what a deductive argument was, nor had she ever heard of modus ponens or modus tollens. Should we philosophers worry about this, or should we be ecumenical about the meaning of “critical thinking”?

The above question, sent in by a philosophy professor, is especially relevant in light of the ongoing trend of using learning outcomes to reorganize curricula. Is basic logical and philosophical reasoning part of any good critical thinking course? What else, besides that, would you want in such a course? And how have philosophy departments responded to other departments at their schools offering critical thinking courses?

(image: detail of “Threshold” by Danny Lane)

Lane - Threshold detail

guest
66 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
DC
DC
5 years ago

I’m not sure I get the complaint; critical thinking has never been the sole province of philosophy, and is not synonymous with logic. Every academic field is meant to engender critical thinking equally. This sounds like pure territoriality, and while formal logic is important (and as far as I know is taught to virtually all high school students), it is not always the most useful means to critically evaluate real-world situations.Report

Dani Wenner
Dani Wenner
Reply to  DC
5 years ago

“formal logic is important (and as far as I know is taught to virtually all high school students)”

I’m curious where you live that the above statement is true. I was not taught formal logic in high school and have met very few people who were. Most people in my experience get all the way through undergrad without ever encountering any formal logic, philosophy students being the obvious main exception.Report

Ian M
Ian M
Reply to  Dani Wenner
5 years ago

In Australia, let’s just say it is painful enough teaching it to 16-17yos in their final years of high school. Definitely not part of the mainstream curriculum here.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
5 years ago

Agreed, that’s the ideal course — covering all those things.Report

Aaron J
Aaron J
5 years ago

“Every academic field is meant to engender critical thinking equally. ”

No, they’re really not. Not equally.Report

recent grad
recent grad
Reply to  Aaron J
5 years ago

It’s a little ironic that you defend (I assume) philosophy’s unique claim to critical thinking with a bare assertion.Report

random
random
Reply to  recent grad
5 years ago

Actually, the claim doesn’t say or even imply that philosophy has a unique claim to it. It is a little ironic that you didn’t catch that.Report

Stuart Brock
Stuart Brock
Reply to  recent grad
5 years ago

I think pretty much all academic disciplines at most universities teach critical thinking skills, but in most cases those skills are taught indirectly by encouraging students to engage critically with their discipline (History, Politics, English Literature, etc.). Some disciplines, though, teach critical thinking directly, and by that I mean critical thinking is the subject matter of some of its courses; such courses outline, as their explicit content, theories about what critical thinking is and seek to describe how one should reason. In that sense I think philosophy is special, and has a special (though perhaps not unique) claim on teaching critical thinking. Although other disciplines may teach critical thinking directly, I don’t think many do. Consider the following analogy: pretty much all disciplines at university teach language and communication skills, but apart from linguistics and language departments, these other disciplines teach language skills indirectly. I take it that no-one thinks that the history department, for example, should teach its own linguistics course.Report

Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
5 years ago

There’s an entire body of literature on critical thinking, and it’s interdisciplinary in nature. There are plenty of psychologists and education scholars (in addition to many philosophers, of course) who work in this area. I suspect the problem being alluded to in the OP is when disciplines other than philosophy throw the term around casually and lazily without taking that literature into account. But that’s not an affront to philosophy specifically. It’s an affront to the interdisciplinary critical thinking field (and perhaps to good scholarship in general). I’m not sure what philosophers should do about it, but making sure at least one department member is familiar with the critical thinking literature and able to make connections to psychology/education scholars might be a start.Report

Adrian Piper
5 years ago

Other disciplines are always cribbing concepts, arguments, hypotheses and indeed their very existence from philosophy. Alas, it’s about 2,000 years too late to do anything about that. Just as we can’t prevent the term “theory” from being used very differently in comparative literature than it is in philosophy of science, similarly we can’t prevent “critical thinking” from being used very differently in political science or anthropology than it is in an intro logic course.

I think what would be useful would be to make the point eloquently, repeatedly and en masse to one’s dean of curricula that one can’t claim to teach students how to think in *any* field without teaching them how to think, speak, write and argue consistently; and that, of course, requires that they know what consistency is, when its criteria are being violated, and what the consequences are for public discourse. I taught for a time in a Jesuit university in which Ethics was required of all students, regardless of major. A concerted, vehement campaign, spearheaded by the APA and backed by all philosophy departments in accredited academic institutions, to make Intro Logic a foundational requirement for the undergraduate degree in every college or university, regardless of major, would not be out of place.Report

Rob
Rob
5 years ago

Regarding Justin’s inclusion of some social psychology in an ideal critical thinking course, Tim Kenyon and Guillaume Beaulac have an excellent paper worth checking out:

“Critical Thinking Education and Debiasing”
http://ojs.uwindsor.ca/ojs/leddy/index.php/informal_logic/article/view/4203/3339Report

anonymous
anonymous
5 years ago

A committee at my institution that was charged with identifying which courses taught “critical thinking” and how it should be assessed informed me that a philosopher’s understanding of critical thinking was not relevant to their task. The conception of critical thinking I proposed drew on both the work in philosophy and the work in social psychology. I was also told that the book *Critical Thinking: Its Definition and Assessment* by Fisher and Scriven was not relevant to the work of the committee. I’m still a little bitter about that.Report

Jeff Heikkinen
Jeff Heikkinen
Reply to  anonymous
5 years ago

What DID they think was relevant?Report

anonymous
anonymous
Reply to  anonymous
5 years ago

I believe they felt that it would be extremely difficult to demonstrate any measurable progress on a metric that actually measures critical thinking. (And the work by Arum and Roksa might indicate that they were correct on this point.) From this they concluded that they would be better off with a fuzzier definition of critical thinking.Report

Jeff Heikkinen
Jeff Heikkinen
Reply to  anonymous
5 years ago

That…. doesn’t really answer the question.Report

Chris Stephens
Chris Stephens
5 years ago

I want to second what Matt said, but also add that when I’ve talked to faculty from other disciplines (such as engineering) that say they want their students to have better “critical thinking” skills, what they often want is not (another) formal course – the engineers do fine at logic. What they want is the kind of critical thinking that you get from general humanities education – e.g., courses on Plato and Aristotle, epistemology, etc. Of course you’re not likely to get much improvement from taking one or two such courses, but the kind of critical thinking you get in those philosophy courses is presumably similar to what many other humanities departments offer. Perhaps (non-logic) philosophy courses do better at improving this kind of critical thinking than other humanities courses, but that remains to be shown. See the side bar link to the Atlantic article on the value of the liberal arts.Report

Ben Hale
5 years ago

Well, maybe we shouldn’t be concerned about the content of those courses — though I have definitely run into students who have been taught to use the informal fallacies as a tool to win arguments — but they should at least be concerned about missed opportunities. Fact is, philosophy is on the ropes in almost all areas. Critical thinking courses are one way that we can reach out to other units to build professional synergies and at the same time maintain course enrollments. In my experience, it’s often not the case that other units desire to teach critical thinking or even ethics courses, but often do because the philosophy departments aren’t offering these courses. This is money left on the table. IMHO, philosophy should be aggressively collaborating with other units to try to create courses that suit their student body but that also reinforce our importance within the academy. What this will take, in part, is some active soul searching on the part of philosophers to allow that such service courses should also be included as an important and vital part of the foundation of the 21st century philosophy department.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

There is no reason why non-philosophers can’t teach Critical Thinking in principle. Having said that, we had a serious problem at my institution with non-philosophers teaching “critical thinking” courses that did not examine the structure of arguments. Now only philosophers are allowed to teach it. I do think that some sort of oversight from philosophers is important. Having said that, I’m not much bothered that the OP found that a student who had taken a critical thinking course didn’t know the terms “deduction”, “modus ponens” or “modus tollens.” Given that a course only lasts a semester, there is only so much that can be covered, and much material that it would be useful to cover. Having said that, I don’t think that an introductory logic course is a good way to satisfy a “critical thinking” requirement. In my experience of teaching both, I didn’t see as much improvement in the students’ thinking skills when I taught formal reasoning than when I taught informal reasoning.Report

Beau Madison Mount
Beau Madison Mount
5 years ago

DC wrote: “[F]ormal logic is important (and as far as I know is taught to virtually all high school students).”

In the US, it’s taught to virtually no high school students, sadly. I can’t speak for other countries.Report

MA Student
MA Student
5 years ago

While I’d love to defend the notion that formal logic is all that there is to the critical evaluation of arguments, it isn’t clear to me that a strong case can be made for such a sentiment. And I love logic. The mathematicaler, the better. But logic, per se, is not really what worries me so far as vague allusions to “critical thinking” go. Rather, I find that students from other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences are often unable or unwilling to provide substantive *reasons* supporting their position (or criticism of a position), and further to explain why these reasons support whatever they’re saying. It seems like it’s just enough to say that some idea is “hegemonic.” One, apparently, need not say how or in what sense some idea is “hegemonic,” it is enough that one believe it.Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
5 years ago

When “Critical Thinking” is taught as a service course by philosophers, isn’t that often part of a strategy to maintain the relevance of having a Philosophy department (or maintaining its size)? If so, it might be viewed as a threat when other departments claim this course or subject for their own. That said, the unfortunate phrase “critical thinking” invites this encroachment by other fields, many of whom do legitimately teach students to think critically about various specific topics (what better than a whole course in Statistics to help students think critically?). Perhaps philosophers should start using some other phrase such as “Critical Reasoning” or even “Logical Reasoning” which could still be viewed as a plausible necessity in a core curriculum, but suggests the need for philosophical expertise in teaching elements of formal and informal logic.Report

p
p
5 years ago

Perhaps, it depends on what one means by “critical”. On the one hand, it means (going back to Greek) “distinguishing” or “distinction making”. Critical thinking in this sense is crucial for philosophy, as well as other disciplines, since it is concerned, primarily, with correct thinking attentive to the relevant features and distinction to a given subject matter. This sense of “critique” is still quite apparent in, say, Kant’s Critiques. And this is, also, the sense relevant to philosophical classes of “critical” thinking. There is another sense of “critical” which means something like “disapproving”. And this seems to be the sense employed in the other kind of critical thinking where what is at play is expression of disapproval of something (values, systems, societies, whatever). One would think that the latter presupposes the former but, obviously, this need not be true at all (effective, as opposed to, say, correct, criticism of society’s values need not be based on correct reasoning).Report

Anon Grad Student
Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

For what it is worth, I find that non-philosophers are far less likely than philosophers to overestimate how helpful it is to teach a formal apparatus to their gen ed students. So, heresy though this may be, I would be not altogether surprised if a mediocre (and therefore typical) critical thinking class taught by a philosopher was not that much of an improvement over a mediocre critical thinking class taught by a non-philosopher.Report

Margaret Atherton
Margaret Atherton
5 years ago

i agree with Avi Z. that the phrase “critical thinking” is pretty close to meaningless, inviting as it does the suggestions that other disciplines engage in uncritical thinking. No wonder we can’t claim it for ourselves. If we want to field informal reasoning courses, we would probably be better off, as suggested calling them courses in reasoning. And maybe there is a better way of describing the intellectual virtues inculcated by philosophy.Report

Daniel Shaw
Daniel Shaw
5 years ago

While I agree that CT can be taught in other departments, it is the thin edge of the wedge. We used to teach Medical Ethics to the Physician Assistant’s program, and they replaced the requirement with a medical practices course that is taught within the program. Now our university (with the approval of the faculty) has gone to fulfilling our gen ed ethics requirement within the various professions, and has abolished the universal philosophy requirement. It has permitted the university to not replace a retiree, and someone who departed for another campus (just in time) and terminate our temp. We are left with two philosophers, a major in moratorium, and a program in total disarray.Report

Andrew Sepielli
Andrew Sepielli
5 years ago

If the question is just how to distinguish the logic-y course from the hegemony-resist-y course, clearly the right answer is to require the later to be called “Kritikal Thinking”. If the question is how to wrest power from these other departments, then it seems that the right answer is for philosophers to teach both Kritikal and Critical thinking. Historically, our ranks have included the greatest logicians, but also the greatest dominant-narrative-resisters, right?Report

DC
DC
5 years ago

If I studied formal logic in the form of Boolean algebra in an underfunded NYC public junior high, the vast majority of you will have studied it by high school.Report

SB
SB
Reply to  DC
5 years ago

I went to a really good- probably overfunded- public high school. I didn’t see formal logic until college. NYC might be a special case because there are so many philosophers there.Report

SB
SB
Reply to  DC
5 years ago

But that’s really awesome that you learned Boolean Algebra in middle school. Do you want to be a philosopher or a computer scientist?Report

Anon Grad
Anon Grad
Reply to  DC
5 years ago

I’m from NY and know no one who took any logic courses prior to college, so I’m not sure this is something that is special about NYC. The only exposure to logic anyone I knew had was exposure to things they called “proofs” in geometry, but were really more like a series of definitions followed by a conclusion — with no indication of how they were connected, and no concern with inference generally.Report

SB
SB
Reply to  Anon Grad
5 years ago

Yeah, I’d like to know more about DC’s middle school and whether the logic course was part of the curriculum, or if it was something special some teacher assigned for them in particular. With the information provided in their comments, I imagine DC as some teenage prodigy from The BX, developing a semantics for some new, useful system in their free time. And if that picture is even remotely close, that pretty much makes my day.Report

DC
DC
Reply to  SB
5 years ago

Unfortunately I was and am mathematically mediocre.

I may be misremembering and it was in high school; it’s hard to find anything online from when I was in junior high (mid-80’s), but it definitely shows up as part of the New York Regents algebra curriculum on Google. A search on Google books shows that some high school-level textbooks (but not all) contain logic, and that it may have been more common during the “New Math” days of the 60’s. In any event, if you are all telling me that you never did basic propositional logic and truth tables in high school, ok I guess, but it just seems strange to me. I’m wondering if some of you did it early enough that you don’t remember doing it; it was always just a small part of algebra when we took it.Report

Adrian Piper
5 years ago

Do students realize when they are contradicting themselves? Do they understand that self-contradiction invalidates the significance of whatever they have to say, and why? Do they know when they are jumping to conclusions that don’t follow from the evidence, or from their assumptions? Can they tell when it is the argument that compels their assent, rather than the status or authority of the arguer, or the pressure of their peers? Do they understand what inferences – in the physical sciences, or the social sciences, or in history or in anthropology – can and cannot be made based on the evidence available to them? Can they read – say, the A Deduction in Kant’s first Critique – and understand why he calls it a “Deduction”? Do they even understand what the word “deduction” means? Can they actually “Prove it!” when challenged to do so?

These are some of the skills an Intro Logic course teaches, and only philosophers can teach it because it involves formalizations that originate in philosophy. If you believe, as I do, that a student has not really learned to think unless she or he can do these things, then Intro Logic is no less essential to a college education than Intro to World Literature.

Any field can teach Critical Thinking, merely by defining the parameters of the concept to fit its particular resources and interests. The concept of logic can’t be adapted in that way, because it formalizes a method of thinking that is just as foundational and necessary to human thought as the fundamental questions philosophy traditionally addresses. Philosophy departments that are fighting for their survival yet fail to insist on the importance of this skill for all students are shooting themselves in the foot.Report

Eric Sotnak
Eric Sotnak
5 years ago

I think it is unfortunate that academic departments have too-often come to think of themselves as being competitors. To some degree, philosophy departments have been forced into such a position by having to justify their continued existence to administrations keen on cost-cutting. In some departments, critical thinking and ethics are two subjects that keep them off the chopping block, so it is certainly understandable that there might be concern when other departments decide to offer such courses. Were it not for considerations like this, I think many would be much friendlier to a “critical thinking across the curriculum” sort of approach, where courses could be designed with considerable interdisciplinary input.Report

Joshua Miller
5 years ago

What is the evidence that philosophers teaching either logic or critical thinking actually enhance generally recognizable critical thinking skills? (Not just the definition of modus ponens but the tendency to give reasons and evaluate the reasons of others?)Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  Joshua Miller
5 years ago

Absent the controlled study or statistical database that would enable a considered answer to this question, I infer from your request for evidence that you yourself are lacking such evidence. Is this correct? If so, it could have many different explanations: Perhaps you yourself noticed no such enhancement from the logic or critical thinking courses you took as an undergraduate. In this case, it would be useful to know more about the content of those courses. Or perhaps you took no such courses and noticed no difference between your own critical thinking skills and those of your classmates who did. In this case it would be useful to know more about your basis of comparison (e.g. were you and your classmates all philosophy majors, or were you in philosophy and your classmates in the exact sciences, or vice versa, etc.). In general it would be very helpful to know how many contributors to this discussion took Intro Logic but did not feel it enhanced their generally recognizable critical thinking skills.Report

Joshua Miller
Reply to  Adrian Piper
5 years ago

I took both formal and informal logic as an undergrad. I also spent four years teaching (a lot of) logic and serving on and eventually chairing a logic curriculum committee. I’ve also read the arguments and considered the evidence in Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift, which uses a measure we might not ratify and has other statistical problems, but is probably worth considering.
The short version of the concern is that good critical thinkers may do well in logic without learning to be better critical thinkers thereby. (My own phenomenological report: I feel like statistics did more to improve my real world critical thinking skills than philosophy.) Basically: https://xkcd.com/552/
Even if it turns out that philosophy majors are better critical thinkers than many non-philosophy majors, and better than they would have been if they had majored in something else, we still haven’t resolved whether it’s the logic or the close reading of difficult texts that made the difference. I’d really love to run that experiment with a large enough group of students to settle the question: who is a better critical thinker after, say, two years of coursework? Students who studied logic, critical thinking, and statistical methods, or students who read the history of philosophy without emphasis on formal logic or explicit instruction in reasoning? Which makes you more critical: Plato and Hume, or Copi and Hurley?Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  Joshua Miller
5 years ago

That is a really great link. Thanks. Here’s another one from that page I thought was neat: https://xkcd.com/1584/ . Two points:
(1) “[G]ood critical thinkers may do well in logic without learning to be better critical thinkers thereby.” Not even in now having the tools of logical analysis that enable them to diagram and refine their already good critical thinking? Or to subject claims made by others to more careful and detailed analysis and evaluation?
(2) “We still haven’t resolved whether it’s the logic or the close reading of difficult texts that made the difference.” Having logic improves one’s ability to closely read difficult texts tremendously. Here I speak not only from personal experience (see my reply to Guy), but also from teaching Kant’s first Critique and Groundwork to several generations of students. Both texts contain many killer passages that are almost impossible to get through without propositional and predicate logic; and the failure to bring those tools to the task of exegesis always has bad consequences.Report

Joshua Miller
Reply to  Adrian Piper
5 years ago

If the argument is that non-philosophy majors should take critical thinking and formal logic in order to better understand the 1st Critique, I think you will find slow going with administrators. There is–I agree–good reason to suspect that training in philosophy will make you better at reading philosophy. The question is whether this is generally applicable, such that nursing and business management majors would benefit from these lessons as well. Unless you’re also advocating that turfgrass science majors read the 1st Critique?Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  Joshua Miller
5 years ago

The argument to administrators would be that non-philosophy majors should take critical thinking and formal logic in order to better understand any legal document, medical document or business contract they encounter throughout their lives, and in order better to organize their analyses, arguments and hypotheses in whatever field they’re studying. As to whether turfgrass science majors should read the first Critique, you bet they should, at least if they want to understand the structure of scientific hypothesis formation. For the origins of Hempel’s covering law theory, check out the Appendix to the Transcendental Dialectic’s section, “The Regulative Employment of the Ideas of Pure Reason.”Report

Nat
Nat
5 years ago

Tim van Gelder has said that critical thinking takes about as long to become proficient at as learning a 2nd language. Although not a strict rule so much as an observation, it is also a useful intuition pump for examining teaching critical thinking. How comfortable would you be with someone teaching French who has “picked up a bit” from their medieval history major?Report

Alan White
Alan White
5 years ago

Isn’t the effective content of “critical thinking” about developing an attitude of informed and disciplined epistemic humility? And doesn’t that take time and effort to be able to invoke in one’s mind various perspectives so as to evaluate the best track for truth on a given subject-matter? Philosophy can do a lot to provide the “disciplined” part via deductive and inductive and abductive logic, and hopefully model humility in demonstrating the complexity of sorting through various perspectives (which is why we still teach Platonic Dialogues after all). But the “informed” part requires cooperation with all the other disciplines. If the truth is out there at all, it is about a universe that needs to be studied in all its spatiotemporal and conceptually interconnected features. All of the courses in a university curriculum relate to one another. One of our main tasks in philosophy is to show that’s the case–and that it’s humbling once one sees the challenge of that.Report

praymont
praymont
5 years ago

In the 80s, there was an influential critique of critical-thinking courses by John McPeck, who argued against having courses devoted to general thinking skills favoured, instead, discipline-specific teaching of critical thinking. According to Google, McPeck’s *Critical Thinking and Education* has been cited 1038 times. I think it’s cited a lot by people in Education departments. E.g., there’s a document by Joanne Gainen Kurfiss called *Critical Thinking: Theory, Research, Practice, and Possibilities* (1988) (available on-line) that has been cited more than 600 times. See esp. pp. 31-42 of Kurfiss’ document for critical remarks about logicians’ approaches to critical thinking. Kurfiss, too, seems to favour a discipline-based approach to teaching critical reasoning. This alternative seems to have been promoted by programs in Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC). WAC programs are often promoted by university writing centres and encourage faculty in many departments to incorporate a WAC component in order to foster discipline-specific critical thinking. (To get a sense of the emphasis on critical thinking in WAC programs, go to the site called “The WAC Clearinghouse” and enter “critical thinking” in the search box.) In short, there’s been a push for more discipline-specific teaching of critical thinking, and writing centres are among the chief beneficiaries of this trend.Report

Russell gore
Russell gore
5 years ago

Logic is the science or study of correct inference. It means finding the best way to argue for some conclusion or to organise the way you think about statements. It is necessary for the study of critical thinking, just like arithmetic is necessary for the study of higher mathematics. If you think you can be lazy enough to avoid it, you are fooling youself.Report

Adrian Piper
5 years ago

I see two non-exclusive alternatives emerging in this discussion. (1) One is to collaborate with faculty in other departments on creating an interdisciplinary, university-wide Critical Thinking course that basically satisfies Justin’s description of what such a course should include, and that could be taught by nonphilosophers, or perhaps team-taught. (2) Another is to insist on the pedagogic indispensibility for all undergraduates of Intro Logic as it currently exists, which could be taught only by philosophers because of its technical content and centrality to the Western philosophical tradition.

(2) would be less labor-intensive, since the course already exists and no negotiations with other fields as to its content or presentation would be necessary. It also would fit a pre-existing template from the sciences, in which certain undergraduate-level courses are accepted as essential despite their technical content. On the other hand, it would require educating university administrations as to why Intro Logic should be accorded this status.

One way to drive home the point would be simply to analyze the logical structure of the counterarguments that administrations open to discussion would inevitably offer, expose their fallacies, and ask whether that is really the level of intellectual competence they wish to transmit to their students. But others more politic than I could probably develop more acceptable means of persuasion – at least for administrations that really do have the best interests of their students at heart.Report

Blake
Blake
5 years ago

Most subjects claim to teach critical thinking, but when they say that, they often only mean that people who employ critical thinking well within their class will get better marks, not that they teach critical thinking skills explicitly. They generally don’t explicitly teach the specific skill set actually taught in critical thinking classes that come under the subject of philosophy. If they do bring up aspects of critical thinking, it will generally be cursory, or little bits and pieces, but they won’t have an entire subject devoted to covering all of the bases of it.

When you take a critical thinking class within philosophy you’ll be learning how to critically break down, analyse and construct arguments, using precise methods. You’ll practice conceptual analysis, you’ll learn about basic formal and informal logic and formal and informal logical fallacies, you’ll learn about statistical reasoning and how things like statistics and graphs can be manipulated, as well as many other tactics used to dishonestly display data and confuse people in arguments, you often also learn about common forms of delusion like confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance and so on. These are classes where you’ll have an entire text book specifically on critical thinking and learn specific demonstrable skills which you will hone by actually practicing using them, e.g. being given arguments and having to break them down into their premises and conclusion and showing the relationships between the premises and so on.

Often when someone says they have studied critical thinking, they don’t mean same thing as what a philosophy student means when they say they studied critical thinking, they are talking about critical thinking in a far more general sense, which can cause some confusion.
It can be problematic if you are putting the skills you developed during your study of philosophy on a resume because when you say you’ve studied critical thinking and you’re trying to give your employer an accurate understanding of your skill set, if you’re applying for a job that isn’t within philosophy, the person reading your resume probably isn’t going to have a clear idea of what you mean, since almost everyone claims they studied critical thinking in their degree, which makes your study of critical thinking harder to market effectively.Report

Nat
Nat
5 years ago

Praymont, McPeck is definitely cited a lot, but more recent theorists have a fair bit of criticism of immersion only teaching of CT. Biggest issue is that although it may foster CT skills within the area of study, without making the principals explicit, there is little transfer.Report

Heidi
Heidi
5 years ago

RE: DC and DC’s respondents. I was a high school student in New York state (not NYC) and was also taught formal logic. It was required as part of the Regents. However, having worked with undergrads in other states, I am under the impression that New York state is unusual in this regard. None of the undergrads I have taught or otherwise worked with in Texas, North Carolina, or Michigan have had any formal logic in high school.Report

DC
DC
Reply to  Heidi
5 years ago

Maybe I’m mistaken, then, about its prevalence; I remember Boolean algebra being taught fairly early, I thought in junior high (and my junior high was a run-of-the-mill one, not a specialized one) algebra. The basic operations are not particularly complicated and I would think that if they’re not taught in high school algebra in other states they should get a taste of it in any high school computer programming class.Report

guy
guy
5 years ago

I’d like to tack on a (3) to Adrian’s (1) and (2) — is there already data, and, if not, is there a means of testing the content and pedagogy of the Intro Logic courses phil departments already offer for their degree of effectiveness? FWIW, this semester i’ve turned my Intro Logic course into a course that includes everything Justin mentions as “ideal.” But ultimately, i want results; i want to be able to show people in my own division and other divisions/disciplines that students are better off having taken my course than not as far as their critical reasoning skills go. And if that means including a non-traditional topic or foregoing a traditional one, that’s fine with me.

So, working under the assumption that an Intro Logic course is designed to produced better critical reasoners [i realize some schools separate Logic courses from Critical Thinking courses, but frankly, not all schools have the enrollment-luxury to do this], how about dealing with (3): Perhaps we can hone/design Intro Logic curriculum to do a better job of producing better critical thinkers.

i realize i’m falling prey to the availability heuristic here, but in my experience, some professors who teach Intro Logic include topics simply because the professor enjoys it, not necessarily because those topics are most germane to student training. i’m still fairly new in my career, so i would appreciate whatever wisdom/knowledge on this issue others have to share. Maybe we could just start with the issue of content. What topics best inculcate critical thinking skills? Are there traditional topics that should be omitted and reserved for more specialist/upper division logic courses? Are there topics that ought to be included that Intro Logic courses traditionally skimp on or skip altogether? Currently, i have 5 units in mine: (I) Informal Fallacies; (II) Cognitive Psychology; (III) Probability Theory & Statistics; (IV) Categorical Logic; (V) Propositional Logic.Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  guy
5 years ago

“But ultimately, i want results; i want to be able to show people in my own division and other divisions/disciplines that students are better off having taken my course than not as far as their critical reasoning skills go.”
This I think is essential, to produce hard data demonstrating that students’ command of logical reasoning improves as the result of taking Intro Logic. Based on a “before” and “after” comparison, I know mine definitely did (there’s no way I could have gotten through Kant’s Transcendental Deduction without it). But perhaps there’s some way of standardizing and objectifying that, for example, by choosing a particular passage from philosophy or jurisprudence, and asking the students, both on the first day of class and also on the last, to identify and evaluate its argument; or by asking them, again both on the first day of class and also on the last, to defend the same philosophical thesis. “Surprise quiz” data of this kind might also suggest ways the course could be improved so as to increase such measurable results, as Guy rightly recommends.Report

Average Joe
Average Joe
5 years ago

There is a sense in which anyone can use a term however he or she wants. But there is also a standard use of a term, and to use ‘critical thinking’ in a non-standard way while acting as though one’s use is standard is to make a mistake. Here is analogous case: In a discussion about knowledge acquisition, a psychological research methods textbook used at my school claims, “The empirical method, also known as empiricism, attempts to answer questions by direct observation or personal experience.” Later it claims, “The rational method, also known as rationalism, involves seeking answers by logical reasoning.” Now, if a psychology professor who uses this textbook were to claim that she teaches students about empiricism and rationalism, she would be making a mistake. And the reason she would be mistaken is that, however she might wish to use the term ’empiricism’ and ‘rationalism’, empiricism and rationalism are epistemological views, or theses, about the origins of knowledge; they are not methods. Similarly, given that ‘critical thinking’, as standardly understood, refers to an activity involving skills like those described above by Adrian Piper and MA Student, if a professor believes that her course teaches students critical thinking but her course does not address these skills, the professor, I take it, is simply mistaken.Report

Tony Blair
Tony Blair
5 years ago

If you’ll permit an old man to enter the discussion, for years (since the 1970s) I’ve been following this conversation about what critical thinking consists of and what shouldn’t be confused with critical thinking, and why (see definitions and discussion about them by Robert Ennis, Richard Paul, John McPeck, Matthew Lipman, Harvey Siegel, Peter Facione, Alec Fisher and Michael Scriven, Ralph Johnson, Sharon Bailin, among others); how it’s best taught (by teaching formal logic, informal logic, how to interpret statistics, how to watch TV news, how to read a graph, what some of our cognitive biases are, etc., etc.; or: how to read history, psychology, political reporting, etc., critically; or how to listen to music, view paintings, read novels, etc., critically; etc., etc., etc.); what we know about the benefits of instruction devoted to fostering it (and whether we know anything about this: there’s a literature about testing and tests exist); who is qualified to teach it; whether it can or should be taught across the curriculum or only in stand-alone courses, or whether that’s a false dilemma. There’ve also been discussions about the implications of the discussions listed above for the question whether the philosophy department or program should have a monopoly on teaching CT courses. So you’re going over well-trodden ground. That doesn’t mean these issues don’t need to be considered and debated, as you’ve been doing. Clearly they are still very much alive. But do be good scholars and do some homework. There’s an interest group called the Association for Informal Logic and Critical Thinking (founded in 1983) that costs $10 a year to join (it accepts formal logicians) and organizes sessions at the Eastern, Central and Western AP(hilosophical)A meetings. And there are at least two journals that publish a lot about CT: Inquiry, Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, and Informal Logic, Reasoning and Argumentation in Theory and Practice [the latter, including all back-issues, is free on-line; full disclosure: I’m an editor].

I suggest that whether learning some formal logic is valuable in helping to understand and critique philosophical arguments (such as Kant’s) is a different question from whether learning formal logic transfers to helping to understand and critique the argumentation of a political opinion piece, a legal brief, or a policy proposal. But neither of these propositions has to my knowledge been reliably tested. Whether being able to analyze and assess arguments, whether simple or complicated ones, is all there is to skill in critical thinking, strikes me as problematic, since other things than arguments, such as explanations, observations, communications of information (reports), and instructions, among other things, repay the scrutiny of critical reflection. Whether learning about cognitive biases is sufficient to arm us against possessing or exercising them has been challenged in recent literature. I could go on…well, no, I’m out of gas.Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  Tony Blair
5 years ago

I’d like to respond to two points in Tony Blair’s very interesting post:

(1) “I suggest that whether learning some formal logic is valuable in helping to understand and critique philosophical arguments (such as Kant’s) is a different question from whether learning formal logic transfers to helping to understand and critique the argumentation of a political opinion piece, a legal brief, or a policy proposal. But neither of these propositions has to my knowledge been reliably tested.”

I would agree that the skills of formal logic *needn’t* transfer from exegesis of philosophical texts to exegesis of op ed pieces, legal briefs, business contracts, insurance contracts, medical documents, policy papers, etc. Why that is also needs further scrutiny. I speculate that it may be a function of the contexts in which these skills typically find concrete practical application, and that if those who have them were more often identical with those who must read and act on these non-philosophical texts, they probably would. But yes, this definitely does need to be tested. A relatively easy way to do this would be to give the same e.g. legal brief to someone who has had training in formal logic and to someone who has not, and have its author compare the resulting exegeses with regard to clarity, consistency, rigor and fidelity to the author’s intentions.

(2) “Whether being able to analyze and assess arguments, whether simple or complicated ones, is all there is to skill in critical thinking, strikes me as problematic, since other things than arguments, such as explanations, observations, communications of information (reports), and instructions, among other things, repay the scrutiny of critical reflection.”

Here you treat these skills as though they found merely passive application, in the evaluation of arguments – as well as “explanations, observations, communications of information (reports), and instructions, among other things,” which texts a good critical thinking course also would introduce as examples. But one reason for preferring a traditional Intro Logic course over a critical thinking course is that the former demands of its students that they develop the *active* skills of logical thinking, by requiring that they construct their own proofs of propositions and theorems – not just once or twice, but repeatedly, usually on a weekly basis, over the course of the semester. This skill transfers quite easily to the construction of clear and persuasive exposition in the other fields you list.

One final point, since you mention it. If you are Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, then you are five years my junior. Die fighting! I always say. 🙂Report

Eric
Eric
5 years ago

“Whether being able to analyze and assess arguments, whether simple or complicated ones, is all there is to skill in critical thinking, strikes me as problematic, since other things than arguments, such as explanations, observations, communications of information (reports), and instructions, among other things, repay the scrutiny of critical reflection.”

I agree, but a philosophically based course in critical thinking will (or ought to) train students to distinguish arguments from explanations et al. And it will also make it clear that those lines cannot always be neatly drawn (which will tend to make one’s reflection on various forms of communication much more nuanced).

Re: the point of the OP, it seems as if we can distinguish what we might call the critical attitude, which could be summed up in the exhortation, ‘Question authority!’ from the tools we use when we apply the critical attitude to a particular conclusion, argument, topic or domain. The assumption in the OP is that philosophically based critical thinking courses generally focus on developing the tools, while literary etc. based critical thinking courses generally focus on developing (cultivating?) the attitude. I’m not sure if this is true (though I suspect it may be). Nonetheless, ideally, in my judgment, critical thinking courses should focus on the tools, since one is exposed to the attitude, at least implicitly, in most good courses, regardless of the subject matter; the same, unfortunately, cannot be said for (competent) exposure to the tools.Report

srinivas
srinivas
5 years ago

Is basic logical and philosophical reasoning part of any good critical thinking course? of course YES. The difference in philosophy department to that of others is to train the students to understand and appreciate that there will always be an opposing arguments for any string of thought/argument/ philosophy. students should understand the line of supporting arguments for each philosophical thought and should be able to see how practical the supportive arguments for it are.. ( evaluated in the light of… I talked to a student who took that course, and she told me that she did not know what a deductive argument was, nor had she ever heard of modus ponens or modus tollens. Should we philosophers worry about this, or should we be ecumenical about the meaning of “critical thinking”?) last but not the least …everyone subscribes to one line of thought or the other. As a philosophical student, one should be able to retrieve the base reasons for that line of thought come into existence and how far that philosophy will sustain itself modifying the lives of generations of individuals/subscribers in view of core human values.

Philosophy is not just a course for gaining an ordained credit worthiness for just an employment. The graduates coming out of the course should be able inculcate the attitude of tolerance and appreciation in the general masses for variety of thought processes from fertile mind of individuals.Report

Anon Grad Student
Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

I’m teaching logic now, and I’ll be teaching logic again soon. I find logic fun, and I find it _occasionally_ useful for reading philosophy articles that go technical. But I don’t really understand the people who think that teaching these classes is helpful to the standard undergrad. But I’m willing to learn! Is there a great logic syllabus out there? Or is their a famously helpful logic class?Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

I took those courses too long ago for the syllabi to be useful now. At least I hope they’ve been superceded by even better, more effective ones. But for what it’s worth, my Intro Logic course, taught by Samuel Guttenplan, used Carney & Scheer’s Fundamentals of Logic, which at that time innovated in teaching axiom systems and formal deduction, plus sentential and quantificational logic and the elements of set theory, in addition to informal deductive argumentation. It also concluded with a section on the application of logical concepts to the exact sciences, which was extremely useful. It was a great course. My second logic course, taught by Martin Tamny, was also great. It used Copi’s Symbolic Logic, Third Edition (the corrected one) and Ernest Nagel’s book on Gödel’s Proof. Having had no prior exposure to logic, I devoted an entire summer to each course, busted a gut on both, did exercises and proofs every day. It was worth it. The improvement in my writing for other courses and purposes was evident and immediate: clearer, better organized, more logically structured. Perhaps part of what makes it difficult to measure the effectiveness of courses like this is that unless one continues in philosophy, their impact is felt in other fields that philosophers don’t have the opportunity to measure.Report

Adrian Piper
Reply to  Adrian Piper
5 years ago

P.S. – Martin Tamny’s second logic course also used Joel W. Robbin, Mathematical Logic: A First Course, the rediscovery of which in my library has jogged my memory. But unlike with the Copi and Nagel texts, we didn’t cover the entire book, only the chapters on Gödel’s, Tarski’s and Church’s Theorems, and the one on Second-Order Logic.
I notice no one else has responded to Anon Grad Student’s question. I really hope I’m not the only one out there who has taken “famously helpful logic classes” as an undergraduate! I’m very curious to hear the experiences of younger generations of undergrad logic course survivors.Report

SB
SB
5 years ago

Personally, I can get really emo when it comes to meaningful content. So it’s nice to have some form to fall back on. Isn’t that why everyone loves logic?Report

Johngthomas
5 years ago

It seems to me that critical thinking, in the philosophical sense, plays a part in most disciplines. Whether examining the implications of research in neuroscience, physics, medicine, history, psychology or any number of other disciplines we need critical thinkers capable of objective analysis and evaluation.Report

Zsofia Zvolenszky
5 years ago

Just as I wanted to do a survey of opinions on current informal logic/critical thinking textbooks, Adrian Piper called my attention to this string. So let me share my inquiry with you. If you have experience with informal logic/critical thinking textbooks available in English, I’d love to hear your assessment of them. Which structure, approach you liked or disliked? What’s your top choice for such a textbook and why? The target audience would be nonphilosophy BA/MA majors taking a core logic course as part of a communication studies major, a business major or an ethics major (the latter is gaining prominence in Hungary, hence, in part, my inquiry).

Many thanks for sharing your impressions, negative and positive. If you have experience with some of the more comprehensive textbooks covering both formal and informal logic, and care to reflect on those, I’d be delighted to hear your impressions also. You can, if you prefer, send me a direct email at [email protected], and I’ll post here a summary of the feedback I receive.Report

C.
C.
5 years ago

“But when non-philosophers say that they teach critical thinking, they seem to mean that they are teaching students how to question authority, challenge the dominant narrative, resist hegemony, and so on.” This may be true in the writer’s experience, but none of my colleagues conflate casting a critical eye on something with critical thinking. When we read a student history essay, we do indeed look for critical thinking, perhaps not as rigidly as in formal logic, but we are not asking if the student is critical of an historiographical view but whether the argument is structured in such a way that their conclusion can be logically inferred. At that point we also take into account the evaluation of the sources used in support as well. If we didn’t do this, a history essay would be no more than a student’s opinion. Critical thinking is alive and well though I agree the term is thrown about a bit too freely.Report

MBA
MBA
4 years ago

“But when non-philosophers say that they teach critical thinking, they seem to mean that they are teaching students how to question authority, challenge the dominant narrative, resist hegemony, and so on.”
As a student who specifically completed both classical logic and critical thinking – had to request these by the way, not part of any curriculum I’ve heard of except at BC – that phrase sounds more statistics and information related than critical thinking. Is critical thinking needed in almost everything in life? Sure it is. A course in critical thinking should help students develop the ability to reason clearly and critically. This course should also should cover informal logic, from which a student learns to analyze and assess everyday positions and arguments. It includes an introduction to the disciplines of deductive logic, fallacious reasoning, inductive logic where the bridge between the premise and the conclusion is assumed, and problem-solving techniques. Emphasis is placed on the identification and management of the perception process, use of assumptions, emotional influences, and language in various forms of business communication. It is also true that many genres of course work share in the utility of both informal and classical logic. Claiming it is fine, but effective common usage would seem to be more important.Report

praymont
praymont
4 years ago

After what used to be called ‘formal logic’ was replaced by Frege-Russell formal logic, philosophers re-named the old formal logic ‘informal logic’. The phrase ‘critical thinking’ was used by Progressivists in education theory (inspired by Dewey), who launched a push in the 1930s for teaching ‘critical thinking’ in secondary schools. Their focus initially was on resistance to propaganda but was then broadened to incorporate such matters as how to ‘question authority, challenge the dominant narrative, [and] resist hegemony’. This was meant to prompt curriculum-wide reform (what’s now called ‘critical thinking across the curriculum’). Clicking my name should take you to a short post about these progressivists. Report