“Step aside and let philosophers do their job”


Elizabeth Oljar and David Koukal (University of Detroit Mercy) have penned a spirited case for universities entrusting the teaching of critical thinking to departments of philosophy in The Chronicle of Higher Education (may be paywalled).

They argue against the “common assumption that all professors teach critical thinking, and that no one discipline has any special claim to expertise in this area.”

If we take “critical thinking” to be “thinking about thinking itself,” or, less pithily, “the conscious, deliberate, rational evaluation of claims according to clearly identified standards of proof,” its “natural disciplinary home,” they say, is philosophy, “a discipline that has been thinking about thinking since its inception.”

Oljar and Koukal write:

Philosophers have spent centuries formulating logical principles that distinguish good reasoning from bad reasoning. Knowing the difference between premises and conclusions, factual claims and inferential claims, deductive and inductive arguments, and good from fallacious reasoning is vital for thinking seriously about thinking. But you won’t learn any of that in “Intro to Organic Chemistry”…

[P]rofessors of literature, history, economics, nursing, and business are all presumably competent critical thinkers in their own disciplines. But if students are to learn what it means to be a critical thinker in all areas of their life, then they must be taught what constitutes good critical thinking in general—and that means taking a philosophy course. Consider fallacies, or mistakes in reasoning: Fallacies occur across the entire spectrum of claims to knowledge, but their essential characteristics are the same regardless of the subject matter. Professors who cannot recognize fallacious arguments in any context—even if they can identify them in their own disciplines—cannot truly teach critical thinking.

They argue that college students should be required to take a course in critical thinking:

In an ideal world, a course in critical thinking or informal logic would be considered just as essential to a university education as are courses in algebra and composition, and would be taught in the freshman year… The course would point out the various psychological barriers to good reasoning and could include units on scientific, statistical, moral, and legal reasoning. But its main focus would be on providing students with the fundamentals of argumentation, especially as those pertain to everyday life.

These courses would be easy to justify. Good critical thinkers navigate the world with a kind of intellectual body armor, making them less likely to be deceived by improbable claims, more likely to make reasonable requests for evidence, and more aware of rhetorical ploys that appeal only to our emotions, biases, or prejudices. Good critical thinkers recognize human finitude and fallibility, and are always conscious of the roles those characteristics play in the formation of belief. Critical thinking might, in fact, be the paradigm of a liberal art, for it both broadens and frees the minds of our students. And the study of logic is an essential key to this liberation.

Oljar and Koukal are standing up for philosophy’s disciplinary expertise, and we should appreciate that. Yet, because they are arguing for a conclusion we want to be true, we have extra reason to be cautious in accepting it.

One way of being cautious would be to note that despite making a number of empirical claims, the authors refer to zero empirical studies supporting these claims. Here are some of those empirical claims:

(1) Taking a course in critical thinking improves a students ability to think critically.
(2) The most effective critical thinking courses are ones that focus largely on informal logic and argument structure.
(3) Critical thinking courses offered by philosophy departments are more effective than critical thinking courses offered by other departments.

Is (1) true? One study suggests that taking a course in critical thinking improves the critical thinking of only those students who’ve previously studied logic. Further, that study provides no support for thinking that critical thinking instruction via a philosophy course is more effective than, say, instruction via a course in mathematical logic, weakening the case for (3). A 2016 metastudy provides some evidence that college students end up with improved critical thinking skills, but observed “no differences in the critical-thinking skills of students in different majors,” which on the face of it counts against the truth of  (2) and (3). On the plus side, a recent study did provide empirical support for critical thinking instruction, but just for a specific method of doing so: argument-mapping.

To my knowledge, there is not much evidence either way about the effectiveness of philosophy-based critical thinking college courses. The idea that philosophy courses would be particularly effective means by which to teach critical thinking has intuitive plausibility, but intuitive plausibility at best provides only indirect and very weak evidence for causal claims.

Oljar and Koukal end their essay by voicing a wish for others to “step aside and let philosophers do their job.” We are experts, after all. But philosophers should be as respectful of the expertise of others as they wish those others to be of them. Rather than assuming our way to our preferred conclusions, we should work with experts in education to determine whether there is a solid foundation of empirical evidence for them.

(This would be an excellent project for the American Philosophical Association to initiate and help fund.)

Related posts: “Does Philosophy Improve Critical Thinking?“; “Teaching Students Logic Improves Their Logical Reasoning Skills“; “The Benefits of Pre-College Exposure to Philosophy: Data Needed“; “Teach Everyone Logic?“; “Empirical Support for a Method of Teaching Critical Thinking“; “Skepticism About Philosophy’s Capacity To Improve Thinking“; “Philosophy as Anti-Terrorism Tool“; “Philosophy in Schools: Continuing the Conversation

 

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Geoffrey Bagwell
Geoffrey Bagwell
2 years ago

Thanks for sharing this Justin. There is a distinction that often gets missed in discussion of critical thinking that is important and vital in the research on critical thinking. The distinction is between critical thinking skills and the disposition to use (or not to use) those skills. (There are various formulations of this distinction but this is the most common.) Research in critical thinking has marked this distinction for decades and it has had enormous influence on the direction of the research. Most of this research has focused on critical thinking skills and and an huge number of studies (analyzed in the metastudy you cited and many others) has shown that general critical thinking courses of the kind philosophy departments typically offer do NOT consistently improve student’s critical thinking skills. There is one exception to this. When critical thinking skills are embedded in course content, such as in an introduction to philosophy course, students do tend to improve their use of critical thinking skills. But most studies (again including the 2016 metastudy) suggest that this improvement is not due to an improvement in the skills themselves so much as student’s disposition to use those skills. An introductory philosophy course might, therefore, do a better job of teaching critical thinking skills than a general critical thinking course because introductory philosophy course work on students’ disposition to be critical thinkers more than it works on their skills. One study from the University of Pittsburgh suggest that philosophy is better suited to improve students’ disposition to be critical thinkers than other subjects (http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/4972/1/Philosophical_Temperament.pdf). Introductory philosophy courses do of course teach critical thinking skills as well, but they tend to be embedded in the course rather than the focus of it.

What I take all of this to suggest is that philosophy as a discipline is best suited to help students develop the disposition to be critical thinkers, but philosophy is not clearly better at teaching critical thinking skills than any other other subject. So, we should be advocating for our introductory philosophy courses rather than for our general critical thinking courses.Report

Untenured Postdoc
Untenured Postdoc
2 years ago

“Critical thinking courses” seem to be a uniquely American phenomenon and I’m somewhat sceptical of them. I only sometimes have a student who took a “criticial thinking” course. This knowledge mostly amounts to them being able to (a) recognise syllogisms and (b) using a memorised list of fallacies as some sort of “gotcha” argument-winners. Neither appear to be particularly helpful. Regarding (a), very few arguments are presented as syllogisms or are re-writable to be syllogisms. Regarding (b), such students think that their engagement with a text is concluded once they recognise some fallacy or other, which means that they forego any deeper evaluation of the merits of a text.

Then again, there surely is such a thing as critical thinking. To me, it seems to consist of (i) judging overall plausibility of a claim, and (ii) evaluating the strength of an argument. These being gradient notions, the usual philosophical teaching of logic appears to be wholly inadequate. And it seems questionable whether philosophers are the best people to teach them. Certainly, philosophers possess both (i) and (ii) to a very high degree, as evinced by any serious philosopical discussion. But other scholars also possess these same skills, maybe to a varying degree and/or with different focal points. It seems to me that (i) and (ii) are not skills that can be taught as such, but skills that one acquires by some sort of osmosis. Write and evaluate enough arguments, and have other’s evaluating yours, and you get a sense for (i) and (ii).

To reduce this osmosis to some sort of algorithmic knowledge (write as syllogisms! identify fallacies!) seems to be entirely counterproductive, since it appears to encourage superficial engagement with an argument; this may prevent the deep engagement required to form a sense for plausibility.Report

grad student
grad student
Reply to  Untenured Postdoc
2 years ago

I fully agree with (b). But you are totally off the mark with (a). Pretty much all arguments are re-writable as modus ponens, modus tollens, hypothetical syllogism, or disjunctive eliminative argument. It can be a really useful skill to practice rewriting arguments in one of these four forms. Practicing reconstructing and outlining arguments this way is a vital skill to being a good philosopher.Report

Untenured Postdoc
Untenured Postdoc
Reply to  grad student
2 years ago

I’m not particularly attached to this point, and you may well be right. However, I have done some formal argument mapping research in the past, and I thought it quite plain that not every natural argument is deductive logic. A natural instance of “A therefore B” is not always a modus ponens using the premiss “A -> B”. Many such arguments (i) are enthymemes that rest on topoi which aren’t true conditional propositions; (ii) are inductive (if A is non-conclusive but suggestive data); (iii) are abductive (if B purports to explain A). And IF “A therefore B” is an application of modus ponens, I find it almost spurious to state “A -> B” as a side-premiss. Since in argument mapping you have a type of counter that attacks the mode of conclusion (“this is not a valid abduction”), instead of making explicit a conditional side-premiss, you can just attack like “this is not a valid deduction”.

Philosophical argument is very different, of course.Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  grad student
2 years ago

“Pretty much all arguments are re-writable as modus ponens, modus tollens, hypothetical syllogism, or disjunctive eliminative argument.”

This isn’t remotely true. First, quantifiers are extremely important. Second, many arguments are not deductive and still, in some sense, good.Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
2 years ago

*You can “rewrite” universal quantifiers as (possibly infinite) conjunctions and existential quantifiers as (possibly infinite) disjunctions, assuming a countable domain objects. But I’m assuming this is not what you intended. (It certainly isn’t the easiest way of handling quantifiers.)Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
2 years ago

I was wrong about one thing — you don’t need the assumption of a countable domain. There is a sense in which you get this “for free” by the Lowenheim-Skolem theorem. So infinite conjunctions/disjunctions are enough (assuming one is okay with sentences of infinite length) to express the quantifiers and still have the same deductive properties.Report

Ro
Ro
Reply to  Joshua Reagan
2 years ago

i believe anyone interested in this question of rewriting arguments in the forms of syllogisms (and also the question of making logic more accessible in general) would benefit from being familiar with the work of Fred Sommers and George Englebretsen (especially “An Invitation to Formal Reasoning”).

Their syllogistic logic is as close to natural language syntax and makes deductive proofs a lot easier than predicate logic (and perhaps also propositional logic, albeit less so). It could be of tremendous value even to students of critical thinking.Report

Louis
2 years ago

My guess is that there are some skills or abilities that are learned largely by osmosis but that are also, at least sometimes, susceptible to improvement by good (a crucial qualification) instruction. Writing may be one such ability, and critical thinking another. That said, unless a critical thinking course were exceptionally well taught and constructed, I suspect, as suggested in one of the comments above, that it would be more effective to integrate critical thinking into the substance of a course in philosophy (or history or whatever) rather than having a separate course on critical thinking in general.Report

Michael Brent
2 years ago

Two quick points. (1) If the ATTRIDGE, ABERDEIN, and INGLIS (2016) study supports the claim that taking a course in critical thinking improves critical thinking for those who previously studied logic, then we have some support for thinking that undergraduate philosophy programs could be structured such that students proceed from an introductory-level course (perhaps with a mini-unit on critical thinking), to a course in symbolic or practical logic, to a course devoted to critical thinking (perhaps one using argument-mapping), and beyond from there. Then, if we felt so inclined, we could compare the performance of upper-level students who took this sequence of philosophy courses to similar students at the same institution who did not take that sequence, on some agreed-upon measure of their respective critical thinking skills. (2) The HUBER and KUNCEL (2015) meta-study is not conclusive, either way. So, on its face, it does not seem to count against the claim that the best critical thinking courses focus largely on informal logic and argument structure, or the claim that critical thinking courses offered by philosophy departments are better than those offered by other departments.Report

Paul
Paul
2 years ago

Professional philosopers and graduate student wannabe academics may well wish to have all colleges require a critical thinking course taught solely by Philosophy department instructors , such as themselves. Such relative departmental and employment security is firmly established for introductory college courses in English and Mathematics, almost universally required. What comparable empirical studies exist for these courses’ outcomes on student achievement in relevant areas of competence? Content? Instructors’ home department?Report

Mary Fratini
Mary Fratini
Reply to  Paul
2 years ago

Hi Paul –
The field(s) of composition, writing, and/or rhetorical studies [the names vary, historically and today, and carry more than semantic consequences] have published extensively for more than 50 years on the relationship between course outcomes, student achievements, and disciplinary as well as interdisciplinary competence in reading, writing, research, argumentation, and ‘critical thinking’. The same is true of related sub-field(s) within communication studies. This research is empirical, sometimes quantitative, sometimes qualitative, often mixed.

Perhaps the closest areas to begin relative to your question are:
1) research on transfer — for example, work by Rebecca Nowack, see bio here: https://www.marquette.edu/english/nowacek.shtml#),

2) writing analytics — journal here: https://wac.colostate.edu/jwa/

3) basic writing — journal here: https://wac.colostate.edu/jwa/

4) writing center and writing program administration — overlapping areas, two main journals: http://www.writingcenterjournal.org/journal and WPA Journal

5) Writing Across the Curriculum/Writing in the Disciplines (WAC/WID) and the newer CAC (Communication Across the Curriculum)

A solid list of these and other journals from the English side is here – http://wpacouncil.org/rcjournals.

Cheers,
MaryReport

Mark walker
Mark walker
2 years ago

For empirical evidence that dedicated critical thinking/informal logic classes improve critical thinking, see Possin, K. (2008). A field guide to critical-thinking assessment. Teaching Philosophy, 31(3), 201–228. Possin discusses how to measure mastery of critical thinking skills and cites several studies which indicate that informal logic/critical thinking courses are the single most effective courses for promoting these skills. Oljar and Koukal might have had a stronger case had they reviewed this literature for their readers.Report

Chronos
Chronos
Reply to  Mark walker
2 years ago

I’ll add that we had a discussion of this issue on this site some years ago about the LSAT. We had discussed whether a logic course would help with LSAT “analytical reasoning” scores, and there was evidence which suggested yes. I’ll mention that I once knew someone who worked at Kaplan test prep for five years and they told me that the single best way to improve one’s LSAT score was to take a Logic course from the Philosophy Department. Some will question this, but there is some evidence for this out there.Report

RB
RB
2 years ago

On the effectiveness of instruction in critical thinking, two recent sources I found helpful were Dweyer’s (2017) book with Cambridge University Press and Ennis’s (2018) contribution to Topoi. The first commentator was right to point out that most studies have focused on CT skills rather than CT dispositions. There’s a good deal of overlap between the latter and what many philosophers have come to call “intellectual virtues”. Some philosophers have in fact proposed teaching CT skills alongside intellectual virtues in CT classes; one recent example is forthcoming in *Teaching Philosophy*. One might think that this sort of CT instruction would be carried out particularly well by an epistemologist, or at least someone with knowledge of virtue theory.Report

Jon Light
Jon Light
2 years ago

Great post, Justin. Maybe CHE wasn’t the right forum for citing their sources and they could try here? Making undocumented empirical claims is indeed quite bad; surely we’d penalize even our undergraduates for sloppy practice. (Or, worse, just making stuff up because it is self-serving.)Report

Chris Sistare
Chris Sistare
2 years ago

A number of comments have noted that a well-taught CT philosophy course is the better or best bet. I wonder why we end to insist on the qualifier? Of course, a well taught English comp course is better than a badly taught one; a well taught biology intro course is better than a badly taught one – and so forth.
I do not think the only advantage in philosophical CT courses is quality of instruction. I have seen, over 30+ years, what my good colleagues in English, History, and other disciplines consider to be ‘CT.’ It is not the same.Report

William Payne
William Payne
2 years ago

It would be hard to imagine calls for empirical studies on the effectiveness of instruction in mathematics for mathematical reasoning ability. Empirical studies casting doubt on the effectiveness of critical thinking courses should indicate only that one courses isn’t enough. I likewise wouldn’t expect much from a single course in math. We’ve a good deal more to go on than intuition in advocating for more dedicated instruction in logic and critical thinking. We have logic and critical thinking.Report

Ryhan Higgins
2 years ago

This is very interesting and thank you for sharing this. I think that this is pedagogical value of philosophy in that forces us to improve both our thinking and our communication skills, which ultimately are metaskills needed in all disciplines. Also, I would venture that philosophy also teaches creativity, if, and when it is done authentically. If we don’t merely study authorities, but apply valid thinking skills to the questions of life many creative possibilities open up. Also there is the process of questioning itself which has it’s own creative dimmensions. All in all, this makes philosophy an essential study for all levels of education IMHO.Report