“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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