In 1979 philosopher Douglas Stalker (University of Delaware, now retired) adopted the stage persona Captain Ray of Light, a pseudo-science hawking speaker whose humorous presentations educated his audience about pseudo-science and poor thinking.
Ironically, the man who once dressed up in a dollar-sign-adorned costume to satirize pseudo-science doesn’t think that we’re “serious” about improving how people think.
In response to a question from interviewer Richard Marshall, Professor Stalker says:
You ask about whether people can learn to be clear thinkers, and whether philosophers should spend more of their time teaching clear thinking. Some people end up thinking pretty clearly, and since they didn’t come from the womb this way, I presume they learned it at some time or other. You probably mean something else by your question: viz., can you teach someone to think clearly? My answer is an unqualified one: you can, for some of the people, some of the time, to some extent. I don’t know who these people are and when you best can teach them or to what extent you succeed. No one has been serious enough to identify and measure these things. When I came up for tenure at Delaware, my dossier included a pre- and post-test, analyzed by a grad student in the ED school, suggesting that something was happening over the course of the semester; perhaps because of me, perhaps in spite of me. It had the look of a real experiment but it wasn’t; it was just a bluff for colleagues, chairs, and Deans. I never recall submitting my students to pre and post-tests again, though I have taught this course, and its relabeled successor, critical thinking, for almost thirty years. I started in 1977 teaching courses like this and didn’t stop until the end of fall semester 2005.
Nowadays, every college, department, and course claims to teach students how to think better. They use the misnomer of the day, ‘critical thinking’. There is no such kind of thinking, while there is clear and confused thinking. The tin ear of academia! Lord knows how they fill in the specifics under the label of the today, critical thinking, since there is no fixed meaning to the phrase. Moreover, almost everyone simply assumes they are delivering what they advertise. It is taken on faith, which is just a sign that they are not serious about any of this. Happy talk is the order of the day down on the mall.
That is why I would not enjoin more philosophers to start teaching their little critical thinking courses sea to shining sea. It would just be going through the motions. For the most part, we give canned lectures, most of which is baby logic and a haphazard array of so-called fallacies, with some Mill’s methods thrown in for good measure. How much of this really applies to real world reasoning? We give canned little tests with minor, remote rewards and penalties. And no one checks to see if anything is happening other than more contact hours for the head count.
The world would be a better place, I wager, if our students could parse and separate the claims in a few paragraphs of prose; detect blatant inconsistencies and equivocations; recognize where there are common sense alternatives to outlandish theories; recognize that an explanation is not evidence; recognize when real evidence is being presented and for which claims; and recognize and discount ad hominem appeals dressed up as arguments. This is a short list, but we can at least start here. And to get our students to do these six things, we need to make them practice, practice, practice, practice, and then hold out real rewards and penalties. In today’s world, we need video games in which players make their way through good and bad arguments and get a prize if they do. It didn’t take that in my day as an undergrad, but then I was odder than odd, and still am. As things stand, we largely don’t even try to teach clear thinking, or even put up much of a pretense. No one, it seems—from the administration on down to lowly adjunct faculty—is serious, and they are not because there are no academic incentives or levers to get the job done.
I’m curious if others share Professor Stalker’s assessment about the teaching of critical thinking. Discussion welcome.
Related: “The Benefits of Pre-College Exposure to Philosophy: Data Needed“, “Philosophy Majors & High Standardized Test Scores: Not Just Correlation“, “Empirical Support for a Method of Teaching Critical Thinking“, “The Evidence Supporting Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy”