Critical Thinking as Productive Questions

1. Why is there such a fascination with abstractions?

2. Should we teach "critical thinking"? Who knows?

3. What are the forms, the context, and the consequences?

Late in 2016  a young scholar with an old argument explained why schools should not teach "general critical thinking": https://aeon.co/ideas/why-schools-should-not-teach-general-critical-thinking-skills

When I was asked what I thought about the argument, I was flummoxed. "I don't know. " I had so many questions for the creator of the argument. I could, of course,  answer off the top of my head. My immediate reaction was that I found the claims in the essay ferociously clumsy. The author seemed quite determined to sell a claim prematurely before any of the hard work associated with careful reasoning had been shared with us.

But I wonder whether with more care, the argument might soar at least a few feet. I hope to have offered that respect for the argument in the final question at the end of this post.

We can start by recognizing that both the author of this essay and so many college catalogs and professors insist on speaking about "critical thinking" as if it is a something, a particular kind of something that is universally self-defining such that we can cast it about in arguments with ample anticipation that to say the words is to project a precise meaning that falls smoothly and unadorned into the mind of the reader or listener. And what exactly is that universal meaning? Well, mine naturally.

An apparent digression that I hope will make the point that abstractions in general are dangerous friends:

          I am at a jazz concert.  The orchesta performs a Gospel/folk song often performed by Louis Armstrong--Down by the Riverside."                       

I'm gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside

I'm gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
I'm gonna study, study, war no more

I ain't gonna study war no more
Ain't gonna study war no more
I ain't gonna study war no more

I ain't gonna study war no more
Ain't gonna study war no more
I ain't gonna study war no more

The crowd sang along boistrously, seemingly unified in its hopes that something called "war" could be abandoned and something called "peace" could replace "war."  The music was infectious, but surely with a smidgeon of thought, one must acknowledge that some wars must be fought if morality is to have teeth. And similarly, some variants of peace are repulsive in that they represent moral blindness to human outrages.

Might not we need to have the same hesitations before wrapping our arms around OR rejecting "general" or "specific" forms of critical thinking?

Abstractions promise to draw us toward the light; however, precisely because they lurk in the shadows of murky ambiguity, they threaten as much to mislead as to assist understanding and interpretation. Their shadowy essence allows those who deploy them to imprint any meaning they choose onto their identity. So I can bemoan war because I think of all the seemingly wasted lives caught up in war; I can glow on behalf of peace because I yearn for some fantasy-land where lambs sleep with lions.

Now, to return to critical thinking--- General courses in which critical thinking is supposedly taught can range in essence from (1) thinly-disguised brainwashing in which "myths" are replaced by "truths" to (2 ) series of evaluative skills reflecting generally accepted intellectual standards.  For example, any diatribe against "general critical thinking courses" would need to explain to us why its author conflates these alternatives. I am trying to imagine someone who would deny the dire need for an appreciation for underlying assumptions, clarity in expression, awareness of logical fallacies, sensitivity to rival causes. or awareness of statistical chicanery. Seriously, someone would oppose a general critical thinking course comprised of skills like those? Only by directing bombs at the unexamined abstraction called "general courses in critical thinking" could such an argument be logically sustained.

As teachers we should not teach any abstraction without thinking through the specific form, context, and consequences providing the context for our efforts.

1.  Does it follow that the proper answer to the question "should we seek X?" is always "Who knows?  Tell me more."

2. Would it make sense to direct our intentions towards highly specific ends with highly specific intended consequences, and only then to seek an abstraction that would both describe the essence of what we seek, and at the same time, provide the rhetorical oomph to  attract supporters?

3. Would not a fertile exploration of underlying assumptions require grounding in the domain being analyzed?  In other words, would not someone who learned to spot assumptions in a general critical thinking course be at a major disadvantage in unpacking such assumptions when the question or problem being examined is a specialized area of knowledge?

Posted
AuthorM Neil Browne