Monday, 6 February 2017

Hume in a Toga

I am pondering the revels of Hogmanay today, though they are four months away. I am saddened to realize that this coming New Year will be our last in the UK before we move back to Bethel, Vermont next Summer

They say Edinburgh has the liveliest and most ribald of Hogmanay parties. The city explodes with literary, thespian, and bacchanalian delights. Edinburgh conjures up visions of cobblestone streets, Burns Nicht, dusky pubs, ghost tales, mysterious castles, and the revoltingly delicious haggis. These are worthy and compelling images.

But mostly, Edinburgh reminds me of David Hume, one of my philosopher-heroes. Hume brings to mind many things - not least of which is how intellectually lame he makes me feel. But then, I think it is good to be humbled on a fairly regular basis. It keeps one grounded. David Hume, you may recall, is the guy who awakened Immanuel Kant, the great German Idealist, from his “dogmatic slumber.” Unfortunately, the brilliant and impenetrable Kant forces many of us who try to read him today into REM sleep.

There is a statue of Hume on the Royal Mile in the city. It is halfway up on the right hand side heading west toward the castle, on the cobbled sidewalk outside a fudgery and apothecary. Hume is clad in a toga. Weird, but definitely a more philosophical aesthetic than Georgian coat, leggings and big buckle shoes. Legend has it if you rub his toe you will come into great wealth. I did; but I didn’t. The toe was shiny.

I see Hume and I wonder why we don’t teach him in schools today. We ought to. He is a model critical thinker. He demonstrates the attributes we want our critically thinking kids to have: curiosity, tenacity, self-awareness, a skeptical and questioning disposition, breadth in interests and depth in approach. He understands arguments, evidence, reasons and claims. He knows the difference between Knowledge and Belief. He is courageous in tackling issues which may not be popular. He applies the scalpel of his intellect to all problems major or minor. He achieves understanding by slicing away excess, unimportant and ancillary information, separating the chaff and assessing what remains. These are good habits.

We ought to have a dedicated curriculum track to teach critical thinking (CT) to our young people. The academic landscape is ripe with CT approaches and pedagogical techniques. Some, Argument Mapping for instance, are even demonstrably effective. Yet very few schools adopt focused and deliberate programs. It seems to me that our secondary educational institutions have made a conscious decision to not address the skill directly. Instead, I think they may assume CT proficiency is developed by osmosis, through normal day-to-day coursework.

Write an essay on the nature of Evil in Melville’s Moby Dick, work through a complex Euclidean proof, prove time dilation algebraically, reflect on the causes of the Civil War — not one of these things is bad. In fact, they are all really valuable projects, and I’m sure they do positively influence CT competency to some degree. But none of these examples are direct, head-on, duly rigorous critical thinking efforts.

This lack of laser focus is truly troubling in our colleges and universities. In a 1997 study involving 38 post-secondary institutions, faculty did not fare well on the CT front:
· Though 89% of faculty claimed critical thinking to be a primary objective of their instruction, only 19% could give a clear explanation of what critical thinking is. Further, only 9% were clearly teaching for critical thinking on a typical day in class.
· Though 78% claimed that their students lacked appropriate intellectual standards (to use in assessing their thinking), and 73% considered that students learning to assess their own work was of primary importance, only 8% could enumerate any intellectual criteria or standards they required of students or could give an intelligible explanation of those criteria and standards.
· Although 67% said that their concept of critical thinking is largely explicit in their thinking, only 19% could elaborate on their concept of thinking.

I will infer three things from these data:
(1) Since many of the professors seem not to have a grip on the fundamentals of critical thinking lexicon and pedagogy, their students will be deficient.
(2) Since most secondary education teachers are sourced from our universities and colleges, it is likely that many will not have the necessary academic background to transfer critical thinking skills to their students.
(3) Our kids are likely not receiving adequate critical thinking training in school.

The thing is, CT is not a hard concept to understand. Critical Thinking, according to Dr. Richard Paul, is “The act of intellectually disciplined conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” I like that one. I also like Dr. Tim vanGelder’s, “The art of being right.” Pithy and compelling.

The irony is that as the volume of information available to us grows exponentially, knowledge does not, at least not necessarily. The ability to reason certainly does not. In fact it seems that at times there is an inverse relationship between access to data and the facility to reasonably assess and compile that data into a coherent argument. In an age of information hypergrowth the premium is not on the information itself, but on the cognitive mechanisms we must deploy to make sense of it – to validate, judge and aggregate it rationally. We must teach our kids the specific skills to survive and thrive in a world community which is becoming more and more info-dense.

A dedicated, purpose-built, high school critical thinking program must enable students to answer the following questions:
- What is the conclusion? What is the bottom line?
- Is the conclusion justified? Should I believe it? Why?
- What is the evidence? How does that evidence fit together? How should it fit together?
- What happens to the conclusion if a piece of evidence is false or weak?
- How might an alternative point of view affect the argument?
- What are the implications of these conclusions, if correct?
- How am I biased? How do my personal cultural and cognitive biases affect my analysis?
- What characteristics and personal traits should I strive to develop to become a better critical thinker? And so on.

I enjoy running. When I am out doing it, I like to listen to podcasts. One of my favorites is out of Australia. It’s called The Philosopher’s Zone. It sounds like it may spike the geek meter, but it doesn’t. It is very approachable, eye-opening, and fun. If you get a chance, listen to this one on “Philosophy in Schools.” It's great. What you’ll hear is a group of 13 and 14-year-olds discussing things. Simply discussing things, and doing it quite well. They are products of a “philosophy in secondary education” program in Australia. It will surprise you. Probably shock you. Maybe even enrage you. You’ll listen, and wonder if you have ever heard a 13-year-old kid in your immediate circle express him or herself like that. I never have. When I was 14 I recall grunting quite a bit, listening to loud music, and figuring out how to talk to girls.

Critical Thinking is an action… a verb. And this action can be taught. Plus, at the end of it all you get to say things like, “The supporting claims you are using to justify your contention suffer from myriad fallacies, the gravest of which is post hoc ergo propter hoc.” And let me tell you fellas, nothing’ll make you more of a chick-magnet than saying that.

Critical Thinking: We need to teach it. It will enable the creation of a emboldened, responsible and intellectually adept citizenry. It will enhance lives. 

If you don’t feel like commenting below, but want to flame, bludgeon, or otherwise chat, please feel free to contact me at Be well.

No comments:

Post a Comment