Appendix Two: The Viability of General Critical Thinking Instruction
The approach to critical thinking that I have taken in this handbook is predicated on the viability of general critical thinking instruction. That is, it requires that there be general critical thinking skills, i.e., skills which are found in a variety of different domains, and that these skills be teachable as general skills. This last point is crucial—it must be possible to talk about these skills independently of any domain-specific realization of them and, in the process, enhance a person’s understanding and application of them. (Note that even if it were impossible to talk about these skills without doing so in the context of a specific area of inquiry or other, it would still be possible to talk about them independently in the requisite sense so long as any area were as good as any other, i.e., so long as there was no essential dependence on a particular area.) This handbook is evidence that one can isolate general critical thinking skills. We have done so under the rubric of argument analysis. At the most general level, we have the skills of argument identification, argument (re)construction, and argument evaluation. Under each of these, there are more specific skills, such as reason and conclusion identification, reason/conclusion grouping, and formal analysis, among others. And these hover over even more specific skills. What we have, then, is a multi-layered hierarchy of critical thinking skills that is not domain-specific. These are skills that can be identified in a variety of contexts—I would argue any context in which options are evaluated.
But isolating the skills and describing them does not prove that they can be effectively taught as general skills. Furthermore, this assumption has come under fire in recent years from a number of people working in the thinking skills movement. Notable among these is John McPeck, who argued against the viability of general critical thinking skills instruction in Critical Thinking and Education. In particular, he argues that the traditional “general skills” approach to critical thinking is wrongheaded and that courses designed to teach generalized critical thinking skills are “both conceptually and practically empty” (CTE, 5). In developing this point, he concentrates on two aspects of the standard critical thinking course, viz., its method and its content. McPeck argues that these aspects reveal deep flaws in the standard course that vitiate it and render it an ineffective way to enhance student thinking.
To see this, we can begin with his thoughts on method. Traditionally, courses in critical thinking, informal logic, or everyday reasoning have concentrated on argument analysis, i.e., the analysis of propositional justifications of claims. This handbook, of course, fits squarely into this tradition. From McPeck’s perspective, argument analysis is overrated. As he sees it, it is certainly not equivalent to thinking critically, nor is it equivalent to everyday reasoning; in fact, it is something that we do only infrequently and so is of marginal importance at best. This view motivates him to reject the traditional methodological approach to thinking skills pedagogy as wrongheaded.
As if this isn’t enough, he believes that the content of traditional courses has to go too. The traditional course focuses on developing generalized thinking skills, such as analysis, systematization, classification, evidence gathering, etc. These are abstract skills that can purportedly be applied to many problems and in many disciplines. McPeck believes, however, that “thinking is always thinking about X” (CTE, 4). “In isolation,” he argues, “[critical thinking] neither refers to nor denotes any particular skill” (CTE, 5). Thus, unless we teach these skills in the context of a specific subject matter, we teach a course that lacks any substantive content at all.
Thus, McPeck contends that courses of this abstract sort should give way to courses that focus on thinking skills that are contextualized in specific subject domains. These courses should include a component devoted to the “philosophy of” that domain, i.e., a component that would focus on the problematic nature of the “bedrock” facts and methods in each discipline. Such a course would enable students to learn about the structure of the discipline and acquire the critical thinking elements necessary to master that subject matter at the same time.
As I hope is clear, I have no problem with trumpeting the value of an embedded approach to critical thinking skills instruction. Granted, this handbook is rather abstract and unembedded in places, but at the same time, it is replete with examples drawn from various disciplines. Illustration is embedding, and it is an important part of the narrative in this book. Further, I recognize that most who use this will be teaching classes in which critical thinking skills instruction is only one part of the pedagogical goal. For these people, it will be easiest and most effective to teach the elements I’ve described in an embedded way, folding them into class treatment of the assigned texts. Nevertheless, this handbook is certainly representative of the traditional movement under fire from McPeck. While I think McPeck’s approach is itself laudable, I do not believe that the generalized skills approach is as bad as he would have us believe. In what follows, I present arguments against his critique of traditional method and his critique of traditional content.
In Defense of Traditional Methods
For us, critical thinking is argument analysis. I have maintained throughout this handbook that the skills which qualify as critical thinking skills, on our rendering of “critical thinking,” can be conveyed to students through the teaching of argument analysis. McPeck disagrees. He believes that the traditional focus on argument analysis does not suffice for an adequate introduction to critical thinking skills, nor is it even really necessary. It does not suffice as a foundation for critical thinking instruction because it is much too narrow and at too far a remove from real world thinking. It is a marginal enterprise, so marginal in fact that it is unclear whether one would have to know it as it is typically taught to be an effective critical thinker.
Let me begin my response to this view by submitting a reservation about McPeck’s use of the term, “argument analysis.” As he uses this term, it refers to the study of the formal, deductive notion of validity. Understood in this way, argument analysis requires one to extract arguments from their contexts and evaluate them relative to this standard, discussed at length in the Ch. 6 discussion of deductive logic. McPeck argues that the ability to do this to a piece of reasoning is not a central skill and is not related to what we typically care about when we deal with an argument, viz., its soundness. There are two things to say here. First, in the case of deductive arguments, identification of invalidity suffices to undermine the soundness of the argument. Granted, most arguments will not be deductive, but in certain contexts one will find many of these, and in other contexts it will be possible to reconstruct some of the reasoning deductively. But to the extent that most of the arguments we encounter are non-deductive arguments about the world, the formal notion of validity is not that central.
However, this gives rise to the second and more important point, viz., that the practice of “argument analysis” described by McPeck does not resemble what usually goes by that name these days. Perhaps there are informal logic classes that focus exclusively on deductive inferences, but these are the exception nowadays. Those who study it—and that would include us—attend to validity, to be sure, but that is only one standard in a wide range of standards meant to underwrite the evaluation of reasoning. Most contemporary treatments of critical thinking devote considerable space to non-deductive arguments, as well as to the non-logical aspects of reasoning. And while it is true that the truth of premises is often a non-logical consideration, there are general things to be said about the evaluation of premises for truth. Indeed, it is good to keep in mind the fact that the truth of a premise is often established via an argument that must itself be evaluated relative to a standard such as validity. There are many things one learns when studying argument analysis, and taken together these involve much more than a focused concern with validity. Thus, it would appear that the method on the receiving end of McPeck’s criticism is a strawman.
With this reservation noted, I proceed to supply a defense of the value of argument analysis to critical thinking. Consider that thinking skills and processes, such as problem definition, coherence assurance, and option elaboration, enable the thinker to understand the relevant topic, when employed successfully. These skills give one control over the details of the topic and support the systematic articulation of them that is so crucial to understanding. (It is also worth noting that in general, one thinks critically about a topic in the interest of making a sound judgment, and this goal is achieved with regularity only when supported by understanding.) But if you understand the topic, you can be said to have knowledge of that topic, and if you know it, rather than merely have opinions about it, then you can justify what you know. That is, you can supply reasons that provide compelling support for the truth of your view. But as we have seen, provision of reasons for a view is simply the construction of an argument. Thus, the ability to justify what you know implies the ability to construct an argument for your view that measures up to the general standards of good thinking. Thus, the successful employment of thinking skills and processes requires that one have the ability to construct good arguments.
At this point, there are a couple of rejoinders to consider. First, one might argue that while this may be true of some types of knowledge, it is not generally true. For instance, it does not appear to be true of know how, given that one can know how to do something, such as ride a bicycle, without being able to supply a reasons for what you know. Thus, the ability to construct good arguments is not required for knowledge, and the inference collapses. In response, let me begin by saying that I am suspicious of the claim that it’s possible for someone who knows how to do something to wholly lack the ability to justify what they know. After all, simply doing it in the right context, viz., in a context where it is intended to be evidence of their knowledge, qualifies as an argument, given our discussion in this handbook. But more to the point, it seems that in those cases where know how is possible, understanding requires more than mere know how. For instance, if I understand bike riding, them I must know how to ride one, but it seems like I should also know something about the activity itself, such as how it depends on the bicycle, on human anatomy and physiology, and so forth. In other words, whether or not it involves know how, understanding X would appear to imply the ability to locate X in a broader context and this is the kind of ability that will require the support of a well-crafted argument. Second, one might try to sever the chain of reasoning between understanding and knowledge by arguing that there certain types of understanding do not imply knowledge, such as mystical understanding. Thus, understanding does not always engender knowledge, and so does not imply the need for good arguments. As before, the primary problem with this rejoinder is revealed when we take one step back and consider the type of understanding at issue. This is understanding produced through the application of thinking skills, skills that enable one to analyze problems and options and make informed and reasoned judgments. Unless mystical understanding comes with methodological amnesia, then it will imply knowledge of the sort that requires justification; more likely, though, mystical understanding is not the sort of understanding that will be involved in this context.
With this part of the argument in place, we turn to argument analysis and note the obvious, viz., that studying the process of argument analysis as we have characterized it improves one’s ability to construct good arguments. Argument construction is one part of the process, as is evaluation of the sort necessary to ensure that it will be a good argument. But if you improve your ability to construct good arguments, you enhance those abilities that require the construction of good arguments. Therefore, if you study argument analysis, you enhance those abilities that require the construction of good arguments, and among these are the ability to apply thinking skills and processes. In light of this, it would appear that argument analysis instruction can be a fundamental part of teaching efforts designed to improving thinking and reasoning. But if this is true, then McPeck’s insistence that argument analysis is of marginal importance and should be removed from the curriculum is incorrect. Traditional methods are not always effective, to be sure, but they certainly can be, and that is all we can require.
In Defense of Traditional Content
Traditional courses in critical thinking focus on abstract skills and turn to specific subject areas only when necessary to provide illustration. As McPeck sees it, this gets it backwards---the focus in critical thinking skills instruction should be on embedded types of thinking, with abstraction beyond the subject matter used only sparingly, if at all. Before lodging a complaint against this perspective, I have a couple of general concerns about it. First, acquisition of critical thinking skills in a specific subject domain, such as economics or English literature, will not necessarily help one when confronted by “everyday arguments” of the sort found in the marketplace or the automotive garage. But surely proficiency with these arguments is a hallmark of an effective critical thinker, and so it isn’t obvious that his approach will achieve one of the primary goals of critical thinking skills instruction in post-secondary education, viz., the production of autonomous thinkers. Second, McPeck’s approach does not seem designed to help us think synthetically across subject areas, and this is certainly a thinking skill that is very valuable and should form a part of a thinking skills course.
These concerns aside, there is a stronger objection that can be leveled at McPeck’s assault on traditional content, which we can make with the help of an analogy. Consider golf. If you want to play golf, you need to learn how to swing the golf club. There are a few folks who are born with bodies that move that way, but most of us have bodies that put up some resistance. How does one learn to do this? One might just pick up the clubs, buy a membership, and go out and play, i.e., adopt the “sink or swim” approach. If you adopt this approach, among the first golfing terms you learn should be “Mulligan.” A better approach would be to get some instruction, since an instructor can call explicit attention to the various parts of the golf swing and help you develop them. How might this instructor go about teaching you the golf swing? Three ways stand out:
A. Give you a lecture on the “golf swing” in the abstract, replete with charts and diagrams.
B. Take you out on the course and teach you as you are playing your rounds.
C. Work with you on the practice tee and putting green, asking you to visualize shots and situations.
The first of these will not be of much use, as the gap between theory and practice is measured in dozens of strokes for most folks. The second and third will be more helpful. Of these, arguably (C) is to be preferred, as your improvement will not be tied to the specific character of the course on which you learn. The skills you acquire on the practice tee and putting green are applicable on all golf courses, and so are maximally flexible. After you have progressed in these practice situations and are no longer a threat to yourself and others, your instructor can turn you loose on the course knowing that you will have the ability to swing the club in a wide variety of circumstances, e.g., uphill lies, downhill lies, sand traps, deep rough, deep water, tree limbs, etc. You will have to adjust for the specific character of these circumstances, but the basics of the swing remain the same.
With this in mind, return to thinking. As with golf, instruction in thinking skills is a good thing, but what sort is best? Abstract lectures about thinking skills will be less effective than hands-on experience with the skills themselves. To the extent that McPeck targets the lecture hall approach that emphasizes abstract logical and psychological dimensions of thinking, I believe he is correct---this will not be an effective method of critical thinking instruction. Of the two that remain, practical instruction in thinking skills that is not subject specific will afford considerable flexibility, a virtue that is similar to the gains to be made on the practice tee. Embedded instruction can be effective as well, but it can also be more difficult for a student to take what she learns here about critical thinking and apply it in other consequential contexts. But here we needn’t choose; rather, we need only observe that the former, “practice tee” model of critical thinking skills instruction is a virtuous one that can be employed to positive effect. Contemporary courses in critical thinking skills, and dare I say also traditional courses, look more like the practice tee than the lecture hall---there content is largely independent of a specific subject domain, but this does not imply that it is abstract and divorced from circumstances in which thinking would be required. McPeck’s stalking horse, viz., “traditional content,” does not represent what gets taught in all thinking skills traditions, and is not even representative of that many. As a consequence, his argument against “traditional content” does not go through.
McPeck’s challenge is relevant to our concerns because of the impact it could have on the curricular implementation of critical thinking instruction. Whether you agree with him or not, this debate will shape your attitude toward general thinking skills, and this will certainly have an impact on how you train your students to be critical thinkers. It should be noted that McPeck is a staunch advocate of critical thinking instruction, if we interpret “critical thinking” broadly as referring to thinking that is skeptical, careful, rigorous, and principled. His concern is with the traditional way in which one aids students in enhancing these skills, an approach that you have been introduced to in here and one that I believe deserves more credit than he gives it.