Fostering Critical Thinking in College Courses

Part 1 of this blog described what has become common for a humanities or social science course in college where the course takes a particular ideological perspective and the professor teaches that perspective rather than the subject matter in a way that promotes critical thinking on the part of the students. The students are expected to soak in that ideology and simply repeat it back in exams and written assignments. Consequently, we see major lapses in critical thinking, even among the top leaders of society today.

So, how should such courses be taught to promote critical thinking? Each idea, concept, ideology, perspective, movement, etc. in any particular subject should be thoroughly analyzed from some or all of the following list.

  • Assumption analysis
  • Context analysis – psychological, social, cultural
  • Short-term/long-term analysis – sustainability
  • Local/distant analysis
  • Second-order, third- and further order analysis
  • Cause-effect, interdependencies, mutual causality analysis
  • Integrity analysis – can people live by it
  • Values

I will explain each of these approaches separately, although they themselves often intersect rather than being mutually exclusive.

Assumption analysis is the process of making explicit the different ideologies that are most frequently cited in the particular subject matter. In part 1 I illustrated a course on “America, The War Years: 1861-1865” in which the professor referred to it only as the War of Northern Aggression. That is certainly one perspective for analyzing the war. Assumptions of that perspective would include that the North insisted that the South must stay part of the same country, with the North’s preference about slavery becoming the law of the land. Another perspective is that slavery is such an abomination that it was worth conducting war to remove that scourge from the entire country. The war can also be viewed from the perspective of women, who typically did none of the dying on the battlefield then, but had husbands, sons, and livelihoods who could have all been lost. Another perspective would be the business or economic view. The perspective of slaves is another way of viewing the war. There are dozens of relevant perspectives for a social dynamic, such as a war, that can be assumed and analyzed.

Sometimes perspectives are equally valid. For example, setting the issue of slavery aside, whether decisions should be made at the more local (state) level or the broader (national) level typically comes down to a values preference. Certainly, arguments can be made depending on the context. People who prefer states’ rights generally might agree that defense is something best handled at the national level.

Sometimes, perspectives can be shown to be logically fallacious or not matched with reality (i.e., empirical evidence calls the perspective into question). College students who were competent in critical thinking knew, for example, that the Occupy Wall Street movement depended on a logical fallacy. It refused to accept the legitimacy of the existing legal and political order (some even said they preferred anarchy) and promoted anti-hierarchy. However, the anarchy within the movement and its unwillingness to accept hierarchy (which several people attempted) prevented the group from forming solidarity and an organizational structure and message that the rest of society could understand. Nicholas Kristoff wrote in the NY Times of another logical fallacy. Some in the mob seem to advocate the overthrow of capitalism, but in essence the points they raised reinforced the greater importance of capitalism with the accountability inherent in its processes.

Critical thinkers can also see that the Black Lives Matter movement is not sustainable. This movement highlights police brutality against blacks. In the high profile cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, grand juries decided there was not enough evidence to bring charges against the police officers. George Zimmerman was acquitted in the case of Trayvon Martin. The Black Lives Matter movement has generally supported violent tactics and bullied presidential candidate Bernie Sanders preventing him from speaking at a campaign stop. Their chant at the Minnesota State Fair, “pigs in a blanket, fry ‘em like bacon” went viral.

A cursory analysis of the evidence suggests the following:

  • Blacks are shot far more than whites, proportional to population share
  • In experiments of equivalent situations, police hesitate more in shooting blacks and shoot them less frequently.
  • Black shootings by police is substantially lower today than a generation ago.

Like Occupy Wall Street, an assumptions analysis of Black Lives Matters suggests that it has a very high probability of collapsing because of erroneous assumptions. There is a problem in many communities between police and Blacks. Yet, this movement

  • chooses to employ brutality, which it exists to decry
  • selected as its focal points cases where evidence did not exist to convict or try the high-profile individuals
  • selected an issue where progress has been evident for decades.

As above, this is not to say that a movement cannot be successful in addressing the topic of police brutality against Blacks. This analysis simply shows that the way Black Lives Matter has organized, it will not be sustainable. Even the name, Black Lives Matter, has a logical inconsistency implicit within it. The connotation of those three words in that order is that Black Lives Matter (and others don’t, or not to the same degree). Simply dropping the hypocritical tactic of employing violence and changing the name will dramatically increase the chances of this movement being sustainable.

Although logical fallacies can be demonstrated immediately, people have been willing to hold illogical positions for long periods of time. Likewise, one of the topics that greatly intrigues me is how long people will hold a belief that doesn’t match with reality, particularly when it takes decades for the evidence against it to accumulate. A very interesting case is the economic approach of most European countries that has been in place for decades. It has been obvious to me for at least three decades that countries such as France have built their economies upon assumptions that do not match reality. Greece, of course, is the first country to show these stresses. If a country makes the following assumptions:

  1. Workers can retire at age 50 with a generous lifetime pension
  2. Companies should have almost no ability to fire incompetent employees,

a college student should be able to make some rough calculations – life expectancy, average wage of someone over a 28-year career, loss of productivity from below-standard average labor, etc. and see that it is incredibly unlikely that a country can generate enough wealth for this combination to be sustainable in the long-term. However, in this case, the long-term may be 100 years or more.

So, the process of assumption analysis – surface all assumptions, test assumptions for logical consistency, test assumptions for match with reality (evidence) – greatly fosters critical thinking and should be present in all college courses.

[I have to get back to my “day” job, so this blog will have to be continued   🙂   ]

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