A guest post by Donald Lazere.
“Baby Logic”: The Disdained Discipline in American Colleges
Several recent studies identifying the weak spots in both American K-12 and college education, like Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift, the Common Core State Standards Initiative of the National Governors’ Association, and Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit, lament the lack of learning in critical thinking and argumentation. Yet none of these studies that I have seen discuss at any length the disciplinary and curricular context in which these subjects are, or should be, taught; nor are they very specific about delineating their content.
A movement to implement critical thinking courses peaked around l980, when Chancellor Glenn Dumke announced the requirement of formal instruction in critical thinking throughout the nineteen California State University campuses, serving some 300,000 students. The announcement read:
Instruction in critical thinking is to be designed to achieve an understanding of the relationship of language to logic, which should lead to the ability to analyze, criticize, and advocate ideas, to reason inductively and deductively, and to reach factual or judgmental conclusions based on sound inferences drawn from unambiguous statements of knowledge or belief. . . including an understanding of the formal and informal fallacies of language and thought.
Similar requirements were soon adopted by community colleges, secondary and even elementary schools throughout California and elsewhere. An interdisciplinary coalition of scholars in this country and Canada, where the field was more developed, helped implement criteria, curricula, and assessment measures. We veterans of that coalition remain active through the Association for Informal Logic and Critical Thinking (AILACT), a grouping that includes philosophers, educational theorists, developmental psychologists, and some scholars in English, Speech-Communication, and Rhetoric.
Unfortunately, by now the term “critical thinking” has become a catch-all phrase with no agreed-on definition. Departments of philosophy, English, and speech-communication have engaged in petty turf wars for required courses, and there is much professional squabbling over whether critical thinking is reducible to a set of “skills” divorced from specific subject matter or should be integrated with disciplinary studies and if so, how. Scholars in nearly every discipline insist that their courses adequately cover the teaching of critical thinking and logical reasoning, but they rarely produce an explicit account of how their courses do so, in ways that are applicable across the disciplines, in the mode of Dumke’s criteria.
Even more unfortunately, although traces of critical thinking courses from the 80s still can be found, they have largely withered away or been demoted from an integral part of liberal education to “service courses,” as part of “First Year Writing in English,” “Public Address” in Speech-Comm, or “Informal Logic” in Philosophy. Philosophy professors commonly sneer at the discipline of critical thinking as “baby logic.”
Yet the “baby logic” in these courses is essential for confronting the complex substance of the public debates that determine our political, economic, and personal lives. Every day’s news and commentary are laden with examples or allegations of quotation out of context (think Andrew Breitbart), straw man and ad hominem argument, false analogy, red herring, necessary-though-not-sufficient, false dilemma or either-or, scare tactics, and the plain folks fallacy. Think of the constant political debates within the argumentative category of causal analysis. Have the president’s economic-stimulus policy or health-care program been unsuccessful because they go too far or not far enough? Has cutting tax rates on the rich had a positive or negative effect on the economy? Are any attempts to gauge the effects of such economic policies examples of the reductive fallacy, post hoc ergo propter hoc, and because-of-or-in-spite-of? Liberals argue that conservatives in government slash spending in fields like anti-poverty programs or education to the point of crippling their operations, and that the conservatives then point to the inefficiency of those fields as justification for still more cuts—which liberals say is a vicious circle, self-fulfilling prophecy, or blaming-the-victim argument. Conservatives respond that calls for increased government spending only represent special pleading by educators and other liberal recipients of government largesse. Closer to home for Chronicle readers, is the main cause for the decline in college students studying the humanities financial pressures or politically-correct professors?
Common sense would dictate that the social importance of these issues in critical thinking and argumentative rhetoric warrants their study having a central role in every K-12 and college curriculum, as well as in the studies of senior scholars. But such is rarely the case in American secondary or college education—even in the social sciences, whose main emphasis has long been empirical studies rather than basic critical or rhetorical analysis. The interdisciplinary nature of critical thinking makes it marginal in academic hierarchies based on rigidly confined disciplines and departments. So such issues in critical thinking and argumentation are either never studied by most students or, as noted above, are minimized within a cursory unit, or at best one term, in courses like First Year Writing, typically taught by grad students or adjuncts lacking adequate training or time to devote scholarly attention to them. The top-down priorities of the academic world dictate that in hard economic times like the present, interdisciplinary studies and “service courses” like these are among the first victims of budget cuts, while the often arcanely specialized studies of senior scholars remain intact.
My own utopian alternative for an entire curriculum, or sequence of courses, based on critical thinking and argumentative rhetoric, reviving the rhetoric-centered curriculum of earlier centuries, was outlined in a Chronicle column, “A Core Curriculum for Civic Literacy,” January 31, 2010.
Donald Lazere is professor emeritus of English at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, and currently teaches at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He is the author of Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy: The Critical Citizen’s Guide to Argumentative Rhetoric (Paradigm Publishers, 2005) and The Unique Creation of Albert Camus (Yale University Press, 1973) and editor of American Media and Mass Culture: Left Perspectives (University of California Press, 1987).