Taking the Critic out of Critical Thinking

The title of this blog comes from my father. If you have read my blogs for any amount of time, you likely know that he is not only a preacher, but that he was also the Academic Dean of a Bible College and after a number of years at Denver Seminary served as the Interim President for a time. In other words, while his life has been mainly focused on working with churches and church leaders, helping them grow and focus mission, he also knows the academic world quite well. And though I did not understand the phrase when I first heard it at 10 years old, I completely understand it now. Academics put the “critic” in critical thinking.

In my own career of working with and for the academy, I have had a few conversations with faculty who indeed like the idea that they are creating a generation of people who are critical. I hope that is true for most instructors and students. After all, at the heart of criticism is questioning, discerning, comparing, contrasting, and more. In other words, on paper, criticism seems like a very educational aspiration.

But I’m not sure we can claim that we have indeed achieved an idyllic level of criticism, critics, nor critical thinking. In fact, I don’t think it is controversial to suggest that we are not even close.

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Which leads me to the point of this blog. For the past few weeks I have been reading Bryan Caplan’s, “The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money (2018).”

In and of itself, this book is highly contentious and highly controversial. By design, the book squarely argues against a lot of formal education, citing copious amounts of research suggesting education does not actually lead to learning, it does not lead to career effectiveness, nor does it lead to critical thinking.

As some of you grab a paper bag and begin breathing steadily into it, let me remind you that if we are going to critically assess anything, we need to understand it. So, back to my religious upbringing for a moment; while I was told as a child never to read anything that contradicted the Bible as it would lead to any number of problems, I do not adhere to that line of thinking as an adult. I seek out contrarian positions around almost everything I find important or valuable. I want to hear the “other side” so that I can make the most informed decisions and so that I can better hone arguments. While I might occasionally be swayed (I approach everything with as open a mind as I can muster), this life choice has helped me throughout my career, leading to many of the presentations I am asked to give at Universities and education conferences around the world. Why? In part, because I know both sides of an argument.

In a future blog (or more), I intend to speak directly to the arguments asserted by Dr. Caplan, an Economist at George Mason University. But for now, I want to focus specifically on the difference between critics and criticism, and how students need help understanding the difference between the two. And his book provides a good example of that very thing.

Everyone Has An Opinion

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I teach speech. There is every likelihood that I have taught more basic public speaking courses than almost anyone in the US, as there was a time when my wife’s severe illness required a lot more money than we had. My answer was to teach adjunct for a lot of schools. But as a speech professor of (largely) young people trying to make a persuasive argument, I am fully aware of the consistent credibility issue best thought of as, “…because I said it.”

Every professor has likely seen this. A student creates an essay explaining that X is so. Why? Because they said it. “Marijuana should be legal because you can make rope out of hemp.” (That is one of my favorites) “Drivers should be retested every year after turning 65 because they cannot react fast enough to avoid most accidents.” “If you want to get good at golf, just swing your club like I do and you will be great.”

All of those statements (and thousands more) are made by non-experts every year, without any indication of why. They are stated because it is so. It is “common knowledge” for the world, so why cite a source to back it up? Sigh.

I hope you take my point. Students need a lot of help understanding that neither their perceptions nor their opinions are not actually reality. Professors must explain, often many times, that just because a person says something or believes something does not make it so.

Which brings us back to our book. Look at a portion of a 1-star, Amazon review for the Case Against Education. See if you notice anything from rfitzroy:

“I'm an economics professor and my research specializes in the economics of education. There is an important and reasonable argument in this book, but I can make this case in like three pages of writing. Instead of illuminating the issue, Caplan makes things unbearably convoluted. This book is like "death by a thousand bad assumptions." Caplan doesn't take one bad leap to draw a conclusion, nor does he take two or three. He takes page after page after page of either wildly false assumption to, at best, barely arguable assumption to construct a flimsy tower. Not to mention his blatant straw-man arguments and obnoxious tone.“

Put yourself in the position of this professor’s professor. Do you see a problem? Do you see several? He appears to be banking on the statement that he is also an Economics professor so as to cover all the credibility necessary for the argument. The critic suggests Dr. Caplan makes things convoluted. How? The critic argues that the author uses bad assumption after bad assumption, yet does not note a single example.

Another self-described professor states in a different 1-star rating: “Caplan repeatedly sets up the straw man of "Human Capital Purists" - the notion that traditional schooling does, in fact, teach you the necessary skills to succeed in the workforce. He (obviously easily) repudiates this claim (convenient, because I know not a single teacher who actually believes this) in favor of his "Signalling" explanation for education - which, in itself, actually has merit.“

Would you let your students use the argument, “Nobody I know believes this.”? What is the N of how many people the critic knows with whom they had that conversation? Or is this educator instead speaking on behalf of all educators?

Unfortunately, regardless of whether these reviews have merit (and there are a handful of other 1-star ratings that were far less thoughtful / credible), they were written by critics, and not critical assessors. In fact, I might argue that they hurt their own evaluation by giving it a single star. Such extremism might suggest a person who is unable to weigh and balance information thoughtfully. (This is especially hard to reconcile when the overall rating is a 3.9/5 stars.) This is also why I always read the 2 and 4 star ratings before anything else….

In fact, the critics may not realize it, but they are already starting from a disadvantaged position when writing the critique. After all, if someone attacks teachers and teaching, who is most likely to become defensive? Teachers of course.

Some of you may be thinking that a book review is not the same as a persuasive essay or a debate. But is the rhetorical argument of a paragraph different in audience need than a persuasive speech of 30 minutes? If defending an argument against your own position, isn’t a dose of inoculate required? Shouldn’t any argument utilize a framework such as Monroe’s Motivated Sequence or Cause and Effect?

So very long ago Aristotle pointed the way suggesting the best arguments contain ethos, pathos, AND logos. (Yes, he added mythos near the end of his life, but only if it contained some or all of the others.) Unfortunately, the reviews in the 1-star area for this book seem to rely solely on pathos. The writers are absolutely passionate! It’s a shame they are not credible, nor logical…

So perhaps it is easy to understand why our students struggle to see the difference in everyone being a critic, versus being able to form a critical analysis of something. And this book is the tip of the iceberg. I hear a constant lament about the viciousness of anonymous criticism. With a world becoming increasingly digitized, the web provides more and more opportunity to spew diatribe instead of creating a cogent argument. But aren’t we also bombarded with critics over criticism in politics, every single time we turn on a news show? It seems we have all gotten better at the rhetoric of criticality but we have struggled to develop language which promotes critical thought.

(Ironically, that is an assertion argued quite effectively by Dr. Caplan which leads to recommendations that the US stop funding almost all higher education, stop promoting history or language classes ever, and stop wasting people’s time and money with college.)

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But that is another blog.

Faculty already have the reputation of over-criticizing everything as it is. So let us try to remember how important it is to help students learn to critically assess and yes, even review their world, but not only as critics. At the same time, let’s also make sure we start with a bit of modeling, rather than being critical for the sake of being critical, so we have some good examples to point them toward.

Good luck and good learning.