Philosophy and Critical-Thinking Skills
For the past seven years, I have been a philosophy instructor at a working-class, Northeastern college that has a long tradition of producing primary and secondary school teachers. Last semester, I had the misfortune of teaching Introduction to Philosophy at 8 p.m. to 10:15 p.m. on Thursday nights. Most, if not all, of the students had daytime employment and were barely able to drag themselves to class at 8 o'clock, especially for an elective philosophy course. I told the students that I commiserated with them and I would try to make the course as relevant to their experiences as possible. To that end, I had the students provide a brief oral autobiography on the first night of class. Upon listening to the students, my spirits were enlivened by the fact that the vast majority of them were education majors in their junior or senior year of study and preparing for their practicums or full-time teaching.
This was an ideal situation to inculcate the latest ideas on critical thinking and reasoning to individuals who would soon be teaching our youths. After all, had not several national education studies stressed the importance of critical-thinking and problem-solving skills along with logic and reason? Many of these reasoning skills have been the embodiment of philosophy since Aristotle's Organon. I announced that we would be spending considerable time in reviewing common logical fallacies in addition to the mandatory coverage of historical and topical traditions in philosophy. For students not majoring in education, I assured those individuals that all academic traditions value logical thought and that they would be able to apply what they learned to their specific majors or career paths. I provided the examples of needing logical skills for LSAT and GRE test preparation and for succeeding in law school and graduate school. I felt that this might turn out to be a pleasant class after all. The feeling was short-lived.
At the start of the second class meeting, an especially well-dressed student in the first row stood up to address me, and I had a feeling that this was not going to be what I wanted to hear. The student spoke with an air of authority that only comes from speaking on behalf of others. He boldly pronounced that, while he was sure I was a knowledgeable professor who loved philosophy, the class had no real interest in philosophy, no matter how I presented the material. They had selected the course only because of the college's elective requirements. They would prefer that I just taught the minimum required by the college "so they could get on with their lives." The student's speech was punctuated by numerous nods and verbal utterances of approval by the majority of the class.
I was left speechless by this polemic against the oldest academic discipline, which for centuries was the hallmark of college study. Despite my last-minute attempts to the contrary, the class had been poisoned by the erroneous belief that philosophy was an arcane and difficult subject that was not worth their time in learning. This second night of class was the harbinger of the remaining portion of the semester. In spite of my continued attempts to employ contemporary examples and analogies, the class reacted negatively to questions that, on prima facie inspection, seemed too removed from their everyday lives. On several occasions, some of the students openly questioned my aims when I dared to stray outside the required reading and provide essential background information. At the end of the semester, I can honestly say that I had made only a few converts who might possibly admit that philosophy had some place in their lives, especially with the controversies surrounding current medical-ethics issues like cloning and xenotransplantation. I had to secretly concede that, for the most part, my goals of teaching critical-thinking skills had fallen on deaf ears and that these students needed a dedicated course in reasoning and logic which, unfortunately, they would never have.
In the months since the conclusion of that class, I have had some time to consider why it had fallen short of my expectations and goals. Could such a negative class attitude be explained simply by the late class hour? That was too simple an answer, since I have taught late classes before that were composed of varying majors with little resistance. It is my opinion that these education students resented the attempt to teach them some skills that should have been the province of their education training. In other words, how could a philosophy professor have relevant information they had not previously covered in their education courses?
In fact, few education departments recognize the reality that philosophy has been grappling with how to get students to work through problems logically for decades. In the past decade alone, I have read or reviewed over two dozen critical-thinking texts (informal logic) exclusive of formal or mathematical logic. Many of the skills and techniques covered within these texts are transferable to grade school students if their teachers are made aware of them. This is where the problem lies. In my college and many others, there is no requirement that education majors take Critical Thinking, Introduction to Logic, or some similar reasoning course. In a postmodern era that espouses reasoning and problem-solving over established knowledge, it seems that this curriculum oversight is one that should certainly be corrected.
If, as Robert B. Reich states in The Work of Nations, we want our children to be "symbolic analysts" and compete successfully in the 21st century, then we'd better educate their teachers correctly as the initial step.
Charles E. Weidler has been teaching philosophy and logic courses for seven years and is currently pursuing a doctorate in school psychology from Temple University in Philadelphia.
Vol. 18, Issue 6, Page 39Published in Print: October 7, 1998, as Philosophy and Critical-Thinking Skills