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Patrick Halbrook

Classical Education = Critical Thinking?

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When I was in college a friend of mine who was studying Great Books, in response to the frequent question, "Your major is Liberal Studies? What on earth does that mean?" liked to answer that she was working on degree in "critical thinking." I thought this was a good answer at the time, and I think I still do, but with the important caveat that we properly define what we mean by "critical thinking."

I've come across a number of writers recently who have identified the type of critical thinking we do not want to be teaching our students. Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, the president of Wesleyan University wrote:

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A common way to show that one has sharpened one's critical thinking is to display an ability to see through or undermine statements made by (or beliefs held by) others. Thus, our best students are really good at one aspect of critical thinking­—being critical. For many students today, being smart means being critical. To be able to show that Hegel's concept of narrative foreclosed the non-European, or that Butler's stance on vulnerability contradicts her conception of performativity, or that a tenured professor has failed to account for his own "privilege"—these are marks of sophistication, signs of one's ability to participate fully in the academic tribe. But this participation, being entirely negative, is not only seriously unsatisfying; it is ultimately counterproductive.

https://www.chronicle.com/article/Beyond-Critical-Thinking/63288/ (the entire article is excellent)

At First Things, R.R. Reno gave a lecture on "Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking." Here's the description (which is easily copy-and-pasteable, unlike the lecture itself): 

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When it comes to the intellectual life in our day, the fear of error—believing things as true when they are in fact false—far outweighs a desire for truth. Whether it’s the big questions of religion and morality, or even those concerning history and literature, we have developed an intellectual culture of exaggerated circumspection in which large, long-standing truths are questioned and only small, fashionable truths affirmed. “Critical thinking” has taken on a new meaning in recent decades, one more associated with critique than constructive criticism, and it has become an end-in-itself for many educators. We put a great deal of emphasis on learning how to interrogate, challenge, and criticize. But, while these are all useful skills, and in many cases necessary to help us avoid falsehood, first and foremost we need to be trained in assent. Unless we learn how to affirm beliefs as true we can never arrive at the truth. To do this in a reliable, responsible way requires a pedagogy of piety, for we can only hold as true those things we believe to be true.

https://www.firstthings.com/events/thinking-critically-about-critical-thinking

I love the phrase "pedagogy of piety." Reno unpacks that idea here, where he presents Descartes as the problem and Newman as the solution (more or less):

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In a startling passage, Newman writes, “I would rather have to maintain that we ought to begin with believing everything that is offered to our acceptance, than that it is our duty to doubt everything. The former, indeed, seems the true way of learning.” Of course we do not face such a stark choice: believing or doubting everything. But Newman makes a crucial point. Our souls are made for knowing. Doubting, however useful as a check on false belief, cannot move the soul toward true knowledge, since by definition it subtracts rather than adds, pushes away rather than draws near. True learning needs to move in the other direction. To know, especially to know remote and difficult truths, requires us to venture assent. As a great Dominican of the early twentieth century, A. G. Sertillanges, wrote, “We must give ourselves from the heart if truth is to give herself to us,” for “truth serves only her slaves.” What we need, therefore, is a pedagogy that gives priority to piety, not critical thinking...

...No student is well served by critical thinking as an end-in-itself. Unbelief may be pure, allowing us to compliment ourselves that we are undeceived, but it is finally sterile and empty. By contrast, although belief risks error, it makes an embrace of truth possible.

https://www.getprinciples.com/critical-thinking-and-the-culture-of-skepticism/ (again, the whole article is excellent)

What are some ways we can teach our students to think critically (in a positive sense), without simply becoming cynical critics?

How can we help them to discern error when they see it so they know what to reject, while also--perhaps more importantly--train them to actively seek the good, true, and beautiful, and to wholeheartedly love and embrace it when they find it?

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Modern catch phrases tend to be fruitless. If a students learns how to think in the way a classical education teaches one to think (grammatically, logically, rhetorically, historically, contextually, etc.) then such thinking will automatically stimulate criticism when encountering fallacious reasoning and misconstrued perspectives, and if they've learned any compassion for ignorance and enslavement to error, then such criticism will be aimed at correcting rather than ridiculing the source.

But that's just pointing out the different aim, without getting at the "how" as you asked. Perhaps the question could be phrased, "what temptations should we avoid?" as well as what actions we should pursue. A good starting point would be for the teacher to model what a thinker should be, and be quick to correct a student who uses his powers to preen his pride.

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This reminds me of David Hicks' argument for dogma, in Norms and Nobility. I don't have my copy handy to quote from, but he makes this same point--that the starting place for learning to think and argue is acceptance or belief in something. I think the underlying nugget of truth behind the idea might be that by believing something, we are giving intellectual assent at a deep level to the idea that there is Truth at all. In general, our culture rejects the idea of absolute truth--it's all relative. There's "your truth" and "my truth," but nothing solid and universally True, and this idea of little-t "truths" which don't apply to everyone gives young people the hopelessness which arises when there is no Truth (even when they don't or can't express it clearly). By embracing a dogma--even if it has to be corrected and refined by questioning or further learning--you are actually embracing the idea that capital-t Truth exists, and that makes an enormous difference in intellectual and spiritual growth.

I believe it was in my recent reading of The Liberal Arts Tradition that I was struck by something quoted about grammar... Okay, I found it on my blog--forgive me for quoting a bit of my blog post here:
 

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In The Liberal Arts Traditionir?t=ukrak-20&l=am2&o=1&a=1600512259, Clark and Jain introduce their discussion of grammar with this quote by Friedrich Nietzsche:

I fear we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in Grammar.

It would be so, so easy to gloss over that while reading this book, but you shouldn't. You really shouldn't. Without reading a word further, you should stop right there and think for a while about why that would be so. Why would "believing" in grammar support a belief in God---make it difficult to "get rid" of God? Just working out a hypothesis for that yourself will alter your perspective of grammar forever, I think.

...

Speaking of grammar, Charlotte Mason wrote:

It requires some effort of abstraction for a child to perceive that when we speak, we speak about something and say something about it; and he has learned nearly all the grammar that is necessary when he knows that when we speak we use sentences and that a sentence makes sense; that we can put words together so as to make utter nonsense, as,--- "Tom immediately candlestick uproarious nevertheless"---a string of words making perfect nonsense and therefore not a sentence. If we use words in such a way as to make sense we get a sentence; "John goes to school" is a sentence. (Philosophy of Education, p. 209)

Why do you suppose Charlotte Mason says that is "nearly all the grammar that is necessary"? (In practice, her students learned more detail than that!) I think it is because it cuts to the heart of language and reveals the inherent structure of language, without which there could be no communication at all, no sense. It is the very logos of language, not of English alone, but all language. And that is why Nietzsche fretted about grammar making it difficult to dispense with God, who alone could create such an order, such a law, like the law of gravity, which no one can break. There are different types of grammar, but they share certain inherent properties, for which I refer you to Augustine. A noun is a noun in any language, and it may be that the contemplation of noun-ness rather than memorizing  a definition and identifying random nouns is what makes grammar a university-level art.

 

I quote all of that just to underscore my agreement with the idea that teaching the liberal arts as arts is the best foundation for thinking, and "critical thinking" is probably a misnomer.

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Newman writes, “I would rather have to maintain that we ought to begin with believing everything that is offered to our acceptance, than that it is our duty to doubt everything. The former, indeed, seems the true way of learning.”

I think David Hick's statement in Norms and Nobility reflects Newman's sentiment above, and also touches on Karen's statements about truth:

"Take skepticism, for example. As commonly applied in modern classrooms, it kills the flowering of imagination which must accept and feed upon a premise, no matter how fantastic, before rejecting it. Premature skepticism tends to separate thinking from acting, forcing the precept to withstand an adolescent's stubborn incredulity before his is prepared to put it to the test of acting upon it. Indeed, youthful skepticism often amounts to little more than an arrogant prejudice against novel or difficult ideas. It can lead to cynicism--a sophistical (now sophisticated) belief that all ideas are relative and that none is worthy of one's wholehearted  allegiance."

 

(Karen Glass, who I noticed has commented above 🙂, has an excellent chapter in her book Consider This about the important role humility plays in learning, which I highly recommend!)

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What are some ways we can teach our students to think critically (in a positive sense), without simply becoming cynical critics?

How can we help them to discern error when they see it so they know what to reject, while also--perhaps more importantly--train them to actively seek the good, true, and beautiful, and to wholeheartedly love and embrace it when they find it?

I think the dialogues of Plato are very helpful in helping our students to "think critically (in a positive sense), without simply becoming cynical critics," because Socrates embodies this very act. (I start students off with the Apology, and then follow up with Crito, Phaedo, and Euthyphro over a period of a year.)

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10 hours ago, DianaC said:

I think the dialogues of Plato are very helpful in helping our students to "think critically (in a positive sense), without simply becoming cynical critics," because Socrates embodies this very act. (I start students off with the Apology, and then follow up with Crito, Phaedo, and Euthyphro over a period of a year.)

Have you read Charlotte Mason's thoughts on Euthyphro? It's actually a rather hilarious chapter entitled "Better-Than-My-Neighbour" in Formation of Character (vol. 5 of her series, which is rarely read).

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On 12/15/2018 at 3:35 PM, DianaC said:

I think the dialogues of Plato are very helpful in helping our students to "think critically (in a positive sense), without simply becoming cynical critics," because Socrates embodies this very act. (I start students off with the Apology, and then follow up with Crito, Phaedo, and Euthyphro over a period of a year.)

I thought this as well, specifically The Republic. Socrates was sad and dissatisfied when he initially discredits his first detractor concerning what justice is. Our modern day critical thinking does this very thing: simply discredits and moves on. But Socrates, being a lover of Truth, knew it was not true simply to point at what isn't true. So, he patiently pursues what justice is until it revealed itself. This is a better model for what "critical thinking" ought to be and do. But it begins with more than, "a spirit of inquiry," it begins with love of the Truth and love of neighbor. It was important to Socrates not to be malicious when engaging with others. And it was always a humble conversation on his side, light-hearted even at times. Reading and discussing these types of "critical thinking" with our students while pointing out the humility, the love and the truly seeking what is true about the subject at hand, can be grand steps towards forming in them a right spirit fo inquiry rather than a critical spirit.  

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All this discussion of Socrates reminded me of a great essay I read recently on "Philosophy and the Practice of Education," by Pádraig Hogan and Richard Smith (a couple of contemporary British/Irish philosophers of education who have impressed me quite a bit). Basically, they write, good philosophy is a way of thinking that manages to balance a deep longing and search for truth with a healthy sense of skepticism--a skepticism largely directed towards one's own ideas and presuppositions:

"His [Socrates'] understanding then is never that of an expert in possession of incontrovertible insight. It proceeds, rather, from his own presuppositions, and from the consequences of his own best efforts to have these presuppositions unearthed and criticized in exchanges with others...As recounted by Plato, Socrates himself is explicit on this point in the Apology...he explains to the jury that when he heard that the oracle of Apollo at Delphi had declared that Socrates was the wisest of men, he himself was perplexed...Eventually, as Socrates explains to the court, he was forced to the following conclusion about the true significance of the oracle's declaration: 'Real wisdom is the property of God, and this oracle is his way of telling us that human wisdom has little or no value'...

"Socrates is not suggesting here that the search for knowledge or truth is a worthless undertaking, or that ignorance is a virtue…Far from advocating ignorance, Socrates’ actions embodied certain virtues of learning from which follow having an educated sense of one’s own ignorance, and of the relative ignorance of humankind as a whole. Such virtues…are chiefly understood as emerging within teaching and learning, and as embodied in teaching and learning, as a reflectively experienced way of life."

This should not prod us toward some sort of relativism, in which everyone’s “truths” are equally valid. Rather, one should "orient one’s learning in the critical light of the best of one’s knowledge…This is where the Socratic notion of an educated sense of one’s own ignorance comes into its own. Far from any capitulation to relativism, its awareness of its own partiality (in the twofold sense of bias and of incompleteness) becomes decisive in a fruitful way. It promotes an orientation toward learning where dialogue as a pedagogical discipline brings together three things: first, a rich understanding of the limitations and possibilities of human understanding itself; secondly, an informed but fallible conviction or (convictions) about how human understanding might now best be advanced. This confluence of insights thus features as an imperative of educational practice. Thirdly, in the attempts to adapt this imperative to the different circumstances encountered in teaching as a way of life, the integrity of education as a critical and constructive practice is distinguished from both theoretical and coercive undertakings."

My takeaway point as a teacher is this: to whatever degree we seek to teach "critical thinking," or something like it, our highest goal ought to both teach and demonstrate the kind of critical thinking toward oneself--which, I suppose, is just another way of talking about the virtue of humility, without which no one can really learn anything at all.

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Selection from Pádraig Hogan and Richard Smith, "Philosophy and the Practice of Education," in The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Education, edited by Nigel Blake, Paul Smeyers, Richard Smith, and Paul Standish (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), p.169,173-74.

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