Teaching critical thinking in 2020


Dan Hicks


July 10, 2020

Back in May, I read a blog post by Cathy Davidson, an English professor at CUNY Grad Center, “The Single Most Essential Requirement in Designing a Fall Online Course.” It’s a really useful meditation for academics (and other teachers, and really anyone who works with young people) start to plan our courses for Fall 2020. Here’s the question that’s Davidson’s answer to the question-as-statement of her title:

Before we begin to design our fall syllabus, before we make clever instructional videos, we all need to think from a student’s point of view. We need to try to understand what it means to be studying for a future you don’t know that you will have. No one knows what lies ahead in the best of times. Now, all the predictions seem like some dystopian futuristic novel. Total social breakdown? Total economic collapse? A health emergency in which millions die over the next three or four years? How do you study to prepare for this future?

What do our students need now? That is the essential question for going on line. Whether teaching algebraic geometry or sociology or literature or art or religion, we need to begin with the question of: what would I need if I were a student in this historic moment? [my emphasis]

I’m teaching a critical thinking course this Fall. I immediately knew what the students in my course would need in the current moment: the virtues of engaging well in conversation across deep, emotionally-laden disagreement. If you’re an 19-year-old lefty or progressive, how do you talk with your Trump supporter parents about the election? Maybe you’re white and Black Lives Matter is challenging some of your deep-seated beliefs about policing, prisons, and criminals. Or you’re on DACA and your bio lab partner is talking about the pro-ICE rally that he went to last week. (CW: This link describes a rally that actually happened at UC Merced in 2018. https://www.mercedsunstar.com/news/local/education/uc-merced/article204022279.html) Our culture right now doesn’t provide many models of how (and whether) to have good conversations about these kinds of issues.

There’s significant demand for these models in our society right now, as witnessed by the success of books nominally about reason, logic, and deep disagreement by authors associated with the right-wing/anti-left “intellectual dark web.” (I’m thinking in particular of Stefan Molyneux’ The Art of the Argument, Boghossian and Lindsay’s How to Have Impossible Conversations, and to an extent Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. These links are all to reviews or more general critical discussions.) These books have two problems. First, as textbooks in critical thinking they’re not very good. (Check the reviews.) Second, they serve as subtle entry points to the right-wing social media network. I’m not saying that students should never encounter and engage with right-wing ideas. But it should be done with care, and honesty, and none of these books are transparent about their political alignment.

Many standard critical thinking textbooks take one of two approaches. The first approach, which I think is also the most common, focuses on the technicalities of logic: definitions, fallacies, often Aristotelean syllogism and a little sentence logic; maybe a little probability theory as (Bayesian) inductive logic. A good example of this approach is Hurley’s A Concise Introduction to Logic, currently in its twelfth edition and paradoxically running to more than 700 pages. If there’s anything in this book about interacting with other people in any way, it doesn’t appear in the table of contents.

I think being familiar with more-or-less formalized logic can be useful, especially for upper-division philosophy majors. But it’s much less useful if what we want to do is talk with people with whom we disagree.

The second approach to critical thinking aims to cultivate what I think of as the “liberal conversational virtues”: open-mindedness, direct and accessible expression of one’s ideas, attentive listening, empathy, interpretive charity, and identifying common ground. Some good examples here are Maureen Linker’s Intellectual Empathy, Martin Fowler’s The Ethical Practice of Critical Thinking, and Anthony Weston’s Rulebook for Arguments. These books come closer to what I want to offer my students. (And that’s one of the main reasons I chose Morrow and Weston’s Workbook for Arguments, which includes the full text of Rulebook plus exercises and larger assignments.)

But these liberal conversational virtues can be — and historically have been — weaponized against cultural movements for social justice. I’m thinking of tactics such as sealioning, tone policing, concern trolling, “just asking questions,” and Alice McIntyre’s notion (via Alison Bailey) of “white talk” (especially assertions of one’s anti-racist open-mindedness and empathy as a way to avoid criticism). The liberal conversational virtues become vices when they make my students more susceptible to these tactics.

As a first pass, I might address this limitation of teaching the liberal conversational virtues by assigning some additional readings and activities, discussing these various tactics, helping my students spot them in the wild, and giving them tools to respond appropriately.

I’ll probably do some of this. But it risks turning a chunk of my class into a laundry list of fallacies — just a different list from the standard one you find in Hurley’s textbook. So, as a second pass, I think we (including both teachers and students of critical thinking) need to think about what goes wrong when the liberal conversational virtues are weaponized. Why is the sealion’s endless call to open debate not just annoying but actually ethically problematic?

I think the answer has to do with power. Characteristically, sealioning and similar tactics are directed downwards, from someone who is relatively high in our society’s power hierarchies — and interested in defending those hierarchies — and towards someone who is relatively low — and interesting in criticizing them. In other words, sealioning is a vice because it functions to protect an unjust status quo from criticism. (Linker discusses power dynamics in the introduction and second chapter of her book, though on a quick skim I can’t tell if she’s connecting power to my concern with the ways thinks like empathy and open-mindedness can be weaponized and do harm. I might assign some of her discussion in my course.)

On this analysis, critical thinking — and specifically whether certain approaches to conversation are, in a given case, virtuous or vicious — is loaded with substantive assumptions about power and justice. I can’t assume that students share my substantive assumptions about power and justice. (Though, in my experience so far, most UC Merced students are pretty sympathetic to my views.) But I can, at least, teach them that the deep disagreements in our society also apply to the meta-level; that our deep disagreements about Black Lives Matter or Trump are, at the same time, also deep disagreements about how to talk about our deep disagreements.