Critical thinking, prison edition

By popular demand my group has just embarked on a model college course, using the same text I have used for a couple of years, minus the formal evaluation of their work. We will instead go over the homework problems on the spot at the end of each chapter section.

The biggest challenge – in theory – will be to cover material hot off the presses and not in the text. Using up to date material in the news not only shows the relevance and usefulness of the skills I hope to cultivate in the course, but even more to the point, allows — okay, forces — the class to apply the material, the terms, concepts, and critical strategies, to real arguments in their messy natural habitats. Anyone who has taught critical thinking knows how daunting it is to see that even students doing the best in the course, consistently acing the homework and exams, have a hard time recognizing and applying the material in out-of-class examples, even in textbook (not, I guess) instances of the concepts that all but sit up and announce themselves. You may spend two weeks on analyzing analogical arguments, then read an editorial built mainly around an analogy and also appealing to several more, which students, initially at least, just don’t see.  It’s easy to pick out which fallacy of relevance occurs in the homework problems in which each question is guilty of at least one of them. I usually do hot-off-the-presses work from day one in this class, but since I can’t bring in outside material to the meetings, I’ll instead assemble old(er) examples of real life disputes and arguments, even if they’re not from today’s news. Fun! And special thanks to the Democrats and Republicans for the endless debates this year: many riches to mail to the DSP for approval which I hope will make it to the school where if I am lucky the guards will be able to find it in the office or supply room.

In the meantime, off to a brilliant start. I asked the group of ten, including four or five new inmates (to the group) who had specifically signed up to work on this book and topic, why they were interested in working on thinking critically. Many of them have found the other books we have done lately intimidating, and rightly were reluctant to join the group mid book. Several said they wanted to be better at understanding reasoning so that they could read more challenging material, from any area of study, but especially in philosophy. I was happily taken aback: So I can get more out of Berkeley’s Dialogues! So I can answer back better to O’Brien in 1984! One man even joked that he hopes he’ll get a better grasp out of K’s favorite philosophical concept: the categorical imperative. Others declared that they want to be better reasoners, and to be better able to wade through prejudice and hearsay. I closed by saying that I hoped this work would above all help them do justice to their own positions and ideas, to get a better grasp of nothing less than the truth, and that while we would learn a handy thing or two along the way about fallacies the goal is less Gotcha! and more Aha! (It turns out that this group was in less need of that message than the average traditionally aged undergraduate.)

The most astute in the group left us with an example to take up next time (as we work on setting out the basic concepts): the battle between the US government and Apple over whether Apple should unlock the San Bernardino killers’ iphones. He’s worried that no amount of critical thinking will steer us to a single correct answer we can all agree on. He is right of course. But I hope we can come to see that not all conclusions are equally good or defensible, and why.


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