Critical thinking Note 28: Are we Perpetrating Fraud against our students at BC?

Imagine a college that claimed to teach biology as a general education outcome. A very large number of course across campus taught by a a great many faculty claim to teach this gen ed outcome. And yet only a tiny handful of these faculty members had ever taken a college course in biology. This college would be committing fraud. Students would not be getting the education they paid for. This, roughly, is the situation we are in at BC with respect to critical thinking.

One might object that is argument deploys a weak analogy since biology is a fairly specific and developed discipline that requires a good deal of expertise to teach competently while critical thinking is about cultivating much more general skills and traits. Critical thinking certainly is more general than biology in that it is deployed across all domains of inquiry. But critical thinking being more general and fundamental in this way falls far short of showing that teaching it effectively somehow requires less in the way of specific expertise.

Consider the case of other general and fundamental subjects like writing and math. Yes, we talk of teaching writing across the curriculum, but not to the exclusion of dedicated writing courses taught be people who are well trained in writing pedagogy. Math is reinforced in many disciplines and even taught to some degree across the curriculum. Critical thinking courses, for instance, often cover the probability calculus. But then it would be madness to consider this an adequate substitute for dedicated instruction in math. What we do across disciplines is reinforce and build on the basic general skills taught in writing and math courses. Cultivating strong critical thinking skills requires the same sort of dedicated attention as writing and math.

Another objection I’ve heard several times at BC is that critical thinking just means different things to different people. If this were so, there would be no such thing as critical thinking. But people who actually teach critical thinking know full well that critical thinking is a thing. We have college level courses called critical thinking. There is a genre of critical thinking texts that offer a variety of approaches to mastering the same basic skills and cultivating the same habits of mind. While “What does it mean to you?” might be a helpful and evocative question concerning how to interpret a poem, it is not so helpful to ask, “What does it mean to you?” about algebra. Algebra is a thing. A person can understand what algebra is or fail to. Same goes for critical thinking.

So, what ought we do to avoid committing fraud against our students? There are really only a few options. We could scrub all reference to critical thinking (and reasoning generally) from our Gen Ed language to avoid false advertising. Or, if we recognize the crucial value of teaching critical thinking, we could make a point of training our faculty up to teaching it well and then developing a coherent shared infused critical thinking curriculum. One further option would be to back out of the infusion model by a few degrees and have a required critical thinking course which would entail hiring faculty that have the appropriate qualifications.

I think we have good reason to worry that our current practice around critical thinking is in fact fraudulent. Of course, as a critical thinker I am open, even eager, to entertain further objections to the argument at hand. I’d really rather not think I’m a party to perpetuating a fraud against our students.

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