We that invest in precious metals—we who have withdrawn parts of our retirement accounts, or dedicated funds that we would have spent on consumer frivolities—we did not follow the rules. We have been critical thinkers, considering the reasons for our economic woes, concluding that the economy is not reparable under the current system.
Believing this now, we have taken action, investing in commodities that will survive an inevitable collapse so that we might be able to rebuild our lives in a new economy. But we did not follow the rules -- we did not spend more and go deeper in debt while our savings were tucked away on Wall Street in IRA accounts. So we have been “yellow-trucked!”
I took a logic class in 1978 titled “Forms of Thought,” taught by Dr. Williams, a mathematician for whom I had great respect, because he passed me in Algebra when I could barely solve a quadratic equation and forgot a week later. The first day of class he pulled out a book by a major philosopher (Julian Jaynes) and announced to us that he had identified no fewer than 28 errors in logic in this significant book. I was mesmerized from that day on! I swore to myself that I would master this mathematical system of logic, complete with its own symbols. I figured that I could listen to someone’s argument, convert it to mathematical logic, spot the weakness, then know exactly what to say to refute that argument. I would have the power of that yellow truck. How cool is that!
But it did not work out that way. I struggled to translate real-time arguments into logic symbols then back into English. I was literally learning another language. So I gave up … besides, the school only offered one class in logic. But in retrospect, it sounds like I had a class in “critical thinking” before the term was made popular in colleges. Certainly critical thinking was not an explicit “learning outcome” to the college then, but has anything really changed? Logic classes are electives, as are argumentation and debate classes.
Today, universities say that we teach critical thinking, but do we really teach it? I think not! Instead we are taught to follow the rules. In academia, the education professors have stepped into a void and claimed expertise in Critical Thinking. Rather than teaching a mathematical system of logic, or teaching good argumentation principles, they have created an entire matrix of concepts that describe their view of critical thinking. Consider these definitions:
In 1940, Sumner defined it as “the examination and test of propositions of any kind which are offered for acceptance, in order to find out whether they correspond to reality or not.” *
More recently (2014) the definition has been expanded to “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”
The revised definition is clearly inspired by Bloom’s Taxonomy—a handy diagram that helps teachers map out the process of learning. Within that new definition they posit 5 concepts as working hand in hand with 5 more to achieve a dual purpose of belief and action. But I claim the description of the process is getting mucked up with too many variables and nearly impossible for the human mind to keep at its fingertips if one finds themselves in a public debate—or even a published debate. I like the first definition much better.
This difference is profound: The 1940 definition tested propositions. The 2014 definition conceptualizes/evaluates information.
Essentially "critical thinking" shifted from the examination of major premises to the minor ones. We no longer ask if “all men are mortal” in college, rather we ask if “Socrates was really a man.” In economics, we do not debate where or not Keynes was right, we discuss how to set manage interest rates to achieve the desired level of inflation based on government metrics. No longer do we test propositions to see if they conform to reality. Instead, now we follow a method of getting from A to B by using a prescribed process. We teach students to follow a set of rules about how we determine what knowledge is. If you don’t follow this method, you don’t pass certain classes and you don’t get a degree. You will remain “uneducated.”
I contend that while university people talk a whole bunch about critical thinking, there really is very little teaching and practice in critical thinking that happens for bachelor’s level students. (It changes at the graduate level, but really, how many people read academic journals exploring and debating theory after college?) I benefited most from my research methods and statistics classes. And truth be told, research methods did not make much sense until after I learned statistics. But I am not sure I would have grasped the importance of stats without first getting mired in research methods--kind of a chicken-egg deal. The light went on for me, but then again, I was that weird student. Today, we specialize in narrow fields, focusing on specific theories and data, but not being taught to synchronize knowledge and ideas from various fields. How much do research chemists developing genetic variants learn about propaganda methods their employers use on the public? The disconnect is startling. People take classes to pass them and check them off their list.
Even Bloom’s taxonomy has been revised. They added “creativity” to the top of that pyramid, suggesting that when you follow the steps of learning up the pyramid, you will become a creative person. Hmmm…. My kids were pretty creative at a very early age, as are all kids. Something doesn’t add up here. Actually, education has been roundly criticized for squelching creativity from young people. According to Rich Hess, “A legacy of statutes, contracts, rules, and regulations … stifles creative problem-solving… and has yielded a culture of timidity….” But simply adding creativity to the pyramid doesn’t solve the problem Hess describes. And in the view of other experts, that is not where creativity comes from anyway. This video lecture by Elizabeth Gilbertis worth a watch (20 minutes) if you are interested in creativity
I think George Carlin was right. “They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking!” They want good factory workers, soldiers, and generally people who do what they are told to do. Critical thinking is dangerous!
So we don’t teach critical thinking, even though people like me, and even though dedicated professors in Education departments all agree that we must. Currently, the ability to teach critical thinking and the methods of doing it are mired in academic over-complication. If you have learned to reason, critique and discover truth, (and most of you have) I’ll bet you learned it on your own, in spite of our educational system.
But, we have hope if you wish to learn or sharpen your abilities.
There is a very simple method of mastering the techniques of critical thinking, of training the mind to analyze, critique, create, support or attack certain propositions. “There is nothing new under the sun,” said a wise man. So why reinvent the wheel with this cumbersome system of "critical thinking," which is accurate, but difficult to employ, when we already have an elegant, simple, effective, tried and true system at our fingertips.
The method to achieve what we call critical thinking today was called “Invention” by the ancient Athenians. It was at the heart of training in “Rhetoric” if you were an aspiring Greek youth. I didn’t learn this system until I studied Aristotle in graduate school. How I wish I had learned about rhetoric at age 12 or so as they did back then!
The "critical thinking" part of their rhetoric curriculum was developed in Syracuse around 500 BCE and practiced for two centuries in courts and assemblies before it was finally codified by Aristotle. The system of “Topical Logics” enables one to critique and invent arguments that support propositions—usually propositions for action, rather than just finding truth (the Greeks were all about action). In fact, this is how the brain naturally reasons! It is hard-wired into us, thus learning the system in its entirety is easy and comfortable. But this system does not rely on the mathematical symbolism I was taught in college. Rather, Aristotle uses word formulas that are easy to memorize. The system is a list of 28 logic formulas and about a dozen recognized logical fallacies. Each could be expressed symbolically, but it is so much easier to recognize and recall a word formula in your native language. Every Athenian and Roman youth memorized all these formulas. The beauty of his system is its linguistic nature that merges nicely with any language and allows a person to pick apart or create arguments, in real–time debate, much like a martial arts expert has mastered numerous scripted, yet flexible, offensive and defensive moves to be called upon as needed, in the blink of an eye, for more effective argumentation.
You really don’t want to argue with someone who has mastered this system. You will most likely lose, even if you are right, unless… you are equally proficient in that same system. Really, that is your only chance. My rhetoric mentor said that if you can master just 5 of these formulas, you will be a most excellent debater.
You can see the whole system here: On Rhetoric by Aristotle
Topical logics is contained in Book 2, Parts 22, 23, & 24. But you cannot just read it. You have to practice it. Apply these “lines of argument” to any policy issue you can and see what creative ideas you come up with to support or refute various courses of action. It was all Greek to me, at first. But one day the light came on as I realized that I could consider an issue, take either side, pro or con, and then search for solid reasons to support or reject a proposal by playing around with these “word formulas.” For example, if we consider whether or not the central planners should keep centrally planning our economy, formula number one immediately suggests a response: “One line of positive proof is based upon consideration of the opposite of the thing in question. Observe whether that opposite has the opposite quality.” Just a bit of thought produces the following argument against central planners:
"Since with central planning our nation has become indebted beyond the ability to repay, suffers from inflation, and is harmed by asset bubbles, only without central planning might we achieve economic stability." From here any of us could provide several example of the failures of central planning and discuss the economic growth and stability prior to 1913.
Those of us who would defend truth (aka, conspiracy theories) need to be more proficient in the art of rhetoric than the sophists, liars, and incompetent bloggers who would ridicule us. We need to learn which arguments and evidence are most effective, for a particular hearer. We must learn to defend our actions; and not only that, but to persuade our loved ones to take actions to secure their own well-being after a collapse.
Aristotle provided the means. All we have to do is study and practice.
The heart of critical thinking—the ability to analyze arguments, to create arguments, to refute arguments—no longer thrives in the general curriculum in colleges. But you can master it by studying the art of rhetoric, using a system that was perfected for two centuries, then practiced for two thousand years, if not in free societies, then kept alive by creative writers until it could be practiced in legislatures again. This is what we do here every day. Lately, members have been better about refraining from derision, focusing on evidence and arguments. Creative and Critical thinking abounds here. And it’s a good thing, because we all have loved ones who need to be persuaded and we have our own decisions to make about the future.
* Sumner, W. G. (1940). Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals, New York: Ginn and Co., pp. 632, 633.