Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Logical Course

I recently wrote a blog that discussed the dearth of critical thinking in our society. See: logical thinking This continues a blogging trend of mine – questioning the modern U.S. ethos -- our children are encouraged these days to decide things based only upon feelings and not on logical thought. TV shows like “The Daily Show” seem to make their stripes based upon making illogic thought popular (and sometimes even funny). I even wonder whether the audience laughs because they agree with these political barbs (usually against the right) or because they somehow sense that these barbs are inherently illogical.

As a consequence I went to the Dartmouth college website to see what kind of emphasis Dartmouth currently places on the study of Logic (remember Logic used to be a major course of study among our not-too-distant ancestors). See: Dartmouth course list What I discovered there was somewhat disturbing. Dartmouth, a supposed premier liberal arts college, offers only seven undergraduate courses in logic – three in the Mathematics department and four in the Philosophy department. (The three courses in the Mathematics department are only offered on alternate years!) To contrast with this, there are 46 courses offered in the African Studies department, 25 courses offered in the Native American Studies department, and 32 courses offered in the Women’s and Gender Studies. I guess I now understand why Jon Stewart is greeted with a chorus of “whoop, whoop”s when he makes an inane and illogical comment about our current governance.

Not that feelings have absolutely no place in our decision making process. Onetime, I got a fortune cookie at a Chinese restaurant that read: “When your head and your heart agree, you are seldom wrong.” If we could only hope to achieve this paltry norm?


biggreen2000 said...

I very much appreciate the irony of your posting. If it were not for the critical thinking skills I learned at Dartmouth, I would have been sucked into your argument that the names of courses in the ORC and the numbers of courses provide real proof of what Dartmouth teaches (or does not teach) today.

You are correct that critical thinking is fundamental to a liberal arts education. As John Sloan Dickey was so fond of saying, a liberal arts education "liberates" because it frees you from the intellecitual captivity of parochial thinking based on limited experience, knowledge, creativity, and thinking ability, and it instead empowers you to make independent judgments of what is true.

Critical thinking (including how to argue effectively without using logical fallacies) is woven into almost all of today's Dartmouth curriculum. I can't think of a course in which Dartmouth students are not required to ask the hard but right questions, to analyze rigorously, and to formulate clear, persuasive arguments that support or reject positions others have taken.

The Writing Program -- a much better taught and more effective effort than the lame Paradise Lost rituals of old -- does this well. And while the history classes of the 1950s were replays of high school with stirring dramatizations of facts that students were asked to regurgitate mindlessly, history today requires that students dig in and evaluate the strengths of conclusions of "experts."

Native American, Women and Gender, and simlar courses are especially crucial to good critical thinking and a liberal arts education. I am sure John Sloan Dickey would applaud how essential they are to critical thinking because they force students to see the world from outside the majority mainstream mindset. It's anything but critical thinking or liberal arts to view the world from an intellectual strait jacket. And it has never mattered more. President Dickey knew that in a global world, someone who only viewed things from a white, male, American perspective would be dead meat in no time. Today's environment proves how far-sighted he was.

So rest easy. Instead of mindless recitation and recall that dominated college education in the early and middle 20th century, today's Dartmouth undergraduates are learning how to think for themselves: to analyze, to weigh evidence and arguments, to create their own assessments, and to communicate them clearly and effectively. That's critical thinking. And they would not be so successful in the professions, business, arts, government, and elsewhere if this were not the case.

George W. Potts said...

Re: previous comment (biggreen2000)
"It is so because I say it is so."
"Besides John Sloan Dickey would have approved."
(Please do not leave anonymous comments however fallacious.)
George W. Potts

d06woman said...

Yikes, Biggreen2000. I am an 06 and much has changed. Critical thinking is involved very rarely outside of Phil, Econ, and Government. And it isn't in the Native American and Gender Studies departments at all. I was a WGST major and most classes were quite literally about discussing our personal opinions about various topics. There wasn't any critical thinking at all.

George Potts is mostly right about the dearth of critical thinking at Dartmouth today. You seem to want to defend the status quo against any legitimate attack.

A liberal arts education is liberating because it should be based on real learning and on real facts. The truth, in other words, shall set you free. Discovering the truth requires critical thinking. But classes at Dartmouth are about the opposite: they are about "class discussion" and never saying when a student is right or wrong. It is soft and it inadequately prepared me for the world of business.