A new article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the decline of philosophy in the academy stresses again (see my previous post) the importance of philosophy in providing critical thinking education. I’m pleased to see the props the author (Lee McIntyre) gives to feminist philosophers for their attention to pressing issues of our time, but I’m not sure his general despair over philosophy is warranted given other reports of the rising popularity of philosophy education.
McIntyre may simply be building a career as an alarmist. His most recent book “Dark Ages: The Case for a Science of Human Behavior” despairs over losing the emancipatory potential of the social sciences. (See Berel Dov Lerner’s review here.) One begins to sense a pattern, and while I haven’t had a chance to investigate “Dark Ages” yet, I’m sceptical that it claims to promote value-free science.
However, his message about the need for a revaluation of the significance of philosophy education, and the central role of critical thinking in that context, may be important. (He has a book coming out on this too.) He says “the goal—especially at the undergraduate level—should be to help students recognize that philosophy matters. Not just because it will improve their LSAT scores (which it will), but because philosophy has the potential to change the very fabric of who they are as human beings.” This requires taking critical thinking to a much higher level than most undergraduate programs will.
McIntyre blames the discipline for hiring sessional instructors, which is absurd since those decisions are made by administrators rather than faculty members. However, philosophers do tend to view critical thinking, argumentation, and introductory education as less valuable, and so assign it to sessional instructors. That might be rethought, but only if we begin to have philosophers trained in those methodological issues.
As argumentation theory and informal logic continue to grow (see the introductory editorial in Cogency), giving rise to new journals (such as Cogency) and becoming institutionalized in new research centres and doctoral programs, perhaps we will have the resources for that. As it stands, critical thinking is much less a part of the philosophy curriculum than one might expect.
Philosophy is not alone in promising (and perhaps failing) to teach “critical thinking,” since that buzzword is so heavily used in education that it is almost meaningless. Yet philosophers continue to claim a rightful ownership of that terrain. That claim and the pride that goes with it flies in the face of typical educational and hiring practices that undervalue teaching and research in argumentation and informal logic.
What we need to turn things around may be a radical reconsideration of what is the purpose of a philosophy education. McIntyre suggests that should be an appreciation of the value of philosophy, and that may require greater focus on the skills of philosophy. That will certainly depend on a broad consciousness-raising among philosophers, not to stem the hiring of sessional instructors but to demand that instructors of courses and authors of textbooks in critical thinking have expertise and training in informal logic.
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