Daily Archives: 09/26/2012

Every University Should Offer a Compulsory Course in Critical Thinking

Believing is a natural process of the human mind. Without beliefs we would not make sense of the world. They provide a framework to understand what we see and how do we make sense of it.  It has been argued by some philosophers and shown by studies in animal behaviour that animals- at least higher vertebrates- can also hold beliefs.

Beliefs have been traditionally addressed by philosophy and were defined as follows:  “A belief  is a mental state that predisposes the believer to accept some propositions as being true.” The problem with this definition is that it restricts the concept of belief acquisition to the transfer of information through sentences, as defined by the word “proposition”.  But if we understand proposition as any sort of information acquired by several sensorial means, then the definition can be applied to other animals beside humans.

However for the issue of critical thinking, the definition of belief as presented above is sufficient.

We all form beliefs because people told us things, or in an attempt to understand things we create theories that may explain what we see, hear or sense. Then, we may ascertain that these theories are true and live happy ever after. But what is “TRUTH”?

This is a question that is important to clarify in all areas of human understanding, for differences in what we perceive as being true are the main reason for social aggression. We all assume that what we believe in is true weather it is about common daily life events, or political, religious, social and scientific theories. We fight for what we believe in and in extreme cases, people kill for it.

Critical Thinking is a methodological approach that helps us to decide whether to accept or reject a claim. This method is applicable to mundane issues as well as to academic discussions. It also helps us to clarify the points we want to make and to build consistent arguments. Therefore all academic education should be accompanied by training in critical thinking. For example in scientific discussions, to know how to think critically is the foundation to many other disciplines which span from discourse analysis to statistics. Sooner or later every academic will be arguing for or against a theory of their like or dislike and in these disputes learning how to think critically is an essential part of putting forward an argument. If your argument is badly constructed and riddle with fallacies, it will  easily fall under the  weight of reasons and justifications that make more logical sense.

In my experience lecturing in several countries I have noticed that the not only undergraduate and graduate students, but many lecturers as well, are not trained in critical thinking. This is an anomaly that has been perpetuated by educational systems limited to a transfer of information from the books to the lecturer and from the lecturer to the students which assimilate the information uncritically just to repeat it in assignments and exams.

Universities in the UK insist that lecturers should assess the critical skills of the student and yet few lectures know how to assess it and even fewer students know how to be analytical.  As a way to go around this problem, lectures simply write their questions with the words “critically“in the question. For example, “Present a critical analysis of the argument offered by author of this paper”. Unless you had done a degree a philosophy, few students would be prepared to address the question. Students understand the word “critically” as bashing, attacking or abusing t what the author said, or the author itself.

We do not know what we are missing until we learn about it. For example, I was always very concerned about animals but having been born in a country riddled by ignorance perpetuated by the weight of the Catholic Church, I never knew that there have been philosophers, scientists and laws that shared the same concerns. I felt that I was awkward by the pressure of the beliefs embraced by the society I was raised in. It wasn’t until I left my country that I opened up my horizon and learnt that there was actually a science called animal welfare and many important and intelligent people did share the same type of concerns as me. I did not feel like an oddity anymore, I felt empowered.  As I studied more and more about animal welfare, I became aware of the immensity of the ignorance that surrounded me before.  I made my plea to teach people all over the world, people who cared but felt awkward among their peers, that there are many good arguments that they can use to support their beliefs, that animals and nature should be treated with respect.

We may feel that we are in the right but we may not know how to argue our case. Nobody is born a motivational speaker and much less knowing how to build convincing arguments. Critical thinking helps us to pinpoint the flaws of the arguments we don’t like or even our own claims. But this is acquired skill. We need to learn how to do it. There are analysis techniques that help us to improve our communication skills.

One day, by mere coincidence I picked up a book with the title “Critical Thinking”. I browsed through its pages and I was amazed by the content. It made me realise that there were things that I needed to know about how I interpreted what I read, how I decided what to accept or what to reject and how to pick up an argument that made sense from the range in offer whether they were about politics, ideologies, religion or science.

Critical thinking is a skill that needs to be trained. If we don’t, our intuition takes over rational thought and intuition is not necessarily right. It cheats us to believe in things that seem obvious but are no more than constructs of our own brains. Illusory correlations that suit what we are predisposed to believe in. For these reasons, critical think should be a compulsory discipline in all university courses, enabling the students to learn to think independently and creatively, to assess the good and the bad from other people’s ideas a theories and to make them able to argue for or against those theories.

I have taught some intensive Post Graduate courses at several universities in the UK and abroad. The courses were not compulsory, but the students who attended came out of the course asking for more.  So I decided to create an online  course in critical thinking that  discusses in detail the issues that we only have to time  address superficially in the  intensive courses and workshops. This online course will be available from January 2013. More information can be seen here: http://www.cambridge-elearning.com/critical_thinking.html