Trying to Understand the Program of Educational Reform through Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines

Andrew Chrucky

My paper is a reaction to the articles in the newsletter Inquiry, and additional articles by others, especially Mark Weinstein, the Acting Director of the Institute for Critical Thinking at Montclair State College. Weinstein and his colleagues are engaged in a most ambitious program, as they put it, of educational reform through critical thinking across the disciplines. Without doubt, the ideologue of this school is Weinstein, and it is on his writings that I have concentrated.

Weinstein is dissatisfied with critical thinking courses, informal logic courses, and logic courses as given by philosophy departments. His reasons are that they are inadequate by omitting the contexts of specific inquiry, and that as they are taught their contents are not in fact transferred to other disciplines.{1} It is clear to me that Weinstein is proposing that various disciplines are to be taught in a critical manner. But I am not clear about how Weinstein justifies his claims and about how he proposes to implement them.

I. Absolute vs. Relative Educational Ideals

Mark Weinstein's articles express a relativized philosophy of education; they do not necessarily express Weinstein's full-fledged philosophy of education. This is so because Weinstein has to take into account what he is being employed to do. His objective is to reform education as it presently exists.{2} He is not employed, I take it, to write about an educational utopia in the manner of Plato's Republic, More's Utopia, or Skinner's Walden Two. His problem is not to describe an ideal educational community; his problem is to recommend improvements to the de facto educational community. The scope of his solution is restricted to the extent, I think, that it would be impractical for him to propose, for example, the Great Books program as practiced by St. John's College, which attempts to embody Mortimer Adler's Paidea project.

As a consequence there is a hint of a tension is Weinstein's writings between an absolute ideal and a relative ideal. An absolute educational ideal would be set in an ideal society -- whatever that would be: possibly socialistic, possibly agrarian, and possibly operating in a different type of democracy. The relative ideal which Weinstein has to work with is set in the context of a Christian, capitalistic, technological society, operating with the type of representative democracy we happen to have. Specifically his problem is to improve education at institutions such as the Montclair State College. However, mingled in his writings there is an occasional call for a critical examination of the political, economic, and sociological setting of college teaching generally, and he suggests such a multilogical problem, as he would call it, for some courses.{3} But as far as I can discern, Weinstein does not offer such a broad educational critique -- at least not in anything of his that I have read. Yet given his obvious interest in the historicity and sociology of science practice, it is obvious that he would give a similar treatment to educational institutions as well.

II. The Aims of Liberal Education

Colleges and universities, such as Montclair State College, are divided into relatively isolated departments, and such institutions are trying to accomplish three objectives: (1) provide a liberal arts education, (2) prepare for various professions, (3) prepare researchers. Whether these three tasks should be undertaken by one institution in the manner usually done is a very important problem which cannot be considered here. However, these three tasks of a university should be distinguished and compared. Since Weinstein does not do this, his prescriptions, which I take are appropriate for a liberal arts education and apply across the liberal arts disciplines, do not necessary apply to the other objectives which may require training rather than critical thinking--as for example, learning a word processing computer program, or studying human anatomy.

Let us assume then that Weinstein is interested in reforming liberal arts education. What is the goal of a liberal arts education? Weinstein says that the ideal is the education of critical thinkers. Perhaps this is the appropriate thing to say in a relativized philosophy of education, but as far as I am concerned it is not the first nor even the second thing to say in an absolute philosophy of education. In order to make this clear, I will elaborate on my own view of liberal education.

Liberal arts education, in my view, should aim at the education of an ideal citizen. So put I am immediately faced with two problems. The first problem is to specify whether the citizen is to be a citizen of a secular city or, as St. Augustine would put, the city of God. The second problem is whether the citizen is to be the citizen of a country or the citizen of a community of all rational creatures. My proposal is that liberal education should educate for citizenship in the secular city composed of all rational creatures.

My next problem is to specify the nature of the ideal citizen. The main characteristic of the ideal citizen would be his concern with promoting the common good of all rational creatures, which is just another way of characterizing a moral human being. And note that nothing has yet been said about critical thinking. If you ask me to choose between a society of people composed of critical thinkers who are indifferent to the common good, and a society of uncritical thinkers who are interested in promoting the common good, I will choose the latter, and I will favor an education that fosters uncritical moral human beings rather than critical amoral or immoral human beings. Liberal education, in my view, should be primarily education for morality and not for critical thinking.

The next problem concerns the topic of moral education. Weinstein expresses scepticism about the work of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg on cognitive development. Evidently he believes that children can engage in critical discussion before their time, so to speak. Whether this is so or not, there is some time--let's say before five years of age--when children are not moved by reasons. Everyone, I think, agrees that during this time children need to be trained and indoctrinated. Moral training should be and is continued in later years by various social pressures, and in extreme cases by the penalty of law. Morality begins with the training of appropriate habits, and as Aristotle wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics: "It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference. (1103b25)" Citing Aristotle on this, Michael Levin, a professor of philosophy at CCNY, wrote in a letter to the New York Times charging that courses in Ethics, if they are geared to moral education, are generally a waste of time. I agree. The function of such course should be, as is the Nicomachean Ethics itself, a critical justification and rounding off of our de facto moral training; and a prescription for moral training.

Where does critical thinking come in? Well society should aim primarily at the education of citizens who have the common good as their primary intention. This is a necessary characteristic of an ideal citizen -- it is, however, not sufficient. Good intentions do not guarantee proper actions or even any action at all. Not only must our ideal citizen be motivated by the intention to promote the general good, but he must be supplied with the right type of character for persisting in carrying out his intentions. He should not succumb to his private interests, lose perseverance, or succumb to fear. In short, our ideal citizen should have moral virtues. But is this enough? No. Such a person may have the right intentions, and the right character, but be ignorant or naive about what needs to be done to promote the common good, or even about what constitutes the common good. Since our citizen will be bombarded with information on television, the radio, newspapers, magazines, conversations with family, friends, acquaintances, religious leaders, teachers, advertisers, etc., and given his goal of promoting the common good, he must know where to get needed information, to choose relevant, important information, and be able to understand and to make appropriate inferences. Since he will also be subject to falsehoods and to misinformation, he must also be able to understand and to judge the merits of the way the information is discovered and presented.

Our ideal citizen then will satisfy three criteria: he must have the intention of fostering the public good, and possess what we may call, following Aristotle, the moral and intellectual virtues. He will, in short, be a moral, wise individual.

If there is a failing in liberal education, it must be a failing to produce ideal citizens of this type since it is currently producing self-centered, dependent individuals who lack moral or even intellectual virtues. The agenda, therefore, must be to produce the ideal citizen through social reform.

Suppose for the sake of argument we grant that the failure to produce the ideal citizen is not solely a problem of formal education, that it could be a political failure, a cultural failure, or whatever: still we can ask what is the failing of formal education in this process. There are all sorts of possible reasons for educational failure: poor teachers, poor students, poor courses, poor sequence of courses, too many students per teacher, etc.

A major problem for all types of higher education, as I see it, is that it has been transformed into a commercial enterprise. It is run like a business. Its goal is to maximize profit and to minimize loss. And as with all businesses, the criteria for a successful academic enterprise is now its effectiveness in attracting and retaining the student-customer. As far as I can tell, moreover, this transformation is the doing of administrators either through weakness or through policy. The weakness is in their succumbing to various departmental demands in offering dubious courses in dubious sequences; while administrative policy seems to foster the business of attracting and keeping students -- in whatever academically shoddy fashion. Couple this with the policy of dismissing good teachers because of poor student evaluations, and retaining poor teachers who are tenured, and you have the ingredients for failed education. Schools have now become economic market-places. The political structure of a university has business people on the board of trustees, the president is a public relations man, and administrators are often business types. Since the above reflections are apparently politically indiscrete,{4} the discussion of educational reform in the institute for critical thinking must restrict itself to discussion of teaching goals and methods. Having said this, I will address myself to the problem of goals and methods.

III. Consistency and Contradiction

The goal of liberal education, as I said, is the education of virtuous moral human beings, and the ideal would be the education of wise human beings. Wisdom connotes an understanding of many important things in a unified way, and knowing how to apply such understanding to the practical problems of life. To understand is to see patterns of relations. These relations may be temporal, spatial, causal, means-ends, logical, classificatory, and possibly something else. Moreover the discovery and contemplation of patterns is the source of aesthetic values. And it may very well be that the moral life is ultimately to be preferred for its aesthetic value.

An essential function of liberal education is to provide an understanding of important things. The understanding, then, that is sought is important general understanding. Peter Caws, with whom Weinstein worked, talks about the construction of a map of knowledge.{5} A similar idea is expressed by Wilfrid Sellars when he writes: "The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term," and he goes on to use metaphors of maps and images.{6} Brand Blanshard describes the task of understanding using a metaphor of spanning bridges from a continent to outlying islands.{7} The metaphor is apt in stressing the "continent" of presupposed beliefs, and the fact that if a bridge is to be built the "island" must be, to use a current expression, commensurate with the continent.

The model of assimilating islands to a continent presupposes the adequacy of the continent, i.e., the stock of presuppositions or a Weltanschauung. Suppose the Weltanschauung contains false beliefs. Possibly what is needed is deconstruction in the manner of a Socratic examination. For this purpose a group discussion may very well be the answer.

If liberal education aims at important understanding, then it must be an education where all the subjects are in resonance, or in stable equilibrium with philosophy, or, as Matthew Lipman expresses it, philosophy stands at right angles to the other disciplines as the warp and woof in cloth. A philosophical perspective aims at seeing the big picture, and as such must work with broad categories, leaving particular concepts and details to the individual disciplines.

What then is Mark Weinstein's position? I am not sure. One thing that strikes me about his writing is his disparagement of normative philosophy. He seems to identify philosophy with a priori methods, and contrasts this with the empirical methods of the various disciplines. This would not be the view of philosophy that I would have. In my view philosophy is interested in a coherent categorial framework, and the categories it works with are taken from all the disciplines so that a person within any discipline who reflects on the categories of his discipline becomes himself a philosopher. In this sense Einstein was a philosopher, as was Freud, as was Toynbee. Possibly Weinstein is trying to disparage only particular approaches to philosophy, like that of Kant, or positivism, or analytic philosophy, because he certainly expresses admiration for philosophers such as Toulmin, Habermas, Lipman, and Siegel, among others.

Anyway, the second problem concerns Weinstein's epistemology. Apparently he and Tom Bridges, a colleague of his in the philosophy department, accept what they call post-modernism. It is clear to me that they claim to reject epistemological foundations in some sense. But since they fail to distinguish rationalistic foundations from empirical foundations, I am not clear whether they reject only empirical foundations or both. I happen to accept both types of foundations.

The rationalist foundation, or the Archimedean point by which all claims and arguments in any field are to be judged is the a priori reflective truth that no claim can be true if it is internally inconsistent--e.g. The claim "This cube is round" cannot be true. It is also an a priori truth that if two claims are inconsistent, at least one of them must be false--e.g. The two claims, "This cube is green all over at time t" and "This same cube is not green all over at time t" cannot both be true. Given these a priori truths which act as criteria in any inquiry, a critical thinker is one who is disposed to reject claims which are internally inconsistent, and to reject at least one of two inconsistent claims.

Weinstein writes:

No claim is so basic as to be immune from the possibility of challenge and the demand for warrant and backing. Even the most basic principles of logic and mathematics can be challenged when complex constructions are claimed relevant to new domains. A classic case is the application of Non-Eucledian Geometry to Relativity Physics. . . . Deviant logics play a similar role in describing the very small regions of space-time characteristic of Quantum Physics."{8}

In response, the passage is a red herring. First, there are no alternative or deviant logics which are internally or externally inconsistent. The principle of non-contradiction is a basic principle which is immune to challenge. Second, the only way Eucledian or any other geometry could be challenged would be by a charge of inconsistency.

At another place we find Weinstein making the following claim: "A priori reasoning can only be challenged in terms of extra-logical criteria."{9} I don't know what he has in mind, but there is no challenging the a priori principle of non-contradiction.

For all I know Weinstein may agree with what I have said above but may go on to object that fidelity to consistency will not take you very far.{10} I would beg to differ. In the fundamental question of whether one should strive to be a citizen of this world or the heavenly cities of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, I would propose that these theologies should be rejected in those aspects which urge faith in the truth of contradictions.{11} A critical thinker, in the words of Harvey Siegel, is indeed one who is appropriately moved by reasons; but I would add that he is one who above all else is appropriately moved by contradictions. I think it is at this point, if anywhere, that a multi-culturalist must object. He or she will object that my stand prevents me from entering into dialogue with people who are Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Kierkegaardians, Heideggerians, Derridians, and such. Not so. I am willing to enter into a dialogue in order to understand their Weltanschauung, and I may try to persuade them in the appropriate context of why a belief in a contradiction cannot be true, but I also know a priori that I will not learn the truth from them if they speak to me in contradictions. But practical wisdom may tell me to reserve my judgment and not write Satanic Verses.

Furthermore, I am a rationalist who believes that there are indispensable categories for the intelligibility of experience. Weinstein writes that "Kant was mistaken about the transcendental character of the categories, because he misconstrued the stability of the foundational concepts in mathematics and physical sciences."{12} The reasoning here is faulty. Granted that Kant made a mistake about the place of Euclidian geometry, it does not follow that transcendental arguments about categories in general are wrong or that they should be dismissed.

There are at least five such categories necessary for any objective experience: temporal relations, spatial relations, causal relations, means-ends relations, and conceptual (logical) relations. If the possibility of understanding a conceptual framework presupposes the instantiation of these categories, then there are no alternative categorial frameworks, though there are many alternative theories. The five categories I have listed are absolute in the sense of being trans-historical and trans-cultural. In addition, there are more parochial categories dealing with substances which include a world of discrete things, like stones, plants, animals, and other human beings. The justification for the universal presence of these categories would require an appeal to the theory of evolution. Anyway, Weinstein would no doubt object with counter-examples drawn from the realms of myth, religion, and scientific and pseudo-scientific theories. Even these do not escape from the broad categories. However, my parochial categories are restricted to the level of a common sense framework dealing with survival--for example, with the business of getting, transporting, and storing food, and with the business of clothing and shelter. Concerning these things there are no alternative categorial frameworks. Alternative 6 frameworks arise with attempts to extend or explain the events experienced in this common framework.{13}

In addition to these a priori categories, I also believe that there are empirical foundations in the apprehension of pre-linguistic phenomenal facts, such as would be expressed linguistically by the sentence "There is an appearance of red." It is the rejection of something like this claim by Richard Rorty which constitutes the rejection of empirical foundationalism.{14}

What would Weinstein say to all this? I think he must deny the existence of universal categories, but above all else he must insist that all observations are theory-laden. And his argument for this is to appeal to how the word "observe" is commonly used.{15} This approach begs the question against the position that would limit the use of the word "observe" in a philosophical discussion to the report of sensory phenomena.

IV. Critical Thinking

In any case, Weinstein's whole philosophy of education rests on his philosophy of science. He seems to be a disciple of Stephen Toulmin. Only when we understand Weinstein's philosophy of science can we appreciate his dissatisfaction with critical thinking courses, his general indictment of which is that their treatment of inductive arguments in science is inadequate. And the reason for this according to Weinstein is that observations are not only theory-laden, they are Weltanschauung-laden. According to Weinstein, there are no neutral, universal standpoints. He writes: "My analysis, so far, goes against the grain of a deeply embedded tendency in philosophy to search for general and topic-neutral analyses of central logical and epistemological concepts."{16}

Weinstein's own remedy is that critical thinking include the epistemology of the disciplines, a task, I would like to point out, which is already taken care of by the philosophy of the disciplines.{17} Similarly, a study of the "epistemology" of the fine arts such as literature, music, and painting is taken care of in the philosophy of art.{18} But my suspicion is that Weinstein wants to abandon the whole project of such philosophies as normative enterprises, and substitute what is called naturalized epistemology, which is nothing other than what was called the sociology of knowledge. The consequence of this has been the abandoning of logic for rhetoric. Instead of concern with a logic of the disciplines, the Institute is pushing towards a concern with the rhetorics and ideology of the disciplines.

I find Weinstein's philosophy of science unacceptable. And I would recommend to the Institute of Critical Thinking that before making Weinstein's philosophy of science the Archimedean foundations for a philosophy of education -- as apparently has already been done -- the Institute engage in some critical thinking about Weinstein's controversial Toulminian philosophy of science. One could begin by taking stock of the arguments presented by Frederick Suppe, in his "The Search for Philosophical Understanding of Scientific Theories,"{19} against Toulmin's and other such Weltanschauungen views. After all, a critical thinker is one who welcomes alternative, dissenting views, especially if they are well defended. {20}


{1} There are two excellent papers which address this issue, both in Critical Thinking: Language and Inquiry Across the Disciplines, 1988 Conference Proceedings, ed. Mark Weinstein and Wendy Oxman-Michelli (Montclair State College, 1989): Donald Henson, "Critical Thinking and Contextualism": pp. 303-310; Ludwig Schlecht, Jr., "Critical Thinking Course: Their Value and Limitations": pp. 279-289. [Back]

{2} "The relation of critical thinking to the complex of interlocking course requirements and professional accreditation must be taken into account if critical thinking reform is to be effective in college as a whole." Mark Weinstein, "Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines," Inquiry 2,1 (Sept. 1988), p. 6. [Back]

{3} "Reflection on education, therefore, should be the primary focus of critical thinking in the schools. What is required is that the concepts and social structures underlying schooling be made available to the students for critical inquiry. For young students this need not require that sophisticated educational theories be presented." Mark Weinstein, "Reason and Critical Thinking." Informal Logic, X.1, (Winter, 1988), p. 16. [Back]

{4} Walter Veit put it well when he wrote, "The more embittered among us could probably point out that even some academics have been sacrificed when their analysis has proven to be too uncomfortable to boards of trustees or university regents." Inquiry 3, 1 (Feb. 1989), p. 7. [Back]

{5} Mark Weinstein worked with Caws on this Map of Knowledge and wrote a paper on it, "Philosophy and the General Curriculum: the Map of Knowledge," Metaphilosophy, July- October, 1985. [Back]

{6} Wilfrid Sellars, "Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man" in Science, Perception and Reality (New York: The Humanities Press, 1963), p. 1. [Back]

{7} Brand Blanshard, The Nature of Thought, 2 vols. (New York: Humanities Press, 1939). I would like to bring to your attention the following passage: "For many years, almost since 1939, I have recommended that students planning to become teachers read the seven chapters in Book Three of The Nature of Thought in which Mr. Blanshard gives an account of "how we think" when we are getting to know something or coming to understand something. These seven chapters (18-25, omitting, 22) contain an excellent, relatively straightforward account of these matters. I do not know of a better one." Alburey Castell, "Blanshard on Understanding," in The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard, ed. Paul Schilpp (Open Court, 1980), p. 528. [Back]

{8} Wendy Oxman-Michelli and Mark Weinstein, "Critical Thinking and the Work of Stephen Toulmin," Inquiry 2, 4 (Dec. 1988), p. 14. [Back]

{9} Mark Weinstein, "Reason and Refutation: A Review of Two Recent Books by Harvey Siegel," unpublished, p. 25. [Back]

{10} "The characteristically philosophical arguments presented so far, all strive to illuminate issues of internal incoherence. And they have a characteristic logical form: highly abstract, universal within their domain, and logically certain. But such arguments take us only so far. In order to extend the discussion in ways central to epistemology and critical thinking, additional apparatus will be required." Mark Weinstein, "Reason and Refutation: A Review of Two Recent Books by Harvey Siegel" (unpublished), p. 16. [Back]

{11} I recommend Brand Blanshard's book Reason and Belief (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1974) on this topic. -- at Amazon [Back]

{12} Mark Weinstein, "Reason and Critical Thinking," p. 7. [Back]

{13} Two notable attempts to describe the common sense framework are those of Peter Strawson's "descriptive" metaphysics, and Wilfrid Sellars' "manifest image." See P. Strawson, Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1959; New York: Anchor, 1963). W. Sellars, "Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man." [Back]

{14} Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1979), esp. ch. 4. [Back]

{15} Mark Weinstein, "Towards an Account of Argumentation in Science," Argumentation 4 (1990), p. 283. [Back]

{16} Weinstein, "Argumentation in Science," p. 284. [Back]

{17} I recommend Ernest Nagel's The Structure of Science, 2d ed. (Hackett, 1979). [Back]

{18} The classic work in this area of philosophy is Monroe Beardsley, Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, 2d ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981). [Back]

{19} in The Structure of Scientific Theories, ed. Frederick Suppe (University of Illinois Press, 1974). For a criticism of Toulmin's logic, see Hector-Neri Castañeda, "On a Proposed Revolution in Logic," Philosophy of Science 27 (1960): 279-292. [Back]

{20} I would like to express my respect to Mark Weinstein and the paper selection committee for accepting a critical article on the Institute's work, and also I want to thank Mark for sending me his many articles and other material. I also wish to thank my friends Prof. Ronald Terranella and Prof. Masood Otarod for their comments on drafts of the paper.[Back]