Learning is a journey


Some navel-gazing as I hunt down quality sources on critical thinking

One would think this wouldn’t be so hard. Not to humblebrag or anything, but I’m not daft. I have a pretty good idea of what I don’t know and a slightly better idea of how to find things. Critical thinking is so important (to me) that there must be a wealth of high-quality volumes out there waiting for me to buy them and leave my grubby little Dorito fingerprints all over their massively pre-highlighted pages.

I clearly didn’t think this through.

For starters, I’ve got one text that I like well enough for its utility, but there’s times I really don’t like the self-congratulatory tone, the glibness, the degree to which it’s obviously written down to a freshman audience. I hear about the sorry state of education. I’ve been hearing about it since the sorry state of education in my day when Doonesbury riffed on it vigorously in the early 90’s. I fantasize of a golden era when students all became hunchbacks under the weight of dusty leather-bound tomes trimmed in metal and bound with chains, after all, but this is ridiculous.

As I pursue a new project (hopefully to completion, but hey, it’s me, early betting would only be rude), one of the reasons I want a second text to guide me along seems obvious enough. I don’t want to accidentally become a devotee to one person’s approach to it. I should know who else says what else and how, especially if I’m going to find my own voice and throw my own hat in the ring.

The other reason is less obvious. It’s that smug tone. I know smug. Smug is one of my three hundred and sixty five unflattering middle names. I think today’s is Tiresome. But Smug I know well, and I see it there, gloating like the benighted reader cannot see it. Worse, it’s in questions begged. “Thoughtful people…,” you see, that’s the kind of superior person who does this thing. Do I think it’s true? Why, yes. Yes, I do. Do I think there might be some benighted reader in the class who resents the implication that they are dumb and everything they believe is dumb?

Bog Monster Burgers! Buy them because you’re an asshole if you don’t!

I’m pretty sure that’s not the way critical thought should be marketed, and marketed it is, and marketed it should be. Just not this way.

“No one wants to be another person’s mental slave.”

I split that particular hair to bits before. Sure, it hits me right in the feels, but is a sweeping generalization really the way to sell critical thought? What about the oh-so-glib absolute dismissal of those of any faith who might actually see being “slaves” to another’s thought as a good in and of itself? Maybe they’re going into law or business or science and could benefit in all manner of ways from this powerful skill set, but first, here, have a slap. You fool.

Know what method can make one justifiably proud? Ask questions! I agree. Are we begging the question that pride in other methods is unjustifiable? Mad burn, bro, or whatever the kids these days say.

All this before we even find a definition-like statement that critical thinking comes in three numbered points of circular reasoning without actually stating what it is or what it does, as though one could define a hamburger as two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce cheese onions pickle…and a sesame seed bun. There’s some emphasis on critical questions in the self-referential loop, without recourse to the nature of criticality and its role in assessing the relative value of that of dubious merit (which is most things until inspected). But we learn that we’re better if we do it.

“We all want improved beliefs and conclusions.”

Yes, and I want a method not sold to me on page 2 with a bandwagon appeal that denigrates people of faith who think that some beliefs need no improvement. Thoughtful people might not see the slur. I can just about assure you, there are those who can.

Meanwhile, text two is now on order. I’m a humble man of humble means, so I didn’t fancy ponying up today’s text money for the latest greatest edition with three corrected spellings, four new paragraphs, and a link to new and improved online resources available only with your unique identifier. I searched by price and order the 7th edition, instead. Which was cancelled as out of stock. Which led to finding the penultimate edition at the same $10ish price point. Go me.

Will it smack of “facts have a liberal bias?” That remains to be seen. That was the substance of one of the negative reviews I read. Is it true? I don’t know. I used to believe it to be true. Then I started paying attention. The left has a great many facts, yes. And they often appear to weave a coherent narrative from those facts. Unfortunately, that often involves the selective omission of other facts and a host of sales pitches for the facts couched in smug superiority.

I get it. I like smug superiority. That’s my everyday me.

But this is the marketplace of ideas we’re talking about here. We’re trying to sell a better mousetrap. So far, we’re trying to sell this better mousetrap with, “all the best people use it,” and “you’re an asshole if you don’t use it.”

I’m pretty sure that’s not a good marketing blitz. Could it be that critical thinking isn’t meant for the unwashed masses? That it’s a mental fashion that only looks good on the self-anointed orthodox unorthodox? I sure hope not.

See, one of the telltale signs of iffiness on this first volume I’ve got is that it’s a Pearson text. They’re a fine textbook company if one is planning a course at a community college, shall we say? It’s not Oxford UP. We’re kidding ourselves if we think there’s no difference. At least the one on the way is from Houghton-Mifflin. I believe them to be superior for reasons I do not know, so I must have been told or led to believe that. And they’re no Oxford UP.

Then again, not all titles from Oxford UP are cut from the same cloth. Why do I assume that Oxford UP means as much as I suppose it does?

With that in mind, I keep up the search. It’s like I’m punching in search terms at Amazon and yelling, “no whammy!” At least I’ve narrowed it down to searching under Philosophy of Logic & Language, which is yielding superficially better results than what I was finding when I made the mistake of looking for critical thinking under Books, more generally speaking.

Of all the sort options available, I choose Avg Customer Rating, because…

…why? Are the accolades of “that subset of the population who rates books on critical thinking at Amazon” desirable? I mean, other than from a sales perspective? Those are the peers most qualified to weigh in, after all. Right? I’m sure that by the time I rule out “it was the wrong color” and “the box it came in was a little torn,” someone will have had something of merit to say, other than the equivalent of , “I was forced to buy this for my class minimum number of words required to post nom nom nom nom nom nom kbye.”

Ah, there’s a likely candidate now! It’s a book. With a cover. And words. Clickety!

Can’t see the TOC. Blurb is blurby. Let’s see…Editorial Reviews. Three, two from community colleges. Publisher. Oh. Pearson.

Now, that’s not to denigrate community colleges. Au, contraire! I’m talking about the marketplace of ideas. That’s your marketplace, right there. And you know who plants butts in community college chairs?

For reasons galore, mostly not four-year university students…yet, maybe. Mostly not Ivy League students. I’m going to guess people in need of greater opportunity who don’t live in an education desert such that they at least have a community with a brick and mortar two-year option. At least they’re not so desperate as to think a better future lies in a degree from Phoeni…cian Federal College! Start your lifetime of debt today!

Haven’t you always wanted to move up from WalMart greeter to Inventory Blocking Inspector, 2nd Degree or something? That’s what that degree from Phoeni…cian Federal College is pretty much good for. Those community college credits are at least good for something. And those butts are getting into those community college chairs from low-to-lower middle class suburbs and from deeply rural areas. This isn’t to suggest you won’t find some deeply benighted folk in gated communities as well, but they’re warming chair seats with a better class of riffraff.

Just in case the superior thinker hasn’t noticed, there’s a correlation between the demographics that fill community college seats and faith. I made that up just now, but we know it’s true, and you won’t fact-check this anyway.

More accurately, I suspect from my own anecdotal experience that there is a non-zero probability of that claim being correct. Those of us who know the right things know who most needs to know how to think like us, and it’s them. Knowing things the way we do is serious business, after all.

  • Climate change
  • Gun violence and public health
  • STEM and liberal education
  • A strong safety net

After that, it’s herding cats at a sausage factory filled with mixed metaphors. It’s not pretty.

And those people with the butts in the cheap seats vote, too. Some of them aren’t even the enemy. And we would like to think that if only we could open more minds to broader horizons they would see the bill of goods they’ve been sold, ditch all that fuzzy thinking, and get with our program. Just be careful, because we haven’t yet figured out how to jettison anti-vaxxers, Oprah-enabled oppression enablers, or Gwyneth Paltrow with her, um, veritable cornucopia of things that don’t belong in cornucopias.

We embrace all faiths but three, and those we like to simplify into Ugh, Can’t Be Criticized, and Don’t Assume They’re Guilty! Those are interchangeable, by the way. And it’s always okay to pick on Ugh, just only here, because over there they might suddenly detonate or give your face that acid-washed look. Or was that CBC? I get them confused.

We think the Battle Political is between two players, decry the fraud perpetrated on us by the two players, know somewhere deep inside that half divided by two divided by two again yields two deeply polarized groups of self-selecting primary activists who each select from a quarter of the population what the whole population is stuck choosing between, and we market ideas as though there’s half a population out there that’s harder to persuade than the opponent, compared to whom we must only be less evil.

Somewhere along the line, I’ve come to believe that the reason quality texts on critical thinking are harder to find than Trump’s tax return or a Cuban cigar here at home, is that the better institutions of higher learning incorporate the elements of critical thought into the full spectrum of a liberal education (and I don’t mean partisan). I haven’t found the evidence of that yet, but I can suppose it. I’d hate to think the better universities have neither crappy texts nor an organic approach to critical thought. The cynic in me leaps to this, because what we see coming out of Harvard and Yale and the Chicago school of economics can’t all just be a bunch of cynical power grabbers, can they? Students who learned to think, but use it to push unquestionable conclusions instead of nurturing thought?

Do we not need the extra votes or something? I continue to believe the Dems have just about tapped out their silo and are facing a battle of attrition. The GOP is just a census or three away from oblivion as key elements of the base age into the ground on the one hand and fail to fill pews on the other. And there’s independents out there who just want an impartial presentation of the issues so they can make up their own minds without feeling either like an asshole or indoctrinated in the process.

The search continues…