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Senior Sleuth: College teaches what’s critical about critical thinking

According to Dorothy M. Neddermeyer, Ph.D, “Critical thinking is a term that has become the newest buzzword.” She asks, “Why then have we coined the term, as if it has a new meaning and those who aren’t in the know about what critical thinking is — well, they just aren’t as smart or astute as those who use the term ‘critical thinking.’”

I interviewed Dr. Phil Freneau, who teaches critical thinking at College of the Redwoods, to find the answer to Neddermeyer’s question. The excellent text he uses is “Thinking Critically” by John Chaffee. According to the preface, this textbook was “based on a nationally recognized interdisciplinary program in critical thinking established in 1979 at LaGuardia College (The City University of New York) … drawn from a variety of disciplines such as philosophy, cognitive psychology, linguistics, and the language arts.”

 

Although the term may have been coined in the late 20th century as shown above, the “intellectual roots of critical thinking are as ancient as its etymology, traceable, ultimately to the teaching practice and vision of Socrates 2,500 years ago, who discovered by a method of probing questioning that people could not rationally justify their confident claims to knowledge. 

“Confused meanings, inadequate evidence, or self-contradictory beliefs often lurked beneath smooth but largely empty rhetoric. Socrates established the fact that one cannot depend upon those in authority to have sound knowledge and insight. He 
demonstrated that persons may have power and position and yet be deeply confused.” (taken from the “California Teacher Preparation for Instruction in Critical Thinking,” March 1997.)

But “Senior Sleuth” is not a history course . My column is based on asking questions of local people, i.e. sleuthing among our neighbors about activities and subjects of interest locally. I wish more people would submit ideas for me to write about. 

Back to my interview with Dr. Freneau, I asked him about the double meaning of the word critical. He said, “Like so many words in philosophy, things have a different definition from that in the popular mind set. In philosophical terms, the idea of critical is probably better defined as disciplined. 

“I often tell students they are going to be studying how to be disciplined in their thinking, so that not only do they know what they think, but they can communicate what they think to others and evaluate what others are communicating to them. The text Thinking Critically, as most of our classes here, is introductory because we are the first two years of a college education, so we don’t get into the real nitty gritty of things.

“The Chancellor of California Community Colleges and the whole federal educational system has decided that critical thinking is an important component of education. They chose that term as a blanket term. So there is a lot of emphasis on not only do you have a critical thinking class, but you have classes that have critical thinking components to them. 

“So you’re not just asking people to regurgitate information back to you, but you’re asking people to think about that information in an organized, disciplined way, and then explain what it means. That’s in regard to any subject you can think of, whether it’s history, science, or social studies. 

“There’s been a change. When a lot of us went to school, we weren’t asked to do critical thinking. A lot of tests were about rote knowledge. Can you spit out dates? Can you spit out terms? Can you spit out that kind of information? 

“Even when we used to take a philosophy class, we just learned Nietzsche said this, Sartre said that, Shopenhauer said this. And you were just asked to spit that back out again. Now we basically say Shopenhauer said this and Nietzsche said this. How do they relate to one another? Or how does what Nietsche said relate to what’s going on over there? I think that’s happening literally in every discipline in higher education. I think it’s even happening in high schools and junior high schools. More and more people have to integrate that kind of thing into the curriculum.”

Senior Sleuth runs every two weeks. Reach Joan Miles at 464-2729 or at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it


 


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