Friday, February 19, 2010

Culture of Discussion: Education in Critical Thinking

Pat Neff Hall
Baylor University
(Image from Wikipedia)

The image above is of Pat Neff Hall, one of the old, traditional buildings at Baylor University, the Christian liberal arts college that I attended as an undergraduate way back in the latter 1970s. I've been thinking about it again recently because my wife and I met last week with the director of Baylor's Global Network, Mr. Brent Edwards.

Particularly this morning, I thought again of Mr. Edwards -- and of Baylor University as a liberal arts school -- because I recalled his remark that Baylor is interested in attracting East Asian students as I was thinking about a Newsweek article that I read yesterday afternoon concerning the burgeoning interest among Chinese in smaller liberal arts colleges. Duncan Hewitt tells us in "Liberal Applications" (February 11, 2010) of Chen Yongfang's experience in the small liberal arts school Bowdoin College:
Now in his senior year, Chen has become such a devotee of the liberal-arts approach that he's made it his mission to spread the word throughout China. He has coauthored a book called A True Liberal Arts Education, which essentially explains the little-known concept to Chinese students and their parents. "Most Chinese people only know about Harvard, Yale, and Princeton," he says over coffee in a Shanghai café during his winter vacation. Though there have been many books about how to get into Ivy League universities, "there was not a single book in China about the smaller liberal-arts colleges," he says. The book, which Chen wrote with friends Ye Lin and Wan Li, who also attend small U.S. colleges, touts such benefits as intimate classes (the student-to-faculty ratio at Bowdoin is 9:1) and professors who focus on teaching rather than research. Chen, 23, explains that he was won over by Bowdoin's commitment to nurturing skills for life, rather than simply for the workplace. "Liberal arts is about fostering your identity," he says. "They want to cultivate your mind. You may not remember all the knowledge you've learned after four years, but they want you to know how to learn."
That pretty much sums up my feelings about Baylor University, and from what I gleaned from talking to Mr. Edwards, I'd say that Baylor has even increased its commitment to a liberal education -- teaching students critical thinking skills in a student-centered environment led by top-ranking scholars. Back in my Baylor days, the administration's announced short-term aim for a better faculty was mainly in hiring only faculty with doctorates while gradually phasing out those with masters degrees. Now, Baylor explicitly seeks not just people with doctorates but those with the best record of publications in the most rigorous journals, along with a deep commitment to teaching, and I suspect that this was the long-term aim back in my student days as well. I merely happened not to know it. I would therefore expect that Baylor has grown even better as a university whose faculty fosters the development of students who can think critically and creatively. Its student-to-faculty ratio is higher than that at Bowdoin, about 30:1 rather than 9:1, but Baylor has the atmosphere of a smaller school with smaller classrooms, and it actively aims at developing the whole individual, e.g., character and spirit, not just the mind, but my point this morning is about critical, creative thinking.

This sort of thinking is important not only for students, but also for professors and professionals -- no surprise in that, of course. One of my favorite writers for the Korea Herald, Mary Kathryn Thompson, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), has published a recent column "Innovation versus the status quo" (February 12, 2010) on the essential importance of innovative thinking (i.e., critical, creative thinking):
Governments, universities, professional societies and the media all stress the need for innovation in these uncertain economic times. This has led to suggestions of innovation-based economic stimulus packages and increased scientific research funding to foster innovative technologies. Individuals from every field are being asked to propose new ideas, explore emerging research areas, and focus their efforts on projects with the highest potential reward. But this is easier said than done.
Why easier said than done? Because innovation always threatens the established order of things:
It is not uncommon for journal papers that propose stunning new ideas to be rejected and returned with comments that can be briefly summarized as "come back in 20 years." As a result, doing something that has been declared to be "impossible" by senior members of the scientific community can be far less difficult than publishing the results obtained in the process.
Education should aim for critical, creative thinking, but this takes courage because it often gets blocked, along with one's career -- and not only in academia. The very same issue of the Korea Herald published an article, "By clinging to business traditions, Japan steadily fades" (February 12, 2010), written by Joel Brinkley, former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times and currently professor of journalism at Stanford University. In this article, he shows the detrimental effect on business of thinking within the box (i.e., uncritical, uncreative thinking):
I spent a month in Japan in 1982 on a journalists' exchange program and met a host of senior business and political figures. Their attitude then: almost uniformly arrogant, supercilious, condescending. These days, Japanese business executives are trooping to the United States to learn how Americans do it.

What happened? Japan's overriding problem is its inability to create fundamental innovation. Think of the major consumer products from Japan. Color television: Japan made the best sets, but RCA invented color TV. Remember the Walkman, the portable audio player? Once again, RCA invented the cassette, Philips of Holland invented the compact cassette. Japan built the player.

How about the VCR? Ampex, an American company, invented videotape recording. Sony adapted it for consumer use. Japan's strength has always been to take someone else's invention and come up with an attractive consumer product. Japanese culture makes original innovation extremely difficult.

Some might remember the TV images from the days when everyone wanted to mimic Japan's corporate culture. Workers, all wearing identical uniforms and caps, worked out in military-like formations on the factory floor just before the shift began. That was a metaphor for the nation's rigidly hierarchical corporate culture. There is no place for an innovator who wants to invent the next big breakthrough in his garage.
Rigid hierarchy, as we have seen in previous blog entries, is the primary block to a culture of discussion, but not only does a society need to loosen hierarchy and allow its members free expression, it needs to actively educate them in the skills of critical, creative thinking. This is where a liberal arts education plays its role.

But what is critical, creative thinking?

Often, I reply a bit too abruptly that critical, creative thinking entails asking the question "Why?" -- as in "Why do you hold that belief?" (I should note that the term "belief" here means any opinion that one happens to hold, even an opinion that one believes to be well-grounded.) I think that's generally the correct question, but it's in fact too general.

More specifically, critical, creative thinking requires that one rework this 'why-question' by asking two basic but compound (and perhaps complex) questions about a particular belief to be evaluated: 1) What are the reasons for holding your belief and how good are they? 2) What is the evidence supporting this belief and how good is it? These two questions orient one toward sorting out well-grounded from ill-grounded beliefs and toward laying a foundation of more-or-less dependable knowledge.

Beyond these two compound questions is another 'why-question' -- the sort of question that asks about significance. Suppose that a belief is supported by good reasons and solid evidence. One could still wonder why a belief is important and therefore pose the question: "What is the significance of this belief?" This question orients one toward evaluating significant beliefs from less significant ones and determining how coherently they all fit together.

There's more to say, but not this morning, so I'll need to return to this issue of critical thinking, perhaps in tomorrow's post.

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