Saturday, February 27, 2010

Culture of Discussion: Soraj Hongladarom on Critical Thinking

Soraj Hongladarom
(Image from Homepage)

There's probably more to say about Peter Facione's article, "Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts" (2010), but this series needs to be brought to a close, and I'll do so by citing an article by a Thai philosopher, Soraj Hongladarom, on the difficulty that one encounters in attempting to inculcate critical thinking among 'Asian' students.

In a 1998 paper, "Asian Philosophy and Critical Thinking: Divergence or Convergence?" (Third APPEND Seminar on Philosophy Education for the Next Millennium, May 6-8, 1998, Chulalongkorn University), Professor Hongladarom specifies what he believes accounts for the difficulty:
[T]he beliefs that teachers are superior and always right, that knowledge is not to be made here and now, but exists eternally, so to speak, to be handed down by teachers, that social harmony is to be preferred rather than asking probing questions . . .
Professor Hongladarom doesn't mention Korea, but what he says about Chinese Confucianism applies to some extent here in Korea:
In China, the rapid transformation from feudalism to state bureaucratism, coupled with the pervasiveness of the Confucian ethos, while hugely successful in preserving China's cultural identity amidst the great variety of people and localities, nonetheless made it the case that material innovations and proto-scientific and logical theories would be given scant attention. Writings on such matters are relegated to the 'Miscellaneous' category by the mandarin scholars who put the highest priority to moralistic, ethical, or historical writings.
Professor Hongladarom deals with critical thinking mainly within the context of science and logic, and wants to explain why 'Asians' didn't continue to develop these fields, whereas I am interested in a culture of discussion more generally, but his point is similar. I would argue that when Korea adopted China's Neo-Confucianism with the founding of the Joseon Dynasty, it accepted the overarching importance of social harmony as a primary aim of a good society. In a sense, this was a decision, the kind of decision about which Professor Hongladarom has some thoughts:
If . . . [a] culture, for example, once decided that social harmony should take precedence over critical argumentation and open debates, then critical thinking practices would be forever alien to it if the members of the culture always agree that decisions in the past are not to be amended no matter what.
That sort of cultural 'fundamentalism' -- as he goes on to argue -- would be absurd:
But that is surely a very unreasonable position to take. Cultures, like humans, often make decisions which later are amended or revoked, with new decisions made, when things are not the same any longer. Decisions to prioritize one set of values over another are not etched in stone, but even so the stone can be broken down or else taken to a museum or a pedestal where it loses its real meaning.
Koreans, like the Chinese -- and also like the Thais about whom Professor Hongladarom in mainly concerned -- generally recognize the importance of adopting critical thinking if the challenge posed by globalization is to be met, but this recognition doesn't make the adoption easy:
[T]o argue that critical thinking is actually a good thing to have is difficult, because it may run counter to the deeply entrenched belief that critical thinking is just a label for the confrontational and disputatious mode of life which the culture finds unpalatable.
Thus, one continues to hear Chinese and Korean political leaders extoll the aim of a "harmonious society," and this seems to resonate among Chinese and Koreans. I tend to be cynical about politicians, however, so whenever I hear these politicians extoll the virtues of a "harmonious society," I think that what they're really saying is "Shut up and do what we say."

But maybe I'm just being overly critical.

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At 1:14 PM, Blogger Skryfblok said...

This was very useful, thank you!

At 1:31 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

At your service! (I learned a lot myself from the entire series.)

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:35 PM, Blogger W said...

In thinking about Confucianism and critical thought this afternoon, I came across your blog. I should first admit that I am new to this area. But, I am exploring the idea that Confucian-based cultures place greater value on doing than thinking (about doing).

I’d be keen to learn your thoughts on this.

In addition to your blog I also came across an interesting piece by Hye-Kyung Kim, "Critical Thinking, Learning and Confucius: A Positive Assessment" (Journal of Philosophy of Education, Vol. 37, No. 1, 2003) which argues that:

"Confucius’ view of learning in the Analects entails critical thinking. Although he neither specified the logical rules of good reasoning nor theorized about the structure of argument, Confucius advocated and emphasised the importance of critical thinking. For Confucius reflective thinking of two sorts is essential to learning: (1) reflection on the materials of knowledge, in order to synthesise and systemise the raw materials into a whole, and to integrate them into oneself as wisdom; (2) reflection on oneself, (a) in order to ensure that such synthesis, systemisation, and integration proceed in an open-minded, fair and autonomous way, and (b) in order to integrate knowledge with the self, that is, to internalise it until it becomes oneself."


At 8:48 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

WJS, thanks for visiting and commenting.

The article looks interesting, but I don't quite see the critical aspect to Confucius's advice.

But even if there proves to be a critical edge to his thinking, other aspects of his system might dull that edge.

I'll be posting a blog entry tomorrow on a "culture of discussion" -- based on a newspaper column in today's JoongAng Daily -- so your comment has been timely.

Jeffery Hodges

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