Sunday, February 28, 2010

Saddle, Arkansas: Fact and Fiction

Saddle Store
(Image from Sutherland Site)

Pictured above is the old Saddle Store, located in Saddle, Arkansas, a place not far from my hometown of Salem, Arkansas. I assume that the store still stands since it was added to the National Register of Historic Places a little over ten years ago. It ain't much to look at, I reckon, but it's a piece of history. You can read about it and Saddle in a news article by Sherry Pruitt, "Old Store is Saddle landmark," in the Jonesboro Sun from 1999. Or you can go instead to the first installment in Mr. LeRoy Tucker's fictional story, "Cadillac Pie," in which the town of Saddle supplies a place:
By 1937 T-model Fords were common and there were a few A Models. Nobody owned one that was reliable. Electricity and telephones were a distant dream. The people of Saddle, having with no prospect of progress responded with feigned indifference.

"Jest look yonder" said Saucer. The boys stood looking in amazement almost shock as the big green car approached. "Aye god, what kind is it?" Saucer continued, as in the distance a car approached, slowly and ever so soundlessly.

"Hit's a La Salle is what they call 'em," said Jake. "Actual it's a Cadillacs. Purtiest car they is to my thinkin' and they may be the best. I preferr's Packards myself. What in hell would it be in Saddle fer?"

The big green car crept slowly past the largest and newest store which was prudently perched on the slope of the nearest hill side and out of the flood plain bearing a sign, SADDLE STORE AND U.S. POST OFFICE, and continued on to Erby's store where the boys idled. Just across the narrow dirt road was a flowing spring, boxed on three sides by wide planks, and conveniently upturned on a twig of an overhanging bush was a Prince Albert tobacco can with the folding top removed and can squeezed open to maximum utility, a common dipper.
Well, there it is, in literature, the old Saddle Store. Mr. Tucker is still reworking this story, so expect it to alter in minor ways as he proofreads it (as I have, a bit). What I've posted here is merely a short passage near the beginning, but if you're interested in reading more, just click on the link. You'll notice, if you read Mr. Tucker's story in conjunction with Sherry Pruitt's article, that some of the same family names appear, for Mr. Tucker is fictionalizing a real time and place.

If you happen to be more interested in nonfiction, and are a nature lover, there's this more up-to-date depiction from Southwest Paddler:
The South Fork of the Spring River forms just northwest of Saddle, Arkansas, then flows southeast through Saddle to its confluence with the mainstream of the Spring River just above the Town of Hardy and the Hardy Beach access off US Highway 62 / SH 175. From Saddle to Hardy Beach the run is about 18.3 miles of generally flatwater flowing over gravel and rocky shoals. The South Fork is an incredibly beautiful and remote river winding through Ozark Mountains foothills, where few signs of civilization will be found. The constantly twisting riverbed is lined with spectacular bluffs and dense stands of hardwood trees indigenous to the Ozarks area. Its waters are cold, and optimum paddling is in the springtime, when northern Arkansas is still shuddering from winter temperatures.
This description isn't quite accurate, so I suppose it's also partly fictional. South Fork River forms not "just northwest of Saddle, Arkansas," despite the Southwest Paddler's assertion, but in southern Missouri, and if you read more from this paddler of rivers, you'll see that he's unaware of the springs around Saddle that feed South Fork River and help maintain its flow for the 18.3 miles from Saddle to Hardy.

I've not floated that part of the South Fork, but I might just try it this summer, when I'm scheduled to be back in my hometown for a month.

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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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Friday, February 26, 2010

Culture of Discussion: Critical Thinking and Creative Thinking

Lobes of the Brain
Creativity and Critical Thinking?
Somewhere in There . . .
(Image from Wikipedia)

Again, I'm turning to Peter Facione's article, "Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts" (2010), for more on critical thinking.

Yesterday, we saw that critical thinking can be narrowly conceived as a kind of instrumental reasoning that merely tries to adapt efficient, effective means toward ends that might or might not be ethical. Most of the experts upon whom Facione relied argued that critical thinking is a tool that can be used for good or ill. I suggested that their view might derive from an overly narrow view of critical thinking as oriented toward solving problems, whereas I considered it to include reflection upon values. I didn't resolve the tension, of course, but simply indicated a direction to consider.

The possible limit noted today is that of the 'border' between critical thinking and creative thinking:
We have said so many good things about critical thinking that you might have the impression that "critical thinking" and "good thinking" mean the same thing. But that is not what the experts said. They see critical thinking as making up part of what we mean by good thinking, but not as being the only kind of good thinking. For example, they would have included creative thinking as part of good thinking. Creative or innovative thinking is the kind of thinking that leads to new insights, novel approaches, fresh perspectives, whole new ways of understanding and conceiving of things. The products of creative thought include some obvious things like music, poetry, dance, dramatic literature, inventions, and technical innovations. But there are some not so obvious examples as well, such as ways of putting a question that expand the horizons of possible solutions, or ways of conceiving of relationships which challenge presuppositions and lead one to see the world in imaginative and different ways. (Page 12)
Again, while I can see the point of clarifying these two aspects of thinking, I wonder if these two are so distinctly separate. Critical thinkers are not simply 'criticizing' -- as has often been pointed out. Even if we hold to a narrow definition of critical thinking as instrumental reason, those individuals whom we consider critical thinkers must seek new solutions to old problems, or new ways of conceiving old problems, or the like. Surely, this sort of innovation entails creative thinking, which implies that one cannot be a critical thinker without also being a creative thinker.

I therefore do not believe that I was so far wrong in speaking of the two aspects of thinking in the same breath, but I acknowledge that even though the two sorts of thinking work together, teaching someone to ask the questions necessary to critical reasoning is likely to be easier than teaching that same person how to think creatively. How do we teach a person to dream up what hasn't yet been dreamt?

I'm not yet prepared to analyze that, but I do suspect that asking enough questions might lead one to see things in a new way.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Culture of Discussion: Critical Thinking and Ethics

The (Critical?) Thinker
(Image from Wikipedia)

I'm still looking at the article "Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts" (2010), written by Peter A. Facione, who summarizes the views "of 200 policy-makers, employers, and faculty members from two-year and four-year colleges" on "the core critical thinking skills and habits of mind" (page 5).

I've already covered these skill and dispositions in several posts, so I'd like to note a point about the limits of critical thinking. In a sense, it is not limited at all:
Considered as a form of thoughtful judgment or reflective decision-making, in a very real sense critical thinking is pervasive. There is hardly a time or a place where it would not seem to be of potential value. As long as people have purposes in mind and wish to judge how to accomplish them, as long as people wonder what is true and what is not, what to believe and what to reject, good critical thinking is going to be necessary. (page 9)
So long as one is concerned with determining effective, efficient means to goals, Facione tells us, then critical thinking will pervade one's reflections, assuming that one has honed the necessary skills. But note that Facione is talking about instrumental reason, the means used to attain goals, and there is a limit in this that the experts call attention to:
We said the experts did not come to full agreement on something. That thing has to do with the concept of a "good critical thinker." This time the emphasis is on the word "good" because of a crucial ambiguity it contains. A person can be good at critical thinking, meaning that the person can have the appropriate dispositions and be adept at the cognitive processes, while still not being a good (in the moral sense) critical thinker. For example, a person can be adept at developing arguments and then, unethically, use this skill to mislead and exploit a gullible person, perpetrate a fraud, or deliberately confuse and confound, and frustrate a project.

The experts were faced with an interesting problem. Some, a minority, would prefer to think that critical thinking, by its very nature, is inconsistent with the kinds of unethical and deliberately counterproductive examples given. They find it hard to imagine a person who was good at critical thinking not also being good in the broader personal and social sense. In other words, if a person were "really" a "good critical thinker" in the procedural sense and if the person had all the appropriate dispositions, then the person simply would not do those kinds of exploitive and aggravating things.

The large majority, however, hold the opposite judgment. They are firm in the view that good critical thinking has nothing to do with any given set of cultural beliefs, religious tenants, ethical values, social mores, political orientations, or orthodoxies of any kind. Rather, the commitment one makes as a good critical thinker is to always seek the truth with objectivity, integrity, and fair-mindedness. The majority of experts maintain that critical thinking conceived of as we have described it above, is, regrettably, not inconsistent with abusing one's knowledge, skills, or power. There have been people with superior thinking skills and strong habits of mind who, unfortunately, have used their talents for ruthless, horrific, and immoral purposes. Would that it were not so. Would that experience, knowledge, mental horsepower, and ethical virtue were all one and the same. But from the time of Socrates, if not thousands of years before that, humans have known that many of us have one or more of these without having the full set.

Any tool, any approach to situations, can go either way, ethically speaking, depending on the character, integrity, and principles of the persons who possess them. So, in the final analysis the majority of experts maintained that we cannot say a person is not thinking critically simply because we disapprove ethically of what the person is doing. The majority concluded that, "what 'critical thinking' means, why it is of value, and the ethics of its use are best regarded as three distinct concerns."

Perhaps this realization forms part of the basis for why people these days are demanding a broader range of learning outcomes from our schools and colleges. "Knowledge and skills," the staples of the educational philosophy of the mid-twentieth century, are not sufficient. We must look to a broader set of outcomes including habits of mind and dispositions, such as civic engagement, concern for the common good, and social responsibility. (pages 11-12)
The basic problem here is one noted by the Frankfurt School, namely, that instrumental reason -- rationality applied to finding effective, efficient means toward goals -- can be applied for any aim, no matter how immoral.

I don't dispute this point directly, for I think that it's largely correct -- so long as we define critical thinking solely in terms of instrumental reasoning. But there has been a distinction, as I've already noted, between Facione's focus and my own. Facione treats critical thinking as a "tool," and instrument for solving problems, whereas I began the critical thinking part of this culture-of-discussion series by focusing on self-reflection, arguing that critical thinking entails applying the 'why-question' to positions that one holds, including one's own values. In short, I began with the assumption, implicit more than explicit, that critical thinking applies to the purposes that one strives for, namely, that one's aims -- one's goals, one's purposes, one's ends -- must be subjected to critical reflection.

Put differently, I don't limit critical thinking to instrumental reason but consider it more broadly to include reasoning about the proper aims in life. Of course, this can be a rather disruptive form of reflection since it questions treasured values and doesn't necessarily confirm the expected virtues that a culture holds valuable.

Hence some of the cultural resistance against encouraging the development of critical thinkers . . .

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Culture of Discussion: Critical Thinkers -- More on Disposition

'Why-Question' Mark?
(Image from Wikipedia)

I'm still looking at the article by Peter Facione titled "Critical Thinking: What It is and Why it Counts" (2010). In the section of this article under the heading 'The Disposition Toward Critical Thinking,' we find emphasis placed upon asking the question "Why?" (or equivalents):
What kind of a person would be apt to use their critical thinking skills? The experts poetically describe such a person as having "a critical spirit." Having a critical spirit does not mean that the person is always negative and hypercritical of everyone and everything. The experts use the metaphorical phrase critical spirit in a positive sense. By it they mean "a probing inquisitiveness, a keenness of mind, a zealous dedication to reason, and a hunger or eagerness for reliable information." Almost sounds like . . . Sherlock Holmes The kind of person being described here is the kind that always wants to ask "Why?" or "How?" or "What happens if?". The one key difference, however, is that in fiction Sherlock always solves the mystery, while in the real world there is no guarantee. Critical thinking is about how you approach problems, questions, issues. It is the best way we know of to get to the truth. But! There still are no guarantees -- no answers in the back of the book of real life. (Pages 9-10)
Readers may recall my own emphasis upon 'why-questions':
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.
I've already noted that things are more complicated than these three variants of mine on the 'why-question', and my citations from Facione's article demonstrate this as well. Facione's explication of the 'why-question' also has a different emphasis. I've focused upon "why" as a question directed toward one's own beliefs, whereas Facione focuses in the passage quoted above more upon "why" as a question directed toward solving problems. Both focii are necessary in life, of course, for one cannot solve a problem without a willingness to question one's own assumptions.

Moreover, as Facione shows, there are really more than just the 'why-question' -- critical thinkers also ask such questions as the 'how-question' and the 'what-happens-if-question' (which we could shorten to the 'what-if-question').

Questions arise as this point. Why would a society want critical thinkers? How should a society go about developing critical thinkers? What happens if a society changes its educational system to encourage critical thinking?

Korean society, as readers of my previous posts have perhaps noted, needs to be asking such questions.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Culture of Discussion: Critical Thinkers' Dispositions

Edison's Brilliant Idea
(Image from Wikipedia)

As Thomas Edison is posthumously reported to have stated, "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration" (Harper's Monthly, September 1932). Apparently, Edison would have agreed that critical thinking is more than a set of cognitive skills, that it is also the expression of a disposition.

On page 10 of "Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts" (2010), Peter Facione summarizes the concensus of experts on what they call the "Disposition Toward Critical Thinking," which is divided into general and specific aspects, and I offer them here below for your consideration:
A. General approaches to life and living that characterize critical thinking:
1. Inquisitiveness with regard to a wide range of issues
2. Concern to become and remain well-informed
3. Alertness to opportunities to use critical thinking
4. Trust in the processes of reasoned inquiry
5. Self-confidence in one's own abilities to reason
6. Open-mindedness regarding divergent world views
7. Flexibility in considering alternatives and opinions
8. Understanding of the opinions of other people
9. Fair-mindedness in appraising reasoning
10. Honesty in facing one's own biases, prejudices, stereotypes, or egocentric tendencies
11. Prudence in suspending, making, or altering judgments
12. Willingness to reconsider and revise views where honest reflection suggests that change is warranted
B. Approaches to specific issues, questions, or problems that characterize critical thinking:
1. Clarity in stating the question or concern
2. Orderliness in working with complexity
3. Diligence in seeking relevant information
4. Reasonableness in selecting and applying criteria
5. Care in focusing attention on the concern at hand
6. Persistence though difficulties are encountered
7. Precision to the degree permitted by the subject and the circumstances
The term "disposition" is perhaps not well chosen, for it generally implies an inherent tendency, some of its synonyms being "temperament, character, personality, nature." However, the Free Dicitionary does also allow that it can mean "a habitual inclination," which is a bit more optimistic since it suggests that individuals can adopt a habit of critical thinking and thereby develop the disposition of a critical thinker.

In a comment to a recent entry in this "Culture of Discussion" series, Hathor offers this dispositional insight:
I don't know how exactly to apply this, but somehow you would have to be dispassionate, but passionate or excited about finding a solution.
I think that Hathor is right, a dispassionate passion is a useful disposition to have as a critical thinker, for it would help provide the energy necessary toward fulfilling number 6 of the specific aspects listed above, "persistence though difficulties are encountered." Indeed, dispassionate passion could be said to be necessary in all of the aspects, both general and specific, for endurance is needed to persist in all of these habits within a world that often does not appreciate critical thinking in open discussion.

Some individuals are optimistic, such as Mr. Carter Kaplan, a scholar who has recently remarked on the Milton List:
I might observe here that the motion of all open and free discussion will invariably move thinking people to positions of ever greater compassion, transparency, honesty, acceptance and understanding. The advantages to statecraft, science and economic development made possible by this open discussion are obvious.
I responded with less optimism:
This hasn't been my experience of "open and free discussion" on the internet . . . or were you speaking ironically? Discussions constantly get hijacked by trolls, flamers, dementors, and similarly mythological-sounding creatures whose intent seems one of destroying all possibility of communicative reason.
Most people don't seem to practice critical thinking, and too many seem to prefer disruption. Granted, Mr. Kaplan qualifies his point. He is talking about "thinking people," and that qualification would likely exclude a great number of individuals.

But my overall point in this series remains that of the importance of developing a "culture of discussion," for the possibility of critical thinking presupposes the right to free expression even though the free expression presupposed includes the right to insult, as I've previously argued.

One sees just how fraught with difficulty the entire enterprise is . . .

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Culture of Discussion: Cognitive Skills for Critical Thinking

Insight Assessment Logo
(Image from Insight Assessment)

I'm continuing to look at the issue of critical thinking in light of its importance for a culture of discussion.

In "Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts" (2010), which I noted two days ago, Peter A. Facione lists six essential reasoning skills identified by experts "as being at the very core of critical thinking: interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation, and self-regulation."
1. Interpretation: "to comprehend and express the meaning or significance of a wide variety of experiences, situations, data, events, judgments, conventions, beliefs, rules, procedures, or criteria."

2. Analysis: "to identify the intended and actual inferential relationships among statements, questions, concepts, descriptions, or other forms of representation intended to express belief, judgment, experiences, reasons, information, or opinions."

3. Evaluation: "to assess the credibility of statements or other representations which are accounts or descriptions of a person's perception, experience, situation, judgment, belief, or opinion; and to assess the logical strength of the actual or intended inferential relationships among statements, descriptions, questions or other forms of representation."

4. Inference: "to identify and secure elements needed to draw reasonable conclusions; to form conjectures and hypotheses; to consider relevant information and to educe the consequences flowing from data, statements, principles, evidence, judgments, beliefs, opinions, concepts, descriptions, questions, or other forms of representation."

5. Explanation: "to state and to justify that reasoning in terms of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, and contextual considerations upon which one's results were based; and to present one's reasoning in the form of cogent arguments."

6. Self-Regulation: "self-consciously to monitor one's cognitive activities, the elements used in those activities, and the results educed, particularly by applying skills in analysis, and evaluation to one's own inferential judgments with a view toward questioning, confirming, validating, or correcting either one's reasoning or one's results."
I've gleaned these six critical-reasoning skills from pages 5 through 8 of Facione's article, where one finds them explained in greater elaboration, but they're also explicit in the "Consensus Statement" that I quoted two days ago.

There's a temptation here to look for a simple method, a one-through-six heuristic steps to follow in thinking critically -- e.g., some correspondence to the six-step IDEALS heuristic noted the day before yesterday -- but a closer look shows that such can never strictly be the case even though the numerical sequence chosen by the experts surely has some significance, perhaps a roughly temporal sequence of steps.

But only very roughly, for we see, e.g., that number 4's "Inference" must already have played a role in number 2's "Analysis," for "Analysis" requires one to "identify . . . inferential relationships" (emphasis mine).

And, of course, number 6's "Self-Regulation" should be constantly at work in practicing the other five skills.

I'll perhaps have to return to these for more reflection, but readers are welcome to comment on these six reasoning skills identified by "the experts" and especially to judge whether or not any skill has been left out.

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Culture of Discussion: Education in South Korea?

South Korea on the Map
Global Education?
(Image from Wikipedia)

Yesterday, I posted an entry on critical thinking and promised to return to a discussion of the article by Peter Facione on "Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts," but not today.

I want to follow up on an excursus through Korean education because an older post of mine on this topic received a comment by the writer Carl Honoré:
Stumbled across your blog while doing some research for a book I'm writing about problem-solving (see my bio below). Not a how-to manual, more a cultural critique of our obsession with the quick fix.

One of the things I'm investigating is how problem-solving is taught in schools. I'm particularly interested in South Korea, given that it came top in the world in that category in the last PISA round. I am also taking a hard look at the Finnish system, which seems very different in spirit from the Korean one yet produces similarly glowing results.

Anyway, I'm writing because I'd love to chat to you about how you see Korean education and perhaps to get some ideas of whom to approach for interviews. I'm based in London UK but will be in South Korea to give a talk in late August/early September. Would love to use the trip to do some research for my next book.

Thank you very much in advance for any help you can supply. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
I'd heard of Mr. Honoré because of his book In Praise of Slow. I haven't read it, but it has come to my attention as part of the slow-living debate. If he does indeed visit Korea, I'll be happy to talk to him, but I'll try to find people with more expertise than I have for him to interview.

Anyway, Mr. Honoré notes the not-insignificant fact that South Korea ranks at the top, along with Finland, among nations tested for problem-solving. A couple of years ago when I was teaching at Kyung Hee University, one of my students wrote on this high ranking and compared the Korean and Finnish school systems, arguing that the Finnish system was far superior and that the Korean system was very inefficient in helping Korea reach its high ranking in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). I agreed with my student, and I see from an article, "Students rely on hagwon more than public schools" (February 19, 2010), by Kim Mi-ju and Park Su-ryon in a recent edition of the JoongAng Daily that the public school system in Korea is probably not the reason for Korea's high ranking, as indicated by the remarks of one student interviewed:
A student surnamed Song, who goes to high school in Gangnam, a famed private education district in southern Seoul, is in the top 5 percent of his school and is typical of many of those surveyed. He said he rarely raises his hand to ask questions of his public school teacher.

"I got a sense that schoolteachers don't like their classes being interrupted and I walk on eggshells," Song said, adding that it’s also difficult to ask teachers questions after class.

Aside from lecturing, public school teachers are busy with administrative chores, making it hard to get their attention. Students said they are barred from entering the teacher's office in the midterm and final exam periods to prevent them from seeing exam questions.

Song said that's why he turns to his hagwon teachers.

"In my hagwon I have been told to feel free to ask questions at any time," Song, 18, said. "Hagwon teachers prepare supplemental study materials tailored to my study level and I feel more comfortable at a hagwon than at public schools because hagwon teachers approach me first and give me encouragement."
The freedom to ask questions, as we've noted, is fundamental to a culture of discussion, but Korea's public school system actively discourages questions and focuses upon rote learning, whereas the private academies (hagwons) encourage questions from students and apparently teach problem-solving.

Relevant to this issue, my wife yesterday mentioned the case of a Korean girl who lived for a time in China and attended an international school where she was encouraged to ask questions, and she loved learning, but when her family returned to Korea and enrolled her in a Korean public school, her teachers told her to stop asking questions during class.

Our own daughter experienced this when she was in the seventh grade last year, which is partly why we withdrew her from the Korean school system and turned instead to an online American school. Our daughter was discouraged from asking questions during class. Even worse, she witnessed students receiving corporal punishment for getting wrong answers (sometimes even getting kicked, though this was apparently for misbehavior). That seems to me to be a very good method for discouraging students from active learning and of warning them not to take intellectual risks.

I'd like to know more about the Finnish system, and perhaps if I do have a chance to speak with Carl Honoré next August or September, I'll ask him some questions. Meanwhile, our daughter is relieved not to be in a Korean school anymore and happy with her experience at The Keystone School.

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Culture of Discussion: Critical Thinking

Peter A. Facione

In yesterday's blog entry, I put critical thinking in the context of education because that's precisely where those skills and patterns of thinking ought to be nurtured and developed. I noted that a good liberal arts school -- such as Baylor University -- teaches its students to think critically.

But to be frank, I've not reflected consciously at any great length about what critical thinking is even though I believe that I'm reasonably good at the practice of critical thinking. In yesterday's brief reflection on what it is, I identified two basic questions and one broader one. The three of these, I suggested, were variants on the question "Why?":
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.
I wasn't entirely satisfed with this formulation and wanted to do some more reflecting on what critical thinking is. In looking around on the internet, I found a useful article by Dr. Peter A. Facione, "Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts," which can be downloaded at a site called Insight Assessment. It runs to 24 pages but is quite readable. I won't summarize, not today anyway, but I will post a couple of quotes.

First, let me post what Facione provided as the "Expert Consensus Statement Regarding Critical Thinking and the Ideal Critical Thinker":
We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based. CT is essential as a tool of inquiry. As such, CT is a liberating force in education and a powerful resource in one's personal and civic life. While not synonymous with good thinking, CT is a pervasive and self-rectifying human phenomenon. The ideal critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, openminded, flexible, fair-minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit. Thus, educating good critical thinkers means working toward this ideal. It combines developing CT skills with nurturing those dispositions which consistently yield useful insights and which are the basis of a rational and democratic society. (Page 22)
By the admission that critical thinking is not synonymous with good thinking, the experts mean that critical thinking can be used for self-interested aims at the expense of others, which I don't want to get into at the moment but which would surely imply that critical thinking be broadly taught in order to counter this.

Second, allow me to post a 'cute' little heuristic that Facione provides on page 24, an acronym that serves as mnemonic device and rule of thumb for critical thinking:
Six Questions for Effective Thinking and Problem-Solving: "IDEALS"

Identify the problem. -- "What’s the real question we're facing here?"
Define the context. -- "What are the facts and circumstances that frame this problem?"
Enumerate choices. -- "What are our most plausible three or four options?"
Analyze options. -- "What is our best course of action, all things considered?"
List reasons explicitly. -- "Exactly why we are making this choice rather than another?"
Self-correct. -- "Okay, let's look at it again. What did we miss?"
As I noted, kind of cute. Maybe 'too' cute. But useful nonetheless. I'll leave you with these quotes and maybe get back to this material tomorrow.

Right now, I have other duties that call me away from the computer.

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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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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Culture of Discussion: Limits?

Seal of the United States Supreme Court
(Image from Wikipedia)

I'm no legal scholar, but speaking as a layman, my view is that laws are laid down with the intention of forming a coherent system of rules to mediate relations among people in a society. For a legal system to work coherently, compromises have to be made, and even the First Amendment to the American Constitution has been subject to compromises. Here's the text of the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Immediately, one confronts the question of interpretation. What does this mean? Especially the part relevant to a "culture of discussion"? "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech." That seems pretty clear. No legally enforceable limits on free speech.

But there have been compromises, and therefore limits.

In Charles T. Schenck v. United States (1919), the First Amendment was held not to protect speech that constituted "a clear and present danger":
The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote these words as part of the Court's unanimous opinion, and he is also the author of the famous remark that the First Amendment does not protect an individual "falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater." This seems reasonable, and one can think of other reasonable cases. The First Amendment wouldn't protect someone ordering a murder, for example. The test of "a clear and present danger," however, has been differently applied over the years. Schenck was convicted for speaking against the draft during World War I. The US Supreme Court upheld that conviction, but it probably wouldn't do so today . . . if there were a draft.

Another compromise on free speech is embodied in a cousin to the "clear and present danger" doctrine, namely, the "fighting-words" doctrine, first articulated in Chaplinsky v. State of New Hampshire (1942):
There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or "fighting" words -- those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.
Again, the Supreme Court's decision was unanimous -- something about wartime seems to encourage restrictions on speech -- and the opinion was drafted by Justice Frank Murphy. This ruling is somewhat at odds with an opinion that I set forth about a "right to insult" in yesterday's blog post, but it's perhaps also somehow at odds with subsequent views of the Supreme Court, for the Freedom Forum -- a foundation dedicated to promotion of First Amendment rights -- reminds us:
Tellingly, despite continued reaffirmation of the fighting-words doctrine, the Supreme Court has declined to uphold any convictions for fighting words since Chaplinsky.
To this remark, the Freedom Forum expounds further:
In fact, in Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949), the Court immediately began a long process of narrowing and reshaping the broad scope of the original fighting-words doctrine. Terminiello was charged with breaching the peace after publicly insulting a group of adversaries. While not addressing whether Terminiello's speech constituted fighting words, the Court found that the breach of the peace statute in question was overbroad because it permitted convictions for both fighting words and constitutionally protected expression. Concluding that speech that merely causes anger or outrage does not amount to fighting words, the Court opined that speech is protected unless the expression is "likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious intolerable evil that rises above mere inconvenience or annoyance." The Court explicitly stated that it would not assume that certain words inevitably provoke violent reactions by individuals. Rather, the Court's analysis focuses on the context in which the words were uttered, not merely the content of the words themselves.
Note the Supreme Court's explicit citation of the "clear and present danger" doctrine. Subsequent rulings of the Court have consitently narrowed the "fighting-words" doctrine, focusing on context rather than content, as can be further read about on the Freedom Forum's summary concerning fighting words.

I take this trajectory to imply that a particular insult would be protected speech in one context but not in another context. Posting the Muhammad cartoons on the internet, such as this instance on Wikipedia, would undoubtedly be protected speech, but carrying posters exhibiting the same images while picketing a busy mosque on a Friday during midday prayers might not be protected if this were judged "a clear and present danger" to public peace. Such a case remains to be tested, but I can imagine that it might well be tested in the not too distant future.

At any rate, I'd like to see this "fighting-words" doctrine narrowed as much as possible, for the doctrine seems to justify a violent reaction to the expression of opinion, and such a justification gives potential power to the 'insulted' to up the ante by increasing the violence expressed in response to a putative 'insult' until any context at all would be make the "fighting words" impermissible.

That's a slippery-slope argument, I suppose, but slippage does occur in legal systems, and I'd prefer to have slippage in the direction of freer speech.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Culture of Discussion: Right to Insult?

John Milton
(Image from Milton Reading Room)

In his defense of what we would today call free expression, John Milton utters a plea in Areopagitica for what he considers the most basic freedom:
Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties. (Thomas H. Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, February, 2010)
Why should we allow him that? Because through untrammaled utterance, truth will out -- as he reminds us concerning truth only a few lines later in his text:
Let her and Fals[e]hood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the wors[e], in a free and open encounter. (Thomas H. Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, February, 2010)
What interests me in today's post is that Milton apparently meant for this "free and open encounter" in the interest of truth to include polemics and even personal attacks, as we see in Milton's attack upon Anglican bishops in Book 1 of his Reason of Church-Government Urged against Prelaty:
I trust God will manifest it ere long to be as false a slander as your former slanders against the Scots. Noise it till ye be hoarse, that a rabble of sects will come in; it will be answered ye, No rabble sir Priest, but a unanimous multitude of good protestants will then join to the church, which now because of you stand separated. This will be the dreadful consequence of your removal. As for those terrible names of sectaries and schismatics which ye have got together, we know your manner of fight, when the quiver of your arguments, which is ever thin and weakly stored, after the first brunt is quite empty, your course is to betake ye to your other quiver of slander, wherein lies your best archery. And whom ye could not move by sophistical arguing, them you think to confute by scandalous misnaming. (John Milton, Reason of Church-Government Urged against Prelaty, in John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose, edited by Merritt Y. Hughes, Hackett Publishing Co., 2003, page 659)
Whether Milton be right or wrong in the substance of his accusations, he is definitely being polemical in his leveling of personal attacks and even of insults. He accuses others of slander. He might well be accused of it himself. Certainly, his opponents could well feel themselves insulted. Consider his even more polemical tone further in the same text as he continues his attack upon Anglican bishops with words that slur the Irish and the Catholics:
The prelates which boast themselves the only bridlers of schism, God knows have been so cold and backward both there and with us to repress heresy and idolatry, that either through their carelessness or their craft, all this mischief is befallen. What can the Irish subject do less in God's just displeasure against us, then revenge upon English bodies the little care that our prelates have had of their souls. Nor hath their negligence been new in that island, but ever notorious in Queen Elizabeth's days, as Camden, their known friend, forbears not to complain. Yet so little are they touched with remorse of these their cruelties, for these cruelties are theirs, the bloody revenge of those souls which they have famished, that whenas against our brethren the Scots, who by their upright and loyal deeds have now bought themselves an honourable name to posterity, whatsoever malice by slander could invent, rage in hostility attempt, they greedily attempted; toward these murdrous Irish, the enemies of God and mankind, a cursed off-spring of their own connivence, no man takes notice but that they seem to be very calmly and indifferently affected. Where then should we begin to extinguish a rebellion that hath his cause from the misgovernment of the church. Where but at the church's reformation and the removal of that government which persues and wars with all good Christians under the name of schismatics, but maintains and fosters all papists and idolaters as tolerable Christians. (John Milton, Reason of Church-Government Urged against Prelaty, in John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose, edited by Merritt Y. Hughes, Hackett Publishing Co., 2003, page 663-664)
Although Milton is blaming the bishops for an indifference to the souls of those under the sway of English rule, an indifference that left the Irish in their Catholic faith, he clearly has disdain for the Irish themselves, as well as for Catholics generally and for . . . idolaters (whoever might be intended by this slur). Obviously, Milton is hardly above slander, insults, and polemics generally.

Should such ad hominem attacks be permitted?

I would say yes. Strictly speaking, they stand mostly outside a culture of discussion, for they are usually poor arguments for or against a substantive position, but they should be protected speech because the defensive wall constructed to guard free discussion needs to be at least as encompassing as the wall built around the Torah in Rabbinical Judaism.

Absent that wall of protection, even a substantive statement could be taken as an insult, so if insults are not protected speech, substantive arguments could be forbidden. In a hierarchical society, the substantive words of a one lower in the hierarchy could be taken as insulting if such words question the views of someone higher in the social structure. In Korea, Japan, and China, for example, with their strongly hierarchical social structure, precisely this sort of problem arises, such that the substantive disagreement of a 'junior' with a 'senior' can be taken as an insult by the latter. Substantive critical arguments are thereby suppressed, and truth -- as Milton would say -- often suffers. This has been pointed out by Ho-Chul Lee and Mary Patricia McNulty in "Korea's Information and Communication Technology Boom, and Cultural Transition After the Crisis," for they note that Confucian hierarchy stifles free expression because debating or criticizing individuals of higher rank is considered impolite:
Traditionally, most Koreans have a modest demeanor and are shy in presenting themselves in public. Compared to many other cultures, Koreans may appear to have poor oral communication abilities, such as presentation and public speaking. Traditional Korean culture teaches that it is impolite to debate or criticize, in particular against more senior ranking persons and the elderly. Korean audiences generally remain silent and do not raise questions or express opposing opinions; both presenters and audiences for the most part feel uncomfortable discussing and debating issues. Koreans believe that a direct response can hurt the other party's feelings, and so sometimes use ambiguous expressions instead of clear "yes" and "no" answers. The traditional Korean demeanor is an obstacle to developing a culture of discussion that is a fundamental factor of democracy and also can be a hindrance in the modern business world.

For most Koreans, "saving face" is a top priority. In Korea, "saving face" means preserving one's dignity, self-respect, or good reputation and entails careful attention to the expectations of others, including adherence to the social order. Modesty is a key component of "saving face." These cultural aspects of Korean culture have stifled free discussions and debates, and due to such behaviors, Koreans are easily misunderstood and/or underestimated in western societies where a more assertive "show and tell" demeanor is positively encouraged and is the norm . . . .

Koreans' modest demeanor is closely related to East Asia's traditional culture. East Asian societies have developed to include a hierarchical social order based on Confucian values. The hierarchy puts priority on etiquette in keeping social order. Young people are expected to respect elderly people and obey them, just as lower-ranking persons are expected to show respect and obey more highly ranked persons. Under such a hierarchical structure, young and low-ranked persons are not free to express their opinions. This emphasis on courtesy and deferential behavior, particularly regarding younger and older persons, sometimes imposes a barrier to free expression . . . . (Ho-Chul Lee and Mary Patricia McNulty in "Korea's Information and Communication Technology Boom, and Cultural Transition After the Crisis," Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), April 18, 2004, page 27 [paper written when authors were at Office of the Senior Vice President for Economic Development and Chief Economist at World Bank, Washington, DC])
From this study, we see just how subjective the sense of 'feeling insulted' can be. In East Asian societies shaped by Confucian values of hierarchy, any open expression of opinion can be taken as an insult by a higher-ranking individual, and the awareness of this by lower-ranking individuals can too often suppress uncomfortable truths.

Without the right to insult, a free and critical culture of discussion can therefore not be achieved, and since the latter is necessary to the pursuit of truth, then 'insults' must be accepted as legitimate, legally protected expressions.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Culture of Discussion: Advocatus Diaboli, Quaestio Disputata, and Dialectics

Bust of Socrates
'In the Beginning'
Vatican Museum
(Image from Wikipedia)

Yesterday in a comment, I remarked that "the Medieval period sanctioned somewhat free discussion through the role of the Advocatus Diaboli," or "Devil's Advocate." Well, I was entirely wrong about that. The Advocatus Diaboli, or "Devil's Advocate," comes down to us from Renaissance times, as explained by the Catholic Encyclopedia:
A popular title given to one of the most important officers of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, established in 1587, by Sixtus V, to deal juridically with processes of beatification and canonization. His official title is Promoter of the Faith (Promotor Fidei). His duty requires him to prepare in writing all possible arguments, even at times seemingly slight, against the raising of any one to the honours of the altar. The interest and honour of the Church are concerned in preventing any one from receiving those honours whose death is not juridically proved to have been "precious in the sight of God" (see BEATIFICATION and CANONIZATION). Prospero Lamertini, afterwards Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58), was the Promoter of the Faith for twenty years, and had every opportunity to study the workings of the Church in this most important function; he was, therefore, peculiarly qualified to compose his monumental work "On the Beatification and Canonization of Saints," which contains the complete vindication of the rights of the Church in this matter, and sets forth historically its extreme care of the use of this right. No important act in the process of beatification or canonization is valid unless performed in the presence of the Promoter of the Faith formally recognized. His duty is to protest against the omission of the forms laid down, and to insist upon the consideration of any objection. The first formal mention of such an officer is found in the canonization of St. Lawrence Justinian under Leo X (1513-21). Urban VIII, in 1631, made his presence necessary, at least by deputy, for the validity of any act connected with the process of beatification or canonization. (Burtsell, Richard. "Advocatus Diaboli," The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907)
This entry is obviously dated, but I presume that it's correct about details prior to 1907. Sometime since 1907, however -- apparently during the tenure of Pope John Paul II -- the office of Advocatus Diaboli has been abolished. I learned this from Christopher Hitchens, who served in the role informally:
[Concerning the] "canonization" of "Mother" Teresa[,] . . . . I had been, as far as I know, the only witness called by the Vatican to give evidence against her . . . . The present pope, in his feverish campaign to make as many saints as possible, has abolished the traditional office of "Devil's Advocate," so I drew the job of representing the Evil One, as it were, pro bono. (Christopher Hitchens, "Less than Miraculous," Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 2, February/March 2004)
Not having been trained as a lawyer, however, Hitchens failed, for Mother Theresa has been beatified and will undoubtedly one day undergo canonization. At any rate, what I was actually thinking about in my reference to Advocatus Diaboli was the Scholastic Quaestio Disputata (and the related Quodlibet):
The method of scholasticism sought to understand the fundamental aspects of theology, philosophy, and law. Apparently contradictory viewpoints were offered in order to show how they possibly could be synthesized through reasonable interpretation. A problem would first be "exposed," and then it would be "disputed" in order to cause a new "discovery" in the mind of the person who was seeking new personal knowledge. Each text investigated had a commentary. The master helped the student to read the text in such a way that he could really understand what it was saying. This experience was to be much more than just memorative. There were yes-and-no positions to various texts, which sought to keep the student from merely memorizing the text. Abelard developed the yes-and-no method with great precision. The two most exciting types of disputations were the quaestio disputata, which was a disputed question, and the quodlibet, which was a very subtle form of disputed question that could be publicly disputed only by a truly great master, whereas the disputed questions could be talked about by lesser minds still growing in knowledge. (T. J. German, "Scholasticism," Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell, Baker Academic, 2001, 1066b-1067a)
Apparently, the Quaestio Disputata had it origins in Graeco-Roman dialectics, but went into decline in the West with the collapse of the Roman Empire in the sixth century and only began to revive again in the late 10th century. A good study of its revival and flourishing would seem to be Brian Lawn's The Rise and Decline of the Scholastic 'Quaestio Disputata': With Special Emphasis on Its Use in the Teaching of Medicine and Science (1993).

Western dialectics, of course, has its origin in the so-called Socratic Method, as explained by that wonderful source of accurate information, Wikipedia:
The Socratic method (or Method of Elenchus or Socratic Debate), named after the Classical Greek philosopher Socrates, is a form of inquiry and debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints based on asking and answering questions to stimulate rational thinking and to illuminate ideas. It is a dialectical method, often involving an oppositional discussion in which the defense of one point of view is pitted against the defense of another; one participant may lead another to contradict him or herself in some way, strengthening the inquirer's own point. ("Socratic Method," Wikipedia)
I don't generally quote Wikipedia, but the point is a simple one, anyway, about the origin of Western dialectics in the teaching style of Socrates. Plato recorded and developed the method, but Aristotle formalized it and had more influence on the Medieval revival of dialectics. Jean Leclercq tells us:
It is mostly in scholasticism that, under the influence of Aristotle's logic, . . . [monks] came to develop a speculative rhetoric . . . . In the schools, the genres never stop evolving and becoming diversified: the quaestio will give birth to the quaestio disputata, the quaestiuncula, the articulus, and the quodlibet. (Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and The Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, Fordham University Press, 1982, page 155)
I can't claim to know much about these developments, but I take it that all of them concern variously complex ways of formally raising and answering crucial questions and are thus part of the background to our modern-day method of Western study in academics, or at least in some academic disciplines.

All of the above -- let's label them Dialectics, Quaestio Disputata, and Advocatus Diaboli for the moment -- are related to our issue, "Culture of Discussion," but all three are somewhat limited. Socrates may have confronted fellow Athenians in tha agora and queried them on what they believed themselves to know, but the method was worked out by Plato and then Aristotle more in the context of an academic discussion than society at large. This is similarly the case with the Quaestio Disputata, albeit in an even more limited manner since the 'answers' were generally already known. As for the Advocatus Diaboli, I suppose that the devil's lawyer might raise questions that could actually derail a beatification or canonization -- an unexpected answer, one might say, but the role was played by a single individual in the limited circumstances of determining sainthood.

A true "culture of discussion," however, is larger than any of these, for we're concerned with more than a limited and walled-off, institutionalized setting. We mean discussion that is freer and that pervades a culture.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Alvin Gouldner: Culture of Critical Discourse . . . and Responding to 'Insults'

Alvin Ward Gouldner
(Image from SpringerLink)

In yesterday's post, I quoted Bart Verschaffel rather extensively on the "Culture of Discussion," but also noted Jürgen Habermas on communicative action as a corrective to Verschaffel's rhetorical overkill in seeing discussion as a "war game" and pragmatic 'underkill' in seemingly limiting it to seminar-style settings. Habermas has a broader vision than war and seminar.

Another theorist who writes on a culture of discussion was Alvin W. Gouldner, whom I read back in the early 1980s and who described this sort of discourse in rather formal terms as the culture of critical discourse (CCD):
The culture of critical discourse is characterized by speech that is relatively more situation-free, more context or field "independent" This speech culture thus values expressly legislated meanings and devalues tacit, context‑limited meanings. Its ideal is: "one word, one meaning," for everyone and forever. The New Class's special speech variant also stresses the importance of particular modes of justification, using especially explicit and articulate rules, rather than diffuse precedents or tacit features of the speech context. The culture of critical speech requires that the validity of claims be justified without reference to the speaker's societal position or authority . . . . Most importantly, the culture of critical speech forbids reliance upon the speaker's person, authority, or status in society to justify his claims. As a result CCD de-authorizes all speech grounded in traditional societal authority, while it authorizes itself, the elaborated speech variant of the culture of critical discourse, as the standard of all "serious" speech. (Alvin W. Gouldner, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class (New York: Seabury, 1979), 28-29)
Gouldner saw this culture of critical discourse as the 'language' of a new intellectual class encompassing the sciences as well as the humanities. I would agree with Gouldner (against Verschaffel) that scientists are part of the community, but I would go beyond Gouldner (with Habermas) to broaden the communicative community to include, potentially, everybody. But to do so, I would suggest loosening the criteria a bit and noting what critical discursive actions intellectuals share with a larger society characterized by a culture of discussion. Fundamentally, we're talking about the right of everyone to pose questions about anything and the expectation that answers should offer reasons and evidence.

One intriguing question that arises, incidentally, is how one should respond to insulting mockery. The mocker perhaps does not accept the rules for a culture of discussion in a strict sense and offers not reasons and evidence but satirical insults. What should one do if mocked? Should we follow the example of Alvin Gouldner himself:
[The sociologist Laud Humphreys] entered the Ph.D. program in sociology at Washington University [in 1965] . . . . He made rapid progress as a student (starting fieldwork for his dissertation in 1966 and writing it within two years) but seems to have developed an antagonistic relationship with Alvin Gouldner, a prominent social theorist then in his department.

Humphreys may have been the author of a sarcastic poster that portrayed Gouldner as an example of the species "Inter Alios Platonicus, or Silver-Tongued High-Priestly Bird." (Everyone in the department would have caught the reference to Gouldner's recent book Enter Plato: Classical Greece and the Origins of Social Theory.) Reproduced as an appendix to the biography, the poster is satirical if not exactly witty: "Given to nesting in high places, this raptorial bird may soar to great heights before diving to feed on carrion . . . . He chews on thoughts only when personalities are not available. While devouring his prey, his song is said to be quite eloquent."

The target of this caricature was not amused. Gouldner tracked Humphreys down in the graduate student offices, punched him in the face, then kicked him when he fell down. The matter came to national attention in a New York Times article headlined "Sociology Professor Accused of Beating Student." (Scott McLemee, "Wide-Stance Sociology," Inside Higher Ed, September 12, 2007)
Confronted by insulting mockery, Gouldner seems to have believed that honor stained called for physical violence. In an earlier time, perhaps he would have challenged Humphreys to a duel. Did Gouldner betray his own principles, the rules of his very own culture of critical discourse?

I don't recall enough about Gouldner's theoretical system to say for sure, but I would argue that insults should also be protected speech in a culture of discourse. They have to be protected because feeling insulted is a subjective reaction. For example, some might feel insulted that I apply critical principles to the study of religion, but that person should have no right to attack me physically.

Moreover, even calculated insults play a role in literature and the arts and ought to be protected speech.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Professor Bart Verschaffel: "Culture of Discussion"

In looking around for material on the concept "culture of discussion" -- something that I've written on previously -- I came upon the transcriptions of presentations given at an ECCM Symposium on the "Productivity of Culture." The acronym "ECCM" stands for "European Capitals of Culture and Months," and I suppose that Athens is one of these capitals, for the symposium was held there from the 17th to the 21st of October in 2007, thus a little over two years ago.

One of the speakers was Professor Bart Verschaffel, a philosopher and head of the Faculty of Architecture and Planning at the University of Gent, in Belgium, and he had some very interesting, even fascinating remarks on the West's "culture of discussion" that I would like to quote at length from his text, "On the importance of the Idea of Europe and the disadvantages of its reality," though I have made paragraph breaks for ease in reading:

First of all the discussion, the primordial instrument of democracy, as invented in Greece from the 5th Centry BC on.

The discussion is a very peculiar game with amazing presuppositions. A discussion differs completely from a dialogue: it is not 'listening to what the other has to say', it is not an 'exchange' and not an 'encounter'. The discussion is a war game fought with questions and arguments to find out if somebody is right or not, this is: to find out if what somebody says is true. And because there is no criterion to recognize 'truth' with absolute certainty -- we are not sofoi but filosofei, we are not wise but we strive for wisdom -- the discussion is the game of question and argument and reply used for testing if a statement or an idea 'holds'. If it does, it is convincing because it brings evidence or clarification and argument. Many divergent and even contradictory ideas can be argued for, so that a discussion never leads to the once conclusive truth. Knowing for sure that somebody is wrong is a possible outcome of the discussion, but the first and most important lesson is that nobody is ever for once and always 'right'. Nobody owns the truth. But the discussion happens in the name of Truth. The game of the discussion is about finding out and demonstrating that somebody is wrong, because he contradicts himself or cannot bring evidence or arguments. The discussion, therefore, is a very dangerous game.

First of all because one can start a discussion about anything. Not only about practical matters and business interests, but also about 'culture' or the meanings a society lives by: about values and beauty, about the existence of god, about what is just and how to legitimate power. Or about what makes European culture 'white'? Or the minor languages so special that we have to save them from the English [language]? We all know that, starting from the ancient Greeks themselves, most societies don't like questions like these, and in general don't like the game of the discussion. They want to control what is being talked about. And probably not without a reason: playing with the meanings a society lives by is indeed unsettling and dangerous, because it suspends the 'rightness' of a culture and undermines its self-confidence.

But the discussion is even more dangerous and destabilizing for a second reason: the discussion introduces in society the reality of the game situation that confers to each participant an equal position and suspends authority. In the discussion all participants have the right to speak and only the arguments count. It doesn't matter if they are spoken by man or woman, student or professor, rich or poor, and it doesn't matter what family or party they belong to. It doesn't count who speaks. What counts is the truth and the power of the argument. The game situation of the discussion implies that very real and very effective social differences -- 'authority' -- is put between brackets (as long as the game lasts). This can indeed be threatening and destabilizing, and tempt to forbid or control the 'discussion'. Because in reality it does matter who speaks: the speakers are not equal, and they have many other interests than just finding the truth. For many societies the discussion inherently implies an aggressive lack of respect for 'real' dignity and the power at place. They would maybe promote 'dialogue' and 'mutual respect', 'exchange' and 'hospitality', and even the 'freedom of opinion', but they wouldn't want discussion -- they cannot afford to agree with the game where the others can start from radically and openly questioning your truths.

It took several hundred and even thousand years for the West to adopt principally rational discussion as a means to settle conflicts, to accept the conditions of the 'game' of discussion, and to introduce discussion as a means to prepare decision-making -- in politics, in science, in education . . . Time and again 'real' power interests, authority, institutional positions, or some kind of truth is introduced to limit free discussion. There is always some kind of belief, be it scientific or political correctness, that tries to win control. But the specificity and the importance of the intellectual culture of the West resides in this culture of discussion, that -- as implied by the game itself -- can never be appropriated by those who have invented it or who play the game. The importance of the intellectual tradition of the West doesn't come from that line of thinking that believes in the power and effectiveness of rationality and scientific triumphs, but resides in the line of thinking that promotes discussion and doubt, from Socrates and Diogenes to Montaigne and Bayle, Voltaire and Nietzsche, and Valery.

On this final point by Verschaffel, I have some doubts, for I think that rationality and science are not purely instrumental but promote discussion and doubt as part of their search for truth and are simply special cases of the larger culture of discussion. But let that be. I want to look more closely at some of Verschaffel's other points.

I dislike the metaphor of "war game," because war is a zero-sum activity in which one side gains at the expense of the other, the object being to defeat the other side. That might better fit as metaphor describing the practice of competitive debate, where each side aims to win by vanquishing the other side, for they are bellicose opponents, enemies. Discussion need not be debate in this sense of pitting mutual antagonists against one another. Since the aim is to attain truth, rather than to destroy an enemy, discussion can be a mutually beneficial 'game.'

I would also prefer a concept other than "game" for the dialogue that takes place during discussion because this concept implies an artificial situation set off from the more serious business of life. As such, players follow the rules during play but eventually finish the game and walk away from it . . . until the next time to play. But discussion of the sort under consideration here follows rules that apply to all of life. One ought to have reasons and evidence for one's positions. The 'game' never really ends.

Perhaps the views of Jürgen Habermas on communicative action better express the role of discussion as a social activity that, ideally, pervades an entire culture, though it is not the only sort of discourse, nor is culture defined solely by discourse. Verschaffel seems to think of discussion as a more narrowly circumscribed activity of the sort that takes place in seminars, but he also recognizes that it is a "dangerous game" because it, again ideally, poses questions about everything and gives every discussant an equal role. In principle, nothing is sacrosanct, and nobody is the final authority. It thus transforms individuals and even society, and is therefore potentially a destabilizing activity.

As Verschaffel notes, "most societies don't like questions like these, and in general don't like the game of the discussion," and that in part accounts for the social conflict that we see taking place in Europe between the larger European society and the Islamic society currently expanding there. The Islamic world does not tolerate open discussion about Muhammad, for example, that would raise questions about his status as moral paradigm.

This intolerance is not unexpected, for as Verschaffel notes:
It took several hundred and even thousand years for the West to adopt principally rational discussion as a means to settle conflicts, to accept the conditions of the 'game' of discussion, and to introduce discussion as a means to prepare decision-making -- in politics, in science, in education . . .
Looks like we're in for a long 'discussion.'

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