Can “Generic” Critical Thinking Be Taught?

James Fallows has been blogging this past week about criticisms the Chinese education system doesn't teach critical and/or creative thinking. He posted this interesting letter on the teachability of critical thinking:

There are two related debates going back many decades now:

(1) Is critical thinking a "generic" or domain-independent skill?
(2) Can critical thinking be taught as subject or skill in its own right?

People who answer no to the first question also tend to answer no to the second as well. 

However these positions are definitely in the minority in the community of experts in this area. 

To me, questions (1) and (2) are scarcely worth debating any more.  The existence of generic skills can be proven simply by pointing to examples.  The teachability of critical thinking can be proven by teaching it successfully.  I devoted about half a dozen years of my academic career to working on methods for effective and affordable teaching of critical thinking.  We were able to reliably generate substantial gains over one semester.  Ergo, critical thinking can be taught.  Case closed.  [For more detail, we have a meta-analysis of hundreds of empirical studies in this area.]

What is true is that standard approaches inculcating critical thinking skills (such as putting people through a college degree, even a liberal arts degree) make disappointingly little difference, and attempts to directly teach critical thinking also usually make little difference. 

But there's a very simple explanation for this.  Critical thinking is a skill, and like any complex skill, it takes a very large amount of deliberate practice to make any significant (in the sense of substantial, not "statistically significant") difference.  Our educational system has never been prepared to, or indeed able to, invest the kind of resources needed.

The writer argues yes, you can teach critical thinking as a skill in its own right. I would be interested in seeing the specific exercises and lessons one uses.

In America, this supposedly happens in our vast and unique liberal arts college system. There's the old cliche "a liberal arts education teaches you how to think." Well, it sounds good: It's not about filling your head with facts, it's about the thinking habits that get developed…or something….somehow. Occasionally I ask people, "What do you mean 'teaches you how to think'?" and I'm met with blank stares. It is one of these lines about education that sounds wonderful in the abstract but lacks concreteness, making it impossible to evaluate whether it is actually happening. The writer above notes that even liberal arts programs that do specifically try to impart critical thinking skills often fail.

Bottom Line: Critical thinking can probably be taught independent of other skills, but it is not being done in U.S. colleges in a way that creates meaningful difference (in this specific area) from its Chinese counterparts.

The -isms Are Running the Academy

The modern academy expends an enormous amount of energy generating and then entertaining cultural left bullshit. The endless talk about multiculturalism, feminism, environmentalism, racism, sexism, sexual orientation-ism; the pseudo-controversies that erupt around these issues; the shallow academic departments (Gender Studies, anyone?) that have been created to address said issues; the misguided policies such as admissions affirmative action which in one sense attempt to create hyper-local laboratories for these grand ideas; then the ironically over-firm application of the "tolerance" value that conveniently suffocates conversations skeptical to any of the above.

I don't question the ends of these recent additions to the academic scene. I have, many times, conveyed my support for gay marriage, old and new feminist ideals, environmental issues, and the like. But the conversations about these issues in academia seem rigged from the start and always weighed down by an overwhelming deference to political correctness. Does anyone really believe, in this post-Larry Summers-gets-lynched-for-contemplating-gender-differences era, that universities are the finest source of free and open dialogue about the critical issues, specifically tricky political topics involving race and gender?

This rambling and only semi-coherent introduction is all to link to this review of a book of essays from the New Criterion where the author makes the following assertion:

Multiculturalist pedagogy; the promotion of “cultural diversity” through arts administration, philanthropy, and public policy; academic departments of Women’s Studies and Afro-American Studies; the project of “critical theory”; and in general, the greatly increased weight — in teaching and research, hiring and funding, programming and grant-making — given to explicitly political considerations: altogether these things have done more harm than good. They have undoubtedly made possible some valuable work and attracted some people to culture who would otherwise have been lost to it. But they have also generated a really staggering amount of mediocre and tendentious work. And not only do these ideological priorities make for less accomplished artists and scholars; they also make for less effective citizens. Attempting to turn one’s professional enthusiasms and expertise to political account can distract from — can even serve to rationalize the avoidance of — everyday democratic activity, with all its tedium and frustration.

(hat tip Andrew Sullivan)

Looking for a Summer Job? Reach Out to a Hero

If you're young and looking for a summer job (or any job) here's one approach: reach out to somebody you really admire and ask if you can be his/her bitch for a few months. Say you'll be happy to do grunt work so long as you get lots of face time with him/her. Say you're a self-starter who won't be a nuisance but rather will find a way to make their life / work easier. Identify a few things that you think you could help them on (anything involving technology / blogs is good, or logistical help, or communications outreach).

Learning on the job comes primarily from the people you get to work with. So pick out a few people who impress you and send them an email and see what they say! Don't worry if their exact line of work isn't on your radar screen; the goal is to work with the most impressive person you can. I guarantee you'll learn more by being a supercharged personal assistant to someone really smart / interesting than you will by doing a generic internship.

Unrelated but since we're talking about careers and young people: Your major in college doesn't matter!

OK, maybe it matters a little for your first job, but still, I can't believe the number of people who say, "As a History major I'm screwed because I now want to go into finance but can't because I didn't major in econ or business" or "No one wants to hire an English major." Bullshit! Employers hire people. Stand out, be remarkable, knock their socks off. Forget about your major. If you went to a liberal arts school it especially doesn't matter, since to "major" in something means to take a very small number more classes in your major topic than in any other topic.

And since I find myself in ranting mode: Economics is no more practical an academic undergrad major than English! Don't major in Econ thinking you're studying the most useful subject for getting a job. Major in what you find interesting.

Why So Many Struggle Finding a Job or a Calling

Yesterday, Michael Lewis referred to a job as a 9-5 gig that offers security and a chance to pursue a life outside of work. He referred to a calling as something that so excites you that your life becomes completely wrapped up in that work. Each involves trade-offs. He said that many yearning for the benefits of a calling are not willing to bear the associated costs.

Here's today's question: Why do so many young people, upon graduating college, have such a hard time finding a rewarding job or a calling?

One explanation: Because to find a job or calling you need to know what you like to do, and by the time you graduate from college formal schooling has eroded your natural radar for detecting things which genuinely excite you.

Think about it…You've just graduated from college. You have just spent the last 17 years of your life in a formal schooling environment non-stop. As a young child, through to adolescence, into your early adult years, an authority figure has been telling you what to read, study, and write, and then judging it good or bad.

Confusion new Take learning how to write. 99% of the writing you do in school involves offering answers not questions. A teacher gives you an essay topic, and you write about it. Over and over again. Yet, the real word rewards those who themselves can ask the right question. Coming up with an essay topic is 99% of the work — yet teachers rarely make you do this. One reason I encourage folks to don pajamas and start a blog is it forces you to create not just respond. Each blog post starts with you, a bottle of Scotch, and a black cursor blinking menacingly on an empty white screen.

Then there's the formal school philosophy promoting breadth not depth, weaknesses not strengths. If in school you found yourself unusually interested in a particular topic area, you couldn't really pursue it seriously since you had all your other classes to manage. I.e., if you found yourself a math whiz, it's the rare school that will seek to nurture this precocity. Instead, they said if you finish math early, get on with your English, biology and basket-weaving homework.

When parents reviewed your report card, did they ever say, "Wow – an A+! Why don't you continue to focus on that and maybe you can become really good at it?" No. They probably stroked their hairless chin, nodded solemnly at the A, and then pounced on you about the C. Whereas the real word rewards those who can discover and build upon a couple core natural strengths and interests, in school you're taught to pursue a broad balancing act and shore up weaknesses.

So there are two intertwined dynamics in school that I think contribute to the aimlessness of new college grads: an entrenched habit of rule-following (the real world has no clear rules and no clear authority articulating them) and the promoted philosophy of "be pretty good at lots of things as opposed to extraordinarily good at one thing."

Bottom Line: Formal schooling dulls one's exploration of natural interests. To ask yourself what you naturally enjoy and excel at, and then pursue it vigorously, would detract from the balancing act and contradict the authority structure. Unfortunately, asking yourself this very question is the key to a rewarding real-world career!

Organizing the Rhetoric Around Why to Go to College

It is common wisdom that going to college and obtaining a degree is the smart path for any ambitious person. Since it’s common wisdom, most people have never been forced to articulate the specific reasons why one should go to college. “Just get it done and then go on and conquer the world,” a degree-holding elder might instruct the youth. The specific reasons why will likely be a hodgepodge. I think they generally fit in three big categories: Learning, Connections, and Credential.

Learning — The stuff you actually learn. This includes all the intellectual and social and emotional skills that are part of the experience. The hard, specific knowledge (who is Plato?) and the high level “learn how to think” stuff.

Connections — The people you meet and develop lasting relationships with, both peers and professors.

Credential — The piece of paper (degree) which said you mustered the self-discipline to attend classes, follow the rules, read the requisite books, and did so all at a level your institution deemed satisfactory.

All are strong reasons to go to college, especially the credential.

The arguments presented for not going to college and getting a degree also tend to be scattered. Usually, people say something like, “Well, Bill Gates didn’t get a degree.” Or that 73 out of the 1,125 billionaires in the world dropped out of some stage of schooling. That Ben Franklin completed only two years of formal schooling. While these can be fun examples, they are not particularly persuasive because they rely upon a comparison being made between the student at hand and, say, Michael Dell. It takes a helluva ego to consider yourself the next Michael Dell.

Better approach: If you want to make a compelling case against college, organize, de-mystify, and argue against the three reasons for college. Argue that self-directed learners have the world at their fingertips with the web and needn’t be stuffed into a system that assumes all learning styles are alike. Argue that connections can be built through other affiliations and on one’s own. And argue that substitute experiences (for the credential) can signal equally strong in many industries such as business or journalism (concede medicine, law, and academia to the traditionally credentialed).

I’m sure there’s some name for the argumentative device of working with and arguing against the stated reasons for, versus trying to muster your own points. Maybe this is “process of elimination” — you needn’t offer your own argument you just need to destroy your opponent’s.

Bottom Line: Assumptions like “everyone should go to college” are rarely challenged, and when they are, the arguments tend to be all over the place. Challenge bedrock assumptions. Worst case, you’ll bring clarity around the assumption’s existence. Best case, you might find the assumption rests on less steady ground than originally thought.

Disrespecting Credentialism

Why are people who hold degrees from very selective schools more likely to advise me to stay in college and get my degree (from a very selective school) whereas people who hold degrees from unknown schools or have no degree at all more are likely to support a decision to drop out?

Because if I drop out I am disrespecting credentialism — which according to Arnold Kling is “the belief that only people with proper credentials should be hired. If you go to college, you implicitly support credentialism–or at least you do not reject it. If you refuse to go to college, then you show disrespect for credentialism. That disrespect may represent a threat to hiring managers who are credentialist.”

Recently, I met a man in Portland who is going through tough career times. He holds an MBA from a top school and, even late in his career, still cites it prominently in his portfolio of work. At this stage in life he clutches to the credential. He advises me to obtain a similar credential. If I and (many) others do not and nevertheless go on to be successful, the value of his decreases. Thus, I value his advice on the matter but recognize his self-interested bias.


Here’s a related rule of thumb I just developed:

If the importance of your credential and the prominence with which you advertise it does not decrease with age, you are not achieving or succeeding that much in the real world. Would a successful lawyer begin a letter to a prospective client, “Dear Joe, I graduated from Columbia Law School in 1990”? Of course not. He’d hang his hat on real experiences. Al Gore’s bio on this page doesn’t even mention Vanderbilt or Harvard, two brand names most people would be eager to display. He doesn’t need to. His work speaks for itself.

The exception to this rule of thumb would be academia, where it seems credentials remain at the fore regardless of professional success. But this would make sense. The very idea of academia is rooted in credentialism.

Those Late Night Dorm Conversations!

I am in awe of the romanticization of higher education in America, mainly by its alumni who are probably rationalizing an extraordinary sunk cost of money and time but also from the media (especially those pesky soft focus, all-anecdotes higher ed stories put out monthly by the New York Times which pander to its well-to-do readers with teenage sons and daughters). We hear that going to a fine college in America represents the opportunity for unblemished intellectual pursuit. The one opportunity to pursue the life of the mind with no other distractions or obligations!

Or: The late night dorm conversations about the meaning of life! This — late night dorm conversations —  may be the most overrated thing ever. Slightly inebriated 18, 19, 20, or 21 year-olds (that includes me!) musing on the Big Questions with no preparation or structure is an absolute train-wreck. Yet these situations continue to get mythologized as formative intellectual or social moments that are not to be missed.

Based on my own experiences and those of my friends (who attend every college you’ve heard of and many good colleges you likely haven’t heard of), I think people vastly overstate the existence of an unadulterated intellectual life for undergraduates in the academy. Look to the plagues of multiculturalism and political correctness (anti-intellectual currents if there ever were ones) or simply the fact that drinking / drugs, obsession with grades, and power plays in pursuit of golden internships are the primary points of interest for most 20 year-olds at even the best institutions.

This doesn’t mean college is worthless. In fact, I think college offers many benefits to undergrads, such as the networking opportunities or just the fun factor of four years of summer camp. But a truly enriching intellectual experience of the sort that’s often "remembered" by alumni or celebrated by the media — those early moments where a worldview started to form, a love for books that was cultivated — this seems less likely, unless you’re a student at Reed, University of Chicago, Swarthmore, and perhaps a couple other places whose cultures do seem to take the life of the mind seriously. In general, I think a minority of students at good colleges leave infected with a love for ideas and a majority leave with knowledge that they will probably have to un-learn later in life.

I’d rather have our colleges either be more explicitly vocational — ie, be in the business of transferring practical career skills and not talk themselves silly with phrases like "teaching our students how to think" — or actually cut the bullshit / distractions and emphasize liberal arts for liberal arts’ sake alone. Floating somewhere in the middle, as most liberal arts schools do now, appeals on the surface for those like me who don’t want the suffocating seriousness of a University of Chicago nor the mechanics skills of a vocational institute, but ultimately the ever-elusive ‘happy medium" as currently practiced doesn’t offer enough of either to seem worthwhile.

Three Observations About Western European Higher Ed

Below, three observations about how Western Europe treats higher education, as I understand it based on informal conversations with students, professors, and business people across the continent. Generalizing about such a large zone will inherently expose exceptions, but these are just observations that seem to hold up in most places I’ve been to. Tell me if I’m wrong.

First, schooling in Europe stresses specialization at a young age. This means that you choose early on what you want to study (law, business, medicine, whatever) and your entire "undergraduate" years are spent studying this topic. Many high schools are even specialized.

Second, success is largely measured by big, cumulative tests. Some of the law students I’ve met have a single test that covers four semesters of work. They spend months and months studying for this one test.

Third, the degrees you do obtain and schools you do attend receive substantial attention for life. In many countries your degrees (Masters, PhD, etc) are appended to your passport, and anytime you list the name of a PhD, "Dr." must precede the name. Always. Also, the first line of a one-paragraph bio of someone will include their education first. It is remarkable to read a bio of 60 year-old chief executive with an amazingly distinguished professional career that begins with where he read books at age 18.

So, the system disadvantages those youth who don’t really know what they want to do in life at age 16 (most people, I’d imagine), then disadvantages those who are cognitively ill-suited at taking tests administered in school settings (a meaningful subset of the population, research shows), and then pushes whatever degrees you do pick up to the fore for the rest of your life.

Contrast the above three points to America.

First, while specialization is an option, liberal arts colleges and programs are also offered in abundance. And specialization will never occur at the high school level, as it does in places in Europe. High school is broadly focused.

Second, standardized tests are used, but relatively speaking, seem less important. Sure, the SAT matters, but it is not the only factor. Indeed, some U.S. colleges don’t even require an SAT test.

Third, what you did at your last job is far more important than where you went to school at age 18. This varies by profession, of course, but I think this is part of the meritocracy ideal (myth?) of the country. And many PhDs do not demand to be called "Dr." Even in the industry where PhDs are most institutionalized — higher ed — some American colleges drop "Dr." in favor of the more generic "Mr." In the Pomona College course catalog professors are listed "Mr. Smith." Finally, the standard American bio will include education as the last sentence, if at all.

For points #2 and #3, I prefer the American model / culture. Point #1 is interesting. While I think Western European schooling focuses on specialization too early, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with specialization per se, and certainly the vocational variety doesn’t deserve the kind of high minded shoo-shooing from liberal arts-educated intellectuals who think you’re not suited for the world unless you’ve read Plato and Frost. As Joel Kotkin said, as a practical matter, in the States we need fewer poets and more plumbers. Or see Ross Douthat:

…We ought to become vastly more flexible in our understanding of what constitutes an ideal post-high school education, and what our high schools should be preparing their students for – which means more vocational education, more shop class as soulcraft, and fewer attempts to pretend that everyone can read Hamlet, or score above the national average on the Math SAT.

Related Post: How the Culture of Higher Ed in America and Europe Doesn’t Seem to Impact Society in General

The Guilty Sense of Privilege

From the latest positive review of Keith Gessen’s new book, this time in Slate:

One of the pleasures of Gessen’s novel is how well he reproduces the speech patterns of brainy, left-wing Ivy Leaguers—their sardonic deployment of social-theoretical jargon, their riffs on technology and capitalism, their anxiety about status, and the pride in small failures meant to refute their guilty sense of privilege.

I want to riff on the “refute guilty sense of privilege” bit.

Since 70% of our population does not have a college degree, anyone who has the opportunity to go to college in America is privileged. Those of us at selective colleges and universities are even more privileged, as a red-carpet path to power unveils itself after graduation via alumni networks and brand name prestige.

Regardless of whether you “earned” your privilege or not, the fact is the moment you enter the gates of a selective higher ed institution you are immediately thrust ahead in the societal rat race. Colleges often remind their students of this fact. They do so rather bluntly.

Convocation speeches might detail the extraordinary opportunities presented to we students, ask us to “look around and remember how lucky we are to have these opportunities,” and then insist, in more complicated language of course, “Now go save Africa!” I sat in an assembly in high school once that made precisely this point, where by the end everyone felt terrible that we had thick shiny textbooks while the schools in Bangladesh of which we had just seen pictures hardly managed a physical classroom, let alone textbooks.

The do-gooders among us ran off to set up a “donate your used textbooks drive,” but no one was pondering the implicit idea the school was endorsing which was action-to-assuage-guilt is better than no action at all, or at least action motivated by other things.

It’s not just schools — most charitable organizations in the U.S. use guilt-tripping as a primary mechanism to induce individual donors to give.

I’ve long said that as someone who was born in the richest state in the richest country in the world, I couldn’t have gotten any luckier out of the gate. Does this create some amount of guilt due to un-earned privilege that has allowed me to do things that I just couldn’t have done had I been born in, say, Peru, or even born into a broken family in Compton with no daddy and a crack-abusing mommy? Yep. Is this guilt healthy, does it create a sense of a gratitude and/or motivate me to make the most of my winning number in the genetic lottery? Maybe. Probably. Maybe not?

Dealing with guilt due to privilege is itself a privileged worry to have, relatively speaking, but many Americans have it, and I think there’s an opportunity to explore the emotion in a way more nuanced than it’s being approached. Maybe this is literature’s purview — maybe even Gessen’s. I’ll have to read his book to find out.

To Learn Basic Economic Institutions or River Society Rulers?

An economics teacher at a good San Diego private high school emails about his students’ illiteracy on basic economic matters:

The thing that’s most remarkable to me is students’ lack of knowledge of organizations and basic economic institutions (as opposed to theories, which they can swallow quite readily).

The students did not know that private schools did not need to hire credentialed teachers.

We’ve covered Social Security. They didn’t know what a payroll tax was, what % it is for SSI, what % for Medicare, that there’s an earnings cap for the tax, when SS started, how it works, why there’s a crisis and what might be done to bring it back in balance.

They didn’t know what Prop 13 (CA) was. They didn’t know that laws are made by ballot and by legislature. Nor the structure of courts, from district to appelate to supreme. Federal v state laws/courts.

They didn’t know how a city’s school lottery works, nor how much $$ is spent per student in public schools versus private.

I have nothing against ancient Mesopotamia. But when kids know the names of river society rulers of 3000 BC but don’t know whether you can foreclose on a house without taking personal bankruptcy–indeed have no idea what the issue even is–it’s a weird world.

And if the conversation turned to personal financial matters — checking accounts, stocks, bonds, etc — I’m sure the picture wouldn’t be any prettier.

This teacher claims to teach at one of the best high schools in the country. He adds:

I continue to be fascinated that perhaps the two major groups of subjects in today’s world–law/economics/government/administration/finance and engineering/design/architecture–have essentially not made their way into school curricula. Even at the best private schools, which ought to have the flexibility, and ought to seek a market niche. Instead, schools all do almost exactly the same thing.