Sunday, November 21, 2010

In Defense of the Humanities

Here is a sharply worded critique of SUNY Albany's recent decision to eliminate a number of major programs in the Humanities. It touches on several themes we have been discussing this semester.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Reason and Critical Thinking

This may already be obvious to the rest of you, but I've been trying to sort out precisely how Siegel distinguishes reason/rationality from critical thinking. Here's a first stab at it.

A capacity for reason seems to be natural to humans, and perhaps in varying degrees to some other social animals. Presumably we developed this capacity because it was some use to us in meeting our needs. Therein lies a limitation of our natural reason, for our normal habit is to use it instrumentally to determine means for attaining some end, putting the tool down when we've got what we want. (As a description of how we typically use reason, this mirrors Peirce's Doubt/Belief Hypothesis).

The interesting thing about most tools, however, is that we can use them for many things other than their original purpose. In the case of reason, Socrates (among many others) discovered that we can turn it back on itself to inquire whether the ends we seek are good, not just whether we are pursuing them effectively. With this discovery the non-moral, merely calculative aspect of reason is transformed into a normative quest, both for knowledge and for goodness -- possibly what Hegel means when he describes Socrates as the inventor of morality.

We might properly call this quest critical thinking, and so understood it is clear why it must have a characterological ("critical spirit") component in addition to the skill elements. It is also clear both why critical thinking as such is teachable (where bare reason is a pre-existing ability that we can only refine through instruction), and why teaching it is a difficult and delicate business, as is any instruction that seeks to change the habits and character of learners as well as the contents of their cognitive minds.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Is Rationality a Conspiracy?

In his SLAP for this week, Michael, asks a very interesting question. One of the problems we found with Radical Constructivism was it's in-principle irrefutability, which looks like a strength but is actually the opposite, for if like a conspiracy theory nothing can ever in principle constitute counter-evidence, then neither can anything count as evidence for it. Michael wonders whether rationality, as Siegel defends it, doesn't suffer the same flaw, since the defense is reflexive, showing that the skeptic presupposes rationality in the very asking.

Suppose I claim you need a hammer to make a house, and you challenge my claim. Exotic materials and tools (nail guns, screws...) could give your objection some traction, making the humble hammer less central to the process, but because of the physics of our world and our shared goal of an architectural structure to live in, you would really be proposing just to hammer by other means. Thus that you can't seem to succeed in your criticism of my claim is simply an artifact of the circumstances we find ourselves in, which factually necessitate hammers (or at least hammering with things we don't call hammers). It is not the result of a sophistic dodge on my part to make my position unassailable in principle.

Like hammering, reasoning and knowing are so basic to our shared project of living in the world and in human communities that challenges to them tend unwittingly to presuppose them. This is in part why ancient Skeptics came to abandon altogether the search for knowledge, or even its refutation, instead seeking a happy life in the suspension of judgment. They couldn't show that knowledge was unattainable (which would have constituted a knowledge claim), so they tried instead to pursue a different kind of goal altogether.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Constructivist Foundations

Here is the URL for the latest issue of the journal Constructivist Foundations. It contains both an essay by David Kenneth Johnson ("Footprints in the Sand") and Ernst von Glasersfeld's last publication, in which he has some things to say about Bridges to the World. You have to sign up for access, but there is no charge.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Elements of Teaching and Learning

I look forward to each of your blogs, summarizing in your own unique voices the gist of our attempted compilation yesterday. We will all learn a lot from each others' ways of framing the matter. A couple more issues occur to me that did not come up in detail:

Teacher as personal inspiration/foil -- especially relevant in character development, a teacher who is sufficiently inspiring for her human qualities, or sufficiently repellent to inspire students to want to be better than that, may subtly teach merely by her presence. The latter underscores our observation that teacherly intent underdetermines the extent and content of learning.

Empathetic Imagination -- As we have observed, one of the reasons knowledge of a subject is not equivalent to the ability to teach it is the difficulty of remembering what it was like before you grasped the subject. Great teachers know their subjects, but also can empathetically imagine what it feels like for students who do not, so as to build bridges from there to here.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Siegel and Intellectual Virtues

After reading chapter two of Rationality Redeemed, I hope you have a fuller understanding of the intellectual virtues in the Toolkit, and why they may constitute aspirations and pre-conditions for inquiry and judgment generally, not just in philosophy.

Of course, it remains to be seen how we might teach them, or whether we can teach them directly at all.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Importance of Being Asleep

It occurs to me that another good example of a case where it is inappropriate to employ reason is while asleep. We have good grounds for thinking that sleep is necessary for physical health, and that the apparently random, non-linear and non-rational (or even irrational) psychological processing of dreams (whether remembered or not) is indispensable -- perhaps we wouldn't even be capable of reason without it.

None of this suggests that critical thinking is less important as a core educational goal than Siegel says it is, but it helps put it in perspective, and underscores the strength of his definition.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Twain on Lying

Gregg Camfield's talk tonight made some fascinating suggestions about the importance of lying well and ironically as perhaps the only bulwark against a civilization (or Sivilization, in Huck's spelling) based on lies. It put me in mind of some of our conversations about teachers and Tricksters, and the question of whether the purpose of education is to prepare young people to take their place in the existing order of things, or rather to equip them to challenge that order. My intuition is leaning toward the latter.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Waiting for Superschool

Here is a serious and well informed critique of the popular new documentary "Waiting for Superman" by educator and critic Diane Ravitch. The potent sort of dishonest mythmaking the film represents might help us remember that Plato was not crazy to be suspicious of the power of poets.