Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"Critical thinking?"

Tomorrow I'm scheduled to participate in a workshop dealing with my university's general education requirements.  Specifically, we'll be discussing and presumably deciding somehow on how to teach and assess the learning of "critical thinking" in the "social sciences."  I am not looking forward to it, and the temptation is strong to go fishing...

I am not looking forward to it for several reasons, but the ones I want to mention here, if only to help gather my thoughts for tomorrow, are:
  • It pisses me off that we need to distinguish "critical thinking" in the social sciences from such thinking in the the "arts and humanities." 
  • It also pisses me off that there is an implicit, covert suggestion in the division of labor for this exercise that the "scientific method" can only be carried out quantitatively in the "natural sciences."
First of all, the scientific method is not limited to quantitative research; see my post about this on this blog.  Secondly, the division between "natural" and "social" science is bogus, a relic of the time when humans were thought to be separate from nature.  Science is science. Period.

For me as a linguist/anthropologist, "critical thinking" is best exemplified by the development of what I (following former mentor Robert Lawless) call cynical knowledge.  Cynical knowledge is the awareness, developed through critical inquiry, that beliefs and values that we take to be "natural" are in fact not only not natural, but are kept in place to support particular structures of power and authority. Two examples might illustrate this.

"Double negatives make a positive."  We hear this from our language arts and composition teachers almost from the time we enter school, so much so that we internalize it and defend it, sometimes vigorously.  And here's the thing: it's flat-out wrong.  There are languages as diverse as French, Spanish, Russian, and even Aymara that make use of multiple negative marking (negative agreement in linguistic parlance).  Even Anglo-Saxon, the precursor of modern English, used negative agreement.  The "rule" against "double negatives" was introduced by Anglican Bishop Robert Lowth in 1762; he based it on a false analogy with mathematics. "Double negatives" are as natural to human languages as nouns and verbs.  The cynical knowledge rests in the realization that this "rule" was fabricated to give English teachers another tool for terrorizing- I mean, assessing- schoolchildren.  It has no standing in the natural world.

"Stop breast-feeding your baby as early as possible."  This is a somewhat easier one.  We are mammals.  Mammal mothers feed their young milk until they don't need it anymore, i.e. until they can begin to process more adult foods.  And, once they're adults, most mammals normally lose the ability to digest lactose. Cynical knowledge informs us that the main reason for our focus on early weaning is so that the people who produce infant formula can make money.  In other words, this is a cultural value that functions to support capitalism.  It has nothing to do with improving the health of mothers or their babies, and indeed the research suggests that breast feeding is far more healthy for both than formula feeding.

So, these are thoughts I'm carrying into this meeting tomorrow, if I go.