Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Critical Thinking Skills Crisis: A response to criticisms of "The Critical Thinking Skills Hoax," Part II

This is the second of two posts addressing some specific points made recently in a critique of my recent post "The Critical Thinking Skills Hoax," on the Sept. 20 broadcast of "Critical Thinking for Everyone," a show hosted by two critical thinking skills scholars, Patty Payette and Brian Barnes. The first post can be found here.

The first five minutes of the show seemed to be intended to address the question, "Who is this guy?" A description of me, apparently gained through a quick Google search, provided fodder for several minutes of speculation and criticism.

One of the key areas of concern seemed to be my qualifications for writing a logic textbook. I have written several texts for high school students (although they are used at the college level as well in several places) that are fairly widely used in classical liberal arts schools across the country and are now being translated into Russian and Dutch. But Dr. Barnes judges them deficient--despite the fact that he has never laid eyes on them.

"I would say," said Dr. Barnes, "that a B.A. [in philosophy and economics from the University of California, Santa Barbara] would not qualify him to write these books."

I'm not sure where one goes to determine the qualifications for writing high school logic texts. And I realize that in Dr. Barnes' world of higher education certification counts for, well, almost everything. Surely there is something to be said for gaining a Ph.D in a subject, particularly if you want to teach it on the post-secondary level (which I don't, which is why I never bothered to get one).

One of the reasons I find Barnes' criticism problematic is because I took the same logic courses as the graduate students in the program. In fact, I was one of the only undergraduates in the upper level advanced logic programs (taught by Francis Dauer, a student of Willard Van Orman Quine at Harvard, whose text we used) and I believe I took all the logic courses that an M.A. or a Ph.D would have taken. If I took the same logic courses as the graduate students in the program, then how exactly would a graduate degree have better equipped me in that particular subject? Would I be more qualified if I got a Ph.D and took additional non-logic courses?

Furthermore, is a Ph.D either a necessary or sufficient condition for being able to write a competent logic text?

Let's think about two scenarios. First, someone with a Ph.D writes a deficient text (it has been done); second, someone without a Ph.D writes a competent text. Under what circumstances would you ever prefer the former over the latter?

I am assuming Barnes would admit that both scenarios are possible. But to admit the possibility of the first scenario is to admit that a Ph.D is not a sufficient condition to do such work. And to admit the possibility of the second is to admit that it is not a necessary condition for doing it. So I am unclear as to how he comes to his judgement.

If my text is a good text, then I am ipso facto qualified to write it. In other words, my writing a good logic text is a sufficient condition for judging me qualified to write one. So the only way to make the judgment he made is to know whether my text is a good text. But he doesn't know this, since he has never seen it.

Therefore his judgment is completely unfounded.

Dr. Barnes might want to read William James famous essay, "The Ph.D Octopus," in which the great psychologist and philosopher discussed the absurdity of the academic obsession with what he disdainfully calls "the three magical letters"--a problem far worse now than when he wrote the essay in 1903.

The number of Ph.Ds per square inch in our society today is reaching alarming proportions. If we had detectors for such things, they long ago would have sounded their alarms. You can't leave your front door before tripping over unemployed Ph.Ds looking for a handout.

This is undoubtedly the result, not only of Ph.D's being too easy to get, but a proliferation of subjects in which you can get them. If we are intellectually honest, we will admit that a Ph.D is not necessarily a guarantee that the person who has it is a well-educated person. I meet them all the time: people who have letters next to their names who neither know much nor have acquired the skills to productively acquire knowledge. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that there are otherwise reputable institutions of learning out there that are little better than degree mills.

There are people with Ph.Ds in a particular subject who are qualified to write books on that subject and people with that degree who aren't. And there are people who have Ph.Ds in certain subjects who write books entirely outside their field. In fact James, who is considered by many to be the greatest American philosopher of the 20th century had an an advanced degree in medicine but he didn't even have a bachelors degree in philosophy.
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