An in-depth exploration of critical thinking in the college sphere. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to James Lendvay about the role critical thinking plays in the college curriculum.
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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer and today we’re talking to James Lendvay, faculty in the School of Arts, Humanities and Education. And our conversation today is about critical thinking in college curriculum. Welcome James.
James Lendvay: Hello, Bjorn. Thanks for having me again.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, this is kind of part two. Previously, we talked about higher education, some of the complexities of higher education, and today we’re talking about critical thinking. Let’s jump into the first question, which is, what is critical thinking and how is it typically taught and why is it considered to be a valuable learning objective?
James Lendvay: It’s an interesting question in that it’s not that easy to define, even though it’s a term that we use all the time. And if you had to sit down and write out exactly what critical thinking means, it’s a little bit more of a challenge than it seems. Often in our critical thinking course and in others I build as well, we start off by asking students, how do you define critical thinking? Maybe part of that is to then say, “Okay, by the time we get to the end of this course, you can kind of see what you’ve learned aligns with what you thought it was coming in,” but we at least start with that as a way to get moving on the course. And students will often say that it’s largely to do with decision making and problem solving.
And sometimes throwing things like thinking outside the box and they’ll mention things about being objective and using the information that you have available to make a decision in a timely fashion. And all that stuff’s fair, I think those are good components to a definition of critical thinking. For me in wanting to talk about this topic, my concern has been, are we delivering training in critical thinking that really addresses these things? And to that end, I’m thinking of it in terms of making distinction between critical thinking for professional purposes and critical thinking for personal purposes or personal development. And then I think, once we make that distinction, we can get into more questions about the relative value and the place that critical thinking has in college curriculum.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I love that, critical thinking, it’s tough. And so, here’s a question, all fields teach critical thinking. Why do you think philosophy does such a particularly good job of addressing and introducing students and hopefully developing and mastering, not that anybody ever truly masters critical thinking, but in truly going over that concept of critical thinking?
James Lendvay: Yeah, that’s a good question. English courses, for example, will focus, I think on rhetoric and writing, and so how are you going to write something persuasive? And so that seems to be at least in that context, the way that critical thinking is thought. And then also interpreting other arguments and are you reading things thoughtfully and carefully and objectively? So that, as you said, critical thinking gets kind of shared amongst the different disciplines. Why philosophy does maybe the best job, why it turns out that critical thinking is often run through the philosophy department? I think it has to do with the fact that we do logic, and we do epistemology, which is theories of knowledge. And I think the way that I like to approach critical thinking is as epistemology, so asking questions, how do we know when and if we know something? How do we know something’s true? How do you prove that you have a justified belief?
And so, since we focus on that, it kind of makes sense that, that’s what we’re doing is focusing on critical thinking. But I think the term itself, especially as a college course title, could be interchanged with all kinds of different things. I’m hoping at some point to run a course called applied or social epistemology. And that’s just critical thinking in the context of maybe something professional or in the context of being a voter or a citizen. How does critical thinking, how does it look in that context?
But often, and it’s, I think a great idea, we want to kind of frame critical thinking in terms of professional application. And I think that’s really important for a number of reasons. One of which of course is that students will see more of a value that way since most students come to college because they want to eventually get some kind of job. And so, they want to know, how am I going to use this? And so, it’s great and I think we should focus on the professional aspect of it as well as the personal, but I think the personal is probably a harder sell to students than the professional application.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I agree. And so, here’s a follow-up question is, why do you think that some people have really good professional critical thinking? They’re able to make really good sound decisions and judgments and be very reasonable in their professional life, but then when it comes to their personal life, I would say they have poor critical thinking.
James Lendvay: Well, that’s a great question. Some of it may be the constraints that they have in a business environment. And there’s only so many things you can do. In your personal life, you can make any decision you want to. You’re not beholden to stockholders or whomever or your boss, and you’re not worried about those things, so trying to fit into maybe whatever culture that you have at work, and then being able to kind of thrive in that environment, is probably very different than in your own life, in our own lives. It’s almost anything goes, whatever our personal values happen to be. But without certain constraints, it might just be harder to do that actually. And that’s a good question because I have been thinking about trying to make this distinction between professional and personal applications of critical thinking or defining it in those different contexts. But when you look at job postings, for example, you’ll see we’re looking for in all these generic qualities, somebody who’s objective and flexible, independent, self-starter.
What do all these things mean? I don’t really know. And I don’t know that there are always things that we specifically address in critical thinking courses. They probably come out in different ways, but I think it would be interesting to do that, to kind of gear our courses a little more specifically that way.
I’ve seen critical thinking courses run all over the place, and I’ve seen many, many critical thinking textbooks and they all pretty much look the same. But they don’t necessarily focus on how you are going to behave and do better at your job, which I think would be an interesting thing to focus on.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I love that because when you do apply for a job, one of the things that it always says is good critical thinking skills, good problem solver, but critical thinking is always there. And so, when you’re applying for the job and say, when you get that interview, how do you hard sell yourself with critical thinking and that’s so tough? And so that leads us to the next question is, can critical thinking be taught? Is the idea of needing to learn critical thinking met well with students?
James Lendvay: I have some mixed anecdotal data on that, so a lot of students, and maybe they’re just putting on a good face, say, “Yeah, boy, I’m really interested in learning critical thinking and I think I have a lot of room to grow in that department. And I think it’s really valuable and let’s go and let’s do this.” And then other students might come in and say, “Well, what are you going to really teach me? I do, I think critically,” that’s just part of being a human. We all do that. And I remember I had one specific student in a logic course who I had just to paraphrase something, said something to the effect of, “I’ve been around for a long time,” an older student, “There’s not much I can learn in this class, so I’m not expecting much.”
And so, we do have to kind of deal with those varying perspectives where some people are open to it and ready to learn and others come in thinking, “You can’t teach me this. Not only do I already know everything that could possibly be taught in critical thinking or logic, but maybe this is just not what I’m looking for also. I’m here to learn about a job. So why am I taking this stuff, which I already know how to do?” Or “I can figure it out somehow, if I really need to.” How it’s met, I’m not sure. I think there’s some good and some bad in terms of attitudes coming into critical thinking. But I think it can be taught, especially if we’re clear about our objectives. Kind of going back a little bit, if we’re clear to saying we’re focusing here on professional development or we’re focusing on personal development, we can do both of course. But just so we’re clear to students what exactly we’re after, I think that can help with their engagement and also what they get out of the courses.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I like that. And so, a follow-up question is, how do you react when you pose a question in a class and then a student responds with mainly just a personal opinion? And they think they’re thinking critically, but then they use, which happens often, which I think is one of the great challenges, I think of adulthood, where they use individual terms that they may have been using all their lives incorrectly, because they actually don’t know the actual definition of terms, accepted definition of terms. And they fall back on ideas and concepts that they’ve known all their life, but maybe they’ve learned it incorrectly and all these different epistemological concepts, where when you don’t think clearly and carefully about terms, concepts, you use them incorrectly so easily. And then when you are having a disagreement, your disagreement really falls flat because you’re actually not being able to present a coherent argument. But then at the same time, if you are never, I don’t want to say checked, but if somebody doesn’t even just question what’s going on, you might never learn and just continue those falsities or unreasonable perspectives.
James Lendvay: Right. That’s a good point because I’ve thinking about this critical thinking, it’s pretty much across the board at any college or university, you’re going to get this at a 100 level. For me, there’s a balancing act. How can we get as much information to students as possible, but also for a first year, maybe even a first semester student to not overwhelm them? And that’s really tough.
To your point about whether students are just relying on what they already know, I really try to make an effort to align course evaluations. And if we do discussions or something, to really align it with the material. You cannot get off scott free, you’re not getting 100% if your response is just, “Here’s my opinion. I could have told you this three weeks ago, when I walked into the course. I need to see that you’re taking something from the material that we’ve been working on and applying it.” Whether or not that’s something that the student’s going to eventually go out and use in the real world and we hope they will. Maybe even years down the line look back and say, “Oh yeah, I remember these fallacies and okay, I see how that works now, and maybe I did make a mistake there in my argument.”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Just thinking of an example, what would you say if somebody was discussing history and they harken back to the Cold War and we, before we started recording, we were talking about Reagan. I think you famously called the Soviet Union, “An evil empire.” And so, what would you say if somebody said that, in say an argument about the Soviet Union and different things like that? What are some ways to learn about how we use language and think critically by you just saying, “Evil empire?” Well, what do you mean by evil?
James Lendvay: There’s a quote attributed to Plato, “You can’t claim knowledge unless you can explain it. He who knows can clearly explain.” And so, if we’re just kind of parroting back language, which I think we see a lot of this, can you really explain what you’re talking about? Because if you’re not able to do that, maybe you should withhold commentary on it. It’s something that I build into some of my critical thinking courses. One question I often ask students is, can you explain evolution? Can you explain the process in general of natural selection? And if you can’t, does any person have a legitimate claim to knowing that that’s true or that’s something that actually happens?
Now we could ask that question about all kinds of things, maybe everything, really. And so that kind of goes back to epistemology and why I like to focus on that in critical thinking in whatever you’re talking about through the day, can you explain it well enough to claim that you really know what you’re talking about? It’s really easy to hear things and feel sort of expertise about it, “Because I’ve heard from sources that I value that this X is true and I’m going to go ahead and believe it.” “Okay, well explain it to me.” “Well, I can maybe give you a few little pieces that I picked up somewhere and I can kind of explain it,” but how thoroughly can you explain it, and do you really want to claim that you know that. I think that’s a really important takeaway from any critical thinking course, if we could build that in.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I really like that. And as I’m sitting here, I’m trying to remember this term, which of course I’m totally blanking on. For most of us, our depth of knowledge, for most things we know, is really shallow. And that’s not to say, even for us who have degrees or have studied for decades, we’re usually experts in one little aspect of life or one little aspect of a field. But then we see so often when you go on cable news or you go on YouTube, these people that talk and talk and talk all day long, they talk with such authority. People love people who talk with authority. But in reality, do they talk as an expert? Can they explain, like you said, what’s going on? I think of so many times we hear about policy discussions and those policy discussions are really shallow, extremely shallow, and they don’t get into the nuts and bolts. And so, you have this entire discussion, how people are influenced by then a shallow discussion of what they’re supposed to be talking about.
James Lendvay: Yeah, that’s really interesting because even with podcasts and social media, things that people put on YouTube, it still happens. But the way it used to be in the media was that when a topic was discussed, experts were brought in. People who had certain credentials, but now everybody’s talking about everything. I think it just feels to a lot of people, if I have an opinion and I have some proof or I saw somewhere, then that really qualifies as expertise, so I can just talk on and on about it, and you’re right, nobody can know so much that they can talk at depth about just every topic that happens to come up.
On the other hand, we need to feel that we do know all this stuff, especially in a democracy. We’re responsible ultimately for the running of the government, at least in this country, electing officials. But we all are supposed to have an opinion. And how do you do that? Who’s got time to research all this stuff and to do it well? It’s the sort of a conundrum, but a lot of it, I think comes down to having some intellectual humility and saying, “Look, I don’t know. There are some things I know a little bit about, but I’m not going to try to school everybody on every topic every moment of the day.”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I like that, that you mentioned intellectual humility. And that’s one of the things that I always try to talk about because again, my depth of knowledge for most things, really, really shallow. I don’t mean to say that, and I’m not proud of that, but it’s too hard to know about everything. Even when the Ukraine war started and I started watching some videos about it, so there’s some great videos where it’s like, “Well, let’s start with the 1400s and the founding of what the concept of Ukraine and the old Russian area of the Rusque.”
I think again, my non depth of knowledge is remembering the history of Russia and Ukraine, which goes back centuries and our history as a formal country, only goes back to the late 18th century. Even that, you can then continue to go back in history of the indigenous population here in the North America, which is also very difficult to know. If you go back and back and back, there’s so much to know, and it’s so easy just to make blanket statements or things that you’ve heard. And I think, you think you’re being critical, but in reality, you’re not, and I’m not judging because so many people do it, I do that and it’s difficult.
James Lendvay: It’s a strange psychological phenomenon where we’re only able to know so much. We have amazing brains and minds; we can know a lot of stuff. But there’s just this tendency, there’s really nothing, I’m not sure if there’s anything more defining of the human person than knowing, knowing things, it’s so important to us, for a lot of good reasons. It’s a practical and very important thing to know a lot to get through life. But in order to hang some kind of personal identity on how much I know and how right I am, that’s dangerous because if we’re open to it, we’re going to find out often that we don’t know that much as it turns out. And are we going to let that really bum us out? But again, I think we have psychological defense mechanisms. We just blow that off, “Oh yeah, I was wrong, but whatever,” or “I wasn’t really wrong, but I’m not even going to acknowledge that. I’m going to really point it out when I’m right, everybody’s going to hear about it. When I’m wrong, I’m going to sweep it under the rug.”
Maybe we need to do that from some kind of mental health perspective. But on the other hand, in terms of logic and critical thinking and the standards that we hold other people to, intellectual humility, I think plays a big part in getting along and even tying back to professional applications. I’ve been thinking about companies who want to build a culture. They want to hire people, and do they just want to hire people who can do particular functions? But if you want to build a culture of people, what kind of people are you looking for exactly? And so, going back to all these terms that are floated out there, like being flexible and objective and independent, resourceful, what do those mean to a particular company? And then from my perspective, how can we help teach people to develop those things? It’s not something we can just open up people’s heads and dump it in there but teach them how to develop those things. And I think that should be a real focal point for critical thinking.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Completely agreed. And especially teaching adults, adults have to be open to teaching, they have to find the value of what they’re learning for it to stick in their head. And so that leads us to our third question is, do we need to teach critical thinking? Does it make sense to promote this in college course and program objectives? And is there something that can be objectively measured as part of a job or career training?
James Lendvay: In thinking about this topic, I kind of broke it into three pieces and I was thinking, “Well, okay, first of all, can we define critical thinking? That’s a challenge of its own. And then, can we teach it? Well, I think we can.” And then the final question would be ought we to teach it, or whose responsibility is it to teach it? If people can learn it on their own or to what degree people can learn it on their own, just let them go ahead and do that. Why is it something that we want to focus on as part of college curriculum? And again, I think this goes back to kind of splitting the difference between professional and personal application. And traditionally, I think college education was not just thought of as job training. It was also maybe equal parts, job training and personal development, learning about the world, going to a university where there’s a university of ideas to learn about.
As a young person, you can do that or even as an older person, you can do that. So, I think it does make sense to promote it in college course and program objectives. But I think it also would really benefit higher education as an industry, as a whole, to be really clear about how we’re going to do it and what the benefit’s going to be for people rather than just to kind of say, “Well, this is part of the curriculum. It’s always been. We’ve always taught critical thinking, so take it.” I think people are savvy consumers these days and they want to know, why am I doing this, especially with the cost of college and with people being concerned about going into great debt. And so, they want to know every detail, what am I doing and why am I doing it? And those are fine questions.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And students today are savvy consumers. And I think that’s a really good point because back in the forties, fifties, sixties, college attainment was actually very low, in the single digits to low teens, where the percentage of Americans who had a college degree, they’re actually not that great. And so, you could get a high school diploma and get a good job. Today, it’s completely different. A larger percentage of Americans do get college degrees, which is great, but then do all jobs need college degrees?
Since more people are going to college and it’s not always traditional age, which is 18 to 22, it’s adults, I think it’s important that the colleges do demonstrate why we’re teaching these skills and critical thinking is one of those that is just so important. And just like we talked, people would say, “I have critical thinking skills.” That’s great. You do, but can you recognize different fallacies, or can you actually explain a term or a concept or an idea? You talked about evolution or even on the back or on the opposite side, I don’t like to do opposites, but creationism. Can you explain that to someone without just having a shallow description of it? In which people just have a great conversation and it just seems like college needs to do a better job of really explaining why we’re learning these skills and how it will benefit people for not only their career, but their entire lives.
James Lendvay: Right and I agree with that. It’s another balancing act. It’s a fine line where we’re going to say, “We’re the experts in education, and we’re going to tell you, you need this. You may not understand why or understand it right now. Take our word for it.” Now that position could be abused, and I could understand why people would be skeptical about that. “Well, you’re just telling me to take this, but is there really any good reason?” I think we need a compromise there. You can find program outcomes. Now, most colleges are making things a lot more transparent in terms of what students can expect about getting into a job market based on what their major course of study is. Those things are great and really helpful. I just think that for somebody who develops critical thinking courses and who also teaches courses that other people have developed, I find a real sort of sense of responsibility to kind of do that.
And I don’t want to beg students to take this seriously and appreciate it. But on the other hand, I don’t want to just drop it in people’s laps and say, “You need to do this. Don’t worry about why, you’re going to get some kind of subjective, intangible benefits out of it, so-called soft skills, that have always been talked about.” And that sounds hard to defend. I think that’s another consequence of our modern age, where we want things to be as tangible and objective as possible. If it’s not stats, if it’s not something I can see and measure, we’re empirically minded, which is great in a lot of ways, but not everything’s visible. There’s still a world of ideas and the mind is a whole different thing. We need to make sure that we’re addressing those concerns, I think.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: For sure. And why do you think it’s difficult and I’ll say impossible, to create a device where somebody takes a test and then at the end of the test, it spits out a number? James’s critical thinking skill is at an 8.4 and then I take it, and my critical thinking skill is at a 7.9 and then we both apply for a job. And then the recruiter says, “Oh look, James has better critical thinking skills.” First of all, why should that not happen? But why would it be difficult to create a device to do that, because of the various backgrounds of people and what they’re actually testing?
James Lendvay: Well, it’s funny that you mentioned that because we do to some degree, you have to take exams for professional programs, so LSAT or a GRE test to get into graduate school. And those do test some of those features, I think to some degree, it’s been a while since I took that. But those sort of critical thinking skills are tested in that way. And that’s a good question. Why don’t employers do that? And I’m not sure I have an answer for that. Why not say, if you’re going to need a certain test score to be admitted to a graduate program, why don’t you need a certain test score to get this job?
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I can imagine Indeed, huge website where they have job postings for thousands, upon thousands, probably millions of jobs, where they could offer a package to companies, “Look, we’ll post your job. Anybody who wants this job has to take a variety of different tests.” And then as people who want a job, we’d have to take those tests and then it would spit out a critical thinking score. But it’s also, I don’t know if you’ve taken the Political Compass Survey where it kind of shows you if you’re right or left or Libertarian or Authoritarian and it’s entertaining when I’ve taken it, it’s got me mostly right. But to create a device like that is so extraordinarily difficult and people’s backgrounds are so varied. And so, whenever you create something like that, it’s one snapshot of knowledge. It’s one snapshot of what people have been exposed to. And I’m not saying in just thinking about this, not that it wouldn’t be a bad idea, but it also, I wouldn’t really say it would be the best idea, to judge of potential employees’ abilities.
James Lendvay: That’s great because most textbooks, and I usually try to set aside a section on statistical reasoning in critical thinking skills or logic and analytics is a big thing right now. It’s been for a while. Analytics in sports and even analytics in job hiring is used, but it’s always been used, it’s been in the actuary business and setting car insurance rates, and analytics should really appeal to people. And I think it does, because you can’t argue with numbers, that’s the idea. But you can, actually when it comes down to it, you can argue with numbers. Numbers just can do a lot of somewhat damaging things because they don’t always take into account a lot of important background information. But it’s a good question. Why with our sort of cultural focus on numbers and analytics playing a role in so many different fields, why aren’t companies doing that? Why should we even interview somebody? The numbers can just tell us who we need.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I bring this up because in job postings and stuff like that, I wonder why they haven’t done that? If Indeed, just use them as an example, because they’re so large, if they chose to just create these devices and say, “Look companies, these people, we’ll take them, it’ll spit out a number, and then James’s overall score is going to be an 8.4, that could stack rank, everybody who had applied, and then you could interview the top five.” And if you have a thousand people that applied for jobs, because unfortunately too many people apply for jobs because you can be living in Arizona and apply for a job in Maine because of Indeed, it’s very easy to do that. But then if you just got a number, then that could put you in the running or not running, which is both exciting and scary.
James Lendvay: And it would be right on your profile. An employer or hiring manager could just look, “Okay, if you’re not at this threshold, I’m not even going to look at your resume,” that’s certainly a possibility.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Who would create the scoring device? Is it a philosopher or is it somebody who is good at critical thinking? There are so many different ways in which it can go right, but there’s always so many different ways it can go wrong.
James Lendvay: Yeah, it would be tough to get that. Biases creep into testing like that and that would maybe in some cases do more harm than good. It might help employers, but it could turn out, I think as you’re insinuating that it could, end up maybe hurting people looking for jobs who are qualified, but maybe are not scoring on some kind of standardized test like that, in the way that would make them attractive.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I’m just thinking of different series and movies of dystopian futures, where our entire value is just a number. I’m not going to say that the world’s going to go that way, but it’s even with China’s, what is it called, social score or social network score? I always forget what it’s actually called, where your behavior within society is distilled into a number. China can do it because they’re a communist authoritarian regime. And so, we see, some examples today of our value to a country is a number.
James Lendvay: Well, it’s always been part of the equation to look at a GPA and, “Okay, well, there’s a hard number that we can… If we have two equal candidates and one GPA is higher, maybe we’ll just go with that person.” Whether or not that’s a kind of deal breaker for an employer, I don’t know, but it’s a number and it’s one way that we’ve been doing that for a long time to sort of evaluate candidates, for sure.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That is very true. And so absolutely wonderful conversation today, James. Any final words?
James Lendvay: Going back to kind of defining critical thinking, I often post for students, different sources of definitions of critical thinking. One I’ve been using recently is from Zip Recruiter, hoping that kind of gives a tie to the career application, but I think it’s as good as any. But what I liked about what Zip Recruiter did was they then put the opposite definition of what not good critical thinking is. The way they define it is critical thinking is a skill, not just an automatic thought process, because most people naturally think uncritically, making decisions based on personal biases, self-interest or irrational emotions. I think that defining it in a negative way like that, actually is a little more illuminating than trying to define it positively. What can we improve upon, rather than what are you looking to exhibit? And then we can take those things that we want to improve on and work on those in the course.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s actually great to define the term and to provide some examples where that is not demonstrated, is a really good way to show that. And so absolutely wonderful conversation today, James. Today, we were talking with James Lendvay about critical thinking in college curriculums. And of course, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and thank you for listening.