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For College Students … Learn to Think Critically (Article)

This is what I have been preaching about in my classes for the past eight years.  For those unaware, since 2003, I have taught (at night) two different courses in Constitutional Law at the University of Central Florida.  This semester, I also started teaching a course in Judicial Processes.  We simply are failing in teaching students (especially the most recent college generation — stuck with the ravages of standardized testing and school grading, i.e., “an ‘A’ school,” “an ‘F’ school,” etc.

We are abandoning the core values of the public education system, which was designed to create independent, vibrant and critical thinkers.  Instead, we are inculcating students to be nothing better than walking computers.  My students are told, during the first week of class — and thereafter — that the joint objective of my courses is to teach effective critical thinking and writing skills.

Special credit from 25 years ago to Dr. Ted Sizer and his Coalition of Essential Schools — the concepts that were still being perpetuated in Florida public schools during the 1970s and 1980s.


Huge Numbers of Students Don’t Learn Critical Thinking in College

Source:  http://www.alternet.org/newsandviews/article/441115/huge_numbers_of_

What happens when you fail to invest in education (and no, I don’t mean investment in excessive layers of school administration), the most important single item in our nation’s success or failure? You end up with this result:

An unprecedented study that followed several thousand undergraduates through four years of college found that large numbers didn’t learn the critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills that are widely assumed to be at the core of a college education.

Many of the students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event, according to New York University sociologist Richard Arum, lead author of the study. The students, for example, couldn’t determine the cause of an increase in neighborhood crime or how best to respond without being swayed by emotional testimony and political spin. […]

Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called “higher order” thinking skills. Read more: link

By the time our kids get to college it is too late to change habits por learn new skills that should have been taught to them in grade k-12 in my opinion. This study does not merely condemn colleges, it throws a harsh light on our primary education system on this country. In general, the US doesn’t pay our teachers well (compared to other professions and other nations), nor do we reward them for excellence, nor do we often provide them with a system that accurately assesses their efforts (i.e., No child left behind ring any bells?).

One encouraging sign from the study is that students that majored in traditional liberal arts subjects — literature, history, the social and “hard” sciences, and mathematics — did better than their fellow students in other areas such as business. Those “liberal arts” students were required to do more reading and writing than their counterparts in many other disciplines. As one professor put it:

“We do teach analytical reading and writing,” said Ellen Fitzpatrick, a history professor at the University of New Hampshire.

Maybe it’s time to stop sneering at “book learning” and calling professors who emphasize critical thinking and analytical skills pointy headed intellectual elites and marxist socialists. This country needs to have a real discussion about the importance of teaching those skills.

Because despite what some people think, we don’t need ill-educated people such as Sarah Palin, who makes it a point of pride to point to her lack of intellectual ability, leading our nation by using their gut feelings and not their brains to make decisions. We certainly don’t need a generation of people who turn up their noses at science and actively dispute its credibility and its value to our society.

More importantly, we don’t need a generation of people who can’t understand or analyze the critical issues we face as a nation voting for candidates based on manipulative and often misleading political attack ads that appeal to emotion rather than to reason. In the past election, we witnessed the effect of the failure by so many people to discriminate between falsehoods and emotional appeals on the one hand and factually based arguments on the other. The best guard against a continued dumbing down of our political discourse is a well informed public able to think for themselves rather than relying upon the words of demagogues and political con artists to set the terms of our national debate.

3 Comments on This Post
  1. Derek Brett

    Thanks for the kind words from both Carley and Rapidshare. This blog is dual-purpose: not only is it intended to share interesting items alongside my brief commentary, but I hope that it will eventually become the locale for some active discussion/debate of the issues from the individual posting.

    Don’t get me wrong — I will gladly receive all of the continued compliments on the tenor and substance of the postings. 🙂


  2. Thanks for your post on this very topic I have been drilling with my students for the past several years! Would you be okay with me posting this link on my psychology blog:

    Corrie, Gainesville, FL

    • Derek Brett

      I have no issue with you posting it, and appreciate both your philosophy and interest in this blog topic.



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