Academically Adrift?


I just saw this article in The Chroncle of Higher Ed about the recently published book, Academically Adrift, which  paints a rather depressing picture of the critical thinking skills of college grads. This paragraph caught my eye:

While these students may have developed subject-specific skills that were not tested for by the CLA, in terms of general analytical competencies assessed, large numbers of U.S. college students can be accurately described as academically adrift. They might graduate, but they are failing to develop the higher-order cognitive skills that it is widely assumed college students should master. These findings are sobering and should be a cause for concern.

The rest of the article is here, but it seems like a strong indictment of the current state of higher education.

Data Obseity and Popularity: It’s Google!


Via Eurozine.  An interesting article, “The society of the query and the Googlization of our lives,” suggests we suffer from information overload and paints a rather dismal picture:

Ordinary people have hijacked strategic resources and are clogging up once carefully policed media channels. Before the Internet, the mandarin classes rested on the idea that they could separate “idle talk” from “knowledge”. With the rise of Internet search engines it is no longer possible to distinguish between patrician insights and plebeian gossip. The distinction between high and low, and their co-mingling on occasions of carnival, belong to a bygone era and should no longer concern us. Nowadays an altogether new phenomenon is causing alarm: search engines rank according to popularity, not truth. Continue reading

The Closeted American Mind: Intellect? Shhh…


Nicholas Kristof has written an interesting column in today’s NY Times about America and anti-intellectualism:

Then there’s this embarrassing fact about the United States in the 21st century: Americans are as likely to believe in flying saucers as in evolution. Depending on how the questions are asked, roughly 30 to 40 percent of Americans believe in each. A 34-nation study found Americans less likely to believe in evolution than citizens of any of the countries polled except Turkey. President Bush is also the only Western leader I know of who doesn’t believe in evolution, saying “the jury is still out.” No word on whether he believes in little green men. Only one American in 10 understands radiation, and only one in three has an idea of what DNA does. One in five does know that the Sun orbits the Earth …oh, oops.

Kristof quotes Susan Jacoby (author of The Age of American Unreason):

“America is now ill with a powerful mutant strain of intertwined ignorance, anti-rationalism, and anti-intellectualism,” Susan Jacoby argues in a new book, “The Age of American Unreason.” She blames a culture of “infotainment,” sound bites, fundamentalist religion and ideological rigidity for impairing thoughtful debate about national policies. Continue reading

Stanley Fish: Still Misunderstood, States the Obvious


As I’ve pointed out here and here, Stanley Fish’s recent column over at The New York Times has been generating a lot of spiteful and misguided comments. Here’s what Fish had to say in response:

Just two points in response to readers’ questions. I do read all the comments. And I do not use words like “objective” or “impartial” or “neutral” or “disinterested” to describe what I try to do in these columns. All I’m saying is that analyzing arguments is a different project than taking positions on ethical, moral or political issues. Neither is objective; both involve opinions; the opinions are, however, about different things, in one case about the best thing to do or think; in the other, about whether the case made for thinking or doing something hangs together. It would be quite possible for me, or anyone else, to fault the arguments made in behalf of a policy or agenda and still support it. I am insisting on the distinction, but no claim to objectivity is involved – Stanley Fish

Here’s Fish in the column making a similar claim:

When I find an argument incoherent, it is not because I find the argument on the other side persuasive; although that is the assumption made by those who lambaste me for being a conservative or a liberal, a hopeless fuddyduddy or a corrosive postmodernist, and address me in the confidence that they know on what end of the ideological or moral spectrum I am to be found.

But, in fact, a reader of a typical “Think Again” column will have no idea at all where I stand on the issues that catch my attention, because at least for the length of the column (as opposed to real life, which is much longer), I am agnostic on those issues and interested only in the way they are playing out in our present cultural moment.

All of this talk about dis-interest, neutrality and objective judgments has gotten me thinking about the Frankfurt School and given my ongoing attempt to be more pretentious than resident OCD fancy boy Mikhail Emelianov, I marched over to my bookshelf and dug up Horkheimer’s famous essay “Traditional and Critical Theory.”

While a direct line may be drawn from some of the successors of German Idealism, the Left Hegelians, for instance, of the mid-nineteenth century (and its most famous “member” Karl Marx) to the Frankfurt School, for what it’s worth, I think it is important to keep in mind that the historical separation from Kant and Hegel is filled most significantly by Shopenhauer, Nietzsche, Dilthey, Bergson, Weber and Husserl. In many ways the concerns of the so-called Left Hegelians, for instance, the integration of philosophy and social inquiry through a recasting of Hegelian dialectics to a more immanent or material bent centered on praxis, which had been eclipsed by a more “scientific” approach (both Marxist and otherwise) up until WWI, can be tied to the Frankfurt School (although perhaps after the emigration the FS may be construed as being closer to a more “transcendent” critique, dialectical criticism is in fact a shaky tension between the two). Continue reading

Stanley Fish Is Misunderstood, Still


In my critical thinking class yesterday we discussed Stanley Fish’s recent “Think Again” column in which he has the “audacity” to tell the reader what it is he’s doing in the column, e.g making analytic judgments about the logic of disputes and arguments. So today I had another look at the comments found these two particularly strange, especially in their vitriol:

Thanks for the clarification, Prof. Fish. As many before me have pointed out to you, argument divorced from ethics, morality & politics is mere sophistry. Perhaps armed with this information you and the NYT will want to rethink your column.

stanley, finally you objectively deconstruct your own deconstruction. Now it is time to give this French baloney a rest. you made a good living tossing this drivel out to your students and fellow academics. thank you for your totally unintended self-condemnation.

What the hell are these people talking about? Or how about this:

I think the words “self delusional” fit here somewhere. If you were one of my students, I would suggest you keep it short, keep it clear, say what you mean & mean what you say.If so many of readers can’t understand what you’re trying to say, maybe they’re not to blame.

Huh? Isn’t that what Fish is doing? Continue reading

On Analytical Judgments: Stanley Fish Feels Misunderstood


In his most recent column in The New York Times, Stanley Fish talks about analytical judgments. It should certainly resonate for those of us that teach critical thinking courses. Fish writes:

Every once in a while I feel that it might be helpful to readers if I explained what it is I am trying to do in these columns. It is easier to state the negative: For the most part, it is not my purpose in this space to urge positions, or come down on one side or the other of a controversial question. Of course, I do those things occasionally and sometimes inadvertently, but more often than not I am analyzing arguments rather than making them; or, to be more precise, I am making arguments about arguments, especially ones I find incoherent or insufficiently examined.

When I find an argument incoherent, it is not because I find the argument on the other side persuasive; although that is the assumption made by those who lambaste me for being a conservative or a liberal, a hopeless fuddyduddy or a corrosive postmodernist, and address me in the confidence that they know on what end of the ideological or moral spectrum I am to be found.

But, in fact, a reader of a typical “Think Again” column will have no idea at all where I stand on the issues that catch my attention, because at least for the length of the column (as opposed to real life, which is much longer), I am agnostic on those issues and interested only in the way they are playing out in our present cultural moment. When, for example, I wrote three columns criticizing the atheist tracts written by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, I was motivated not by a belief in God — which I may or may not have, you’ll never know — but by what I took to be sloppy, schoolboy reasoning that was passing itself off as wisdom. I could have been an atheist myself, and I still would have found the so-called logic of these books weak and risible.

The difference between making arguments and analyzing them is not always recognized, and when it is missed, readers get outraged about things I never said. This is this case with two recent columns, one on identity politics, the other on the shape of a possible Obama-McCain contest in the general election. My point in the first column was that although identity politics was often a term of accusation — as in “that’s just identity politics” — at least one version of it could be considered rational. Someone who believes that the racial, ethnic, religious or gender identity of a candidate makes it more likely that he or she will support and work for certain favored policies is not performing a base or discriminatory act by voting for that candidate.

Fish continues the column by answering some objections from readers. Continue reading