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THE FLEXIBILITY OF CRITICAL RIGOR


by Nicholas Plants
(Associate Professor of Philosophy)

Because I am a professor of philosophy, I often hesitate telling my logic students that truth is not as important as validity. I usually make this assertion but quickly amend it by saying that, initially, the truth is not as important as validity, especially when it comes to logic. That this is the case is important because it proves President Ronald Williams right in saying we must “synthesize the practicality associated with technical and vocational disciplines with the intellectual flexibility associated with critical thinking” (Instructional Forum, fall 2004). My aim here is to reveal and underscore the intellectual flexibility critical thinking offers its educational practitioners.

The integration of practical education and critical thinking remains a challenge because the latter is difficult to adequately define. Definitions broad enough to accommodate the impressive array of disciplines that concern themselves with critical thinking run the risk of depreciating the fact that the evaluative process critical thinking requires is not limited to the truth or falsity of what is assessed. Similarly, definitions specific enough to meet the demands of adequate evaluation risk rendering critical thinking too inflexible to be discipline-inclusive. Neither negative outcome is inevitable, however, since it is precisely the rigor of critical thinking that renders it intellectually flexible enough to be discipline-inclusive.

Although by no means the only arena for critical thinking, logic reminds us not to evaluate the process of reasoning an argument contains solely, or even initially, based on whether it is true. Such is the case because the reasoning process within a passage may be invalid even though its content is true, or the process valid despite the fact that its content is false. If the reasoning process a passage contains is invalid, the truth of its content becomes largely superfluous. Consider the following examples: 

                        (1)                                                                                      (2)

All banks are financial institutions.                                  All automakers are computer manufacturers.

Wells Fargo is a financial institution.                               United Airlines is an automaker.

Wells Fargo is a bank.                                                  United Airlines is a computer manufacturer.

Even though its content is true, the reasoning process contained in (1) is invalid, whereas though its content is false; the reasoning process contained in (2) is valid. The reason content is largely, but not completely, superfluous, and why truth is only initially, and not ultimately, unimportant is because the way to test whether a passage is valid is to first assume its premises are true and then question whether or not its conclusion follows necessarily from its premises. Although the premises in (1) are true, its conclusion does not necessarily follow from its premises. Therefore, the reasoning process contained within this passage is invalid. If we assume the premises in (2) are true, which is more challenging because they are false, the conclusion follows necessarily from its premises, and so its reasoning process is valid. Although it is more challenging to answer, the question of whether the reasoning process contained within a passage is valid is more immediately relevant, therefore, than that of whether the content of the passage is true or false.

Using letters to symbolize the terms in (1) and (2), we can divest both passages of content and so render them easier to evaluate in terms of validity:

                           All B are F.                                                                  All A are C.

                             W is an F.                                                                     U is an A.

                             W is a B.                                                                      U is a C.

If all A are C and U is an A, then it follows necessarily that U is a C. Such is the case regardless of whether the content of A, C, and U renders the statements in which they occur true or false. Similarly, if all B are F and W is an F, it does not necessarily follow that W is B, and such is again the case regardless of whether the content of B, F, and W renders the statements in which they occur true or false. In fact, at this point, we may not even know what these letters symbolize nor would we be able to evaluate their truth or falsity. Their validity can nevertheless be evaluated, and as long as it is substituted consistently, whatever content we insert, the reasoning process contained within passage (1) would still be invalid and that in (2) valid. Herein rests both the flexibility and the rigor of critical thinking.

As long as it evaluates the validity of the process of reasoning as well as the content contained within a given passage, one’s thinking is properly critical. Thus, in addition to being sufficiently rigorous when it evaluates the validity and not only the truth of one’s reasoning process, critical thinking enables us to substitute any discipline-specific content. As educational practitioners of critical thinking, we can enjoy the practical benefits of enabling our students to evaluate successfully the veracity of the discipline-specific content we teach as well as cultivate the critical rigor that results when the validity of a passage is properly evaluated.

That such rigor is precisely what enables the high level of intellectual flexibility we require so as to remain discipline-inclusive is a boon we are likely to discount. We need not. Recognizing that the process one uses to secure one’s results is more important than its results alone is a lesson we educators often forget, especially when we assess education in terms of results alone. The results are important, especially in our setting where the practicality associated with vocational and technical disciplines comes at a premium. As educators, we are understandably disheartened and rightfully concerned by poor results. But, the cognitional process whereby these results are achieved, especially given the intellectual flexibility this process, if rigorous, affords educators and students alike, should not be marginalized. Students who can properly engage in the process to evaluate validity as well as truth ultimately achieve better results than those who cannot because they possess the intellectual flexibility to evaluate properly the various passages they encounter.

We should not be surprised that college graduates often say their degree helped them get a job but did not properly prepare them to succeed in their position. Inasmuch as educators focus more on results than upon the process whereby positive as well as negative results are achieved, such will remain the case. It need not remain so. Educators must learn that employers tend not to be as troubled by mistakes as by the inability to properly engage in the self-correcting process whereby mistakes are corrected – the very same process whereby students, faculty, and administrators all progress, together and slowly, towards truth.

 

The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 20, No. 2 

Spring 2005