Academic journal article JCT (Online)

Destabilizing Curriculum History: A Genealogy of Critical Thinking

Academic journal article JCT (Online)

Destabilizing Curriculum History: A Genealogy of Critical Thinking

Article excerpt

In the specialized areas of erudition as in the disqualified, popular knowledge there lay the memory of hostile encounters which even up to this day have been confined to the margins of knowledge. [...] Let us give the term genealogy to the union of erudite knowledge and local memories which allows us to establish a historical knowledge of struggles and to make use of this knowledge tactically today.

(Foucault, 1980, p. 83).

SIMON FRASER UNIVERSITY (SFU) IN VANCOUVER, CANADA admits approximately 7,500 new students annually; of these, over 1000 students enroll in a first-year philosophy course in critical thinking (Coarse section enrolment report, 2012). While this course is one of the largest within this institution, it is offered in one of the smallest departments. Importantly, Philosophy XXI, entitled Critical Thinking, is not considered an introduction-to-philosophy course; rather, it is intended to be disciplinary neutral, for students not necessarily pursing a philosophy degree. While standard course credit is granted for successful completion, the class is not given numerical merit, and has simply been designated XXI. As the Spring 2012 course outline reads, the subject of critical thinking within this course involves teaching the "fundamental aim of being a responsible thinker, consumer and citizen" and "the ability to efficiently and accurately distinguish truth claims from false ones." Similarly, the Summer 2012 course outline explains Phil XXI as "a practical course, a course in applied logic" that will help students become better readers, listeners, writers, and speakers through providing "tools" that are needed in order to pursue academic interests and goals, and "fulfill" the "capacity to be rational."

This mandate to make a student a critical thinker is linked closely to its legitimation within curriculum, and the institutional impetus to create critical students. It is a formulation that can work to efface the actual, contentious history of critical thinking at SFU, and thus a reconsideration of this taken-for-granted assumption of critical thinking-a contextualization of the ostensibly decontextualized curriculum-is needed. How has this description of critical thinking reached its contemporary manifestation? How do we chart its life course within the operations of SFU's curriculum? These questions form the crux of this paper.

Contemporary critical-thinking courses within the discipline of Philosophy have been highly influenced by what O'Donnell (2006) describes as a classical model of rationality. Phil XXI is not an exception, covering subjects such as argumentative structure, argument reconstruction and evaluation, truth tables, and fallacy detection. Critical thinking, as an application of rationally derived concepts, involves recognizing faulty arguments, truth claims, generalizations, obscure concepts, missing evidence, and learning an epistemological framework containing reliable procedures of inquiry (Burbules & Berk, 1999; Ennis, 1987; Siegel, 1988). As prominent critical-thinking scholar Richard Paul (1990a) argues, individuals need to learn "the art of explicating, analyzing, and assessing" arguments, an essential skill "to leading an examined life" (p. 66). In what Barnett (1997) describes as "one of the defining concepts of the Western University" (p. 3), critical thinking has come to be broadly emphasised as an essential learning outcome, objective, and skill (Moore, 2011; Stassen, Herrington & Henderson, 2011).

Critiques of critical thinking based on the conceptual framework of rationality have been levied from various perspectives. John McPeck (1990, 1994) argues that critical thinking, as something conceived as untethered to a specific object or subject, presumes that what constitutes an effective thinker transcends context. Forming what McPeck terms a "trivial pursuit" theory of knowledge, critical thinking understood in this way rests on the belief that knowledge is something that is unambiguous and noncontroversial, simply formed into discrete and factual information. …

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