ERIC Identifier: ED284275
Publication Date: 1987-00-00
Author: Lazere, Donald
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading and Communication Skills Urbana IL.
Critical Thinking in College English Studies. ERIC Digest.
A key event in the phenomenal growth of the critical thinking movement in
American higher education was Chancellor Glenn Dumke's Executive Order 338
(1980) announcing the requirement of formal instruction in critical thinking
throughout the nineteen California State University campuses, serving some
300,000 students. Similar requirements quickly followed in California community
colleges and high schools.
The pertinent section of Executive Order 338 reads as follows:
"Instruction in critical thinking is to be designed to achieve an
understanding of the relationship of language to logic, which should lead to the
ability to analyze, criticize, and advocate ideas, to reason inductively and
deductively, and to reach factual or judgmental conclusions based on sound
inferences drawn from unambiguous statements of knowledge or belief. The minimal
competence to be expected at the successful conclusion of instruction in
critical thinking should be the ability to distinguish fact from judgment,
belief from knowledge, and skills in elementary inductive and deductive
processes, including an understanding of the formal and informal fallacies of
language and thought."
In California and elsewhere, college-level critical thinking instruction has
largely been assumed to be the realm of philosophy departments. Within the
discipline of philosophy, however, the critical thinking movement has turned
from an emphasis on formal logic and linguistic analysis, and toward informal
logic, or the application of principles of reasoning to everyday situations. The
movement has also seen a growing attention to the mental attitudes and emotional
"dispositions" that foster or impede critical thinking within the broader
context of psychological, cultural, social, and political influences. This
changing emphasis within philosophy has promoted interdisciplinary coordination
of critical thinking studies with English and rhetoric along with many other
fields--preeminently developmental psychology.
The stage-developmental schemas of psychologists like Piaget, Kohlberg,
Gilligan, Perry, and Bloom have suggested supplementary criteria of critical
thinking. (Applications of such criteria have been somewhat speculative and
disputable to date, to be sure, as are stage-developmental theories in general.)
These criteria include the ability to reason back and forth between the concrete
and the abstract, the personal and the impersonal, the literal and the
hypothetical or figurative; facility in perceiving irony, ambiguity, and
multiplicity of meanings or points of view; and the development of
openmindedness, reciprocity (Piaget's term for ability to empathize with other
individuals, social groups, ideologies, etc.); and autonomous thought.
CRITICAL THINKING IN COMPOSITION STUDIES
The incorporation of developmental psychology into critical thinking studies
converges with its recent incorporation into composition research and
instruction. Several reports of the National Assessment of Educational Progress
have indicated that student writers' main weakness occurs in the progression
from narrative and descriptive modes to modes directly requiring critical
thinking--analysis, synthesis, argumentation, and evaluation of sources and
ideas. Researchers in collegiate basic writing have addressed problems impeding
this progression and have explored pedagogical strategies for overcoming them.
Shaughnessy's seminal ERRORS AND EXPECTATIONS not only pinpointed some of
these cognitive impediments but also identified elements that can be considered
prerequisites to critical thinking. These include the ability to concentrate, to
retain material studies, to sustain an extended line of reasoning in reading or
writing, and to reason back and forth among the past, present, and future.
Shaughnessy further delineated students' difficulties with "the vocabulary of
general literacy" (l977, 2l6-22l), her term for the codes of academic discourse
which encompass the language both of critical thinking and of what Hirsch has
called "cultural literacy." Lunsford (l980), in "The Content of Basic Writers'
Essays," explicitly applied Piaget and Kohlberg to the designing and evaluation
of writing assignments fostering development from egocentric to reciprocal and
from conventional to autonomous moral reasoning.
Composition textbooks and courses can best incorporate critical thinking--and
in some cases have done so--not only in units on logic and persuasion, but in
those in diction and semantics, tone, audience, and writing from sources.
Several recent textbooks are expressly devoted to logic in writing, while a
growing number of others combine this approach with critical reading. There is
some indication that rhetorics and anthologies are moving away from a structure
based on modes of exposition toward a developmental sequence of modes of
reasoning designed to build critical thinking skills. Sternglass (l983) and
Kytle (l986) have written textbooks and Olson (l984) and Lazere (l986) have
published course descriptions structured in this way.
Kytle's CLEAR THINKING FOR COMPOSITION, first published nearly twenty years
ago, anticipated the current emphasis on attitudes or dispositions in critical
thinking instruction. Its chapter "Blocks to Logical Thinking" considers
culturally conditioned assumptions, prejudice, ethnocentrism, primary certitude
(absolutism), authoritarianism, and unconcretized abstractions. Other
forerunners emphasizing psychological dispositions include Altick, whose PREFACE
TO CRITICAL READING first appeared in l946, and Hayakawa, whose LANGUAGE IN
THOUGHT AND ACTION was first published in l94l. Hayakawa's general semantics
approach has been perpetuated by the journal ET CETERA, especially under Neil
Postman's editorship, and the NCTE Committee on Public Doublespeak.
A political approach to critical thinking in composition courses is provided
in teachers' guides by Shor (l980) and Lazere (l986). This approach generates
writing assignments out of Frankfurt School critical theory, emphasizing
critical consciousness toward mass culture, and out of Paulo Freire's notion of
CRITICAL THINKING IN LITERARY STUDIES
A strong case can be made that literature--properly reunified with rhetoric
and composition--is the single academic discipline that can come closest to
encompassing the full range of mental traits currently considered to comprise
critical thinking. The mental dispositions increasingly emphasized within
critical thinking circles have a familiar ring to teachers of literature and
literary criticism--the capacities: to unify and make connections in one's
experience; to follow an extended line of thought through propositional,
thematic, or symbolic development; to engage in mature moral reasoning and to
form judgments of quality and taste; to be attuned to skepticism and irony; and
to be perceptive of ambiguity, relativity of viewpoint, and multiple dimensions
of form and meaning (literal and figurative language, syntactic and structural
Paul (cited in Walsh and Paul, l985, ll-l2) asserts that a setting that
facilitates the exchange of free dialogue between opposing views is essential to
any authentic exercise of critical thinking. The tradition of humanistic and
creative literature is preeminently a tradition of dialogue from Socrates and
Greek tragedy to Albert Camus's "civilization of dialogue." Every great work of
literature engages the reader in critical dialogue with its author, language,
and characters, and in the dynamic interaction that Emerson characterized as MAN
Moreover, a growing body of research in both English and psychology strongly
indicates that neither critical thinking nor cognitive development can
effectively advance except in dialectical interaction with a substantial body of
domain-specific knowledge (see McPeck, l98l; Hirsch, l987). Clearly, that
particular body of knowledge contained in literature, in its broad sense of
humanistic "letters," is eminently congenial in its subject matter and in the
qualities of mind it reflects, to the essential traits of critical thinking.
Nearly every other discipline has come forth to claim that it too has been
fostering critical thinking all along, but in none of these is the very concept
of "criticism" central as it is in literature.
No more powerful case could present itself to persuade the public of the
value of reemphasizing the study of literature at all levels. Ironically,
however, although many courses, textbooks, and research projects have emerged in
composition for critical thinking, there are very few to date in literature.
(Scholars, including Kohlberg, l98l; Gilligan, l982; Meyers, l986; and
Bergstrom, l983, have applied principles of cognitive development to the study
of literary works.) What is called for is perhaps no more than a minimal
rethinking of the discipline to bring the tacit component of critical thinking
in literary study to the surface. The explicit effort to make critical thinking
the primary reason for being of literary scholarship might well provide the
rejuvenating force the profession has long been missing.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Altick, Richard D.; and Andrea Lunsford. PREFACE TO CRITICAL READING. 6th ed.
New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, l984.
Bergstrom, Robert F. "Discovery of Meaning: Development of Formal Thought in
the Teaching of Literature." COLLEGE ENGLISH 45 (l983): 745-755.
Bloom, Benjamin S., ed. TAXONOMY OF EDUCATIONAL OBJECTIVES: COGNITIVE
DOMAIN/AFFECTIVE DOMAIN. New York: David McKay Company, l956.
Dumke, Glenn. "Chancellor's Executive Order 338." Long Beach: Chancellor's
Office, California State University, l980.
Gilligan, Carol. IN A DIFFERENT VOICE: PSYCHOLOGICAL THEORY AND WOMEN'S
DEVELOPMENT. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, l982.
Hayakawa, S.I. LANGUAGE IN THOUGHT AND ACTION. 3d ed. New York: Harcourt
Brace Jovanovich, l972.
Hirsch, E.D., Jr. CULTURAL LITERACY: WHAT EVERY AMERICAN NEEDS TO KNOW. New
York: Houghton Mifflin, l987.
Kohlberg, Lawrence. ESSAYS ON MORAL DEVELOPMENT: VOLUME l, THE PHILOSOPHY OF
MORAL DEVELOPMENT. San Francisco: Harper and Row, l98l.
Kytle, Ray. CLEAR THINKING FOR COMPOSITION. 5th ed. New York: Random House,
Lazere, Donald. COMPOSITION FOR CRITICAL THINKING: A COURSE DESCRIPTION.
Rohnert Park, CA: Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique, Sonoma State
University, l986. ED 273 959.
Lunsford, Andrea. "The Content of Basic Writers' Essays." COLLEGE COMPOSITION
AND COMMUNICATION 3l (l980): 278-290.
McPeck, John. CRITICAL THINKING AND EDUCATION. New York: St. Martin's, l98l.
Meyers, Chet. TEACHING STUDENTS TO THINK CRITICALLY. San Francisco:
Olson, Carol Booth. "Fostering Critical Thinking Skills Through Writing."
EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP (l984): 28-39.
Perry, William. FORMS OF INTELLECTUAL AND ETHICAL DEVELOPMENT IN THE COLLEGE
YEARS. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, l970.
Piaget, Jean. THE LANGUAGE AND THOUGHT OF THE CHILD. New York: New American
Shaughnessy, Mina P. ERRORS AND EXPECTATIONS--A GUIDE FOR THE TEACHER OF
BASIC WRITING. New York: Oxford University Press, l977.
Shor, Ira. CRITICAL TEACHING AND EVERYDAY LIFE. Boston: South End Press,
l980. ED l83 094.
Sternglass, Marilyn S. READING, WRITING, AND REASONING. New York: Macmillan
Publishing Co., Inc., l983.
Walsh, Debbie; and Richard Paul. THE GOALS OF CRITICAL THINKING: FROM
EDUCATIONAL IDEAL TO EDUCATIONAL REALITY. Washington, DC: Educational Issues
Department, American Federation of Teachers, l985.