September 23, 2008

Critical thinking and cultural work

I have another hour or so of work to do before bed, out of a combination of weekend-long computer woes, an uncooperative body, scheduling near-misses, and a delayed plane. But as a result of Michael Bérubé's visit this week, I've been thinking about What's Liberal about the Liberal Arts? and his discussion of his classes. I know that his explicit intention is to show how a liberal professor can teach (and usually does teach) literature without using it as an excuse to propagandize, because the other issues swamp anything that might stem from a professor-as-policy-liberal as opposed to a professor-as-procedural-and-intellectual-liberal.

But there are a bunch of other things in there, and one of them is how classroom discussion is cultural work. A seminar discussion about The Rise of Silas Lapham involves a great deal of give and take between students and faculty and among students. I get the sense from reading Bérubé that he works very hard to engage students and push them to think, about the book and related ideas about literature and humanity.  And students work hard as well. I suppose somebody might say that they're engaged in critical thinking, but that's wrong on several levels. At one level, it's wrong from the perspective of cognitive psychologists who have tried but failed to identify the modules that are connected to this mysterious entity. That doesn't mean that there is no such thing as critical thinking but that it may not be what we think it is, or we have to look at it differently. 

So, back to the students who are struggling to grasp what a Penn State English professor is saying. He's pushing them to examine the implications of Silas's ethical choices, force them (the students, readers) to decide what's right and wrong, to make connections. And they begin to (or so MB describes, and I have no reason to doubt his account). It's not a brilliant eureka moment that stems from cognitive growth, or at least not in any coherent sense that my friends the cognitivists can point to. But there is something going on, in the classroom space that has discussion, open questions, leading questions, pushy questions, pushback, and occasionally silence. Hundreds of thousands of students go through that process each semester; they may not go through it with Silas, and their epiphanies may not be original except to them and their classmates, but in the type of classroom that I hope all of us experience at least once, they do a type of work that can only happen in or with groups: cultural work.

Yeah, yeah, Peter McLaren wrote that a few decades ago, I know: the classroom is a performance space. But I mean something a bit deeper and more problematic: some of the best opportunities for cultural work is in a functional, engaging classroom. For a whole variety of reasons I won't go into detail about, beyond cognitive psychology, I am very skeptical of broad generalized claims about critical thinking when posed as a cognitive-psychology question. Usually, that turns the college curriculum into a sort of faculty-psychology jungle gym, much as the 1824 Yale Report claimed in its defense of a curriculum. But there is stuff going on in a good liberal-arts classroom, and that's inherently hard to capture because cultural work can simultaneously be local and universal, even at the mundane level of the individual, personalized classroom discussions that are going on about Moby Dick this fall, not at one university but at hundreds. To put it in a concrete sense, there are probably hundreds of students in different high schools, colleges, and universities who are talking this week about the fact that "The Cassock" (chapter 95, I think) is about the disposal/use of the whale's penis and foreskin, either giggling or being taken aback at it. Widepsread, but very personal and local. 

I think this cultural work is what distinguishes a liberal-arts college from lots of other educational experiences. I think it is why the Amethyst Initiative signatories are disproportionately from liberal-arts colleges: Despite the research suggesting how the 21 age threshold for alcohol saves lives, and in addition to the legal/political liability issues, liberal-arts college presidents are less devoted to a certain definition of "cognitive thinking" than to a common sense that college is for discursive, social learning. 

I have still been unable to find a work by an anthropologist of education who studies the type of cultural work that happens in college seminars. So maybe instead of hoping that an anthropologist of education takes this up, I'll issue a challenge instead to cognitive psychologists: surely you can do better than my social-science history-ish writing in capturing the cultural work that happens inside seminar classes, of finding more specific and narrow stuff rather than the global claims of "critical thinking" might suggest.

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Posted in Higher education on September 23, 2008 12:35 AM |