Sunday, January 8, 2017

Handout CR1: Brief Essay Desribing the CRITO Method

"Critical Thinking and the Argumentative Essay"
DKJ, 2001
National Critical Thinking Conference
Atlanta, GA

It has always been my nature never to accept advice from any of my friends unless reflection shows that it is the best course that reason offers.  ---- Socrates, in Crito

In this brief essay I introduce a writing technique (CRITO) easily adaptable to any discipline whose curriculum includes formal writing in which the student makes and supports substantive claims (the so-called "argumentative" or "evaluative" essay). Following the philosopher Harvey Siegel, I begin with the idea that a critical thinker is one who is appropriately moved by reasons. This characterization of critical thinking combines a reason assessment component (the principled assessment of reasons and their ability to warrant beliefs, claims, and actions; that is, the domain of arguments) and a critical attitude component (the disposition to engage in principled reason assessment). It follows that the fully critical thinker is both able and disposed to engage in principled reason assessment:

"Such a person habitually seeks evidence and reasons, and is predisposed so to seek -- and to base belief and action on the results of such seeking. She applies the skills and abilities of reason assessment in all appropriate contexts, including those contexts in which her own beliefs and actions are challenged (emphasis mine)." (H. Siegel, Educating Reason, p. 32)

As the final line of this passage suggests, the critical temper is often least spontaneous as we confront our most basic prejudices or deeply held convictions. In these situations, to paraphrase Siegel, we may possess the ability, but not the disposition, to assess critically certain of our beliefs or claims.

CRITO (formed acronymically from the logical terms Conclusion, Reasons, Inference, Truth, and Objections) addresses both the principled reason assessment and critical attitude components of critical thinking. The technique requires students to assess critically (carefully, impartially, consistently) the validity (or strength) of their own inferences, the truth of reasons supplied in defense of conclusions, and, finally, the soundness (or cogency) of those inferences. I claim no originality for the individual elements of CRITO, which simply mirror (in C, R, I, and T) the essential components of any cogent (inductive) or sound (deductive) inference and, not surprisingly, provide an effective outline for (or first draft of) an argumentative or evaluative essay. Although I have chosen to describe its components in the language of formal logic, CRITO requires only a general understanding of the nature of rational argumentation.

C: First, each student must identify clearly the central claim or conclusion (C) he or she hopes to defend. The central claim of an argumentative essay ought to be straightforward, singular, substantive (non-tautological and the object of possible or actual debate), ostensibly defensible, and of genuine interest to the student. (C) is often tentative, in the sense that the student is aware that it is potentially criticizable and open to revision. This first step in producing an argumentative essay – deciding exactly what to write about -- is perhaps the most important. I have devised, therefore, a separate technique (“STEP-I,” an acronym formed from five stages of “C” production – selecting a topic of interest and ensuring its truthfulness, explicitness, particularity, and importance) to help students think critically about choosing and refining the central claims of their essays.

R: Second, (C) requires for its defense a set of premises or reasons (R). Logic demands only that each argument has at least one premise, though the number ought to be sufficient to convince the reader of the truth (accuracy, reasonableness, and so on) of (C).

I: Third, the student must assess the inference (I), or logical connection between (R) and (C), to ensure that the reasons are sufficient to produce (C), either with some degree of probability (inductively) or with certainty (deductively). In less formal terms, this step determines the validity (or, with induction, the strength) of the inference, since an argument can fail despite all of its parts being true (as one might try to defend a true conclusion with irrelevant premises). Failing the (I) test, the student must add to or qualify the existing reasons and conclusion to produce a new argument.

T: Fourth, the student must assess the truth (T) of the reasons, since even a valid or strong argument (that is, a valid or strong argument that passes the (I) test) may contain any number of false parts. The student must replace or refine false premises. Only the best (deductively sound or inductively cogent) arguments will pass both the (I) and the (T) tests.

O: Fifth, the student must construct the strongest imaginable objection(s) (O) to the argument, testing further its ability to withstand critical scrutiny. This is, perhaps, the most difficult stage of CRITO, for it sanctions a potentially unsettling fallibilism; that is, it asks the student to imagine that his or her considered judgments remain susceptible to revision. Finally, the student should respond to the objection(s), adjusting the original argument as necessary.

Since its original publication, CRITO has assisted secondary and post-secondary instructors' efforts to teach philosophy, music, sociology, mathematics, and English composition. While the method has naturally evolved to suit individual teaching styles and pedagogical concerns, several core skills remain invariant across all applications, including CRITO's basic attention to the adequacy of reasons and the process of reasoning itself, the notion of authorial fallibility, the refinement of students' own pre-critical views, and the development of the habit or disposition systematically to question such views.

I will close with three general comments on the method. First, despite its somewhat formulaic appearance, CRITO (together with its complement, STEP-I) merely provides well-placed and potentially rewarding prompts for student activity and reflection. Like other critical thinking techniques, CRITO does not guarantee, but only promotes and directs, critical thought and behavior. It is no routine or easy task, however, to accept even partially CRITO's challenge to engage in principled reason assessment or, especially, to construct and consider nontrivial objections to one's current beliefs.

Second, CRITO presents an opportunity to have these challenges to the students' considered judgments issue, not from the instructor, but from the students themselves, as they learn to apply general rules of good reasoning to their own beliefs and arguments. As an affective strategy, the impersonal, seemingly objective, nature of CRITO's demands may help to provide the emotional space in which students can accept and learn from nontrivial challenges to their most basic assumptions.

Finally, in addition to its obvious value for both "writing-to-learn" and "learning-to-write" programs, CRITO is compatible with most forms of collaborative learning. Small group work, especially pairs , in which students alternate between presenting their work and listening to and commenting critically on another student's work, can facilitate each successive stage of principled reason (and objection) assessment.

(A longer version of this essay, co-authored by Matt Silliman and published in Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum, 17, 4, is available in my office or the library.)