Do we really only need to teach rhetoric and critical thinking?

Kevin Drum has a query up asking his readers to recommend a good education blog. I’d like to find one or two good edublogs myself, but more interestingly, the thread was hijacked by a debate about whether all we need to teach the kids these days is rhetoric and critical thinking — since math, science, technology, and all that other boring stuff is so easy that they’ll just pick that up on their own.

I’m all in favor of teaching rhetoric and critical thinking (which I’ll henceforth abbreviate as RCT), but I do have a question: what about the RCT of math and science? The implication in saying that all you need to learn is RCT, to the exclusion of “hard science,” is that RCT is not a part of those fields.

I suppose the response to that is that RCT is a part of science, but by teaching RCT in isolation, you’re preparing people to learn science — you’re giving them the basics they’ll need to figure it out for themselves. This strikes me as the rantings of someone who’s delved no more than cursorily into hard sciences. To take my own example, I’m someone who’s been well trained in RCT: I have a master’s in English, specializing in rhetoric and composition. So I should have no problem critically analyzing any scientific argument, right?

Now, I do manage to read and analyze psychology journal articles for Cognitive Daily, but I’ve got an unfair advantage. In addition to my RCT training, I also have a master’s in science education, and my wife is a psychology professor. Not only can I ask her whenever I’m perplexed by a statistical analysis or method, I’ve had the benefit of talking with her about her own teaching and research for the past 17 years (not to mention proofreading every journal article she’s written). That’s got to be worth at least a master’s in psychology.

There is absolutely no way, with my training, that I could produce a Physics Daily, or a Chemistry Daily — and I seriously doubt I could even manage a Biology Daily. In fact, there’s no way I could produce Cognitive Daily without Greta. She points me to good articles, writes some of the posts, offers both moral and technical support, and fixes my goof-ups. For all my RCT training, and for all the reading I’ve now done on my own, I’m competent, but nowhere near an expert in cognitive psychology.

Take yesterday’s article, for example. I was ready to make a strong argument that Evans and Saint-Aubin were overstating their case — surely, since reading to kids improves vocabulary, it also improves literacy. Greta pointed out to me that a lay person might see it that way, but in psychology research, literacy and language ability are two separate fields. This specific scientific knowledge changed my understanding of Evans and Saint-Aubin’s rhetoric. RCT skills alone weren’t enough — I couldn’t have successfully understood the article without scientific knowledge as well.

The inevitable reply to that is that the Average Person doesn’t need to know how to produce Cognitive Daily, or Physics Daily, or whatever — they just need to know how to do their jobs, and how to be good citizens. Armed with the tools of rhetoric and critical thinking, good citizens can suss out pseudoscience and elect good leaders.

So is that what happened in Kansas: it’s not that the people of Kansas elected a bunch of idiots to run their school board because they aren’t educated in science, but rather because they haven’t gotten enough RCT training? Here, I think, is where we get to the heart of the matter. The “Intelligent Design” community has plenty of RCT training — they’re masters at manipulating public opinion, and they realize that without a basic general public understanding of science, they can patch together a support base of religious zealots and the generally ignorant.

Perhaps it’s true that if the general public had a better RCT background, they’d realize what a bunch of hooey the IDers are peddling. Somehow, however, I think if the general public had a better grasp of biology, there’d be an even better chance of getting these wackos out of office.

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2 Responses to Do we really only need to teach rhetoric and critical thinking?

  1. Anne says:

    Very nicely done. Bravo.

  2. Pingback: Thinking about thinking | dynamismtheideal

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