Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Rarely is the question asked: Is Our Children Actually Learning "Critical Thinking?"

A fascinating problem as limned by Justin P. McBrayer in a recent NYT op-ed:

Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts

George Washington, depicted here taking the oath of office in 1789, was the first president of the United States. Fact, opinion or both?
What would you say if you found out that our public schools were teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests? Would you be surprised?
I was. As a philosopher, I already knew that many college-aged students don’t believe in moral facts. While there are no national surveys quantifying this phenomenon, philosophy professors with whom I have spoken suggest that the overwhelming majority of college freshmen in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.

A misleading distinction between fact and opinion is embedded in the Common Core.
What I didn’t know was where this attitude came from. Given the presence of moral relativism in some academic circles, some people might naturally assume that philosophers themselves are to blame. But they aren’t. There are historical examples of philosophers who endorse a kind of moral relativism, dating back at least to Protagoras who declared that “man is the measure of all things,” and several who deny that there are any moral facts whatsoever. But such creatures are rare. Besides, if students are already showing up to college with this view of morality, it’s very unlikely that it’s the result of what professional philosophers are teaching. So where is the view coming from?
A few weeks ago, I learned that students are exposed to this sort of thinking well before crossing the threshold of higher education. When I went to visit my son’s second grade open house, I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read:
Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.
Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.
Hoping that this set of definitions was a one-off mistake, I went home and Googled “fact vs. opinion.” The definitions I found online were substantially the same as the one in my son’s classroom. As it turns out, the Common Core standards used by a majority of K-12 programs in the country require that students be able to “distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.” And the Common Core institute provides a helpful page full of links to definitions, lesson plans and quizzes to ensure that students can tell the difference between facts and opinions.
So what’s wrong with this distinction and how does it undermine the view that there are objective moral facts?
Students are taught that claims are either facts or opinions. They are given quizzes in which they must sort claims into one camp or the other but not both. But if a fact is something that is true and an opinion is something that is believed, then many claims will obviously be both. For example, I asked my son about this distinction after his open house. He confidently explained that facts were things that were true whereas opinions are things that are believed. We then had this conversation:
Me: “I believe that George Washington was the first president. Is that a fact or an opinion?”
Him: “It’s a fact.”
Me: “But I believe it, and you said that what someone believes is an opinion.”
Him: “Yeah, but it’s true.”
Me: “So it’s both a fact and an opinion?”
The blank stare on his face said it all.
As they say, read the whole thing.

[Crossposted at newreformclub.com.]


Jonathan Rowe said...

The insight is the very same as the beginning of Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind." I'm no expert philosopher, but I'm skeptical of the assertion that nihilism and moral relativism are rare creatures in philosophy departments.

I think it depends on what one means. If one doesn't believe in truth of either scripture or "essences" found in nature of "Aristotle's" sort (which I'd imagine is the vast majority of contemporary philosophers), one by necessity believes at the very least a soft kind of relativism.

That is one might agree "it's wrong to cheat on tests" or "to murder." But then try defending it on philosophical grounds. It will boil down to some kind of unproven and unprovable moral fact.

Jonathan Rowe said...

BTW, out of all of the "disciplines," I think the group who are the most enthusiastic relativists are anthropologists who see relativism as useful to their "disinterested" study of different cultures (which really isn't very "disinterested").

Anonymous said...

There's another tak treating McBrayer's article posted here.

JMS said...

Wow – A college philosophy professor tricks his second grade son with a semantic sleight-of-hand, and what are we supposed to conclude? This is a faulty and evidence-free argument.

After the son replied, “it’s a fact,” the father should have asked, “how do you know it’s a fact?” Then they could have moved on to how to verify objective facts via primary sources (archival documents), like when we at AC argue whether GW said “so help me God” or not as his inauguration. Then move on to “beliefs,” like was GW the best president of the United States, where again one would have to marshal a vast array of “facts” to support or refute that thesis.

Apparently Professor McBray cannot recognize a teachable moment with his own son, and instead makes all sorts of fact-free assertions (i.e., "beliefs”) about what is wrong with public school education leading our children to perdition.

Tom Van Dyke said...

That would be a fair comment if one reads only the excerpt here. But as they say, read the whole thing.


jimmiraybob said...

Can anyone spot where this starts jumping the rails? I’ve dissected and highlighted.

…the Common Core standards used by a majority of K-12 programs in the country require that students be able to “distinguish among

1) fact,
2) opinion, and
3) reasoned judgement

in a text. And the Common Core institute provides a helpful page full of links to definitions, lesson plans and quizzes to ensure that students can tell the difference between

1) facts and
2) opinions.”

A few sentences later:

But second, and worse, students are taught that claims are either

1) facts or
2) opinions.

Something seems to get dropped from the argument. I checked the Common Core institute helpful page and indeed it covers reasoned judgement. Seems relevant.

Regardless, he’s either making a secular philosophical case for objective facts, which is quite debatable within his profession, or he’s making an unstated case for religious moral objectivity, which is also debatable. Both are far more complex than would be expected to be on a second grade banner. It would be helpful if he were to make clear which direction he’s going.

It would also have been helpful for dad to have asked the teacher(s) how they handled this point in the classroom – possibly by teaching the differences between fact, opinion, and reasoned judgement.

Art Deco said...

Wow – A college philosophy professor tricks his second grade son with a semantic sleight-of-hand, and what are we supposed to conclude?

Well, what's the point of being a college philosophy professor?

What Fran Leibowitz said: she liked playing Scrabble with children because "they're easy to beat and fun to cheat".

Carole said...

jimmiraybob said: ...or he’s making an unstated case for religious moral objectivity...

I'd go with the religious case, judging by the article the professor linked to in the NYT. See Moral Relativism and the Crisis of Contemporary Education.

For me, the author jumped the rails in his "little test" by claiming that the following is a moral fact, not an opinion: — It is worth sacrificing some personal liberties to protect our country from terrorism.

Whatever else one can say about that statement (and I could say a lot), it can't stand up as a moral fact.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ask somebody who lives with terrorism as a way of life, say an Israeli.

To value abstract [and probably inconsequential] "liberties" over the lives of one's own children is moral imbecility.

The professor is quite correct.

jimmiraybob said...

Aside from the fact that, from a philosophical point of view, the existence of objective moral facts is debatable, the article is a mess on a lot of levels.

A minor quibble, E = MC2 is not a fact, it's a scientific theory. It started as an hypothesis and has been and will continue to be tested. It has tested well over time and is a strong theory. But, as such, it is still subject to modification or rejection. It's such a strong scientific theory that a physicist may use "fact" as a short hand term or to suggest the strength of the theory.

Then there's "As a philosopher, I already knew that many college-aged students don’t believe in moral facts." I am just a lowly pawn in game of life but I do happen to know, believe it to be true, hold it as an opinion and fact, that there are college-aged philosophy professors that don't believe in moral facts. he probably runs into this at meetings. It's complicated.

But more substantially, the professor goes from anecdote to generalization and draws a dubious conclusion - that's what shaky premises do.

The professor uses an anecdote involving a 2nd grade classroom, expresses concern over, what to him is, the failure of college freshmen to believe his view on moral facts. Again, debated in the adult philosophical community.

He then uses this to condemn Common Core. Well, kids in 2nd grade aren't yet equipped to handle the complexities and nuances of the philosophical concepts that he throws out. But, just maybe, these complexities and nuances are added to the educational mix in grades 3 through 12. This is why his case is flawed - insufficient data to support the conclusion.

Any one of the words in the phrase "objective moral fact" is worthy of in depth discussion. Maybe in some later grades in primary education, more likely in high school but certainly at the college level. It's complicated.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Objective moral fact" is simple, that there IS a right answer.

The point isn't whether A or B is the correct, objective answer, only that one or the other, not both, is correct.

IOW, the concept of "objective moral fact" rejects relativism, that what is immoral for you can be moral for me. The facile "well, everyone's entitled to their opinion" closes the door on moral reasoning and discussion, on even the possibility of moral truth.

And THAT is the problem.

See also


jimmiraybob said...

How does "one should not take a human life" fit into the objective moral fact scenario? If anything seems straight forward and fundamental this does. Is this an objective moral fact?

Tom Van Dyke said...

The proper formulation is "Thou shalt not murder."


I must confess I'm never sure whether persons like yourself are being insincere/clever/dishonest [sophistic] in how you phrase your challenges--as here--or if you're genuinely ignorant of the fact that the other side is neither dishonest nor ignorant.

Nor insincere. We must speak of the serious things seriously.


jimmiraybob said...

At this point I’m not on the attack or challenging anything. I’m not even trying to be clever at this point. At this point I’m trying to get a better insight into the natural law. Scott was very helpful in his replies to my questions in an earlier post and for that I thank him. I do reserve the right to disagree with him once I better understand the essence of what’s being argued. But, he provided information and insight that I find helpful.

As to my comments above, I wasn’t arguing for or against the idea of an ‘objective moral fact,’ although for full disclosure I am dubious, I was commenting on the merits of his op-ed. To that end, and since we’re on this path, let me ask…

If it’s not the taking of human life that’s immoral, is it doing so outside of the law that’s immoral? At least that’s how I understand murder to be defined.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The right to self-defense is a primary natural law, for instance. Killing in self-defense by definition, then, cannot be murder.

I have found this section from CS Lewis's The Abolition of Man helpful as a resource on natural law, which indeed does claim to be a compendium of "objective moral fact." McBrayer's essay argues that everything contained therein would be considered an "opinion," not a moral fact.