Philosophy, Critical Thinking, and community college

by Robert Gressis


I talked with Alberto Mendoza-Larreynaga (Adjunct Professor of philosophy at Antelope Valley College) about what it’s like to teach philosophy in a community college, as well as writing an ever-changing textbook addressed to community college students.

01:59​ The students at Antelope Valley College 08:06​ How do you teach students academic norms? 12:54​ What other problems bedevil community college students? 18:22​ How first-generation, STEM-majoring, community college students react to philosophy. 26:17​ Alberto’s research on getting students to relate more to critical thinking 33:03​ Rob probably accuses Alberto of hypocrisy 37:01​ Why Alberto is writing a critical thinking textbook: price and pedagogy 48:10​ What is critical thinking? 52:57​ Has teaching critical thinking made Alberto and Rob better critical thinkers?


  1. My dad had some college and ended up getting a degree after my brother and I but college seemed intimidating. I think many first generation college students come from families where basic necessities are high on the list of goals and so there is a focus on college as an avenue to make more money. Certainly when my brother and I went we were very interested in salary after graduation. I suspect many first generation college students would go into stem.

    I am not sure that would be a concern of mine with my kids as I just think we are sort of past that immediate need of food clothes and shelter. They can focus on what interests them more. In part it may just be that we are more distant in time from the great depression.

    I don’t understand why critical reasoning is not taught in high school. It seems k-12 rarely delves into philosophy. I understand there would be a concern that they not do a good job in it and the informal fallacies would be a particular concern. But those problem can be addressed.

    One thing that my philosophy teachers focused on was identifying premises (sometimes hidden premises/assumption) and conclusions of the author. The idea is once you can identify the premises and conclusion it is easier to analyze whether what they are saying is logical or illogical. The same would of course go for our own writing. I found I was doing this all the time by the time I finished my philosophy major and for several years thereafter. I considered a fluff piece one that just had a bunch of assertions. I think I still do that somewhat but it seems more subconsciously than consciously.

    1. Addendum:

      The research, such as it is, also suggests that the best way to immunize yourself against your own biases is to work your way into your interlocutor’s perspective. (I am fully aware of the hermeneutical circle that looms in these situations. But it looms everywhere. And it is best overcome in good-faith conversation.) This is why I favor the approach I do, the approach teaching students ask “What reading of the situation would lead this defeasibly reasonable person to think the considerations they have adduced support the conclusion they are recommending?” It also makes good on the oft-repeated claim that the humanities teaches students “new perspectives,” and it makes good on it by teaching them a proven technique for doing so.

  2. I too teach at a two-year college of largely job-holding first-generation students, and I too am working on a critical thinking textbook — one which, for philosophical reasons I do not want to broach, excludes discussion of symbolic logic. Here are some of my motivations for doing so:

    ​(1) Most of my students will not go on to become philosophy majors​, let alone take another philosophy course. Given such circumstances, and if there is a forced choice, I think it’s better for them to leave my class understanding one big adaptable thing rather than several little less adaptable things. The approach I favor equips students with a portable, memorable, adaptable model for understanding a wide range of workaday arguments and for diagnosing the different kinds of disagreements that can arise.

    ​(2) There are several intuitive ideas about critical thinking​ against which evidence has been piling up. An important one is that teaching students a checklist for making and evaluating arguments successfully mitigates against poor reasoning. The basic problem is the tenaciousness of the belief, in any given dialectical situation, that you yourself are not, in said situation, (susceptible to) committing any fallacies or exhibiting any biases — essentially that your perception of things, including your perception of your interlocutor’s argument, is more clear-eyed than that of your interlocutor. This persistent belief keeps you from reflecting on your reading of the situation, your reading of what your interlocutor is saying about the situation, and thus on the viability of your own assessment of the argument(s) in play. Checking or re-checking your argument or your interlocutor’s argument for true premises, proper form, fallacies, or biases does not help because it is simply another opportunity to further entrench your own interpretation. Nor does asking yourself, “Am I seeing things aright?” help, since it also provides an opportunity for your distortions to activate and prevail, including the distortion that you have immunized yourself from misreading simply because you have asked yourself this question. This leads to a host of dialectical problems, some more deep than others.

    The approach I favor teaches students to ask, “Why would a defeasibly reasonable person in this situation put forward this support for this conclusion?” or “What reading of the situation would lead this defeasibly reasonable person to think the considerations they have adduced support the conclusion they are recommending?” before they ask “Is this argument any good?” I teach students a technique for unearthing and reconstructing the reading of the situation that animates their interlocutor’s argument, where an argument is understood to be an emblem or synecdoche of a comprehensive and largely tacit reading of the situation.

    (3) The usual textbook does not provide the means for developing an articulate understanding of the concept of relevance. Understanding relevance is important because relevance is the standard in light of which premises are seen to be *irrelevant* in certain commissions of informal fallacies. According to the usual textbook, a premise is relevant when it “provides some support for its conclusion” or “provides some evidence that the conclusion is true.” Thus, the standard analysis relies on a mute intuition of the phenomenon we call “supporting” or “being-evidence-for.” But *what supporting amounts to* is precisely what we want our students to have an articulate understanding of, not something we want their understanding to rest mutely on, especially because many of the most important controversies grow out of disagreements about which considerations are relevant in the first place, not about whether mutually recognized relevant considerations collectively suffice to establish the conclusion on offer. The approach I favor provides a vocabulary for explaining what it is that “supporting” amounts to.

    I could go on, but I think this is enough to give you an idea of where I think the standard approach is deficient.

    1. Interesting take. I agree that philosophy and critical reasoning should consider what “evidence” is. What you call the standard definitions I believe are consistent with the Federal rule 401 of evidence which defines “relevant evidence” as:

      “‘Relevant evidence’ means evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.”

      It does seem that many arguments based on premises using informal fallacies can provide some “relevant evidence.” But I think pointing out the fallacy is important because it helps us assign weight to the argument.

      I remember reading a philosopher that said arguments can be evidence – which I think is correct. However in the law a strict distinction is often made between evidence and arguments.

      Ultimately in philosophy and ethics I think disagreements stem from starting assumptions/premises that may not have evidence to support them. I think someone can point out certain starting assumptions that a person would have to accept (or reject) for a position and that explanation may make the view seem more or less probable to the person. Even if it is not “evidence” in the legal sense. It does get pretty tricky.

      1. The approach I favor also reveals to students that disagreement cannot always be traced to disagreement about the truth value of some hidden but ultimately recoverable and articulable proposition.

        For example, failing to appreciate the relevance of a proposition in an argument is not a matter of failing to affirm a further proposition about the relevance of the first proposition. Appreciating relevance is closer to appreciating aesthetic properties than it is to affirming a proposition, and so remedying failures of appreciating relevance will have to take that into account.

        The lesson is that an argument is a tractable emblem of an entire way of seeing, or way of reading, and that even though an argument consists of articulable propositions, the way of seeing that animates the argument is not reducible to a set of grasped and affirmed propositions. The usual way of analyzing arguments promulgates the illusion that the cogency of argumentation derives *entirely* from the handful of propositions articulated and unhelpfully trains students to believe that disagreement can be overcome by simply finding that all-powerful proposition or two whose truth or falsity we simply have to convince our interlocutor to recognize.

        1. I do agree that how evidence is interpreted is in many ways similar to aesthetic appreciation than tracible to any particular other premise. I often think innumerable beliefs and dispositions play a role in how evidence is interpreted.

          I also agree that critical reasoning can create the illusion that all debates can be resolved by finding a faulty premise or illogical conclusion.

          However, I also think that critical reasoning and spelling out premises is a good way (and perhaps the best way) to try to think objectively about issues and spot biases. It is not a perfect tool but it is likely the best tool we have.

          1. “However, I also think that critical reasoning and spelling out premises is a good way (and perhaps the best way) to try to think objectively about issues and spot biases. It is not a perfect tool but it is likely the best tool we have.”

            Agreed. I would only insist as a reminder that there is wisdom in understanding the limits of one’s tool and distinguishing those contexts in which it can perform its function from those in which it cannot.

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