English 205 • Critical ThinkingMendocino College, Ukiah, CAInstructor: Molly Dwyer, PhD

What is Critical Thinking?

Critical Thinking is the process by which we develop and support our beliefs, and evaluate the strength of arguments made by others in real-life situations. This semester we will practice some of the most central and important skills of critical thinking, and focus on applying those strategies to understanding current issues, belief systems, and ethical positions. Among other things, we will analyze media, the current political environment, and our own beliefs and moral inclinations.

How Good are Your Critical Thinking Skills? Although the concept of Critical Thinking goes back to Socrates and his Socratic Method in 400 B.C.E., many educators have relied on memorization and recall to assess student learning. Because memorization is easier to teach and test than critical thinking, it has crept into the assessments of many school districts over the years. In general, even college students aren't mastering Critical Thinking skills. Critical thinking is a challenge because it includes a complex combination of skills, and is interdisciplinary

Critical Thinking involves two distinct processes: 1) analysis, which is how we come to understand an argument; and 2) criticism, which is the way we evaluate the truth and soundness of an argument.

Thoughts on Thinking
"Thinking is not a natural process of the human consciousness. You may say, Sure it is. Everybody thinks. I have news for you: very few people think. Most people react and then pass that off as thinking. Thinking is the cause of things. Reaction is the effect.

How often are you actually thinking, and how often are you reacting? You are probably reacting about 90 percent of the time. For the most part, you are reacting either to your previous reactions or to someone else's reactions. It's a long chain of effect and effect and effect. It's like dominoes: you hit one and they all go." — John-Roger, The Power Within You

Strong thinking skills include:

  1. The ability to summarize. You should be able to summarize the main points and pivotal issues of the material covered and explain why they are important. You should be able to tell the difference between facts and inferences.
  2. The ability to consider context. Context influences ethical relationships and assumptions. Understanding the influences within a problem is critical to a fully understanding it. You should be able to see the "big picture."
  3. The ability to come up with your own theories. You should be able to develop your own perspective of course materials, and be able to justify your position and recognize what bias you might be bringing to the conversation.
  4. The ability to see alternate perspectives and their implications. You should be able to look outside the material and outside your own perspective. Good critical thinking skills make a reasonable argument for the opposing view point possible.
  5. The ability to develop reasonable conclusions. You should be able to make logical conclusions from the information you have available.

Critical Thinking, An Introduction

Thinking critically can be developed and improved by:
1) Becoming aware of the thinking process
2) Carefully examining the thinking process
3) Practicing the thinking process.
(Thinking Critically, by John Chaffee).

This wiki is designed to assist in all three of those efforts. The content on the various pages is meant to stimulate your understanding of your own thinking process. It provides everything from current events and cultural phenomena, to pages meant to assist you in understanding perception and how the brain processes information. All content is intended to evoke thinking and reflection. Like many in the field of critical thinking, I am convinced thinking improves when we pay attention.

I see the brain as a muscle to be exercised, nurtured, and challenged. Like the ability to play a sport well, the ability to think well arises from effort, invested attention, and practice. Natural ability is only one small part of the equation. As any good athlete will tell you, heart and training make all the difference. It is my hope that by the end of the semester, everyone taking this course will care more about thinking (and thinking well) then they did upon entering the class. Everything you need to know to complete this course is explained in the course syllabus.

Author and CEO, Margaret Heffernan explains how good disagreement is central to progress. Most people instinctively avoid conflict, but as Ms. Heffernan illustrates, sometimes the best working partners aren't echo chambers. Great research teams, relationships, and businesses that allow people to disagree, generally accomplish much more than those who don't. Learning to engage in "good" disagreement is a key critical thinking skill.
What are willing to defend?

It Takes Thought to be Funny

"An argument, in Critical Thinking, is not just a conversation in which two people hurl abuse at each other. Neither is it the same thing as straightforward disagreement; there’s a difference between arguing with someone and merely contradicting them. As Monty Python’s Argument Clinic sketch puts it, an argument is “a collected series of statements to establish a definite proposition,” an attempt to persuade by offering reasons. Any statement that attempts to persuade you that something is true by offering at least one reason for thinking that it is so counts as an argument." (From

Laughter.jpgThe First Joke: Exploring the Evolutionary Origins of Humor

By Joseph Polimeni and Jeffrey P. Reiss, Department of Psychiatry, University of Manitoba, Manitoba, Canada
(Here are a few ideas drawn from their paper on humor.)

Given that even a simple joke can utilize language skills, theory of mind, symbolism, abstract thinking and social perception, humor may arguably be humankind's most complex cognitive attribute. Despite its complexity, humor is also paradoxically reflexive – people typically laugh without consciously appreciating all the causal factors. Whether something is funny or not is often dependent on nuanced verbal phrasing in combination with a full appreciation of prevailing social dynamics. Humor generally contains two incongruous elements; one element is socially normal while the other constitutes a violation of the “subjective moral order.” (Moral order is defined as the "rich cognitive and emotional system of opinions about the proper order of the social and natural world.")

Humor is complex and dependent on a myriad of subjective associations. Unlike any other animal, only humans seem to fully possess the cognitive machinations necessary for humor. The use of rich complex symbols within the framework of a universal syntactical structure, in combination with a high-powered working memory invariably leads to intricate conceptualizations. This ability — to quickly manipulate multifaceted symbols in the service of even more intricate conceptualizations — may be an essential distinguishing feature of homo sapiens.

A Few Resources:

What is Critical Thinking
Monty Python: Critical Thinking
TED Talks