Monday, January 28, 2008

One of Our Readers Puts Aside Sunday Dinner In Order to Offer Phil a Little Critical Reading. How's This For Rigor, Punk?

Ordinarily I don't offer my help in teaching and evaluating critical thinking skills unless I'm being paid, but I'm feeling generous today, and have marked up Pocket Protector Phil's latest submission free of charge.

  • Engineering curriculums are necessarily difficult and rigorous.
This seems to me a non-sequitur: the argument you're responding to is not about the validity of engineering curriculums, it's about the unwillingness of engineering students to do the work required in humanities courses.
  • It is not unheard of for an English literature class, where they should be discussing Shakespeare or Milton, to consist of a special snowflake professor ranting against the current administration.

This sort of innuendo-laced statement ("it is not unheard of") amounts to saying very little. Across the many universities in the US, few things are unheard of. It is not unheard of for a math class to consist of a heavily intoxicated professor harassing his female students. Without evidence about how often this happens your statement says nothing.
  • a typical general education humanities class could be safely replaced with a course on logic from the philosophy department or a discrete math class from the math or computer science departments.
This sentence needs to be unpacked - discrete math's relevance to critical thinking is its covering of certain methods of proof and symbolic logic. But that is a very different use of logic and reasoning than is used in day to day life. You might have a look at Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach for a very interesting discussion of the ways in which formal systems of reasoning do and don't scale. He's a computer scientist at IU-Bloomington. I'm actually teaching it this week.

  • These classes provide the students with the tools of logic that English and History classes fail to deliver.
I'm not sure that it's any more reasonable to call the lack of symbolic logic in a history class a "failure" than it is to call the lack of Shakespeare in an engineering class failure - failure implies not accomplishing what you set out to do.
  • As far as engineers failing to learn how to write, I think that they would be better served with a good technical writing class than an English literature class.
This paragraph makes a lot of assumptions about what sort of writing engineers should be expected to be proficient at that should probably be unpacked and looked at carefully. Is the need for engineers to be able to write technical documents equivalent to a lack of need for them to understand the rhetorical structure of an argument?

  • they should stop teaching classes on post-modernism, pornography, and popular novels, and instead teach classes on Aristotle, Milton, Descartes, and other great thinkers.
Your parallelism breaks down here - the alliteration of the first list does not mesh well with the second, and it's unclear why the two lists are in the order they are: why is Milton a particularly logical replacement for pornography? What does pornography do that Milton does better? This also does not seem to follow from your past arguments: is the purpose of a humanities department to teach critical thinking skills, or to teach a body of great works and thinkers?

  • Aristotle's poetics is still the best guide to analyzing literature available,
With over 2300 years of literary analysis since the Poetics, this is a very broad claim to make without evidence. Also, Poetics is a title and should be both capitalized and italicized.

In short, your post, though spirited, seems to recycle overly generalized and cliched broadsides against the humanities without any thorough use of evidence. Were it submitted to one of my classes that studies post-modernism and popular culture (I cut the pornography this semester) it would get a C if I were feeling generous.