Thursday, March 8, 2018

The fallacy of the course again

I wrote about the fallacy of the course here. Since I have several posts drafted but never seem to get around to finishing and posting them, I may as well revisit the idea. In a nutshell, where it probably belongs, the fallacy is to think that requiring students to take a course will give them some significant, life-enhancing skill. Put like that it doesn't sound so fallacious, perhaps, but here's an example from the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Students in every major are well advised to take a class or two in improvisational acting, creative writing, or drawing. Being proficient at writing code or any other technical skill will take you only so far in an evolving labor market.
Without creativity, good luck not being replaced by a less costly alternative.
See the problem? A class or two in drawing will not make you creative. Perhaps it will make you more creative in some ways (though I doubt it--I imagine it would mostly a) make clear to you that you are not that great at drawing, and b) teach you some techniques to improve your drawing). But why on earth would anyone think it would make you more imaginative in a general or transferable way?  

Parts of the article are fine. Its overall point, rightly understood, might even be right. But it's hard to think that any real thought has gone into it when you see this kind of thoughtless blather about creativity.

For more of my grumpy ranting see also here


  1. I have taught pottery classes for 18 years, and one of the obstacles I invariably face with beginners is the self impression that they are *not* creative. As adults that seems to get drummed out of us. We grew up as natural artists, as at home with a crayon in our hands as any toy. It's what we did. And being imaginative informed very much of what our lives included. So what went wrong?

    When you question whether a course will "make someone creative" I'm not sure this phrases it correctly. Part of the problem is indeed that we do not do as many imaginative things as we once did, but the further problem is that we simply don't think of ourselves in that way. We actually DO do creative things in our daily lives, but we have been trained to ignore them and discount doing it. It isn't simply a skill we are talking about, but an attitude.

    So taking a course may or may not instill any particular skills in students, but perhaps the more important thing is that they have been reminded that they are in fact creative beings, and that creativity does not need to be abandoned in their lives. Perhaps the most important thing a class can do is demonstrate to students that being creative is worth aspiring to. We can change their attitude towards creativity. Being more creative may simply mean being more aware of our own creativity and valuing it more.

    Being more creative may have little to do with actual skills, but the desire to include creative things in our lives can make all the difference. Being creative is a matter of how we look at the world and our own role in it. Being more creative simply means placing ourselves more in the way of the unknown, more at the beginning of projects, more at the wellspring of imagination. Creativity is a capacity we exercise. It is not the attribute of particular skills.

    Any of that make sense?

    1. there is no evidence that kids are more creative than adults unless one counts playfulness as creativity and that surely isn't the sort of attunements and sustained efforts that we generally associate with adult creativity in the arts or elsewhere, all of which certainly have a degree of unteachable talent to them but mostly are composed of know-how/skills, the bizarre thing is to think of the fine arts (or crafts) as being more creative than any other human endeavor, all of this stuff and ways of being/doing had to be invented and reinvented...

    2. Carter Gillies: Thanks. This does make sense, and seems right to me. So perhaps a creative course or two would help unlock creative ways of thinking, or reduce the tendency we have been taught to think that creativity is bad. On the other hand, it still seems wildly optimistic to me to think that a creative writing course will create or unleash so much creativity (of a generic kind, which perhaps doesn't even exist) that it will stop you being replaced by a robot.

      Anonymous: To the extent that creativity consists of unteachable talent, obviously no course is going to give someone this. And to the extent that it consists of certain know-how or skills, a course in, say, acting is very unlikely to impart the job-saving skills in question. In other words, at least on these points, I agree with you.

  2. Perhaps it would be useful to distinguish here between two kinds of lines of criticism and argument: one platonic, and the other Aristotelian.

    The Aristotelian line of criticism: Some courses (critical thinking, leadership, creative writing) attempt to treat virtues as content. The ability to think critically, for instance, depends on knowledge, but being a critical thinker is a matter of acquiring virtues and habits of mind and action. I think in the same way people sometimes have the hope that courses in Ethics will make people more ethical. And a similar line of criticism may apply.)

    The Platonic line of criticism: Some courses (critical thinking, leadership, creative writing) are at risk of being taught, if not actually taught, as courses without any subject matter—as courses in pure skill building. I say it is Platonic because something like this seem to have been the grounds for Plato’s worry about rhetoric, understood as the ability to convince anyone of anything whenever. One of the issues here would be the transferableness of the skill. But even if the skill is transferable, one might still have worries, as Plato had.

    There is yet another line of criticism—or perhaps it is a strand in both the Aristotelian and the Platonic lines—which worries about whether what is being taught in those courses (or what they are in danger of becoming, or what some people sometime fantasize is being taught there) is even teachable: Whether trying to get people to be more creative or critical or morally conscientious is not too much like trying to teach them a senses of humor, or to be charismatic.

  3. Perhaps this should also be said: The question can be taken as conceptual or as empirical. The platonic and Aristotelian worries I mentioned are conceptual: They are about whether the kind of thing people sometimes imagine being taught in those courses is really something that could be taught in the first place, or taught in a particular way. The worry, however, may be wholly empirical, for instance if one thought that the courses are often not taught well.

    1. Thanks, Reshef. Let me see if I understand the distinctions you are making.

      So the Aristotelian complaint would be that, while critical thinking might require such things as knowledge of fallacies, it is also, perhaps even more, important to develop the habit of actively avoiding fallacies, and to be(come) the kind of person who cares about such things.

      The Platonic complaint would be... I'm not sure. Pure skill building in itself does not sound bad. In creative writing, for instance, I believe there are certain rules of thumb that can indeed be taught, and perhaps just practice itself would lead to improved performance. Would that mean there was no subject matter in the course? And if so, would that be a bad thing? Assuming, that is, that it really helped people become better creative writers. With regard to the art of persuasion, I can imagine that not being a transferable skill (since so much persuasion depends on specific knowledge) and, to the extent that it is transferable, to its being morally questionable. But I'm struggling to see what a parallel line of thought would be regarding critical thinking, leadership, and creative writing. Is the idea that critical thinking skills won't be any use without subject knowledge in many cases, and that any such skills might be badly misused (for points-scoring, logic-chopping, sounding clever, etc.)?

      Whether there is something teachable is certainly worth thinking about too. I assume it will vary from case to case. But it seems to be a mistake to assume that there always is something to teach whenever we identify, or think we have identified, something we want people to do. And even when there is something to teach, it's a mistake to think that one fourteen-week course will be neither way to much or way too little to teach what there is to be taught in that area. To pick up a few rules of thumb a single lecture might be enough. To develop virtues and habits, on the other hand, could take years.

    2. Yes. This is mostly what I meant.

      With regard to the Aristotelian argument, one may also argue that the kind of knowledge we really are interested in is the one that is connected to virtue. One may say, for instance, that mere intellectual knowing that murder is wrong is not *really* moral knowledge. And this would get us into a discussion about what is *real* knowledge in each of the cases: What is real moral knowledge? What is really being creative? What is really being critical in politics, in art, etc.? Now, one could find such questions suspicious. One might say, for example: ‘Knowledge means different things in different cases; there is not *one*true kind of knowledge.’ But I think such questions are at least relevant in the present context, where part of the discussion is about what we really care about, and what is important: what we think students should learn, and what we can hope to teach them.

      With regard to the Platonic argument, the issue is tricky, and I don’t know how to sort it all out. I think one reason the issue is tricky is because, even if there is a subject matter, it is not always easy to say exactly what it is, as it is with ornithology or herpetology. I don’t think it is obvious what the subject matter is of mathematics or literature, for instance. And even when it is possible to say what the subject matter is, the answer might sometimes be cryptic. In this way, Socrates and Wittgenstein might say—at least when in a certain mood—that the subject matter of philosophy is oneself. So I don’t know how to determine whether there is a subject matter, and what it is if there is one. All I wanted was to mention was the Platonic worry that there sometimes might be the appearance of a subject matter when in fact there isn’t. And I thought this sort of inattention to the existence of a subject matter connects to the issue you mentioned about transferable skills—where the ability to think creatively when thinking about literature is not obviously transferable to the ability to think creatively about how to raise funds or how to solve an engineering problem.

    3. Thanks for the clarification.

      On the question of creativity, I think philosophy might help. Not so much because philosophy increases creativity--it might well not do so at all, even though doing philosophy often involves creativity ("Imagine there's a violinist...", "Imagine I'm an invisible engineer..."). I'm thinking more of the philosophical tendency to try to identify and question assumptions. If that kind of thinking becomes a habit then it might not help one come up with good alternatives, but it might at least lead to asking questions about things that other people take for granted. Which might help pave the way for creativity with regard to raising funds or solving engineering problems. Then again, I think engineering students often have to solve problems, so it might be best for them to keep taking engineering courses rather than having a philosophy requirement or two added to their curriculum.