Against genericism: a response to Steve Turnbull

This post needs to be read after reading Steve Turnbull’s critique of this blogpost. It is addressed directly to Steve.


I should like to begin by thanking you for taking the time to write a detailed critique: it is rather pleasant to read such a thorough analysis rather than the hopelessly truncated form that we are use to receiving in Twitter and in blog comments. I should also like to thank you for inviting me to respond in a spirit of open debate, and I hope that my comments here are taken in this manner.

You helpfully set out a summary of my argument, which is very useful for seeing where my position has been misinterpreted, either through poor phrasing or clarity on my part, or because your own intellectual baggage differs from mine in such a way that you interpret my meaning differently. There are a number of points in your critique where you have not fully or properly understood the point I was making. Before getting to those, however, let’s start with how you set out your own intentions in your critique. You argue that

  1. contrary to your argument, critical thinking is indeed a skill that can be taught and applied generically; hence it can be applied to the ‘challenging of authority’ in any context
  2. challenging authority’ is a more complex phenomenon and skill than you present because it involves the affective as well as the cognitive domain and thus behavioural/social conditioning
  3. there is a direct correlation between the type of school regime and the level of ‘critical autonomy’ (capacity to challenge authority) developed in its students
  4. critical autonomy is essential both to educational development and citizenship

I think (1) is the important substantive challenge here and so I shall deal with this primarily in this response. I shall not give much time in my response here to (2), (3) and (4) for the following reasons. For (2), my understanding is that most things involve the affective and cognitive domain, and we have thus not helped ourselves by specifying that ‘challenging authority’ involves the affective domain. There are two points that need to be established before this argument can proceed further. First, it would need to be shown that influencing the affective domain is within the curricular power of teachers – i.e. that one could intend and plan in a meaningful way to modify the values of pupils to bring about some end. Secondly, it would need to be shown that the affective domain is also not context-specific – this might be considered by testing questions such as ‘is confidence transferable between domains?’ My initial response to this would be to suggest that this is no more the case than in the cognitive domain, for one can be very confident in doing some things, but very unconfident at doing others. But, regardless of this, whether or not argument (2) stands up to scrutiny is a subsidiary of (1). For (3) and (4) the provided definition of ‘critical autonomy’ – which is ‘capacity to challenge authority’ – is not sufficient because it does not make clear what it means to be able to challenge authority. For example, if ‘capacity to challenge authority’ means ‘has learnt to conduct critiques in a variety of domains’ then I do not have an issue with it and it is not in contradiction with my original argument. Even this probably would not help, however, for having the capacity to do something is weak as a definitional tool: I have the ‘capacity to murder’, but this does not mean I am likely to do it. As both (3) and (4) thus rest on the use of a term (‘critical autonomy’) that is poorly defined I am not going to deal with it any further, unless you wish to refine your argument a little further (at which point I would be happy to do so).

Let’s now turn to the substance of your argument. Part of your argument seems to be that the very fact you constructed this critique is evidence of critical thinking as a generic skill. I’m not sure if you intended your critique as an example of critical thinking? If so, then I’m afraid I do not think it helps your case, for there are a number of issues with how you have constructed it. First, my post was not a serious piece of academic research (if I were to write 6000-8000 word posts people would not read my blog) and as such it is probably not appropriate to deploy the kind of analysis you have to pull apart a blog post! But, running with this for a moment, the summary of my premises that you have written on Page 2 are broadly incorrect. I do indeed claim that genericism is rife and that teamwork is domain-dependent, but I do not claim that my observations “prove” this, nor do I claim that I’ve backed my observations up with sound or conclusive research, nor do I claim that there is no correlation between a strict school regime and the propensity of students to challenge authority, although I do question the negative correlation that some have suggested. In short, you have misunderstood the nature of what I wrote and the claims that I was making, and given that you misunderstood and misinterpreted the premises, your analysis of these is heading in the wrong direction from the outset.

In your summary of my basic argument, you state that I think that ‘challenging authority’ is not a transferable skills because it requires specific-domain (I think you mean domain-specific) knowledge. This is not quite what I think. I do think that everything we do requires domain-specific knowledge, but my argument is not so much that ‘challenging authority’ is not a transferable skill because it needs domain-specific knowledge: rather, it is that I do not think ‘challenging authority’ itself works as a general idea. Any consideration of ‘challenging authority’ needs to start with the question ‘what or whose authority is being challenged?’ At best, I would suggest that someone who has learnt to ‘challenge authority’ has perhaps learnt to challenge a variety of different forms of authority, in the same way as someone who has ‘learnt to cook’ has in practice learnt to cook a variety of different dishes.

Notwithstanding your setting off on some false assumptions about the nature of my claims, let’s deal with your detailed analysis. Your response to Point 1 is rather confused, although your comment on this being an unsubstantiated assertion is fair: I am assuming that my readers have knowledge about our current system and its characteristics and will recognise my comments as true. It is worth noting that you can’t have it both ways: it is bizarre, if not necessarily contradictory, to claim that (a) I should not presume that genericism is rife and (b) that there are core generic skills that can be taught. Your critique is confused because it undermines its own internal logic.

Another example of your confusion is that you misunderstood a link to an academic article as ‘evidence’. I am not sure that a philosophy paper is evidence of anything (except, perhaps, that ‘some philosophers have argued x’): what Bailin et al present is essentially a conceptual analysis of the term ‘critical thinking’, and to assume that someone can deploy a conceptual analysis as evidence of something would suggest you misunderstand either what a conceptual analysis is, or how the word ‘evidence’ is used in many disciplines (interestingly the generic use of ‘evidence’ is another example of genericism, for what counts as ‘evidence’ varies between disciplines – see below). It also is a bit strange to criticise me for not presenting counter-arguments to Bailin et al when their own paper includes plenty of references to counter-arguments, and, as already said, a blog post is not an academic paper, and to expect the same depth of analysis would be to misunderstand the purpose of a blog.

In your third point, you seem to inappropriately conflate the ‘generic vs specific’ argument as a ‘knowledge vs skills’ argument, when in fact they are distinct: it is quite possible to talk of ‘domain-specific skills’, and indeed I think there are a great many of these that are vital to learn. It also seems slightly hypocritical to level the (admittedly fair) challenge to me that I make some unsubstantiated assertions, whilst you do the same, such as, for example, claiming that Bloom’s taxonomy is ‘reasonable and robust’. There are a few logical inconsistencies in the points that follow, such as an assumption that correlation between strict school discipline and authoritarian regimes implies a causal link between the two. Historically this line of argument collapses once you go before the mid-twentieth century: I would not assume for a moment that the disciplinary regime faced at school by Martin Luther, or Robespierre, or Fergus O’Connor, or Leon Trotsky was one in which children were encouraged to challenge authority. This notwithstanding, in the words J.K. Rowling put into the mouth of Hermione, “you could claim that anything’s real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody’s proved it doesn’t exist!” Proving a negative is devilishly difficult, if not impossible in most contexts, and this is why the burden of proof normally rests with the person trying to assert the existence of something. If you want to assert a causal association between strict discipline in school and subjugation to authority in society, then the burden falls on you to prove it, not on me to disprove it.

Your final point is more interesting and it is where further discussion between us might well bear fruit. I should first point out that ‘historical thinking’, which you use as an example, is very much a thing, and huge quantities of ink have been spilt by history educationalists over the last twenty years or so looking at what makes history a distinct discipline and different from, say, English Literature or Philosophy (or psychology or sociology, to use your examples). I also think (to return to an earlier point) that it is incorrect to argue that your own critique is an example of generic critical thinking: this critique could only have been written by someone who is immersed in the discussions and debates surrounding the teaching of ‘critical thinking’. But you are correct to say that there clearly are some things which are common to many different domains. My ability to touch-type (or at least some bastardised form of it) is a skill I deploy in support of a wide array of activities, as is my ability to (normally) construct grammatically acceptable sentences. My skill in handwriting is useful in a range of contexts. What is interesting about all of these examples is that they are helpfully specific. If you want to call handwriting a transferable skill, then go for it, but I am not convinced it is quite the sort of think you mean when you talk about generic skills.

There is of course one domain which is in many ways a ‘meta’ domain whereby we determine the rules by which we might make sense of different domains, and that is of course philosophy. My comments here are littered with references drawn from philosophy as a meta-domain concerning categorisation, logical rules, ontology and so on. Advocates of critical thinking are often I think simply arguing for the teaching of philosophy, and for that I have no problem. In fact, I would firmly support it. But philosophy is itself its own domain, with its own history, rules and internal debates. One could argue that is uses exceptionally specific techniques and argumentation to make sense of big, general ideas, but it should be made clear here that the genericism lies not in the approach being used, but rather in the nature of the thing being studied. Philosophy is not a generic undertaking: rather it seeks to make the general specific, a difficult but vital distinction. Some of the weaker forms of school philosophy lose sight of this, and we see, for example, children being taught ‘how to argue’ when concepts such as ‘proof’, ‘evidence’ and ‘justification’ are domain-specific. A mathematician does not prove something in the same way as a chemist, and both differ again in their argumentative structures from a historian who works with a very different understanding of ‘proof’ or ‘evidence’.

The final substantive paragraph of your critique is essentially an ad hominem argument, in that it attempts to challenge the rational basis of the argument by considering the motivations of the person giving it. This is a famous logical fallacy and the take-down of it can be read widely, but I would only comment to say that you know little about my personal beliefs and values, other than what you have inferred from my writings. Unless you want to argue that you know my intentions better than I do, you probably need to put this one aside and recognise it as a poor argumentative device.

So where does this leave us? I think your critique is weak and does not particularly persuade me that critical thinking is a generic skill that can be taught. I do concede that there are a number of specific skills (e.g. typing or handwriting) which can be deployed in a range of contexts, and I equally support the teaching of philosophy as a discipline that can provide us with the knowledge we need to make sense of the concepts we use in first-order disciplines. But what I worry about (and what we see in numerous curricular models) is where incredibly complex ideas that vary from domain to domain (such as argumentative structure or the nature of evidence) get collapsed into a generic ‘skill’ that is then taught divorced form the context that gives it its meaning.

This has been quite fun to write, and I hope it makes my position clearer. I hope too that it is taken in the spirit of open debate in which your original critique was offered. Thank you!


Picture: Initial ‘S'(equitur) made up of a hybrid creature with wings and a horned human head, at the beginning of Book 10 of Pliny the Elder’s Historia naturalis, Southern England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century, 430 x 310 mm. Arundel 98, f. 85v.

2 Comments on Against genericism: a response to Steve Turnbull

  1. Tom Burkard // 15 December 2016 at 10:07 // Reply

    This is from a 1996 paper I published: “It is interesting to contrast the revolutionary behaviour of students in the 1960s, educated in schools that demanded mastery of a wide range of knowledge, with the docile and incurious students of the nineties whose mental horizons seldom extend beyond their first salaried job”.

    When I wrote this, I had not long completed a degree in English History at UEA, where I found that students straight out of 6th form seldom volunteered anything in seminars, and whose main topic of conversation during coffee breaks was what they’d recently watched on TV.

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