Public Philosophy Network

Encouraging and Supporting Publicly Engaged Philosophical Research and Practices

A couple colleagues of mine are trying to develop a sort of portable teaching module -- a flexible curriculum and set of related teaching materials -- that can be incorporated into the first sessions of various introductory philosophy courses, and that aims to provide students who are new to philosophy with the critical toolset necessary for engaging the questions, problems, and philosophical texts that will be introduced throughout the rest of the course.  I'm super excited about this project. Watching freshman college students enter our intro courses each semester, completely unprepared for anything other than rote memorization and the vomiting-up of facts (especially in our university, a major research institution that focuses on the basic sciences) is hugely frustrating. So many of these kids have no capacity whatsoever for critical thinking--they don't know what an argument is, let alone a fallacy. And yet without such basic skills as being able to read actively, to identify different kinds of claims, to map the structure of an argument, etc., it is inconceivable that they'll get anything out of our courses beyond a passing familiarity with some major names in the western canon. The critical thinking module would thus offer a way for anyone constructing a syllabus to build in an introductory mini-workshop that would provide the minimum set of cognitive tools needed in order for students to get whatever else it is one hopes they'll get out of the class.

Obviously a somewhat different set of critical tools is needed depending on the sort of class one is teaching. Time is limited and one ought not to attempt more than can be realistically achieved. If the goal of the course is to make the students better writers, it might be important to give them tools for good argument construction, but not necessarily argument analysis.  If it is, on the other hand, to make them more self-reflective, the opposite might be true.  My colleagues have accordingly decided to try and build several different modules, all of them wrought from much the same material, but tailored to the overarching objective of the course.

To contribute to this project, and in conjunction with my own course development, I'm trying to develop one specific module. I want to think about critical thinking as a tool we expect citizens to have in order to fulfill their civic role in the public sphere. And so I want to develop a curriculum that takes as its overarching goal providing students with the critical tools they need for democratic problem-solving.  Specifically, they should learn:

- the value of rational argumentation; 

- discursive norms and etiquette (such as the principle of charity, the burden of proof, etc.);

- the anatomy of an argument;

- critical reading skills and media savvy (identifying an author or pundit's claim; identifying the evidence they offer in support of their claims; different forms of justification; the role and scope of expertise; etc.)

- the difference between tolerance and relativism;

- etc.

Obviously this list is incomplete and I've only just begun to think about how to teach these kills. But since this project has obvious affinities with efforts at thinking through and working on public philosophy, PPN seems like the perfect forum for collaborating on it.  So! If anyone's interested, please please please offer thoughts, questions, suggestions, resources, or anything else that might be helpful.  Building this module itself through a shared effort at collective problem-solving would, I think, be a brilliant example of the value of just those tools we're trying to give our students. 

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I'm in the process of constructing a first-year seminar right now that addresses this very issue, with an eye to how we interpret the news media so that we may be engaged citizens. I've titled it "Contemporary News Media: From Glenn Beck to Jon Stewart." I've written the course description and learning objectives, (posted below) but am still on the hunt for some good materials. I'd love any suggestions. The learning objectives I've listed here are rather extensive, as these first-year seminars seem to have a lot of goals. I'm not sure to what extent I'll realistically be able to adequately cover them all, but it's a start.

Course Description

Jon Stewart recently described America’s contemporary news media landscape as a “24-hour politico pundit panic conflictonator.” Indeed, it seems more difficult than ever to navigate through countless blogs, books, talk radio shows, 24-hour cable news shows, newspapers, magazines, network television news, and websites to learn about what’s going on in our world. Can you ever find the “real story”? Can you trust what you read or hear on the media or in advertising? How do you judge and evaluate the things you’re told? How do you know if a claim you hear is biased, true, false, or just meant to persuade you into believing or doing something? Can you tell the difference between good, sound argumentation and a cheap trick? Answering these questions requires quite a bit of critical thinking. Critical thinking is the careful application of reason to determine whether or not a claim is true. It’s a skill, just like playing the piano or shooting a basketball, which can be improved with training and practice. In this course, we will develop your critical thinking skills by examining the contemporary media landscape, so that you may be better equipped to navigate it on your own.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this course, students should be able to:
o Identify, evaluate, and construct inductive and deductive arguments in spoken and written form
o Evaluate language in terms of its clarity and construct clear writing
o Critically evaluate the credibility of sources of information including the news media and advertising
o Identify and evaluate common rhetorical techniques of persuasion
o Recognize logical fallacies in everyday reasoning
o Identify a variety of values, abilities, and areas of knowledge related to being an engaged citizen of one’s campus, local and global communities
o Demonstrate an ability to use the Library resources and information literacy to find and evaluate sources
o Demonstrate a knowledge of policies and practices of academic integrity
o Articulate Liberal Arts Core learning outcomes and understand their relationship to information literacy and disciplinary study
Hey Danielle! This is great. Have you taught a course like this before? If so, what strategies did you find worked and which might one want to avoid?

I'll be posting resources I come across as I come across them. Please do the same!

Well, I've taught a Critical Thinking course that didn't have this theme quite so centralized, but included a lot of the same skill sets. It seems that what I needed in that course was more consistent content. The text I used, "Critical Thinking" by Parker and Moore (9th Edition), has lots of good exercises and sample essays, but the content of the issues they address are on everything from gay marriage, to taxes, to disease control. Each example is different. I think that made it harder for both me and the students to stay engaged.

I fear, however, that I'll run into the same problem with this new angle. I'm thinking about picking a single news story or topic to see how different media outlets address it, so that the students have a little more substance to bite into.

Hi Danielle,


I am currently teaching a graduate course in logic that aims, among other things, to help prepare our graduate students to teach intro courses in symbolic logic and in critical thinking.  I am hoping that as I teach this course over the years, the students and I will be able to create and maintain a forum and a virtual storehouse of materials for people who are interested in/thinking about/actually teaching informal and formal approaches to argumentation, whether as classes or as components of classes that are devoted to other content. 


It sounds like the modules you are developing are exactly the kinds of thing that I would like to link to and have my students look at as they are thinking about how to teach this material. Please keep me posted as the project progresses.


I like what you have so far as learning objectives for critical thinking as a tool/duty for citizenship. There are a couple of things I really like about the approach taken by Sinott-Armstrong and Fogelin . (1) The approach to arguing as a kind of speech act that aims at certain goals and that nearly always involves more than merely providing reasons that support a conclusion--this helps students get a sense of how to spot rhetorical tactics, separate them from the logic of the argument, and distinguish between cases where they are invoked legitimately and cases where they appear to be attempts to hide weaknesses in argument (e.g., where the logic of the inference, or the obviousness of its basic assumptions, might be questionable). (2) The emphasis on shared standards that are authoritative within specific domains of discourse, and the ways in which we can be forced to enter other domains when it is these standards themselves that are the point of contention (e.g., legal discourse assumes certain things that we may try to justify ethically--but it is, nonetheless, a separable domain, ethical discourse sometimes adopts standards that the sciences may have something to say about--but..., what counts as science and what doesn't count as science is not itself something that can be determined scientifically, but... etc.) In my experience. students are often too quick to assume that the parties to some debate must have fundamentally different values and assumptions, when very often a closer look reveals that they actually appeal to the same values and assumptions and are really arguing about how to implement them in specific cases.


Just some thoughts that your approach brought to mind.   



My first suggestion to you when designing any of these modules is to not approach the lesson points directly - giving a bunch of theory, no matter how "applied", to students at the start of a course will simply be forgotten and often go over their heads. The theory can be taught and retained, but I have found that it is much more effective to tease it out by going through examples that exemplify the concepts and focusing on their role in the example. It looks like you have this in mind with your very last sentence in the post - and my suggestion would be to come up with a general plan that can use any recent controversial news topic and set up a structure for discussion that will hit on all the right points.

I, too, want to start developing modules like this and I'll be interested in hearing your progress and success with it. Good luck!

well, when I took intro to philosophy the first pieces we read were from Plato's Republic, and everyone instantly feel in love with Socrates' character. I think it was his personality and the kind of values he exhibited that we used as a role model for proper argumentation. Of course, I am a very social learner, so having a role model with a vibrant personality was important for me. I've always thought it would be interesting to put together say, some short films about "who Socrates was" as a literary character, and the traits he had that made him a good model of a philosopher.

I am a high school student started a club in its infancy to learn and practice Critical thinking in high school before even getting to college. The club is in its infancy recruiting members and faculty in San Diego as a prototype to expand next year to other areas. Visit

This discussion is quite relevant for our club as we are looking for guidance, mentors and help.

If the students start to learn eventually system will catch up and may be emphasis and course will peculate to high schools I hope.

I can be privately be reached at to share any private thoughts or suggestions.

We are also setup on facebook to have friends follow the discussions and share it as a member recruiting tool.

Thanks for your attention.

"Follow our Critical Thinking Club face book page. Looking for suggestions and help to make the club successful"

I really support your efforts to establish some groundwork for students and to foster their critical thinking skills. I have taught critical thinking for almost 14 years now and was frustrated by the lack of materials that would directly engage students with some of the issues they were facing (student debt, institutional racism, hate speech on social media) from their point of view. In other words how can we both be subject to these challenges but also talk about them in a way that promotes critical thinking and learning. My solution was to create my own source - so I have a book coming out with University of Michigan Press in December 2014 entitled: Intellectual Empathy: Critical Thinking for Social Justice.  I have syllabi and lists of resources that I would be happy to share. 


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