I remember Mulroy making an argument that what we call critical thinking today corresponds in some sense to "disputation" and "logic" in the Middle Ages. Mulroy is on grammar's side of grammar, obviously.
Unfortunately, looking at my copy of Mulroy's book, I see that I'm going to have to do more than skim my underlinings and notes to reconstruct exactly what he's saying.
So, for the time being, here is one of my favorite passages from the book: Mulroy on "interpretation by free association" ("making connections," presumably) versus "precise interpretation of the meaning of complex statements." [boldface added in the passages below]
The tendency of modern teachers to disparage the importance of literal meanings reinforces and is reinforced by the low status of grammar, since the rules of grammar play an indispensable role in establishing the literal meanings of statements. Grammar and literal meanings have both become pariahs, and this fact lies at the root of several troubling tendencies.
To a teacher in the humanities, the most obvious of these tendencies pertains to reading comprehension. We increasingly encounter students who can speculate about the "hidden meanings" of literary texts but miss their literal sense. To gauge the extent of this problem, I recently asked members of one of my large mythology classes to produce brief paraphrases of the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.I was looking for a restatement of the proposition expressed in the main clause, that respect for public opinion makes it necessary for parties who are abandoning an established union to explain why they are doing so. It was disconcerting that of sixty-one students who tried to paraphrase the sentence, none seemed to recognize its source. Some thought that it had to do with ending a romance. I estimated that twenty-five comprehended the gist of the sentence.
[snip]Mulroy goes on to connect "a-grammatical interpretation by free association" with what he sees as a focus on ad hominem argument in many state standards:
Most disturbing, however, were a large number of students who responded to the assignment with misguided enthusiasm.
It doesn't matter where you came from. In the end we are all human beings. Humans are at the top of the food chain, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't respect nature. Because we have one earth, learn to preserve it.I was taken aback by how poorly the students had done on this test and repeated it twice with essentially the same results. Most recently, in November 22002, I offered the paraphrase exercise as an opportunity for "extra credit" on a mythology test. Sixty-four students of 228 attempted it. Thirty-three seemed to have grasped the essential thought. Among the others war e some more vivid examples of interpretation by free association.
Mankind is in a state of separation. There will come a time when all will be forgotten, and man will be one with mother earth.[snip]
These responses seem to me to exemplify a kind of higher illiteracy. The students who suffer from this are proficient in spoken English and can express their own thoughts in writing adequately. They lack the tools, however, for the precise interpretation of the meaning of complex statements. This kind of illiteracy boils down to an ignorance of grammar. If a student interprets the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence a an exhortation to "preserve the earth," then how can you demonstrate the error? There is no way to do so that does not involve grammatical analysis: the subject of the main clause is respect to the opinions of mankind, the main verb is requires, and so forth.
By far the worst effect of interpretation by free association, however, is the legitimation of ad hominem arguments. Of all the associations that are attached to statements by reflective judgments, those having to do with the speaker's or the author's motives are the most common. In a culture in which interpretation is typically based on free association, people have inevitably lost sight of the fact that speculation about motives is an invalid method of argumentation, a well-known logical fallacy....Most discouraging, however, is the fact that new state academic standards in the language arts actually encourage students to engage in ad hominem arguments. In Wisconsin, for example, a standard for grade 12 under the heading of "Effective Participation in Discussion" reads: "Detect and evaluate a speaker's bias." And later: "Appraise the purpose of discussion by examining their context and the motivation of participants." California's Listening and Speaking Standards for grade 8 include this: "Evaluate the credibility of a speaks (e.g., hidden agendas, slanted or biased material)." In Kansas, fifth-graders are supposed to perceive an author's "purpose"; eighth-graders, his "point of view"; eleventh-gradesr, his "point of view or bias."Until the moment I read Mulroy, I had simply taken for granted that 'looking for bias' was an OK thing for students to do.
This is not the way to train students to participate in serious discussions. Charges of hidden agendas or biases and raising the question of motives are sure ways to turn conversations int o shouting matches. Students should be exhorted, when engaged in serious discussion, to analyze the meaning of statements according to the rules of lexicography and grammar and then to test their truthfulness according to the rules of logic and evidence, while disregarding extraneous associations. One arrives at truth and maintains civility by obeying well-grounded rules, not through exhortations to be sensitive and certainly not by trying to psychoanalyze one's opponent. We cannot have good conversations in our society unless we attend to the literal meanings of what we say to one another, and we cannot do that without greater emphasis on understanding grammar.
Or so it seems to me.
Mulroy opened my eyes. Then, when I visited the Cambridge Pre-U course, I saw the fallacy of "looking for bias" in action. "Looking for bias" when you lack background knowledge easily turns into an exercise in being - or becoming - biased yourself.
One group of students in the class, whose Google search had turned up an article in Haaretz, the liberal Israeli newspaper, reported that: "Since this is an article in a newspaper in Israel, it might be biased against Arabs."
No one present challenged this reasonable-sounding observation, including the two teachers, and I remember feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Is it OK to assume that any news article written by any Israeli reporter should be suspected of bias against Arabs?
The answer seemed to be 'yes,' and to me that 'yes' comes pretty close to being an expression of (unintended) bias against Israelis.
So I'm off the boat when it comes to looking for bias, etc. Looking for logical fallacies and the like is another matter -- although I suspect it's more valuable for students to look for logical fallacies in their own work than in the work of others.
Setting aside the basic question of civil discourse, however, Mulroy is right: students need a great deal of help throughout their educations in reaching a precise interpretation of the meaning of complex statements.
I suspect most college-level instructors, not to mention SAT critical reading tutors, would agree.