Week 2:  Learning to Think
Humanities 100

 Course Guide

Search, Assess, Acquire, Apply

Then, practice, practice, practice.

You are not going to think about something that doesn't interest you.
And whatever your interest, if your mind's made up you won't think better.
And even if you are open to change, you can't change if you don't know how.
And even if you know how, you won't do it if you don't commit to it.
Even then, you could have been wrong all along.
Thinking must require some courage.

Learning Processes (habits of thought) and Barriers

     Thinking and learning may be opposite sides of the same coin.   Learning patterns and processes are thinking.  In fact, much higher order thinking involving analysis, synthesis, and evaluation is learned.   Mimicry (imitation) and trial and error are certainly the most frequently used learning processes when there is no or insufficient experience/knowledge of the object of learning.  If I have never made a cabbage soup, I will most likely follow a recipe trusting that whoever wrote the recipe

     The last case, knowing what not to do, is simply learning from our mistakes or errors.  I hope that the recipe writer has not only learned what pleases most people but learned as well to avoid unpleasant outcomes. 

     Your learning patterns, procedures, or recipes (algorithms) were and are certainly influenced by your family and friends since imitation is so efficient. Why not do what you are told and act like how your dominant social group wants you to act. Obedience and social conformity get more honey and less vinegar.  And certainly socialization and enculturation are necessary for understanding how goods are exchanged and accumulated.  I can get more of what I want by being thoughtful.   Since we learn these patterns early in life and, when in error, refine them throughout life (the lack of which we call ignorance and stupidity, respectively), there is not much cause in higher education for me telling you how to live and run your life.

     So, if you can learn from your mistakes and you are getting what satisfactions you want, what more is there to understanding learning?  The answer of course is in learning to allocate scarce resources.  We only have so much time, money, and interest.  We all have talents and the potential to learn  a great many things, but often not the desire, the time, or the money.  The question then becomes one of efficiency.  How do we learn to do the best we can at the least cost?  Or more succinctly, how do we learn to minimize our costs?

     You don't get better at doing something unless you practice.  Being a better swimmer, or listener, or golfer, or teacher, or student, or singer requires practice.  And it seems that as the older we get, the more practice it takes just to maintain the economies we have already learned.  What then in learning to think keeps us from practicing. What are the barriers to thought. Let me list five things:

  1. Believing that the more you pay the better it gets.

  2. Pretending to want something you don't really want.

  3. Theorizing without the facts; accumulating facts without a theory.

  4. Failing to distinguish between positive and normative claims.

  5. Assuming a necessary connection between what is and what should be..

A Learning Logic

This learning logic has four components: observe (search), measure and explain (assess),  make a choice (acquire), and put to use (apply).

We apply  this logic to a study, whether computer science, geology, art history, or composition. Our  past experience forms a cup into which we place new knowledge of things, theories, and processes.  The logic occurs over and over again, like a widening spiral and the growth rings of a tree.

To get students familiar and facile with thinking about  what they are learning,  teachers assign readings and have students write papers which increase their skills in managing the learning logic. Most college classes have students write papers which emphasize self expression and philosophical awareness just to get the ball rolling. They then have students write observations, definitions, comparisons, explanations, arguments and documented research papers to apply  and practice the learning logic.

Points of View

Our preconceptions set the stage for  our learning.  Five typical cups which hold thoughts (none more important or more right than another) include  monism, dualism, pluralism, realism, and pragmatism.

Monism: there is only one kind of thing (my opinion, my way, social or human law, god's way, elementary particles).

Dualism: there are two kinds of things (my way and your way, mind and body, yin and yang, plus and minus).

Pluralism: there are many kinds of things (points of view, moral codes, ways of knowing).

Realism: there are many things and they are independent of mind but not of process (laws of thermodynamics, natural selection, common law, laws of production).

Pragmatism: there are many things and what benefits most is true (if it works, fine. If it doesn't work, fix it. If  it can't be fixed, put it away (let go, move on, and start again).

Learning is going around and around (think of a spiral) through these stages with our present experience and whatever subject we intend to learn--gathering more and more information, assessing its significance, making decisions, applying ourselves, learning from the consequences.

Making and Analyzing Claims

There are three kinds of claims (and a hundred varieties) synthetic, analytic, and normative.  Three example sentences would be:

  1. Moles eat worms. (synthetic) (fact) (proposition)

  2. Moles are mammals. (analytic) (concept) (definition)

  3. Moles should be kept away from golf greens. (normative) (value) (judgment).

These claims correspond roughly to the categories defined by statements of fact, concept, and value. They also correspond roughly to the categories defined by propositions, definitions, and judgments. Claims can also be empirical or non-empirical since the words may have material or non-material referents, e.g., moles eat worms; moles eat sad worms.   Notice my three-part divisions below.

Figure 1: Various Vocabulary Casad Frequently Uses to Describe and Analyze Types of Claims, Assertions, or Hypotheses.

Basis: To do Basis: To think Basis: To feel
factual (true/false) logical (valid/invalid) ethical  (the good, virtue, right/wrong)
makes sense stands to reason sounds good
objective conceptual subjective
material/falsifiable symbolic metaphysical
empirical categories/categorical animistic
measurable/reproducible rational intuitive
statement of fact statement of definition statement of value
synthetic analytic normative

Once you have constructed a testable claim, the next step is to take it apart in order to narrow down the scope of the research and experimentation. This step includes laying out the issues or defining the problem. Explicitly state the assumptions behind the claim to uncover any bias or a hidden (perhaps ulterior) purpose. Also analyze the verb in the claim. How will you measure the event or variables? What measures are valid? For example, when determining whether timber companies are cutting down too many trees, do we measure trees by the number planted, by acres in plantations, by potential board feet of harvestable timber, by board feet per capita, or by photosynthetic carrying capacity. By interrogating the claim--asking what, where, when, how, how much, so what, and why--we uncover the assumptions which motivate the claim.

The final step is to rebind the claim. Focus on your purpose and your audience. Do not loose sight of the audience or your underlying assumptions. If you do not define and control your expectations and anticipate those of your audience, you will have difficulty organizing your thoughts. The purpose of analysis is to produce a better thought (and product).  It provides the mental exercise to help the thinker look through a clearer lens.

So here are the steps again. Start your thinking with a testable (falsifiable) claim, analyze it, and then rebind it. If your claim is not falsifiable, toss it. If you can not lay your claim out into smaller pieces--the issues and the problems-- then reconsider your resources (primarily time and education) and perhaps choose to think about simpler things (cooking) and make more modest claims. Once you have analyzed your claim, begin to rebind it.


A thinker's task is to locate and analyze the data that explains a claim (theory, proposition, hypothesis). Following are some rules of evidence:

Another way to  look at rules of evidence (the support for your claim or thesis) is to assess the strength of the evidence. Below are questions you can ask when assessing evidence.

  1. Are the events and interactions observable and measurable?
  2. Are the events and interactions reproducible?
  3. Are the events and interactions generalizable?
  4. Are the contrary observations described and internal sources of error reported?
  5. Can a coherent set of inferences be drawn?
  6. Are the inferences testable?
  7. Does the weight of evidence grow over successive iterations?
  8. Do explanations simplify other explanations with no loss of explanatory power?
  9. Is there consensus among the explanatory community?
  10. Are there experts or authorities (alive and internationally noted) who hold the consensus?

When you have scanned and read "The Tragedy of the Commons" (This week's reading assignment), put a description of the tragedy in your homework in your own words--hint (a combination of two principles--personal right to procreate and moral obligation to help the less fortunate).  

Reading Assignments-- Not only comment on the reading assignment but directly quote at least once.  Also, when you choose a quote from resources, not only indicate its relevance (if not obvious) but also describe a condition under which the claim may not be true.  Finally, maintain an introspective point of view and tone.  Write about how you think, not about how you think others should think.

Writing task--A sixth rule: Pick up after yourself.

Every fool can make a rule and every fool will mind it.-----Henry Thoreau
(Does Henry define the set of fools' rules?  Unless one defines the character of the set, then the statement simply says,  fools mind their rules.  I guess this implies that wise men neither make rules nor mind them...?)



Return to the Course Guide and complete the reading assignment, the writing task, and find a relevant quote from resources that relates to the second week's topic. You will do this for each of the remaining weeks as they are due, but you will find that the weekly introductions are not nearly so windy.