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Critical Thoughts on the Critical Thinking Text

Thu 17 Feb 2011 00:04:21 Leave a comment Go to comments

The first textbook I’ve chosen to dive into is Critical Legal Thinking (3rd edition) by Nick James. There were two critical reasons for that choice:

  1. it was the smallest book; and
  2. it was also the only book not shrink-wrapped.

As a successful engineer, critical thought is a skill I already possess and use regularly. In fact, it’s my natural abilities at critical thinking are what lead me to become an engineer in the first place. Even so, I was mildly curious as to whether this book contained some mystical new way of thinking. As far as the chapters I’ve read so far are concerned, it doesn’t. In fact, the three types of critical thinking put forward by the book map quite well to the tasks I undertake as an engineer. For example, for the task of reviewing the source code:

  1. consistency with legal authority“: this could perhaps be more generally phrased “Consistency with immediate rules”. In the case of implementing software this would be identifying the consistency between the source code and the software design.
  2. consistency with theoretical, ideological and ethical standards“: this maps a bit more directly for software. There are numerous theoretical standards covering how to implement software as well as ethical standards, such as risk and safety analysis, that apply.
  3. equity of outcome“: while it might not be equity in consideration, it is important to consider the outcome, or behaviour, of the software. To consider whether it will do the job in a way that makes sense and satisfy the user, independent of how it meets the other more structured criteria.

As for the broader course topic of “Law and Society”, for which the book is a required text, I felt that it was a topic I’d covered in the process of deciding whether to do a law degree in the first place. So again, I was curious. This time as to how my ad hoc self education in this topic would line up with the structured text of a university course. I’m about two-thirds of the way through and for the most part concepts covered are ones with which I am already familiar. There have been a few things new for me learn though, such as the history of legal education, some of the detail on judicial reasoning, and the extent of existing anti-terror legislation. Overall I felt able to pick up those bits and pieces of knowledge and fit them comfortably within my existing knowledge and understanding of the topic.

It’s only with respect to my previous concerns that I can find significant problem with the book. That is, my problem is not with the book, but with its position as required text for the course. As a book that teaches the subject matter it appears to be quite adequate, if perhaps a little shallow for the cost. It contains clear descriptions of the concepts, references to external resources along with mini-quizes and suggested essay topics. It’s divided into 12 chapters that take roughly an hour to go through; these clearly matching up with the scheduled lectures for the course. The books structure makes it clear that its purpose is to teach the course material and only the course material1. I expect a text to go further, to compliment the course and be a comprehensive reference, not simply duplicate the basic course material. For students struggling with the course material it could be beneficial. However for students that can keep up with lectures or are able to read up on the various concepts on the internet I’m not sure it offers value for money, particular for students with limited funds2.

I’d hoped my first ever book review would have been a little bit more positive. In retrospect, perhaps I’ve been a little too critical3. To end on a more critically positive note, I’ve discovered4 added a new site called Critical Thinking Applied to my reader. The author bios indicate a wide range of backgrounds and the site shows potential for being an interesting resource of critical thought. I look forward to seeing how it progresses.

1. Perhaps I’m overestimating the coverage of the lectures and tutorials, in which case I’ll probably be disappointed in the course.
2. Fortunately, this time I’m not one of those.
3. Groan.
4. Courtesy of Lorenzo, one of the authors there.

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