Composite of photos of Javier Hidalgo, Jessica Flanigan, and Terry Price teaching

Philosophers Javier Hidalgo, Jessica Flanigan, and Terry Price teach courses on critical thinking and leadership ethics.

The Art of Thinking

January 17, 2024

“I think, therefore I am,” famously quipped 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes. At the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, philosophers Javier Hidalgo, Jessica Flanigan, and Terry Price push their students to do more than merely think, they push them to think critically. That is, to think well.

Hidalgo uses argument mapping to teach Critical Thinking and Methods of Inquiry (LDST 250), a required course in the leadership studies curriculum.

“Argument mapping visually demonstrates how reasoning should go in the text of an argument,” he said. “It involves drawing lines to show what different claims support, how they relate to each other, and how they get to the conclusion. To map an argument, students must read it carefully, understand its structure, evaluate its different parts, and then evaluate the conclusion.”

Students apply what they learn in argument mapping to their final paper, writing a persuasive argument on a topic of their choosing, he said. Then they rewrite their paper time and again until he is satisfied that their argument is sound.

Nandini Raisurana, ’25, said the argument mapping she learned in Hidalgo’s class will be an essential skill in her anticipated future legal career.

Students draw heavily on lessons learned in their Critical Thinking course when they take the Jepson School’s capstone course, Leadership Ethics (LDST 450).

“On the first day of Leadership Ethics, we take off the table the idea that there is no right answer to a moral question,” Flanigan said. “We approach moral questions with humility, knowing that people may disagree and we may not always get it right, but with the assurance that there is a truth about what we should do. There is a there, there.”

To help her students discern that moral truth for themselves, she promotes participatory learning. They read assignments and respond to ethical questions on a social-learning platform before coming to class. In class, they join in debates, responding to her prompts by moving around the room based on their stance on ethical questions. After class, they practice applying their ethical convictions to their own lives through what Flanigan calls “purpose projects.”

In one purpose project, for example, every time students spend money, they write a short note explaining why they chose to make that purchase instead of giving the money to a person in need. Their final assignment involves writing a 3,500-word essay on a moral question they care about.

“I tell them, ‘This will be the best essay you’ve ever written,’” she said, “They meet with me in-person and ask questions while I grade their essays. It’s an active process. Some of my students have had their essays published.”

Similarly, Price requires students in his Critical Thinking and Leadership Ethics classes to be active learners. He challenges them to defend their positions during classroom debates modeled on the Socratic method. His Leadership Ethics students write papers in conversation with other students in which they critique philosophers’ essays on ethical leadership questions.

“I’m thinking on my feet too,” Price said. “My students may ask a question or give a critique I hadn’t considered before. We’re processing these questions together, and they are developing the skills to defend their arguments. In their final paper, they become the lead actor, with their argument driving the paper.”

“Dr. Price’s Critical Thinking class is one of the most challenging classes I’ve taken at Richmond,” said Cheryl Oppan, ’25. “Now when I overhear a conversation while walking through the Commons, I don’t just hear sentences anymore, I hear arguments. When I debate someone, I now construct logical arguments and rebuttals.”

Cooper Woods, ’25, agreed. “You’re thinking about how you’re thinking.”