As a writer with a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing, I make most of my living teaching composition, argument and rhetoric to college students. This means I have the often-unenviable job of pointing out to students when their thinking is flawed, which in this era of anti-intellectualism is a dangerous and radical idea.
The culminating project in my argument class is a researched proposal argument, in which students are asked to identify a problem affecting one of their communities, research the problem from a variety of perspectives, and propose a solution that mediates the needs of several alternative views. That’s the theory of the assignment, at any rate. The reality of the assignment is that students march into the assignment with a solution, and find the research they believe supports their idea, writing a proposal that looks more like an editorial, and usually ignores anyone who might have disagreed with them in the first place.
Last semester, I conferenced with a student in the planning stages of her assignment whose proposed solution was that the U.S. government should abolish welfare because it would encourage more people to find jobs.
I take these early conferences as an opportunity to guide students, to point out to them the potential logical holes a dissenting audience would try to poke in their argument, to suggest further research, and to help them strengthen their initial proposal. I never, ever tell students that they are wrong, which often requires some delicate dancing. To this student, I wondered whether she may be intending to write about a different government benefits program. Unemployment, perhaps? Food stamps? I tried, as kindly as possible, to indicate to her that there is actually a work requirement to receive government welfare.
“So, someone who disagreed with this statement would be able to attack your reason,” I pointed out, “Because your solution wouldn’t have this desired outcome if the desired outcome already exists under the welfare program.”
These are the kinds of comments that get me accused at least once every semester, on a student evaluation, of “pushing a liberal agenda” in my class. But I do it anyway, even sometimes at peril to my career, because it is, in fact, my job to make students better thinkers and writers, to make sure they can recognize a logical flaw where it exists, even if in their own thinking.
Do more research, I told this student. Find out all that welfare dictates. And then reform your thesis statement to include a reason your dissenting audience might agree with.
Late in the semester, I received the final draft of her proposal argument. The first body paragraph detailed all the welfare work requirements she had discovered in the course of her research. Her thesis statement was exactly the same as it had been during our conference. She had railroaded her argument to the belief system with which she began the assignment, even in the face of research disproving it.
I went home that afternoon pretty dejected, frustrated that my students seemed so unwilling to change their minds even when presented with direct evidence in opposition. That afternoon, I read GOP campaign coverage in The New York Times in which Newt Gingrich made several comments regarding his proposal to abolish child labor laws.
His reasons started with what he called facts: “Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods,” Gingrich said, “have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works, so they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash’ unless it’s illegal.”
I stared, unblinking, for a few minutes at the statement. Certainly, I was appalled that anyone would propose allowing young children to work. Of course, I thought his suggestion that these “really poor kids” could easily find work as janitors in their own school to be mean-spirited if nothing else.
But the real reason I was so upset by Gingrich’s statement was that it looked remarkably similar to something a student of mine would have written. I stared at that quote and thought to myself, if a student of mine put this in a paper, I would be so disappointed in them. I would circle it and write “unsupported generalization” in the margins. I would write “proof?”
How can I expect anything better of my students when Newt Gingrich, a high-profile politician, an incredibly wealthy man, and a viable candidate for the most powerful position in the world, can get away with using this kind of unsupported logic in public?
If Gingrich were a student of mine, here’s what I would have said, careful not to suggest that I actually disagree with his thesis statement. First, I would caution him against the use of absolute terms, words like “no” and “nobody,” both of which imply that his assertion is universally true. The moment your audience can find a really poor kid in a really poor neighborhood who does have a positive role model for work habits, I would warn, the entire statement is undermined. I might have suggested to my student that he try using qualifying words like “mostly” or “many,” to avoid this issue, though even that would probably not go far enough towards correcting the flawed underlying assumption to the argument.
Or I might have pointed out to my student that a dissenting audience—who is all we ever write for in a good argument class, as arguing to people who already agree with you is a waste of everyone’s time—would likely be able to provide an alternate solution to the problem. We know our audience to be the voting American public, and we know they share our values of hard work and personal responsibility.
If we could reasonably assume that this audience would agree with us on the existence of this problem—that there aren’t enough job opportunities in our country right now, and that some people, in the face of economic desperation, turn to illegal activities—would our audience be able to come up with a solution less controversial than that of sending the children of these parents to work?
It’s certainly not just Gingrich whose logical missteps are similar to those of my composition students. At a recent campaign event, Rick Santorum explained his decision to significantly reduce the amount of food stamps provided by the federal government with the following statement: “If hunger is a problem in America,” Santorum said, “then why do we have an obesity problem among the people who we say have a hunger program?”
If I were Santorum’s teacher, I would probably first indicate that the statement is a bit unclear. Who does he mean by “the people who we say have a hunger problem”? Does a clearer definition of the category of “hungry people” exist? I would first suggest he clarify this terminology for his audience. Then, I would indicate he might need to do more research in order to present evidence of the existence of the hunger problem and the obesity problem, in order to demonstrate a correlation between those two populations.
But even assuming that a correlation did exist, I would comment in the margins, this statement demonstrates the fallacy of false cause, or the non sequitur, which incorrectly assumes that one thing is the cause of another thing. Santorum is arguing that if poor Americans are obese, they cannot also be hungry. Has any research been done, I would ask him, to conclude that hunger and obesity can actually co-exist?
Similarly, Ron Paul’s belief system that the federal government need not participate in almost any state-level decision-making (which he refers to as an opposition to mandates) suffers frequently from a fallacy of composition known as the ‘from each to all,” fallacy. Paul often argues that since the constituent parts of our country (the states) have, from time to time, managed without federal intervention, all states should be able to function in this way all the time.
For example, when advocating the abolition of FEMA, Paul said, “I live on the gulf coast, we deal with hurricanes all the time. The local people rebuild the city. Built a sea wall and they survived without FEMA. We should be like 1900, we should be like 1940, 1950, 1960.”
In a planning conference with Ron Paul, I would probably suggest he perform additional research to discover whether instances of hurricanes exist during which the federal government’s assistance did help a state rebuild. I would also likely remind him of our STAR criteria for evidence, in which the T stands for timeliness, and ask that he make sure to have an example more recent than fifty years ago.
The best I could do with Mitt Romney would be to ask him to perhaps be a bit more precise in his language, to avoid accusations from a dissenting audience, of the fallacy of false dilemma. At a campaign event in Florida last summer, after listening to a crowd of middle-aged, middle-class citizens discuss their difficulties in finding jobs in the current economic downturn, Romney tried to make a joke and fell prey to this logical flaw.
“I should tell my story,” Romney said. “I’m also unemployed.”
The room, even full of Romney supporters, what we might call an audience of believers, paused silently. Had I the chance to work with Romney on his speech ahead of time, I might have cautioned that his imprecise use of language drew a dichotomy between having a job and not having a job that may not accurately represent the conflict in question.
Assuming that everyone who doesn’t have a job is unemployed, just as assuming that everyone who isn’t with you is against you, assumes that employed and unemployed are the only two options. But I would ask Mr. Romney if he imagines that everyone in his target audience would agree that those two positions are mutually exclusive. I would ask him whether there is any grey area, any in between, that might make his version of unemployed meaningfully different from the experiences of other unemployed people.
Mitt Romney, if he were a student of mine, might have felt challenged by my questions. He might assume that I asked because I disagreed with him, rather than because I wanted to encourage him to envision a more nuanced version of the situation.
While I may disagree with the fundamental values expressed in these examples, my professional concern is far greater than my personal concern. I know these men are candidates running for the office of the President in the age of new media, and that part of being electable in this age means being capable of producing sound bites. I know they are speaking to a television audience with a short attention span, and don’t always feel it necessary to explain their positions in supported, logical detail.
But there are consequences to these oversimplifications that are far greater than free media air time. The way the candidates speak has produced a generation of students who also think that way. They don’t really understand the nuance and complexity of these issues, and instead resort to repeating only what they have heard from other sources. They think national healthcare will lead to death panels, that welfare is for lazy people, that taxing capital gains is punishing the risk-taker. The candidate’s shorthand becomes a social misunderstanding.
And when men running for the office of the President of the United States talk this way in public, it convinces my students this is an acceptable level of thinking. If our leaders don’t have to try harder, why should they?
Rick Santorum has accused President Obama many times over of ‘elitist snobbery’ because the President suggested that every child in America should have the opportunity to attend college. Santorum took issue with this because, as he said, “The indoctrination that occurs in American universities is one of the keys to the left holding and maintaining power in America.”
I’m used to being accused of indoctrinating my students into my liberal way of thinking. When I challenge the thinking of a conservative position, students assume I am doing so because of my own liberal viewpoints.
But it is my job to instruct students as to the standards of solid logic, to challenge them to rigorously analyze structure, evidence, and rhetoric, and that demand holds true whether the flawed logical assumptions are liberal or conservative. So forgive me and my colleagues, Mr. Santorum, if in demanding that our students think smarter, I’m making you and your conservative cohorts look bad.
But I demand better thinking than you demonstrate from my students—whatever their political persuasion. I require that they perform intensive research. I ask them consistently to place themselves in the shoes of an unfamiliar audience, a dissenting audience; I ask them to think from the points of view of the people who think differently than them. I insist that they develop complex, sophisticated thesis statements and support them with concrete evidence and ideas that share the values of a diverse audience.
Most of all, I tell them, I want their arguments to be welcoming and inclusive. By being unafraid of the difficult work of examining our own misperceptions, we can actually achieve the relative miracle of reaching out to someone different from ourselves. We might actually be able to convince someone if we treat their views and values with respect, if we hold ourselves to high standards.
There’s only so much I can do on my own. I will never stop having planning conferences, or making far too many detailed notes on rough drafts, or suggesting additional sources and research paths to pursue. Almost none of my students are English majors, and so when they leave my office hours, and go home to catch five minutes of the nightly news, or hear a Presidential debate in the background at the student union, and they hear the future leaders of their country speaking in the same way they did in their rough drafts, they will not listen to me. They will shrug or roll their eyes when I make suggestions. They will imagine my standards are too high. They will parrot Rick Santorum and call me an indoctrinator.
If wishing that the men running for President would hold themselves to the standards of college freshmen makes me an elitist liberal snob, well, then, I’ll take it.