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.


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MARISSA LANDRIGAN teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh - Johnstown in Pennsylvania, which is the eighth state and fourth time zone she's called home in the last seven years. She received her MFA in Creative Writing & Environment from Iowa State University, where she completed a food memoir tentatively titled The Vegetarian's Guide to Eating Meat. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction, The Rumpus, Orion, Guernica, Diagram, Fringe, and elsewhere. She blogs about becoming un-vegetarian at wemeatagain.com

19 responses to “Field of Fallacies”

  1. “I stared, unblinking, for a few minutes at the statement.” That describes the entire Republican primary season for me.

    I can’t help but feel that the prevalence of communicating in social media shorthand has in some way contributed to this lack of formal communication processes. If it hasn’t already, then we are on our way. I can also see how politicians (and lots of other people) feel they can communicate the best by provoking people. It gets people’s attention.

    Loved this piece and how you wrote about how analysis and logic come into play. I learned a bit by this. So, thanks! Peace.

    • I agree about the influence of social media, too, Pete, if in no other way than it gives us the shorter attention spans that require provocative soundbites. I also see fairly frequently ‘text speak’ or otherwise overly casual language in student essays (“My aunt totally tore my uncle a new one” isn’t usually considered academic in tone) more often than I’d like.

  2. JohnO says:

    I lasted one year teaching freshman comp, and ran into many of the same problems you’re describing — which means I admire your patience for tackling the same problems over and over again.

    You’re right about the logical fallacies on the campaign trail. The one that bothers me the most, however, is name-calling. Instead of debating a proposal on its merits, far too many pundits and politicians try to pre-emptively derail any real discussion with an epithet. It leads to a culture of accusation, but as approval ratings of Congress shows, not to effective government.

    • Thanks for the comment, and support! Some fellow comp instructor friends and I were just the other day discussing how exhausting it can be to tackle the same problems with different students each year.

      The name-calling troubles me, too. Not only does it direct attention away from real issues, it can so easily be co-opted to transform the debate on such issues without actually bringing them up. If you attack someone for being “anti-American” often enough, it impacts their approval rating without you having to point out what they are actually doing wrong.

  3. Lowell says:

    I often tell my composition students, on the first day of class, that if you can write well, people will think you’re smart, even if you’re not. I thought that this was a very clever argument for convincing them to work hard in the class and take the ideas we would be studying to heart. It doesn’t seem to mean anything to most of them. Our thoughts seem to live at the surface. Like your vision, it’s always “on” and so you often allow things to pass by, unnoticed. It’s only “flashly” language from a comedian or actor or politician, designed to catch your eye, that you notice. I’d guess that this probably hasn’t changed much, even since the sepia-toned vision of the past Ron Paul remembers, where states rights meant blacks couldn’t vote. There’s a lot of logic in the civil rights movement that doesn’t add up for some folks. At the end of the day, the quality of the argument doesn’t always matter, just the convincing part does.

    • I try the same strategy, kind of in reverse, Lowell! I try to convince my students this is worth studying because people are communicating with you this way — and if you don’t have the skills to pick up on it, they may be convincing you to agree with things that don’t make sense/don’t coincide with your values, etc.

      But as you have found, this doesn’t seem much to matter to them. There’s a whole other essay there — the culture of “who cares?” that prides itself on a lack of awareness… or maybe it’s the same problem.

  4. Amy Monticello says:

    In which Amy repurposes Marissa’s dazzlingly detailed rhetorical analysis into a capstone lesson plan.

    Sometimes I make promises to myself about writing my own sample arguments/analyses to bring to class in order to illuminate the very fallacies you so deftly locate and decimate here. But the meta-level in this piece trumps anything I’ve ever thought of writing. There’s some high craft going on here, too–the parallel of what your students often do with what Republicans are doing is so well-structured, so carefully written. And at the same time, you analyze how this very practice is received by these populations, who call you an “indoctrinator.” That’s a major issue facing all non-tenured professors seeking to teach well, which, for most composition courses anyway, upending commonly held beliefs and the faulty logic behind them. It’s a dangerous practice in an anti-intellectual world. I’m so proud to know a teacher fighting this necessary fight. Let’s hope this gets picked up by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

    In the meantime, I’m bringing this straight to my students, who are about to begin their research essays. Thank you for writing this, Marissa. Thank you for teaching this way.

    • Thanks so much for the feedback, Amy! I’m so happy to know some teachers will find this piece useful. I have thought about trying to use it myself, but am dissuaded by my general distaste with the “read MY stuff” school of thinking, and, I’ll admit, afraid that my students might feel attacked by it. So I’ll be really interested to hear how it goes.

      A meta-effect I hadn’t anticipated: writing about this, and then continuing to go into that classroom two days a week, to see it develop, and to try and counteract it now that I have articulated the problem… A life’s journey. I so often feel like the two dual purposes of a teacher — to challenge and expand old ways of thinking, and to get student evals that retain employment — are in direct competition with each other. Would they were not.

  5. Becky Palapala says:

    One question, and maybe it’s in there and I missed it, as I’m reading on my phone, a habit fraught with pitfalls when it comes to comprehension: Do you believe these errors in logic are really a Republican problem, or are they a politician problem? Because the former seems like a dangerous declaration to make in an article that insists it’s interested in nothing but logical validity and cohesion. Like, there’s real potential for some irony, if not hypocrisy, here.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      I mean, I’m talking regardless of how you teach your students. It sounds like you’re implying, in the broader purpose of the essay, directed towards us, your non-student audience, that this kind of facile rhetorical junk food is primarily the territory of the right.

      Is that a correct take-away message?

      • It’s a great and valid question, Becky, and one I don’t address within the essay, which is most definitely GOP-focused. The answer is complicated, and hopefully doesn’t come off as evasive. No, I certainly do not think this is an exclusively Republican flaw. There are certainly individual Democratic politicians, as well as members of the liberal voting population who regularly make these kinds of flawed logical arguments.

        But neither do I think both parties are equally responsible. The reason I chose to focus the essay on the (modern day) Republican party is that their candidates, unlike most Democratic ones, publicly disparage the intellectualism that forms the basis of logical criticism. I believe the GOP’s rampant anti-intellectual culture not only feeds the pervasive notion that these kinds of logical issues are irrelevant, it also seems to rather actively celebrate the “just folks” nature of the uninformed, out of context, jest. I think of the “not intended to be a factual statement” defense here.

        Now, this is not to say one must be highly educated in order to value strong logic or to recognize flawed logic. But the modern day Republican party’s hatred of education, to me, begs the question: what are they so afraid of? Why do they — and in this way, Republican candidates are very much in contrast to the average Democrat — so badly want students NOT to go to college? They call what we do indoctrination. If what we are truly doing (and my colleagues and I know this to be true) is helping our students to become better at thinking for themselves — why wouldn’t every party be able to get behind that?

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I think the notion that anti-intellectualism or anti-academic…ism is primarily the territory of the right is also questionable.

          Anti-intellectualism tends not to be a function of political belief, necessarily, but who one is arguing with.

          If that is true, then attributing a person’s anti-intellectualism to their political bent is a fallacy–more a fallacy of perception than logic–called fundamental attribution error. Where you attribute a person’s behavior to something fundamentally wrong with their character or belief system while ignoring that there may be other circumstances involved while, were you in their shoes, you would take into account situational factors to rationalize your behavior.

          My general sense is that conservatives are not hostile towards intellectuals, but rather hostile towards liberals–who tend to be (or maybe more importantly, self-identify as) intellectual. Just as liberals are hostile towards intellectuals who disagree with them. Though there do not seem to be too many (publicly) of the latter. Probably at least in part because conservatives are less likely to identify as intellectual, even if they are, but for a host of other reasons as well, not the least of which is that, on the mean, in the American population, Republicans are less wealthy than liberals and may be less able to afford an education.

          As an intellectual conservative, I’m routinely accused of intellectual elitism by less academic liberals, but it takes on different names because of my political bent. Cynicism is one, ivory tower (this has the added bonus of implying that I have money, which I don’t) is another. The accusation, generally, when coming from a liberal is that reason and intellectualism is not compassionate (where a conservative might say that intellectualism is not virtuous; of course the functional difference between the two is all but negligible).

          So anti-intellectualism tends to come in and out of people’s pockets as they see fit. My general sense is that people aren’t anti-intellectual or pro-intellectual so much as they anti-people-they-disagree-with and pro-people-they-agree-with.

          I have many, many more thoughts on the relationships between various ideological bents and higher education, but for the time being, I think it’s enough to leave it here.

          • Becky Palapala says:

            with whom one is arguing*

          • Becky Palapala says:

            See also: Conservative perception that liberals are “anti-religion” because conservatives tend towards a heavily religious identity, and liberals are anti-conservative.

          • Becky, I think you’re absolutely right that “people aren’t anti-intellectual or pro-intellectual so much as they anti-people-they-disagree-with and pro-people-they-agree-with.”

            My issue with the modern day face of the GOP is that they intentionally conflate the two: Rick Santorum, for example, referring to the idea of receiving an education as a liberal, elitist plot. My tack in writing this piece, then, was to challenge that conflation. To question whether Rick Santorum thinks (or publicly appears to think) this way because he knows his logic doesn’t stand up to the critical thinking that would be taught in a college classroom.

            But I think I should also clarify that I am speaking here pretty much exclusively about the public face of the GOP — the politicians and elected officials taking this position — and not of conservative thinkers vs. liberal thinkers in general. Because certainly, we could find myriad examples of flawed logic, personal attack strategy and downright nuttiness on both sides of the aisle in the comments section of any op-ed.

            As for the notion, though, that “conservatives are less likely to identify as intellectual, even if they are, but for a host of other reasons as well,” I’m not actually sure the data to support the assertion that Republican voters tend to be less wealthy exists (feel free to point me at any if you know of it — that would make for a whole other interesting piece). The only formal survey that I know of along these lines targets the very wealthy (Forbes 400 here: http://pages.uoregon.edu/vburris/oldmoney.pdf) and so of course, doesn’t look at the mean.

            But that data suggest that the extremely wealthy are much more interested in supporting the Republican party. Given that we know those public faces of the Republican party (that I mention here, and that I intended to focus on), are members of this extremely wealthy population, I’m curious as to the question of WHY the party would choose to portray itself as anti-liberal via being anti-intellectual, given that these public faces are both wealthy and, frankly, highly educated?

            I would be hard-pressed to find examples of public Democratic figures decrying conservative figures for their preponderance of education — much as we might have examples of that personally. But Republic figures decrying liberal figures for that same value are many. To me, that suggests an intentional alignment of the values of conservativism with a lack of education. Perhaps this is because of the perception of these public figures that their voter base is less likely to be educated? I’m not sure.

            • I forgot to clarify also that I was particularly interested in the public perception of the GOP as anti-intellectual because of how attacked I have felt (indirectly) lately by virtue of being a college professor. I pushed back against the current crop of GOP candidates because they are the ones calling me an indoctrinator, when I know that the very purpose at the core of my teaching is to help my students be aware of this so that they might avoid it with critical thinking.

              I certainly don’t think that disdain of education or prevalence of flawed logic is endemic to conservativism. I’m consistently impressed, for example, with the thinking of writers like Andrew Sullivan and Roger Cohen (I think, precisely because they are willing to support conservative and liberal views by turn, depending on which they deem more logically sound).

              • Becky Palapala says:

                No one supports ideas they believe to be logically unsound. If they do, the result is cognitive dissonance, which is deeply uncomfortable. They will either change their position or promptly begin lying to themselves.

                You (and a lot of my liberal friends–looking at you, Listi!) like Andrew Sullivan. And why wouldn’t you? He agrees with you often.

                I like Camille Paglia. No shocker there. She’s a liberal who likes to stick it to other liberals. (And in hilarious fashion, I might add.)

                She is less popular with liberals (looking at you, Listi!).

                It’s confirmation bias (another perceptual fallacy). We hold in higher regard people who agree with us, more clearly and positively recall information that supports our existing positions, and actively avoid/reject/forget people and information that are/is toxic to our existing worldview.

            • Becky Palapala says:

              I came by the information about the overall wealth of Democrats vs. Republicans a couple of years ago during the course of some research about which group is more philanthropic (the answer came back Republicans, despite being less wealthy, so I stumbled upon it on accident).

              Here’s one of those articles citing the study I’m thinking of, though I can’t guarantee it’s THE article I originally looked at.


              Also, I’ve recently seen rumblings that congress reflects these trends. Congressional Democrats are wealthier than their Republican counterparts. I haven’t looked into that one.

              But indeed you are correct. The likelihood that a person will vote Republican rises sharply with increased wealth.

              The profoundly poor, profoundly religious, profoundly under-educated, considerably darker-skinned deep south is profoundly conservative.

              The relationship between their conservatism and those various other attributes is certainly open to debate, but one thing is for sure: It being the case that their voter base is folksy, it makes sense for them to be “folksy”.

              Of course a Democrat wouldn’t attack someone for having an education. Their voter base is more highly educated. It would be political suicide.

  6. […] a shameless plug. I have a new (totally non-food-related) essay up at The Nervous Breakdown on why presidential candidates need to remember what they learned in […]

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