Topic: Teaching

Ill Logic

Confronting the Shoddy Reasoning that Helps Perpetuate Injustice

“You’re wrong.” So easy. So futile. In the annals of philosophical, theological, religious, social, and political debate, it seems unlikely that any adversary has ever found this persuasive. When it comes to matters of justice, we need to show, not merely tell.

Personal accounts with a strong emotional dimension can be persuasive. But, especially for those who do not identify with the victims of a given injustice, these seem to have their limits. To the bafflement of many among us, some resist acknowledging that certain protest movements do in fact raise legitimate concerns. Debunking illogic may hold the key.

Below I have explained six of the logical fallacies that I myself have consistently encountered among those who struggle to grasp the current gravity of racial injustice in the U.S., although these observations are certainly applicable to other forms of denial about injustice. My labels for these logical fallacies are original. The ideas are not. My hope is that, by calling attention to them, others can help friends distinguish legitimate objections from illegitimate ones.

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Dressed to Impress

Contending with Sophistry in the Classroom

“So refined that only fools cannot perceive it,” the salesmen said of the emperor’s new clothing, in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of that name. Afraid to be thought a fool, the emperor smiled, nodded, and pretended to see it. So did those around him, driven by that same fear. From his advisors down to the townspeople, everyone pretended to perceive what wasn’t there. In love with the idea of his own imaginary attire, the emperor paraded through town—until one brazenly honest small child declared the truth: the emperor was naked.

In their pretentious use of language, too, people can be unwittingly naked, metaphorically speaking. For the purposes of this essay, let us define unnecessarily complex and unclear communication as sophistry in the broadest sense. How can we college educators avoid it? How can we encourage our students to do the same? And how should we respond when we encounter it?


The Philosopher as Brazen Child

The men of Athens (or, more precisely, a narrow majority of them) killed Socrates for making them feel like fools. By contrast, the philosopher’s competition, the Sophists, were wildly popular. Their secret? They didn’t care about the truth. They cared about winning arguments and being popular. Such things can be useful tools; but when they supplant the pursuit of truth, they can also serve as distractions or worse—as in the case of those sighing into the emperor’s ear, “Ah, yes! What beautiful seams and stitching!”


The Student as Sometime Sophist

The path of the Sophists is a temptation for a significant number of college students. In their writing and presentations, and even during some class discussions, a certain kind of student seems keener to sound impressive than to communicate clearly.

This baffled me at first. After all, according to Forbes, The Huffington Post, and numerous other cultural commentators, authenticity ranks among millennials’ most deeply held values. Few things could be less authentic than sophistry. For some millennials, projecting an image of authenticity matters more than actually being authentic. One must forgive certain cultural observers and advertisers for confusing the two. Counterfeits can be convincing.

Why do some students prefer to be impressive rather than clear? Perhaps it is human nature. The problem is at least as old as Socratic philosophy. We academics are often part of the problem. Countless journal articles and conference presentations are erudite to the point of being nearly incomprehensible, even for fellow insiders in a given field. It is easier to smile, nod, and not be thought a fool.

Why? Why do many of us and our subfields cultivate needlessly complicated ways of saying things, as if this were a virtue? Some of us like to sound impressive, even if it means excluding others from the conversation. Or, perhaps, for the very reason that this does, in fact, exclude some people from the conversation. Language is, after all, an exercise of power. Worse still, I fear that we academics often risk saying nothing in particular. In a culture where anti-intellectualism runs rampant, we often have ourselves to blame. (For a fuller discussion of this problem, see Steven Pinker, Eric Charles, Joshua Rothman, and others. A recent Economist article explores the linguistic dimension of such issues.)


Degrees of Sophistry

There are varying degrees of guilt when sophistry is at work. First-degree sophistry is a premeditated choice. By definition, liars know that they are lying. It can become a way of life. This was the case for the salesmen of the emperor’s new clothing in the fairy tale; or, if you prefer, the role of the fake Rolex salesman in the subway station. A variation of this, still very much premeditated, is that of the impressive person who speaks, indifferent to whether what they are saying is true or not, neither knowing nor caring, because truth is not the point. Educators must convince first-degree sophists that their path is less effective (i.e., not actually impressive) and less purposeful than the clear, straightforward articulation of one’s position, even if this involves frequently admitting the limits of one’s knowledge. Our task is to lead by example (saying “I don’t know!”) and to teach them that sophistry does not really work. At the very least, we must avoid rewarding such behavior.

Second-degree sophistry is a spontaneous action. Like first-degree sophists, the second-degree variety know what they are doing. But the distinction is that there is a greater chance that they regret their actions, once taken. One might spread it actively by perpetrating it or passively by permitting it. Many of the emperor’s advisors and the townspeople were examples of the latter. They knew, deep down, that he was naked, but they chose to act otherwise. Our task is to remind students why sophistry is wrong: it is intellectually dishonest. We must apologize when we fall into it ourselves. How tempting it is to say something impressive rather than something truly straightforward!

Third-degree sophistry is accidental. This is the intellectual equivalent of manslaughter. The perpetrators are not deliberately unclear and confusing. They believe that they are saying something meaningful. Perhaps they do know what they mean, but in some cases it appears that they don’t understand what they are saying. Such students find themselves in the position of the emperor. Rather than offer a blanket critique, I find it more effective to highlight specific, confusing phrases. “What did you mean by saying X?” I ask, to which most reply with one of two responses. In the case of, “I just meant to say [more conversational alternative],” I can reply, “Why didn’t you just say that?” Or, if a student responds with a shrug, we might best suggest omitting the passage in question.


Breaking with Socrates

In dealing with self-aware liars, carelessly inaccurate show-offs, and the incorrect but genuinely oblivious, we must take care. So worthy of emulation elsewhere, Socrates may fall short of what college students in any of those categories need.

Historically speaking, Socrates’ method was not merely the asking of questions in the pursuit of truth; it was the public exposing of intellectual fraud. Public figures deserve public scrutiny, but students deserve a gentler approach. Our reproaches should be gentle and clear, best delivered after class, in office hours, and in written comments. Socratic or not, anything less is bad pedagogy and likely to yield more resentment than results.

No one wants to feel foolish. No one wants to be exposed as a fraud. Yet this world needs more brazen innocents to embarrass the rest of us. How else can we learn to face the truth? We all require intellectual humility to accept such awkward moments with gratitude and grace. Otherwise, we risk falling in love with the praise of our peers and superiors, praise for substance that is merely imaginary.

The Journey vs. the Map

Engaging Diversity in the Humanities Classroom

What does it mean to truly know something? And how can we humanities educators help our undergraduate students grow in their knowledge of themselves, others, and life? Many of us face classrooms embodying a wide range of backgrounds. This is true both in terms of students’ demographics and in terms of their levels of educational preparation. In some fields, the latter might be a liability, but in ours it is a potential asset, due to the nature of knowledge and the power of diversity. Our challenge is to harness that potential.

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Perverse Incentives

What College Rankings Actually Do

American colleges and universities rise and fall based on their rising and falling in a handful of rankings. This is true to a significant extent in terms of their finances, reputations, and general welfare. Up and up or down and down, as goes its rank, so goes the university. U.S. News and World Report’s is the most influential. Forbes, The Princeton Review, and others offer alternatives with slightly different methodologies and surprisingly similar results. All purport to demonstrate which colleges and universities have the best academic programs. All of them fail to do so. By virtue of measuring many things unrelated to quality of education, they incentivize the diverting of resources away from educating students.

The established rankings show institutional wealth, both directly and indirectly. They also show an institution’s popularity, both among prospective students, enrolled students, and faculty at peer institutions. Many also emphasize how well their incoming students performed in high school, shown by grades and standardized test scores. The rankings show little else. But by providing the illusion of demonstrating educational quality, the rankings incentivize many things but not support for the actual quality of education at any given institution.

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An Imaginary Education

The Shaping of Three Generations of Students’ Expectations Through Fiction

 Every fall semester since I began teaching college full-time, I have been struck by how freshmen’s expectations have the potential to set them up for success or failure. In particular, I have seen how students’ understanding of what college can and should be has been defined by the fictional campuses they have encountered in film and television. We children of the 1980s have different expectations than Millenials. Whatever generation comes after them will be equally defined by the presence or absence of engaging fictional places of learning.

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Women’s History is for Everyone

Shame on Us Menfolk for Having Ever Thought Otherwise

It’s funny how some insights, once painfully acquired, become painfully obvious. Under all of its various guises, women’s history is for everyone. Not all of us need to be experts in it; but none of us should ignore it.

The study of the recorded past has tended to be the study of those in power. The study of history has thus been – and to a large extent remains – the study of men. Because women have been marginalized from power throughout most of the recorded past, they have often been excluded from narratives about what has mattered throughout human history and why things are the way that they are.

Considering that most people throughout the past, recorded and otherwise, have not been men in power, historians have been wearing some significant blinders by overlooking women and the powerless. This has begun to change, but a few years of attention after centuries of neglect hardly counts as equal treatment.

To the extent that those of us who study the past (and who study the study of the past) hope to derive knowledge and truth from that study, our vision will continue to be limited unless we consider those on the margins. Otherwise, we cannot claim to understand the whole picture clearly or even blurrily.

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Know Thy Neighbor

Reflections on Class with Maya Angelou; In Memoriam

We know the great ones among us both by their presence when they are with us and by their palpable absence when they are gone. I write this still unsure how to respond to the death of Maya Angelou. I don’t know, except that I have some remembering to do.

In the spring of 2001, a few months shy of my graduation from Wake Forest, I enrolled in “World Poetry in Dramatic Performance.” The pass/fail course was exactly what its title sounds like it would be: students reading poems in a performance setting. Some might ask, what could be more useless? Is this not the very decadent navel gazing that has fated the humanities to irrelevance?

In fact, few courses have been as useful to me. This is because it embodied the very essence of the humanities: to passionately and effectively communicate the verse of another is to perceive for oneself and to share with others some insight into the human condition. Granted, this was a high risk/high reward scenario. A class on how to read poetry could be terrible. Fortunately, we were in good hands.

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Autospection is not Introspection

Helping Students Look Critically Within

This is the Age of the Selfie. We live in an image-obsessed society. A significant slice of the global economy is driven by individuals’ hunger to appear better: better than those around them or at least better than their current selves; better in their own eyes and better in the eyes of others. By definition, “image” and “appearance” are superficial things, as opposed to identity and substance.

Many of my students are rich with self-esteem. They look at themselves. Engaging in this autospection – sorry, nothing to do with looking at cars – and they like what they see. Yet far fewer demonstrate significant evidence of introspection or its fruit, self-knowledge, whether in terms of the strengths and weaknesses of their character or their reasons for believing what they believe about Ultimate Things.

I take for granted that we should work in the classroom to cultivate self-knowledge. No community of faith, liberal arts educational institution, democracy, or marriage can thrive without individuals who understand themselves. This is not the only thing that matters in such contexts. But a reflective attitude towards ourselves is a useful tool and a helpful curb against hubris. True self-knowledge is the antithesis of self-worship, for it imbues its possessors with a keen awareness of their own limitations, including their fragility and fallibility.

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Socratic vs. Confucian Pedagogy

Teaching like the Sages in the Classroom and Online

A friend of mine teaching English in China once shared the insight, no doubt unoriginal, that Socrates serves as the paradigmatic educator in the West, whereas Confucius serves that role in the East. Having long studied and taught Socrates, I have finally studied and taught Confucius. I spent all of my upbringing and most of my young adulthood in the classroom as a student. I have spent the better part of my professional life in the classroom as an educator. I am ready to weigh the relative strengths and weaknesses of both models, as well as the counterfeits of each.

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Wonder, Wander, Win

A Professor’s Letter to First-Year College Students

Dear Freshmen,

Congratulations! You are embarking on a journey. The people and ideas you encounter and the experiences you have will define you for many years to come. The risks are great, but so are the potential rewards. Some of you have already undertaken great sacrifice to make it this far.

Many students succeed. Others fail academically and some – not necessarily those who fail academically – fail at life. As someone who primarily teaches college freshmen, I have seen what works. I have discerned some general principles to help you increase your odds for success, academically, vocationally, and personally.

Those of you who are my students, you are likely to hear parts of this from me in person. Enjoy this condensed version. Those of you who are not in my classroom, I hope you may benefit from these insights regardless. (And dear parents of my students, if you are listening in, this is a glimpse of what your children are in for.)

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