Community, Critical Thinking, Dialogue, equity, Free Speech, Inclusion, Uncategorized

The Age of the Straw Man

Two of the six core values that support Western Connecticut State University’s mission are:

  • Dialogue. We value the conversations that explore diverse perspectives and encourage shared understanding.
  • Respect. We value the right of all people to be treated with dignity and fairness and expect this in our policies, classrooms, and community.

These statements reveal a campus that has embraced the difficult and exciting discussions that follow when people of different social, political, and cultural backgrounds gather to address current and ancient societal debates.  This is who we are, and these values should be at the heart of any educational organization. But acceptance of the challenge of exploring differences in civil and thoughtful ways may need more support than just open minds and empathy.  Given the preponderance of fallacious arguments in the ether, it may be time to commit to some direct instruction in informal logic.

For the uninitiated, informal logic springs from the field of philosophy (also embraced in writing and communication curriculum), that provides a toolkit for examining arguments for structure and validity. Much like the old grammatical diagrams that were once used in the teaching of English (helping to break down nouns, verbs and connecting parts of speech), informal logic allows us to diagram arguments in terms of claims, support for those claims and conclusions. This diagramming is a great way to identify places where the supporting evidence or facts under discussion may have strayed from the initial claim or premise.

I recall my first encounter with informal logic as an undergraduate at Hunter College in the 1980s.  Sitting in a room of over 100 students listening to Dr. James Freeman introduce the structure of argument I felt a light go on.  For years, I had felt like there were problems with the statements/beliefs/worldviews that I encountered, but I could not figure out what was wrong.  These diagrams of arguments were a first step to uncovering the weaknesses or other leaps not supported by the claims I regularly faced. That course changed my life.

Now the field of logic has many nuances that most of us will never really dig into or fully understand, but the basics should be accessible to us all.  Among the basic concepts is the idea of a fallacy.  Simply put, fallacies are irrelevant evidence for a claim.  They are included as evidence, with no real bearing on the debate. They are distractions, keeping us from examining the central claim.  Typical examples are ad hominem fallacies (attacking the speaker instead of the argument), false dichotomy (setting up an argument around two choices, when many others are possible), or appeals to authority (invoking opinions of famous people, who may or may not have a connection to the actual topic).  Learning to see these tricks is incredibly helpful as one tries to evaluate a substantive issue.

One particular fallacy that seems to be dominating our lives right now is the straw man. The straw man fallacy is a way of distorting the central claim of an argument and then arguing against the distortion, rather than the actual claim. This tactic usually relies on taking things out of context or exaggerating the initial claim.    Since any example I give at this point is likely to draw some kind of bias claim, I will relate a totally unintended version that happened in an interaction with a six-year-old, twenty years ago. The six- year-old (let’s call her Sally) came to play with my daughter some time in mid-December.  The two began to discuss holiday plans and decorations. At some point, Sally stated that “everyone” would be going to church on Christmas Eve.  Since our family would not be heading to church, I interjected, “You mean everyone who celebrates Christmas.”  Sally responded, “You mean you hate Jesus?”

Sally was not malicious.  Her words were the innocent observations of a child who had never encountered a non-Christian before. I will not say things were easy to clarify, she was young and I wanted to be gentle, but we sorted things out.  However, I think you can see that in malicious hands, this statement is an interpretation of my words that was not in any way accurate.  In adult hands, with intention, this can become very ugly indeed.

This is a strategy that is dominating political arguments from all directions (left, right, and everywhere in between).  You name the issue (environment, immigration, gun control, healthcare, equity, etc.) and you will find a plethora of straw man arguments designed to distract us from the central argument.  At their worst, they are baiting us into discussions that are entirely false or at best, beside the point.  This is not a good state of affairs.

So what of my university’s values?  Well, like all universities, we are engaged in conversations like the one I had with Sally. In nearly every course, we challenge our assumptions about how the world is, was, or should be organized. Whether studying chemistry, biology, criminology, marketing, or history, students and faculty will uncover long held ideas and assumptions that may need to be reconsidered. Our task, then, is to insure that the reconsideration does not go astray with straw man arguments, or any other kind of fallacy.

To put it more plainly, when we ask ourselves to grapple with ideas that contradict everything we have known to be true, we may feel discomfort. That discomfort should not drive us to tactics that distort the question.  We should not start casting complex debates as either/or, us/them, and allow them to be reduced to slogans. We cannot allow simplistic, straw man fallacies, to distract us from our commitment to reasoned discourse on all issues. If keeping this commitment means more instruction in logic for all of us, let’s do it!

 

Critical Thinking, Dialogue, Free Speech

Are you listening?

On Friday evening, I attended the annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture where I  had the pleasure of hearing Nadine Strossen, professor of law at New York Law School and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, discuss the subject of her most recent book, Hate: Why We Should Resist it with Free Speech, not Censorship Strossen is a dynamic speaker and as she wove her legal arguments into a general semantics context, I was struck by the tremendous responsibility educators have for the cultivation of rational discourse.

Strossen’s arguments were clear and persuasive.  Having looked at the impact of legislation designed to limit hate speech (e.g., EU, Canada, New Zealand), she observes that these limits have done nothing to stop hateful actions, which should be the goal.  The most recent assassination attempt at the Halle synagogue in Germany tells the tale.  Germany has some of the strongest restrictions on hate speech.  It is also seeing a rise in anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and nationalistic attitudes, despite these restrictions.

Restrictions on (hate) speech are ineffective at best, and may be inadvertently supporting hateful acts at worst.  How? By sending those who spout hateful views underground.  Banning of hate groups from the Internet does not stop the hate group, it just moves them to a new site, frequently hidden from view.  Recent attempts to do just that after the Charlottesville incident were problematic at best. Strossen suggested that the best way to address hate is to surface it so that there is a chance for dialogue, understanding, or, at the very least, the ability to identify those who are spouting hateful views.

Members of the Institute of General Semantics present that evening largely accepted the proposition that limits on speech are problematic.  There were feelings of discomfort as we wrestled with the power of the language of bigotry.  As students of language, we know that our words do not just reflect our feelings, but also construct our worlds.  The very use of biased language can re-enforce racist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes.  It can also legitimize those attitudes, just in the speaking.  Yet, banning that speech will not stop it: it will only hide it. Hearing of these attitudes offers us all the opportunity to ask why they exist and how they might be changed.

There was also some consternation about people in power using hate speech.  This is particularly relevant when we consider our hyper-connected social media world.  Facebook recently announced that it was not in the censorship business and they would not stop political ads that have false statements in them.  While this may seem absurd, and perhaps plays into the hands of unscrupulous politicians, Strossen suggested that seeing those ads allows us to better judge the candidate.  Leaving them out in the open allows us to evaluate biases, faulty assumptions, and poorly supported arguments, and be better informed about who or what we are actually voting for/against.  She may have a point.

I embrace Strossen’s perspective but recognize some of the challenges that living with freedom of speech presents.  One of the critical components to having freedom of speech be a social good is our ability to decode and validate information.  The demand for this evaluative capacity has never been stronger than right now.  We have undermined the many structures that helped us sort information in the past (editors, community leaders, investigative reporting, even just plain old time) while at the same time providing easy access to communication platforms (Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Wikipedia and, well the Internet) with algorithms to lead the way.  This means all of our education structures K-12 through Ph.D. must continuously re-enforce the tools necessary for evaluating information.

Given the urgency of the situation, and it is urgent if we want an informed citizenry to guide policy of any kind,  those of us in higher education might want to re-group and more specifically address these analytical skills.  Strossen referenced the demands on her law students, noting that they didn’t just need to know one argument, but must present as many counter-arguments as possible. Maybe we need to do the same in all of our classes.  Perhaps it is time for debate across the curriculum, with a real emphasis on putting evidence in context.

But there is more to consider than the art of well-reasoned debate.  The potential for understanding that freedom of speech makes available, no matter how controversial, can only be realized if we are willing to listen. Sadly, we don’t seem to be particularly good at this part of the equation.  This morning, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on students burning books after the author’s presentation in Georgia, University of Wisconsin moving to crack down on disruptive protestors (shutting down speech), and a case of a dean being dismissed for some remarks on Twitter (or so it appears).  None of these examples reflect a willingness to listen to speech that challenges our values and assumptions.  This is not a good state of affairs.

The true value of that first amendment will not be realized by covering our ears, liking only posts that support our views, tuning in only to those channels that resonate with our values.  We have to resist this habit of cocooning ourselves in our favorite ideas and excluding those that offend.  This is vitally important in a university context, where students have the time and support to question assumptions from everywhere.

I agree with Strossen’s support of the first amendment.  We should hold onto that Constitutional right with all our might.  But just letting everyone speak isn’t enough. We also have to take some responsibility for the conversations that should ensue.  Let’s engage the difficult, probe our assumptions, and try our very best to understand those ideas that offend our sensibilities.  If we are willing to listen to the diversity of ideas that surround us, we just might find a place to begin sorting through our differences after all.

 

 

 

Critical Thinking, Dialogue, Thinking

The Opposite of Twitter

This week I deleted the Twitter app from my phone.  It probably won’t stick.  I will find myself wanting to know what folks are saying or what is prompting the “arguments” that are taking place in the media and in grocery store checkout lines.  Nevertheless, I have deemed this particular communication format to be an anger-accelerant and not healthy for our society.

This is not my usual way. As a media ecologist, I have a habit of examining all new communication platforms via plusses and minuses or winners and losers.  I consider the concerns Socrates expressed about the invention of writing (no one will know anything if they just look it up), and remember that I still like books. I consider the observations of Marshall McLuhan who suggested that we focus on the medium instead of the message, and the analysis of Susanne Langer, who detailed propositional (emotional) vs. presentational (logical) forms, and think what they might make of today’s media environment.  I review Neil Postman’s argument that television redefines public discourse in such a way that prioritizes amusement over analysis, and consider how that has been heightened when everyone interacts with that “entertainment” format. I have always taken cues from their observations, and tried to reflect deeply on how our shifts in communication environments may be changing us. I don’t just dismiss things.

As social media took over the world, I took just such an approach. As my children and I dove into Facebook, I did not just worry about the bullying that could occur there; I also looked at the connections that were maintained over distances and time that once were lost to geographic changes.  The dangers of the algorithms are real, but there are some redeeming qualities. As I pondered Instagram, I observed that although it is well used by influencers hawking products, it is also a fun place for families to share updates on children, grandchildren, travel, etc.  But as I observe what is happening with Twitter, well, I am out.

Here’s the thing, Twitter encourages all of us speak in headlines.  For newspapers, radio, and television, headlines are meant to be a tease to get you to learn more.  In all of those media, the art of the headline is to frame issues in the most heightened state of conflict or disagreement so that people will buy the paper or tune into your network (yes, they sell a product). Ostensibly, that follow-up step would lead to a greater understanding of an issue than reading the headlines revealed. This sometimes happened. As television and radio news moved into 24 news cycles (CNN, FOX, MSNBC), the agonistic tones intensified and, although the time allotted to the stories was significant, the snippets that most people heard were shout downs between commentators and guests, rather than a true exploration of the story.  Twitter doesn’t even try to get to the full story. It is only the shout down.

Last week I realized that even people that I know and love are behaving badly on Twitter.  They have embraced the format and tweet responses of outrage to everything that offends their sensibilities.  In the process, their tweets are promoting petty and divisive approaches to all topics.  Since I know these people to be smart and well read on the issues they tweet about, I must conclude that Twitter is the problem.  It is all sensational headlines with no opportunity for dialogue.

Now some of you might be thinking that Twitter could lead us to the dialogue, but I don’t think so.  It is not what it is designed to do.  It is the perfect response and distraction medium, keeping us engaged in the next tweet, with no time left for research.  Even those who do their research about an issue continue to communicate in this abridged and inflammatory way. There appears to be no real motivation to go into the details of a story in rational tones. No, this just won’t do.

In higher education, our job is to do the opposite of Twitter.  We are tasked with helping students (and ourselves) see the full argument, not these truncated and fallacious syllogisms. We must learn to dig in and uncover as many assumptions as we can. Then we must examine the supporting and contradictory evidence before forming an opinion or drawing a conclusion. This is where true argument and debate live.

True argument (as opposed to shouting matches) is what we should be fostering at all levels of education, because if we don’t do it, there will be no opportunity to develop these skills in our citizens. There are just too many distractions outside of our halls. The world is facing serious questions about how to organize our efforts around climate, poverty, mental & physical health, economy, equity, etc., and answering those questions will require reflective, evidence-based thinking. This thinking cannot be achieved through Twitter.

So, I’ve deleted the app, for now.  I may go back and figure out how to use it as a teaching tool, or even better encourage its use for poetry. But for now, I want to live in the opposite world where thinking still has a chance.

 

Agency, Critical Thinking, Higher Education

The Importance of Cultivating Agency

In all of education, and especially in higher education, we are committed to cultivating strong critical thinking in our students.  Many of our classes provide students with essential tools for critical thinking as we try to help them understand statistical and scientific methods of analysis, forms of argument and evidence, and even the values from which our questions emerge.  We strive to shake our students from their comfortable senses of reality so that they may form their own understandings of truth and what makes a good life. We want them to leave us empowered, confident in their ability to navigate the myriad questions and decisions they will face in their lives. These efforts are our passion and our joy.

Sometimes, however, we need to think a little deeper about what we want to accomplish with these critical thinking skills.  We must consider the cultural contexts in which our students have been raised and ask ourselves just how much critical thinking they can take. Lately I’ve been noticing that a lot of our young people are a little freaked out.  There have been lots of articles in the popular press about this, and I don’t know what the real figures are about anxiety, but I will say that there are some real and frightening things that have happened during this group’s childhood that gives them the right to be scared.

Consider Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Parkland.  Gun violence isn’t just a story for the unlucky few, it is a dominant narrative in all of our student’s lives. Then there’s September 11th and the subsequent wars, literal and cultural, that never seem to end.  Terrorism is a reality in the United States, not just something we can say is happening elsewhere.  Oh, and let’s not forget climate change, which is starting to scare our young people a great deal.  They are wondering about the feasibility of planning anything in the face of the looming crises of rising waters and shrinking resources. No wonder they are a little shaken.

Now listen, people have had rough childhoods before.  I grew up at the tail end of fears about nuclear disaster and war and lots of my friends were truly terrified of that potential reality.  I knew many veterans of Vietnam, and a fair number of conscientious objectors, who were suffering the after-effects of that war.  Then there were the wars before that, and the Great Depression, and dustbowls, and segregation, and poverty, and so on.  Disasters and injustice have always been here, but that’s not how it feels to this generation. The media messages are universally devastating, positive narratives are shaky, threats are nearby, and the future, at least in terms of the climate, appears to be out of their control.

So what about critical thinking? Well it is more important than ever. We have to give our students the tools to decode probabilities, if for no other reason than to relieve some of their fear levels. We have to show them how science and technology may have caused some of the problems of climate change, but they might also be tools to some of the solutions.  We have to teach them to argue with bad evidence and to identify good evidence, even if it is just the best evidence to date. We have to show them that they are capable of making a case for the kind of world they want to live in.  We need to recount the scope of the history of changes that have made most of us ashamed of our bigotries and biases so that our students have a sense of how far we’ve come.

And then we need to take another step after all of that. We need to cultivate agency. As we consider creating the necessary moments in our curriculum when we disrupt our students’ assumptions about what is real, we also have to consider creating pathways to agency.  We can’t flinch from the complexities of the world. There are real dangers and disagreements that have to be sorted out, but we cannot leave our students without a sense that they might be able to sort out at least one part of the messes they perceive.

So, let’s look through our course plans and the experiences we are designing and consider building in some opportunities to discover that agency. Don’t just show them the problems, show them some of the ways we might start looking for solutions.  Perhaps there are small things that you can actually tackle in your classes–things like community service, or a campus culture initiative, or promoting good environmental practices.  Perhaps there is some group research that can become a policy recommendation that your students might take on.  Maybe there is room to connect with neighborhoods in productive ways.  These things will be small, but if they truly flow from the learning context, they can have a profound impact on our students’ confidence in their ability to make positive change in the world.

We really need to do this.  We have to balance the critical skills with that sense of agency.  It is this sense of agency that will help all of us move from anxiousness to action.  We may not believe in our agency everyday, but those little glimmers might just make us hopeful enough to use our critical thinking to make things better.

 

 

Critical Thinking, Higher Education

The Optimistic Critical Thinker

And we’re off.  The spring semester has begun at WCSU and most other universities in the US.  Faculty have passed out their syllabi and done their best to set expectations and inspire their students to embrace the learning ahead. Students are purchasing course materials (or finding free alternatives, if they’re lucky) and preparing for their best semester ever.  It is how we all want to begin, with optimism and a desire to get the most out of our learning experiences.

As we start the semester, I’ve been reflecting on the notion of “critical thinking.” We’ve had a lot of conversation on our campus about the meaning of those words. When we transitioned to our new general education curriculum a few years ago, we included a critical thinking competency in our requirements.  We then launched into debates about what courses do and do not teach critical thinking.  The problem seemed to be not one of inclusion, but rather a lack of ability to exclude courses from this category.

As I see it, the heart of the problem lay in the distinction between teaching students foundational tools for evaluating arguments of all kinds vs. the overall outcomes of a liberal arts degree.  In a nutshell, a general education course with a critical thinking designation should spend some time on the components of an argument, the concept of paradox or logical contradiction, and the evaluation of evidence.  This is distinct from the many (all) classes that rely on critical thinking skills to properly engage course material.  The ability to use critical thinking skills is indeed an important outcome of an undergraduate degree, but I argue that using the skills and introducing them are not the same thing.

There was more to this argument, of course.  After all, we are the academy.  We live to dig into the fine points, find the contradictions or lack of specificity, and identify next questions.  We are professional critical thinkers and we are never done. This is fine for faculty and administration, but when it comes to students, I think we need to be a little gentler.

Let me be clear, I think all students should be exposed to good, healthy skepticism and debate. Higher education has an obligation to demonstrate this, both to support good habits of mind and to serve as a counter-weight to a media environment that promotes both cynicism and gullibility. In a world where our social media routinely move us into echo chambers, instead of diverse opinions and ideas, this obligation has reached a level of urgency like never before.

But, we have to be careful.  Identifying evidence as untrustworthy can easily spiral into conversations about not being able to trust any evidence. Showing our students that long-held theories have been proven false, can lead to a feeling that no theories should be trusted.  Finding logical paradoxes can lead to a sense that nothing is resolvable.  In other words, the important habits of mind that we aim to cultivate, the habits that empower our students to make reasoned arguments and informed decisions, can also lead to a sense of hopelessness and cynicism.

So, how to move forward?  As we teach our students the histories of the ideas that we no longer find productive or true, we must also teach them the arguments that led to their failure and the paths forward.   We must teach them to ask why it might have been reasonable to think the idea was good or true?  What new evidence or thinking or event helped to undermine that idea or theory? What progress, if any, resulted from the change?  We have to help our students see the progress in the falling of old truths. It is that sense of progress that helps us protect ourselves from cynicism.

Then we have to ask our students the next question: where are the seeds of doubt in the new theory, idea, or fact? We have to help them start to explore that new question, at least in small ways, so that they have a sense that they can search for answers.  This is where the true value of an undergraduate degree lies.  We are not charged with the distribution of facts, those are available everywhere, we are charged with cultivating the understanding of how to challenge facts in ways that produce new answers and possibilities.

This is where I see the heart of teaching critical thinking. We must develop in our students the confidence and skills necessary to challenge facts and evidence and the desire to pursue the next set of answers. The belief that there are answers to be pursued and that those answers might be within our grasp is about as optimistic as any rational person can be.

So here’s to an optimistic semester, filled with questions, contradictions, and the desire for more understanding.