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.

 

 

 

Dialogue, equity, Free Speech, Inclusion

Reflection and Inclusion

I confess.  I play Words with Friends and Puzzly Words.  If there is anyone left who does not know what these are, they are digital variations on Scrabble.  In the morning, I check my email, read Inside Higher Education and the daily Chronicle of Higher Education summary, and then play a few rounds of these games while I sip my coffee.  I have never been much for any board games other than Scrabble (well, I love Banagrams, too), so when these came along they fit my fun criteria nicely.  

 A few years ago, I noticed something while I was playing.  As we all moved from impersonal screen names to our Facebook photos, I could see images of the people I was playing.  As it turns out, these digital games had greatly added to the diversity of my game partners.  It gave me pause, not just because my own circle of friends is so homogeneous (a worry to be sure), but also because it unearthed a previously un-noticed assumption I had about Scrabble.  Invented in Connecticut, in my unconscious mind I saw Scrabble as a white game.  It was a startling realization.

I never knew I held that thought.  Indeed, it never surfaced until I had contradictory evidence. As I saw my word game partners broadening and becoming wonderfully diverse, this bias rose from my unconscious.  I took the time to acknowledge the thought, felt more than a little ashamed of it, and then embraced the change in my point of view.  I eagerly look forward to the seeing the diversity of my online partners and the sense of commonality it engenders. This change was relatively easy to make because it was virtual, I could acknowledge the error of my ways privately, and because I care to change the biased assumptions I find buried in my mind. 

It was a simple thing to surface this bias. Seeing images of my partners fostered the discovery.  As I played this morning I noticed the diversity once again, and it reminded me to ask my colleagues who are busily preparing for the start of the fall semester to look at their course materials.  Are they wonderfully diverse?  I know you are rushing and making final edits to your syllabi, but can you take a moment to look at your readings, slides, films, and examples and see if you have been inclusive?  This simple step could be the start of uncovering all sorts of unconscious biases.

I know I have written about the inclusivity of course materials before, and it does bear repeating, but I would like to acknowledge another piece of the inclusion puzzle today.  You see, this morning’s reading of Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle was not encouraging when it comes to our ability to create environments that support inclusion.  I won’t list all the recent articles, but here’s what is coming through loud and clear: In our efforts to be inclusive, we don’t seem to be successfully creating the space for the reflective process that I went through in the privacy of my home.  This missing piece appears to be fostering anger and defensiveness instead of reflection and inclusion.

Selecting course materials that reflect a breadth of cultural experiences and the contributions of the many is an excellent first step in creating an inclusive environment. It can encourage students and faculty to notice assumptions and, perhaps, reflect on biases they did not know they had.  This private reflection can be very productive.  We know from our attempts to use less gender-specific language (chair instead of chairman, firefighter instead of fireman) that the change in language can make our thinking more inclusive. Including diverse images and authors is likely to have a similar effect, so this is an effort worth making. However, once we start talking about it, well it is no longer a private process.  The conversation piece is much more threatening, particularly if the bias we discover is one that deeply offends our sense of self and/or the sensibilities of others in the room. 

Yet, the conversations are so important. We must figure out how to have them in ways that are not alienating.  We have to understand that while some of us have benefitted from “privilege,” we have not all benefitted equally.  Some of us have been so excluded that we don’t even know how to begin. And none of us is without bias. The variation in access to wealth and power and education means conversations about those privileges must be nuanced.  Entering discussions with all of this in mind is paramount to creating an environment in which conversations that address bias are about discovery, not accusation.

Now listen, I am not blind to the real structural racism that we are dealing with as a culture.  I understand the force with which we need to be seeking real change and asking for nuanced conversation is cold comfort for many.  However, as I scan the reports on higher education I am worried that we are skipping a step.  As educators, we need to create the space for reflection and the room to breathe as we all come to terms with each new hidden bias we discover.  

There will always be hidden biases.  Each new bias discovered opens the door to the next one, and that is a good thing.  It is, indeed, progress. But discovering them will always be uncomfortable. So we need to get better at this part, the part where we learn together without demeaning anyone. It is hard, but it is an effort worth making.

 

 

equity, Free Speech, Return on Investment

Surveys, Social Class, and Policy

In both Inside Higher EducationThe Public Support for (and Doubts About) Higher Education” and The Chronicle of Higher Education’s trend report “It’s a New Assault on the University” the results of large scale survey research tell a story of what are best described as mixed reviews of higher education.  In the Chronicle story, the emphasis is on how politicized the narratives about higher education have become, particularly around free speech.  In Inside Higher Education, the emphasis seems to be more on costs and return on investment. (I’ve simplified, so read them yourself for the full details).  Together, they reveal the problem of describing higher education as one thing, when it has become (and, perhaps has long been) many things.

This is what I mean. Much of the reporting on higher education focuses on a narrow, elite tier of schools.  In those environments, costs are very high, acceptance rates are low (read exclusive), and fights around free speech and safe spaces appear to be common.  These institutions are where we see “culture wars” dramatized (whether they are real or not is another thing).  If the people being polled about higher education are concerned that our campuses have a political bias, it is unsurprising, because that is what is being covered in the press.

Very little reporting focuses on regional public universities.  If attention is paid to us (and it rarely is), the focus is either on a Title IX scandal or, in some rare cases, on our outcomes.  Cost comes up, to be sure, and it should because state funding levels are shrinking, thus driving our tuition prices up. This does make families who choose us wonder about whether or not we are worth it.  But what we do and how we fit into higher education as a whole is rarely discussed in the media coverage of education.

For two year colleges, the focus is on jobs.  There are stories about re-tooling the labor force, focusing on high demand fields, like advanced manufacturing, and keeping tuition down for access. The free college movement, is largely focused on this part of the higher education matrix.  This part of the ecology of higher education is easily identified with social mobility and economic advantages, because there are direct job prospects for much of what is offered.  Any negative press would be around false promises for certificates, but this rarely happens at the public two year colleges.

There are more gradations, more distinctions between types of higher education, but you get the idea. Surveys that ask about higher education in general, that do not differentiate these layers of educational institutions yield complex and sometimes confusing results, that really don’t apply to all types. There is so much to unpack here, but I’d like to offer a perspective on all of this that rarely get’s discussed: What we have here is a social class problem.

We want to talk about higher education as one thing, because we don’t want to acknowledge the ways in which it replicates our social class structures. This is America, we don’t believe in social class. We believe in opportunity, and yes, education is the foundation of much of that opportunity. Higher education can be access to a better life (and the surveys do reveal that people still believe that, with caveats), but it also reinforces our social stratification.

So, let’s talk about jobs.  There are no students going to college who are not hoping to connect their educations to future careers.  At elite schools, the path to those careers are not necessarily linked to a particular major (although in many cases it is – pre-med, education, accounting, engineering, etc.), but more in the many experiences that students will have prior to and during their education.  They will have time for internships, they will be mentored by alumni, they will build interesting resumes by studying abroad or volunteering, and most of all, they will hang around with people who know the diversity of experiences that might be available after graduation, helping to shed light on those mysterious questions like “What does a project manager do?”

At community colleges, while some programs are designed for transfer to four year schools (reducing the cost of education for those students), many of the degrees are very direct job training.  Radiology technicians, network or help desk support, veterinary technicians, advanced manufacturing all come to mind.  In these schools, we are providing a great opportunity to improve economic security for students, and, when they are funded appropriately (read low or no cost to students) they embody the social mobility we have built our economic and cultural mythologies around.

At regional public universities like mine, our students also want to see the connections between their education and careers, but we offer the same blend of educational opportunities that the elite schools offer, but with fewer naturally occurring opportunities to network. So, we build career centers to try to bridge the gap between one-to-one degree to career connections, and the broader liberal arts experiences that we and the elite schools so value.

So when I ask a question about whether or not higher education is doing enough to prepare students for jobs, I’ve asked a really big and complicated question.  If we don’t tease out the difference between our missions and the ways in which we understand the very notion of job/career preparation, the answers will just be simplistic responses that play well in the press, but don’t help us figure out how to understand this issue in our colleges and universities. We then end up with simplistic measurements of our ability to provide a good “return on investment” in things like college score cards and policy proposals that are irrelevant to most higher education institutions.

But we do need good policies.  We do need to stop predatory practices that promise great outcomes while encouraging ridiculous amounts of debt.  We do need to attend how we fund higher education so that it can provide opportunities to achieve greater economic stability.  We do need to articulate how investing in higher education benefits our graduates in more concrete ways than we used to do, not just because of cost, but because our students want to know.  We do need to protect all campuses from undue political influence, but we also need to be honest about how pervasive those issues really are (or rather how limited those issues really are).

In other words, it’s complicated. We are not all one thing.  We serve different audiences and together we are complex higher education ecosystem. Let’s get honest about our differences and more specific in our surveys, so that our policies can be more effective and discussions of higher education can be more representative of the diversity of who we really are.

 

 

Dialogue, Free Speech, Inclusion

What are schools for?

The two best classes in my Ph.D. program were taught by education historian, Henry Perkinson.  The first, What are Teacher’s For?, opened my eyes to the metaphors and practices that shape how we understand the relationships between teachers, students, and learning.  I’ve drawn on the work in that class nearly every day of my career in higher education.  The second, was What are Schools For?  This one explored the many ways that we construct the role of education in society.  As our expectations for a good society evolve, so do our expectations for education.  Though an Imperfect Panacea (Perkinson, 1977/1991),  thinking about education as the path to a good society guides my thinking as an administrator.

This morning I’m thinking about just one step on that path. It is not about technology or innovation or pedagogy.  I’m not wondering about the connection between career and philosophy (though I frequently do).  Today’s answer to the question of the purpose of schools is simply this: schools are for helping us understand that our certainties and assumptions may not be the same as those of our neighbors.

This is not a small thing.  Indeed this openness to differences in attitudes, beliefs and values is hard won, and never done. The conflicts are written in our histories — segregation, prayer in schools, gender specific curricula, evolution, and climate change — and will never be completed. As neighborhoods shift, new cultures emerge and we struggle.  As science advances, new facts emerge, and we struggle.  As technologies connect us to far flung places, we encounter new governments or foods or religions, and we struggle.

As a child, I was very aware of the differences in beliefs in my family as compared to my friends.  We were different in terms of religion (really, the lack of religion).  We were different in terms of gender roles (my mother re-married several times, she was the head of the household at all times).  We were different in our understanding of bias (participation in civil rights marches and anti-war marches was a regular feature of my upbringing). It didn’t take me long to figure out that I was different. It also didn’t take me long to try to find ways to bridge the gaps between my family’s values and those of my friends. It didn’t always go well, but my nature seems to be to try to find some common ground.

As a parent, I saw this again for my children. I found it a bit awkward that Halloween celebrations had to be hidden in a Harvest Fair (out of consideration for religious differences), but I could go with it.  Then there was the DARE program that I objected to (I just kept my kids home on those days). But there was one incident that shook me and it continues to shape my thoughts about education today.

Like me, my children were raised to make their own decisions about religion. We embraced some of the festivities of Christianity and Judaism, while also connecting them to the histories in which they arose.  Practically speaking, that meant latkes for Hanukkah, presents for Christmas, a bonfire for winter solstice, and an Easter egg hunt with our neighbors.  One year, as we prepared the latkes, a friend of one of my children came to visit.  She was discussing the birth of Jesus and pending family celebrations.  I don’t remember what she said, but I felt the need to add the qualifier, “for those who celebrate Christmas.”  The little girl was horrified.  She came straight out and said, “You mean, you hate Jesus?”  Oh boy. She didn’t come back to our house for about 8 years.

Of course, I had shaken her understanding of the world.  Not only did she not know that there were non-Christians, she didn’t know there were non-Catholics. Yet, she went to a school with children of other faiths.  Unfortunately, our schools have been avoiding these conversations. Religion, in particular, is not in the curriculum and might inspire controversy so it is avoided.

This may also be happening more than we realize in higher education.  If we’re doing education right, all of us should have those overwhelming moments when we realize that what we thought everyone believed just isn’t so. And then we should dig in. Because unlike that little girl, we are adults and walking away for 8 years just isn’t a reasonable response. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we should be embracing the rich conversations and the deep soul searching that can arise from those moments when our set of facts falls apart. I fear that opposite is true. I think we might be avoiding most of these conversations.

This feels urgent to me today. With Easter bombings in Sri Lanka and Passover shootings in California, it seems the need to give our students the tools for the rich conversations about our differences is the most important thing we can do. Our media environments have reduced all dialogue to shouting and our political system seems to have cut out all paths to solutions in favor of election strategies and litmus tests.  In the midst of all the shouting, we find tales of protests on campuses that shut down rather than foster dialogue. We can’t let this go on.

Schools are one of the only places where we have the opportunity to cut through the shouting and actually talk about our differences.  They offer us the opportunity to make sense of the fact that we are not all the same. Schools should be places where we are comfortable discussing what is making us uncomfortable, and not for entertainment value, but for understanding. Rather than avoiding tough conversations, we need to seek them out and take hard looks at the reasons they are tough. This is what schools are for.  This is our most important role in society right now and we need to take it on rigorously and enthusiastically.