One sign displayed in the Wisconsin teacher protests states, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” However, if you can spot the logical fallacy in that statement, it probably had nothing to do with what you learned in school since by and large, logic is not taught in the classroom. An even more egregious statement from the other side comes from pundit Rush Limbaugh when he states, “We are either on the side of the Wisconsin protesters or we are on the side of our country.”
The main logic fallacy with connecting the ability to read with the cause of the Wisconsin public school teachers involves something called affirming the consequent.
If P, then Q. Q, therefore P.
The problem is that P has not been demonstrated to be the only cause of Q. (Okay, I’m beginning to see why maybe this isn’t taught in schools.) Moving right along in somewhat plainer English – people who go to school learn to read. You can read. Therefore thank a teacher for that ability, i.e. support their protest.
However, not all people learn to read only in school such as my son who began reading before kindergarten. More importantly, the ability to read is not tied to teachers being well-paid or being unionized. To claim so would be a non sequitur (Latin for “it doesn’t follow”).
Limbaugh’s rant is easier to deconstruct – it’s known as the false dilemma. The proponent attempts to frame an argument as if there are only two sides with their side being the only reasonable one. Former President George W. Bush is famous for his “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror” statement. While we are at it - you either like this article or you are an idiot. Wait, you either hate this article or you are an idiot. See how easy it is make a point when logic rules are ignored?
Imagine a game of chess where the rules change between moves according to the whim of your opponent. The game could be played, but to what end and to whose satisfaction? This hypothetical scenario has a real world counterpart. It can be found in discussions and debates where critical thinking skills have been shelved. Rhetoric replaces reason with appeals to emotion short-circuiting the dialogue into an endless loop.
A new book, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” documents the progress of 2,300 students for four years from two dozen colleges. The study highlighted disappointing results in improvement of critical thinking skills with over a third of the students showing zero advancement in that area.
The book places a significant responsibility of poor critical thinking skills on the general lowering of college academic requirements. While college, as well as education as a whole, may have dumbed down over the years, that analysis misses a certain point. How can students improve on a skill they have never learned?
The educational system spends a great deal of time telling students what to think but with precious little emphasis on how to think. Envision a music teacher handing out instruments and telling his students to simply blow, pound or strum. Sure, some kids would figure out the patterns and structure of music theory that makes for a pleasing sound – but most would simply be making a ruckus. We could call the noise music to make everyone happy but a fundamental difference would still remain. Likewise, “thinking” and “critical thinking” are not one and the same.
We face many challenges individually and as a society. If we are to progress in an efficient manner then we need to move past slogans and soundbites. Perhaps one day we'll see a sign that says, “If you can think logically – thank a teacher,” but for now we are on our own.