Logic 101 – Teachers

There is nothing that bothers me more than seeing bad arguments put forth by a group I want to be sympathetic to or for a position I support. If it can get worse it would be when the group, or person, making the argument should know better.  Unfortunately, for these very reasons, teachers drive me absolutely crazy.  Teachers are among the best educated people around.  Their main job is conveying ideas in a way that is understandable.  But, when it comes to identifying the problems in education, proposing solutions to those problems, and asking for better treatment, they do a terrible job of teaching, often because of a failure of logic.
One of the most common issues I see is the teachers are addicted to ad hominem attacks. Now, any student of logic should know that ad hominem is Latin for to the man. It is one of the most famous informal fallacies. It is when someone attacks the person making an argument rather than the argument itself. The fashionable target for these ad hominem attacks right now is Bill Gates. It’s also been used on George Bush, Michael Bloomberg, and many others.  Commonly, it is expressed something like, “Bill Gates is bad.  Concentrating on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) is something Bill Gates supports.”  That may be a true statement, but it tells us exactly nothing about whether STEM is a good idea or not.  If a teacher thinks that focusing on STEM at the expense of other subjects is a bad idea, explain why.  Don’t drag Bill Gates into it.  This is also a bad rhetorical decision.  Bill Gates may be disliked in the education community, but for most of the rest of the world, he’s smart and successful and doesn’t have an obvious agenda other than helping others.  Aside from education reform, he tries to rid the world of malaria and get other rich people to donate their fortunes to charity.  Bashing Bill Gates might score points with the people who already agree, but it will not help to change anyone’s mind.
The law of non-contradiction is often ignored by teachers. In logic this can be expressed many different ways, but it boils down to A & -A is false or A & B and A & -B are incompatible statements. In regular English, it’s just saying that one thing cannot be both true and not true at the same time. This is most common with teachers in discussions of pay and assessment. When it comes to pay, teachers like to point out that they are vital to the educational process, that nothing makes as big an impact on students as their teachers. However, when it comes to assessment, teachers are quick to point out that they can’t be responsible for the bad students. The bad students are bad because of their socioeconomic backgrounds, lack of parental support, etc. Unfortunately, it can’t be both ways. Teachers can’t be the most important factor in the good students doing well, but a complete non-factor in the bad students doing badly.  In reality, there are a great many factors in whether students perform well or badly.  Teachers would be better off acknowledging that and not taking too much of the credit for successful students while accepting some of the blame for unsuccessful students.
False analogies are another problem in arguments about education.  It may seem obvious, but a false analogy is an argument from analogy that doesn’t work.  It could be because the two things being compared are not really alike or because they are alike, but not in relevant ways.  A famous example is that employees and nails are similar because they both have heads.  To get a nail to work, you need to whack it in the head.  Therefore, to get an employee to work, you need to whack her in the head.  Like the ad hominem, this is an informal fallacy.  It doesn’t tell us whether the conclusion is true or false.  There are two common areas where this comes into play.  The first is when someone says, “American schools need to be more like Finland’s schools (or Sweden or South Korea, etc.).”  The problem with this analogy is that the US is not much like these other places.  The entire country of Finland is kind of like a wealthy American suburb.  How many Finnish students have single parents working three jobs?  How many don’t know where their next meal is coming from?  The difference between Finnish education and American education is a huge difference in their overall societies.  If it is even possible to make the kind of societal changes that would turn America into Finland, education would take care of itself.  The other place you hear false analogies is in discussions of compensation.  It is often expressed as, “Actors and athletes make millions while teachers struggle.  Teachers contribute far more to society, so they should be paid better.”  There are two things wrong here.  The first is that teachers are comparing themselves to the outliers.  While it’s true that Tom Hanks makes millions, most actors, athletes, musicians, etc. really struggle and make far less than teachers.  The other problem is that the few who do get rich are not compensated based on their contributions to society.  They are compensated based on the fact that they have a very rare skill that people are willing to spend money on.  If people would pay to sit in a stadium and watch history lectures, teachers could be rich as well.
As I said at the beginning, I am mostly sympathetic towards the teachers.  I wish people were compensated based on their contributions rather than the whims of the market.  I wish every student could get a quality education and assessments were fair.  I wish teachers had more of a say in their curricula and monied interests had less.  But, repeating the same bad reasoning over and over isn’t going to help anything.  Parents sway elections, but they aren’t stupid.  Engage them with real arguments.  Let them know why it will help their children, and maybe things will finally improve.

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