Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Hobo Queen of the Sciences

Long ago, I had given an assignment in an advanced rhetoric/speech class: a two-minute speech to explain a judgment using one fact and one enthymeme.* The gist of the assignment was, just for two minutes, reason in public like an adult who respects the listeners.

It was early in the term so I got the inevitable few who treat all assignments as unrelated checklists.  "For my judgment I don't drink no more.  For my fact hydrogen is the lightest element and it is a colorless gas.  For my enthymeme I picked analogy." 

I got the solid many who struggled bravely and sort of got to about where you can expect a college sophomore to get. "I believe that marijuana should be treated like alcohol or tobacco because in this study they like, they have numbers, and the numbers are like, alcohol causes twenty thousand dollars of health damage per person and tobacco causes like one hundred thousand and marijuana causes only eight thousand, those are all lifetime I guess and I'm not sure what they counted, but anyway eight thousand is like way lower, so it should be treated the same." 

With many weeks to go in the term, this could be improved on considerably, and nearly always was.

And then I got Ms. Pounding Shouter. 

The issue, if I remember right, was gun control (and I only remember that because a year before I'd had to deal with a disturbed but probably not dangerous student bringing a gun to class) and I honestly don't recall which side she was on.  She thumped the podium, she pointed at people and accused them of not understanding her**, she ordered them to believe what she told them to.

Afterward, when I met with her for the inevitable "we need to talk" hour, I started off by asking what she thought she was doing.

"Well, I was the only one in the room doing it right."

Hmm. Please explain.

"Enthymemes are logic, right?  You say that in class over and over."

Indeed, I do.  (Note to self: perhaps I am saying it so often that some people are becoming unhinged?)  So what enthymemes did you think you used?



"I was totally  logical. I pointed things out real loud and told people they were dumb if they didn't believe it, and I yelled so they'd get the point."

We went around that a bit.  The breakthroughs to understanding came via the enthymeme of analogy: "Enthymemes are specific forms of logic, like arithmetic procedures are forms of mathematics.  If I had you doing a long division problem, and instead you tried to add the two numbers, you wouldn't get off the hook by telling me that long division was mathematics and you used mathematics.  But in fact this is a step further away; it's as if you put all the digits in alphabetical order, which isn't even mathematics.  So now we have to build our way back in, getting a handle on what logic is so that you can see what enthymemes are."

But the important thing is, she did break through.

Oddly enough, she finished the course with a passing grade, and did seem to acquire a better handle on the world around her over time.  I never did hear where she'd acquired the idea that logic consisted in sounding like a middle-aged man with an unfair parking ticket, but after that bad start she pulled things around and caught up with commendable speed (which I ascribe to commendable effort, but maybe she was just smart-but-lost).  Again, the main reason I remember that is that it was dramatic; the poised and competent young woman who walked out of the last class was not much like the unfocused and scattered one that walked into the first one.***

My private, personal, and not evidentially-founded-at-all guess is that so many people use "logical" to mean "agrees with me" that it's no surprise that their kids pick it up, and it certainly does go a long way toward explaining why, for example, you can hear loud arguments in which both people say they're being logical, but by that one person means "I am loudly repeating talking points from my side" and the other means "I am keeping an even tone of voice."  Google "logical" and "blog", skip the first 100 or so hits, and, if we accept John Stuart Mill's description of logical exposition as allowing us to proceed by smooth gradations to understanding—sort of logic as the fresh-paved interstate for the minivan of the mind—you will have found yourself Baja in a windstorm.

Which leads me to the melancholy thought that I caught and fixed one case of the problem in several years of teaching.  How many are there like her  that no teacher caught? 

Worse still, how many teachers are there like that? 

More than a few, to judge by the amount of unnecessary hollering, hectoring, scolding, and bellowing that go on in some classrooms, especially in poor areas where parents rarely complain and don't have much idea about what should be happening in a classroom.  Also, no matter what you hear from the ed department (Federal or your local college) and the teacher's unions, there are a disproportionate number of intellectually less-than-stellar students in education programs, and some of them do graduate (and end up teaching in schools where there are poor defenses against them). 

Furthermore, the bellowers, posturers, chest-beaters, and order-snappers very often have an enthusiastic following among adults who are more concerned with order than learning, either because they see repression as a way to express their loathing for both kids and learning simultaneously; or because their model of learning is bound up in their model of submission; or, if you are the principal, because at least that's one damned room you never have to call the police about.

Last and far from least, in a related course  where I used to teach listening for logic as a way of improving listening comprehension and retention****, one student asked me at the end of the class, "Why wasn't I taught this in fourth grade?"

And unfortunately, I can think of at least ten reasons (if I'm not restricted to good ones):

  1. So your old man wouldn't belt you when you noticed his illogic and "talked smart" to him.
  2. So your mother wouldn't send you into therapy because you kept telling her that she didn't make any sense.
  3. So they won't send you to church camp to get straightened out.
  4. So you won't keep asking questions that your fifth grade teacher can't answer.
  5. So when you hit puberty you'll be susceptible to peer pressure, advertising, and pop culture in general, and thereby fit in and be well-adjusted.
  6. So you won't get ideas about living differently from your parents, neighbors, or peers, and be able to evaluate those ideas rather than just see if the community likes them.
  7. So you won't remember stuff from one teacher's class and ask about it in another and cause friction.
  8. So you'll believe what your parents' preferred authority tells you.
  9. So you won't learn stuff too fast in future classes, get bored, and cut up to relieve the boredom.
  10. So you'll vote, pray, and buy predictably.

Just to point out a tiny little personal example: I lived in Gunnison County, Colorado, for some years.  The population is so small that almost everyone does some jury duty every year*****, but every time I was called, as soon as it was noted that I taught courses in logic and reasoning, bye-bye.  Lawyers did not want that sort of person on the jury.

Logic, I think – particularly informal logic, which speaks in tones of probability and support, not certainty and proof  -- is probably, like its sometime-friend truth, going to be "ever a refugee from the camp of victory."  Unlike truth, it is apt, also, to be "ever a refugee from the camp of defeat."  That, by the way, is the enthymeme of dissociation: the argument that if the outcomes are the same—i.e. that logic may be the queen of the sciences, but she is eternally a hobo queen—the input is irrelevant.
A later note: To my deep surprise, this "throwaway" piece is one of the most popular ever on the blog, and there were some reader questions about how logic could be taught in the schools as part of the basic curriculum.  I tried to supply a few answers to those questions in Sneaking the Hobo Queen Into School.


*Enthymemes, in informal logic, are the recurrent structures we use for hooking a fact to a judgment; some of the common ones are analogy, numeric comparison, definition, example, generalization, and so on.  Depending on which modern rhetoricians you like, there are somewhere between about 16 and 25 of them, and they are the elements, building blocks, alphabet, or whatever analogy you like of everyday reasoning. Enthymemes are about as relevant to supporting a point logically as a bolt, screw, or bracket is to supporting a shelf.

**that accusation was true for everyone in the room, I'm sure, but it was definitely not their fault.

***and if you don't understand why I'd remember that for 20 years, well, you've either never been a teacher, or you shouldn't have been.

****It works, by the way.
*****since it takes 12 jurors to jail one drunk-ass loudmouth Texas hunter who loves private property so much that he can't wait to trespass on it shoot whatever his sozzled brain "thought" was an elk