An earlier version of this essay appears in educational Horizons, Spring 2008.

Illogic and Dissimulation in School Reform
Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.

RETURN
edited 12/6/11

Observe how the greatest minds yield in some degree to the superstitions of their age
-- Thoreau, Journal, Jan 31, 1853.

The Synecdoche Fallacy

You've seen, heard or read it thousands of time on radio, TV or in the newspapers:

Research has shown that those very special people who accomplish near miracles on a daily basis eat Special X, or drink InflatorAid, or wear PAP clothing. You, too, can accomplish near miracles, if only you eat Special X, or drink InflatorAid, or wear PAP clothing.

This fallacy is an amazingly effective motivator for its having been recognized and named for centuries. It is the stock-in-trade of every advertiser and sells lots of clothes, aftershave, cigarettes and beer. [1] It also sells education and educational reform. But whereas we adults know what game is afoot when it comes to cigarettes and beer, the hucksters of school reform dissemble to present themselves as philanthropists or scientists with minimal personal stake in "selling the product."

The fallacy involved has several names: most common are "the some-to-all fallacy," or "the synecdoche fallacy."[2] It consists of looking at a part and arguing to the whole. In its simplest form the fallacy is demonstrated by this invalid argument: All cats meow. All cats are mammals. Therefore, all mammals meow.

In the form we find more commonly in everyday discourse, the fallacy easily leads us to thinking that something is a primary cause when it may be at best a supporting cause among many possibly equally important supporting causes. For example, we might find that there is a strong correlation between cars that win NASCAR championships and their use of high octane fuel. Therefore, we conclude, falling into fallacy, that if we use high octane fuel in our car, its performance will improve remarkably. But high octane gasoline is only one of many factors that goes into enabling good performance and without, for example, the proper engine compression and timing, high octane would make no difference.

Or, suppose research establishes that every Olympic gold medal winner sleeps at least eight hours a day. Does it follow that anyone can achieve Olympian heights merely by sleeping longer? Olympic contestants are in top physical form and skilled in their performance. This may matter as much, if not more, than the amount sleep they happen to have gotten when the survey as to their sleeping habits was taken.

Some Common Educational Examples

Major educational policy initiatives have rested on this logic. For example, when the Russians put up Sputnik in October 1957 it was noted that much emphasis was given in Russian schools to mathematics and science. The U. S. Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958. It paid many of us who were willing to study mathematics and science a good part of our college education. The logic was clear: since elite Russian students study higher math and sciences and the Soviet Union beat the US to outer space, having American students study more math and science would help us catch up to the Soviets.

However, Explorer I, the first U. S. satellite was launched a mere four months later in January 1958 under the direction of Dr. Wernher von Braun who -- we may surmise -- had received no NDEA scholarships himself.

When Japanese corporations were perceived as strong, if not overwhelming, competitors to US businesses, much attention was paid to the way Japanese schools were run. Educators rushed to mimic Japanese practices. (One even encountered speculation that because the Japanese language was written as a mixture of ideographs and syllabary, it made Japanese students brainier than American. Luckily, that was not picked up as a curricular reform point.) Now that the threat from the "Pacific Rim Countries" has abated for more than a decade, only a few grotesque practices can be found scattered among American schools, e.g. hours of homework for elementary school kids, or recess time cut-backs justified by benighted school personnel as an answer to "global competition."[3]

An amazingly widespread proposal is the argument that because the "best" schools have "high quality teachers" putting more high quality teachers in any school will improve it.[4] Let us put aside the issue as to what a "best" school is supposed to be. Let us not worry, either, how to determine what a "high quality teacher" is. This is a logical fallacy quite independently of what the definitions of the critical terms are, similar to the high octane promotion for any and all automobiles. Let it be conceded that the best schools have high quality teachers. If the best schools are few, then the fallacy stands. It may take far more than just high quality teachers, if it takes any at all, to make a school a "best" school.

Is the some-to-all fallacy so hard to recognize when it presents itself in real-life situations? Or is something else at work which makes it hard to spot? I undertook to present it to several of my classes for their consideration.

A medical proposal

After introducing three small classes [5] of professional educators to Stephen Toulmin's model of informal argument [6], I presented them following exercise:

Directions: Examine the facts presented below as evidence. What rebuttals might be formulated to reject the proposal?

(Presumed) facts presented as evidence:

               a.: there is a disparity along both ethnic and other social group boundaries in the effectiveness of certain medical treatments.

               b. some patients have complained that their doctors do not treat them kindly.

               c. some patients report that their doctors say that their lack of response to treatment is their own fault.

Proposal: deny prospective doctors a license to practice unless they demonstrate in their behavior during internship that

               1. they believe that all patients can be cured;

               2. they treat their patients fairly.

The reactions in each of the groups were similar: they ranged from disbelief to near hoots of derision. The objections to the proposal by my students rose fast and furious:[7]

a. It is probably false at this time given the present state of medical knowledge that all patients can be cured. Such a belief requirement, especially for a professional program, is an intellectual affront as well likely an inexcusable restriction on academic freedom.

b. A doctor may hope a medicine works on a particular patient, but what possible effect could his believing it will work have on the medicine's actual effectiveness? Science is not a matter of practitioner faith.

c. Few, if any, of today's religiously founded universities, much less secular ones, would require a student to believe any specific proposition about curability in order to get a degree or certificate.

d. There may be some kind of contractual violation here, especially if students are not told of the belief requirement in advance of entering the program.

e. Such requirements are just begging for fakery. They smack of intimidation. How does one distinguish real faith from clever pretense or lip service to the required belief?

One insightful student noted that there was no reason to believe that the facts were either relevant to the proposal or related to each other. Were the people complaining about the doctors the same people who were not experiencing relief from the treatments they were given?

Picking up on this, other students complained that it took a stretch of the imagination to even see a relation between the offered facts and the bizarre proposal. Consequently, examining such a proposal was not realistic, they thought: it was merely a theoretical exercise with little practical import. I importuned them to consider another example.

An education proposal

What happened next is interesting considering that the students were working in a context in which they had much more experience than with the medical example initially given. The problem was this:

Set - up: evidence

               a.: there is a disparity along both ethnic and special ed/regular ed lines in the scores shown on standardized tests in several local school districts.

               b. some parents have complained that their kids are not being treated fairly in school.

               c. some students report that their teachers say they are not smart enough to get better grades.

Proposal: deny prospective teachers a license to practice unless they demonstrate in their behavior during student teaching that

                              1. they believe that all children can learn;

                              2. they treat their students fairly.

The three college administrators saw the parallels between the two arguments immediately and rushed on with the appropriately parallel rebuttals:

a. It is probably false at this time given the present state of educational knowledge that all children can learn; particularly since that claim is vague. Certainly severely mentally deficient children cannot, so far as we know, learn to solve differential equations. Such a belief requirement, especially for a professional program, is an intellectual affront as well likely an inexcusable restriction on academic freedom.

b. A teacher may hope a method works for a particular student, but what possible effect could his believing it will work have on the method's actual effectiveness? Science is not a matter of practitioner faith.

c. Few, if any, of today's religiously founded universities, much less secular ones, would require a student to believe any specific proposition about learnability in order to get a degree or certificate.

d. There may be some kind of contractual violation here, especially if students are not told of the belief requirement in advance of entering the program.

e. Such requirements are just begging for fakery. They smack of intimidation. How does one distinguish real faith from clever pretense or lip service to the required belief?[8]

As with medical example, someone noted that there was no reason to believe that the facts were either relevant to the proposal or related to each other. Were the people complaining about the teachers the same people whose kids were part of the disparity in achievement?

The K-12 administrators sat dumbstruck. Then, reluctantly -- it seemed -- they joined in to continue the discussion. They recognized the source as the common nostrum, "All children can learn."[9] Others commented, "That stuff just permeates public education. My board just breathes it."

The Great Educational Divide: investigation vs. promotion

Why did the K-12 administrators feel constrained, indeed, inept, when discussing an educational proposal so obviously parallel to the medical one they has just recently demolished? One would think that their long experience in their own professional field would have given them an advantage of insight over the college administrators in the class who clearly beat them to the punch.

Education is an applied field with different "domains of discourse," as it were. You may think of these roughly as "Technical" vs. "Promotional"; or, "scientific" vs. "political." In industry this mirrors the well-observed distinction in activity -- personality-type, even -- between engineering departments and sales departments.

On a day-to-day basis, most educators and educational leaders at all levels spend most of their time doing promotional talk, on students, on parents, on other teachers, on board members, trying to convince them that schooling can be worthwhile (and cost-effective). The contextual assumptions for promotional discourse are very different from those for technical discourse. In our pluralistic society promotional talk takes place in a context of "marketplace" ethics: caveat emptor, need-to-know-only disclosure practices, and other sometimes "sharp" but acceptable practices.

But the school has been and still is majorly conceived as place of moral development, which, unlike the marketplace, withholds from the trade-off and negotiation of certain, "sacred values." This is why many people object to the rationally acceptable practice of paying children to go to school as a motivational device. In our increasingly and unavoidably pluralistic society moral discourse invariably transforms (degrades?) into rational discourse. And rational discourse invites trade-offs of what are for some "sacred values." Thus the public-school is not infrequently riven by controversies over religious display, sex education, diversity, corporal punishment, and other fundamental concerns.[10]

However, the great schooling-as-snake-oil tradition, the great panacea [11], begun by Horace Mann but long diminished in potency continues today. Teachers tell kids, any kids, all kids that schooling is, across the board, no matter their lot in life, or the condition of the school they find themselves in, "good for them," now, tomorrow and in the life-long-learning future. Donning the guise, not of salesperson, but of academician and scientist, lacking either a clear mind or a clear conscience, "educational leaders" attempt to "sell" parents the idea that their kids' individual "success in life" depends intimately on schooling, although everyone knows famous examples of rich and important drop-outs. Another tale is concocted for board members; yet another, for the general public. These adults are seldom innocent victims; but rather, willing participants who welcome the dissimulation.[12]

Planning and evaluation necessities thrust educators into not well explored territory: research activities which require closer attention to logic and reasoning than does program promotion, where one gets by with slogans and garrulity. Articulation and explicitness are often demanded in research, as is veracity. In promotion, "soft, warm fuzzies" -- read here, "lies, evasions or equivocations" -- are acceptable, even preferred.

The difficult relationship between reason and logic in education [13] is exacerbated by the failure to recognize and take into account different realms of discourse. Market influences are underestimated, especially as they transform discourse away from traditional moral concerns to rational market-like trade-offs. Perhaps the strongest influence undermining effective educational policy and planning is failure to recognize the trade-offs necessary in our pluralistic, democratic society to balance such promotion-research tensions for the sake of humane, coherent educational practice.

Footnotes

[1] It also reinforces racial, ethnic, indeed, all kinds of prejudice: e.g. Jack and his friends are lazy and dishonest. They are also X's. Thus, all X's are lazy, dishonest people. Also, it underlies those processes known as reifications, or hypostatizations.

[2] There are subtle variations among these but the basic structural fault is that of asserting the consequent. Logically, it confuses "if" with "only if" or "if and only if," a very common confusion. See, for example, "The Famous Four Card Task" at http://www.socialpsychology.org/teach/wason.htm

[3] See E. G. Rozycki "Tracking" in Public Education: preparation for the world of work?" at http:www.newfoundations.com/EGR/Tracking.html

[4] NCATE News, Nov. 13, 2007: "We believe (and research has demonstrated) that the most important determinant of high quality education is a well-prepared teacher." If this is truly a matter of scientifically established fact, why invoke it as a statement of faith? Far from flattering teachers, this is the dogma that saddles them with the primary responsibility for school failure. See Gary K. Clabaugh, "Power Failure: must U. S. school reform miss the mark?" educational Horizons 85, 4. Summer 2007 . 205 - 209, also at http://www.newfoundations.com/Clabaugh/CuttingEdge/PowerFailure.html

[5] The groups were: a policy seminar of five doctoral students, mostly public school administrators; an ethics seminar of eight doctoral students, public school administrators; and a class of eight education master's students.

[6] A proposal (conclusion) is supported by relevant evidential grounds (minor premises) bridged by a warrant (major premise, or principle). There are additional parts that make this argument form more adaptable to actual discourse than the traditional syllogism. Particularly important to consider is the susceptibility of the argument to rebuttal. See, for one of many examples, Toulmin's Argument Model at http://changingminds.org/disciplines/argument/making_argument/toulmin.htm

[7] This is not an transcript but a synthesis of what was a rather free-wheeling discussion.

[8] See Edward G. Rozycki "Education for a Free People: do public school-religious-school differences matter?" educational Horizons, 85, 4 (Summer 2007) A new myth: control of dispositional development, p. 197; also as "Personal Liberation Through Education: do public school-religious school differences matter?" at http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/Liberation.html

[9] NCATE News, Nov. 13, 2007, "The two professional dispositions that NCATE expects institutions to assess are fairness and the belief that all students can learn." This, despite the disclaimer in NCATE News Jun 16, 2006 (available at http://www.ncate.org/public/102407.asp?ch=148): "NCATE standards do not expect or require institutions to attend to any particular political or social ideologies." See also, E. G. Rozycki, "Can All Children Learn? A trick question." at http://newfoundationsbloglocus.blogspot.com/2008/06/can-all-children-learn-trick-question.html

[10] See Edward G. Rozycki,"Trading-Off 'Sacred' Values: Why Public Schools Should Not Try to 'Educate'" at http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/TradeOffs.html

[11] See Henry J. Perkinson, The Imperfect Panacea. American Faith in Education 4th Edition (New York: McGraw-Hill. 1995. pp 22 - 27.

[12] See E.G. Rozycki, "Fat-Free Foods and Schooling Options. The pathologies of enthusiasm" at http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/FatFree.html or "Fear in the Classroom. Is schooling still sufficiently educational?" at http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/FearClass.html

[13] See Edward G. Rozycki, "Is it Reasonable to be Logical?" available at http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/Reasonable1.html

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