Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. Guile and Gullibility

 

shutterstock_292448078Every semester, I teach American Government to 70 Freshmen. As part of the class, my students are required to review a book on American politics and, every semester, I observe the complete lack of guile my students have. Even the best students are ultimately quite gullible. They take everything they read at face value, some of them go so far as to deny that a book of facts can possibly have a point of view. This distresses me for what it says about how my students think about and understand the world.

Despite the name of the class, the three branches are, in fact, only a quarter of the class, and government itself probably only half. The remainder is a basic introduction to politics: public opinion, regime-types, parties, and so on. The class covers this much territory because, truly, the government of the United States doesn’t do so much to govern us as it is simply the mechanism through which the forces that do govern us — majoritarianism, elitism, media, interest groups — work, and the purpose of the class is to give students an idea of how these forces influence students so that they can be aware of their surroundings. It is all part of that ancient ethos about knowing thyself and, ideally, recognizing that you know nothing.

Everything we know is the result of an appeal to authority. Yes, even science, the authority of empiricism, is a much weaker foundation than many realize. The manipulation of knowledge is a simple and effective way of controlling other people. It needn’t be done intentionally or maliciously. In a democracy, public opinion itself can be quite powerful: what the public believes becomes what everyone believes in short order, and half of Americans can’t all be wrong, no? This terrified the Founders, who put great effort into preventing the formations of absolute majorities through federalism, separation of powers, the and First, Second, Ninth, and Tenth Amendments. In the friction between competing authorities, Americans could suss-out the truth for themselves; but first Americans need to understand what is happening around them.

Hence, the book review I assign. I give my students three authorities — me, their textbook, and the book they are reading — and I ask them to evaluate the book, explaining its purpose, whether or not they are convinced, and how they justify their belief. The knowledge will still have its roots in an authority, but it should be justified belief, which is at least part of a definition of knowledge.

Overwhelmingly, they fail the task. Some stumble on the first point: unable to divine the purpose of a book, simply declaring it “factual.” Some stumble on the second. So many times my students declared a book “accurate” that I almost created a macro to ask “how do you know?” And as for justification? Well, if you can’t tell me what a book is about and whether it is right in the first place, what is there to justify? But even those who offer a justification, ultimately fall back on mere authority. They held their position because it was congruent with either the book they were reading (begging the question) or because they agreed with me (simply appealing to another authority). There was no sense of why the book was trustworthy; many of them implicitly thought the book trustworthy because it was right in the small factual details — thus, if it gets the small things right, it probably gets the big things right, but none explicitly argued this — or why I was trustworthy. They were simply authorities. (And don’t get me started on the cavalier attitude toward citation; if citations are an evidence chain, then nothing my students know is admissible anywhere.)

My students are not even willing to state on their own authority what they are currently feeling, that is how much they rely on outside authorities. And so they simply line-up with the authorities they like better without any real deliberation, thought, or judgment. How do they know what authorities they like better, given that they cannot even state their own preferences? I strongly suspect they get it from the first authorities they were placed under — which, if we’re lucky were their parents, but was probably TV and the broader culture — the very thing the Founders were trying to avoid.

It is dispiriting. There are things that students should simply be able to catch if they have been paying attention to the class. Most conspiracy theories should fall apart on the fact that the number of people necessary to keep the secret is far too large, and if the conspiracy was small enough not to be detected, then it would not have the power to implement itself in a country as decentralized as the US. And yet my students think these conspiracy theories they review — whether about the Bilderbergs, the FED, or someone else — are accurate. They believe JFK was murdered by a conspiracy of someone (precisely by whom depends on the book), yet most of these conspiracies are so large we would surely know about it.

In one paper, on Prohibition, the entire book was about how conservatives in the 1860-1880s wanted to impose Prohibition to reform society, end the long tradition American tradition of violence and alcoholism, and how this would improve society and help it progress socially. The phrasing of the review alone should have set off alarm bells: conservatives do not, as a rule, wish to end long traditions. Conservatives today might be interested in maintaining prohibition, but the people who wanted to do it in the 1860s and 1880s were rightly known as Progressives. To some extent, the book detailed the coalition (women and mainline Protestants) which also should have been a tip-off. I do not blame the student for not knowing this in advance, but the student should have at least noticed the incongruity — that groups not normally thought conservative, doing things not usually called conservative were being hung with monicker “conservative” — and at least felt that there was something wrong, even if the student could not put their finger on what.

The effect of this on my students, I do not know, but it infuriates me in two ways. First, that authors would engage in such misdirections in the first place — I teach my advanced students to be their own devil’s advocate and to qualify and caveat their claims for precisely this reason — and second that my students fall for it. And I don’t know how to teach them better to break out of it other than, when I return the reviews, to point out that they are all very gullible as nicely as I can.

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  1. TreeRat Member

    Are there any techniques you have tried to encourage a more critical/discerning attitude?

    • #1
    • December 14, 2015, at 7:51 PM PST
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  2. Melissa O'Sullivan Inactive

    A really great article and if it’s any consolation, as they figure it out (the ones who will figure it out, anyway), they will reflect back on your class and the dime will drop.

    • #2
    • December 14, 2015, at 7:54 PM PST
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  3. Could Be Anyone Member

    To be honest that sounds like a lack of understanding of philosophy but speaking from the anecdotal experiences I had with my fellow classmates in high school many of them wondered how such thinking would have any practical impact on their lives. By practical I meant how it would affect their capacity to work in their dream field so to speak.

    The issue is that first principles (as you noted, even with empirical research) are required in order to try to make sense of the world. In order to discern truth you need some criteria by which to evaluate objects (knowledge is justified true belief) and ideas we perceive and have.

    However, if you are taught that discrimination is wrong and that all things are equal (a form of general relativism or perhaps even subjectivism) or that there is no means by which to discern it then you are left more or less clueless.

    From there as you noted they are left with an appeal to authority only. Since one cannot come to an independent understanding that can be evaluated on an objective scale then only what has “existed” before you stands as a scale and that means that class studying materials justify themselves as authorities since you gave them to them and you yourself are the living authority of the class.

    My advice would be to somehow inculcate some degree of an understanding of logic. That way they understand deductive and inductive reasoning so they can argue at least.

    • #3
    • December 14, 2015, at 8:02 PM PST
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  4. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance

    Richard Finlay:Are there any techniques you have tried to encourage a more critical/discerning attitude?

    Prepared lectures that take the form of an extended argument.

    Sample book reviews from the Wall Street Journal or from a journal.

    Class discussions.

    Socratic seminars.

    Flipped classrooms.

    Q&A sessions.

    Result is always the same, both in terms of grades and quality of writing.

    I think I did get slightly better results when they had to write lots of essays (10 essays, about 50 pages of writing across the semester) but as the classes stopped shrinking in size after the first exam -I used to chase off a third of them by the midterm, now I’ve got 30-35 students all the way through -it has become impractical to grade that many exams in a reasonable amount of time.

    I sleep by telling myself that this is their first class, and they will get better over their time at the university.

    I think I sleep less well this semester because I got papers from upper division students that were not markedly better on the gullibility criterion.

    • #4
    • December 14, 2015, at 8:05 PM PST
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  5. HerrForce1 Coolidge
    HerrForce1Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I teach 8th graders introductory civics and government. I’d be interested in talking with you sometime about doing a better job with this age of students based on some of your observations. Additionally, James of England spoke well of you when he visited me last month. Thanks.

    • #5
    • December 14, 2015, at 8:10 PM PST
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  6. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance

    Could be Anyone:The issue is that first principles (as you noted, even with empirical research) are required in order to try to make sense of the world. In order to discern truth you need some criteria by which to evaluate objects (knowledge is justified true belief) and ideas we perceive and have.

    However, if you are taught that discrimination is wrong and that all things are equal (a form of general relativism or perhaps even subjectivism) or that there is no means by which to discern it then you are left more or less clueless.

    From there as you noted they are left with an appeal to authority only. Since one cannot come to an independent understanding that can be evaluated on an objective scale then only what has “existed” before you stands as a scale and that means that class studying materials justify themselves as authorities since you gave them to them and you yourself are the living authority of the class.

    My advice would be to somehow inculcate some degree of an understanding of logic. That way they understand deductive and inductive reasoning so they can argue at least.

    Your diagnosis matches mine. Alas, I haven’t time to teach my own content, let alone logic, and there is a known problem among us winger faculty that if we push too hard on the existence of truth we will, at minimum, chase off the student. At worst, we attract additional scrutiny from others…

    • #6
    • December 14, 2015, at 8:10 PM PST
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  7. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance

    Sabrdance:

    Could be Anyone:

    My advice would be to somehow inculcate some degree of an understanding of logic. That way they understand deductive and inductive reasoning so they can argue at least.

    Your diagnosis matches mine. Alas, I haven’t time to teach my own content, let alone logic, and there is a known problem among us winger faculty that if we push too hard on the existence of truth we will, at minimum, chase off the student. At worst, we attract additional scrutiny from others…

    I do try to work through the arguments, both deductive and inductive, when teaching, for example, John Locke or Thomas Hobbes, and of modern political scientists such as David Mayhew, Kenneth Arrow, or V.O. Key.

    • #7
    • December 14, 2015, at 8:13 PM PST
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  8. Could Be Anyone Member

    Sabrdance:

    Sabrdance:

    Could be Anyone:

    My advice would be to somehow inculcate some degree of an understanding of logic. That way they understand deductive and inductive reasoning so they can argue at least.

    Your diagnosis matches mine. Alas, I haven’t time to teach my own content, let alone logic, and there is a known problem among us winger faculty that if we push too hard on the existence of truth we will, at minimum, chase off the student. At worst, we attract additional scrutiny from others…

    I do try to work through the arguments, both deductive and inductive, when teaching, for example, John Locke or Thomas Hobbes, and of modern political scientists such as David Mayhew, Kenneth Arrow, or V.O. Key.

    If they ain’t picking up what you are putting down then the only other thing (which you say you do) you can do is repetition. Through practicing the virtues of logic (even if indirectly) in discussing politics they will hopefully eventually learn to evaluate political theory. In that sense I guess you wouldn’t push for “truth” but rather just understanding. You give them starting principles but you do not give them the conclusion.

    • #8
    • December 14, 2015, at 8:31 PM PST
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  9. Merina Smith Inactive

    It would be impossible to overestimate the ignorance of undergraduates. They may do horribly on their papers, but I’ll bet in the process they learn something. Sounds like you are doing the best that can be done in getting them to think!

    • #9
    • December 14, 2015, at 8:57 PM PST
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  10. James Lindsay Inactive

    Excellent post. I’ve found the analytical book review essay to be a useful exercise for helping students to critically assess a significant historical monograph’s argument. Granted, the subject matter is different, but the analytical skills are pretty much the same. Below is the fairly simple rubric I use.

    +++++

    Basic questions you should bear in mind as you prepare your analytical book review essays include:

    1. What question or set of questions is the author trying to answer?
    2. What is the author’s thesis; that is, what arguments is he/she trying to defend?
    3. What kinds of evidence does the author use?
    4. How does the author use this evidence to support his/her argument?
    5. How did the monograph enhance your understanding of [ancient, medieval, modern] Middle East history and historiography?

    Since a good analytical book review essay can take a variety of approaches, the approach you choose will be judged on the clarity, content, and effectiveness of your analysis. Be sure to provide specific examples of the author’s thesis, argument, method, and evidence (questions 1-4) in your analysis.

    ++++

    Freshmen actually do pretty well with this assignment, but I only give it near the end of the semester after they have written several narrowly-focused analytical essays based on assigned primary and secondary source readings. Of course, some semesters the assignment is more successful than others. :)

    • #10
    • December 14, 2015, at 9:56 PM PST
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  11. The Reticulator Member

    I wish I had had your American Government class rather than the one I had.

    I was hoping somewhere in my education to learn the history of governmental power, its abuses, and protections against abuses. It never happened. I had to learn that on my own.

    My American Government class was basically a review of Supreme Court decisions, using Swisher’s book. We had another text, but the class was largely organized around that book. This was a conservative school – but I thought there was more to American Government than that.

    I think I would have liked your course, even if it wouldn’t have been what I had expected. Have you considered referring to it as Recreational Epistemology?

    • #11
    • December 14, 2015, at 10:13 PM PST
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  12. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama ToadJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Sabrdance: I think I sleep less well this semester because I got papers from upper division students that were not markedly better on the gullibility criterion.

    One of the greatest lines in literature is from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web: “Trust me, Wilbur. People are very gullible. They’ll believe anything they see in print.”

    So true.

    • #12
    • December 15, 2015, at 3:51 AM PST
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  13. I Walton Member

    I taught US Government only once but I used an approach I had developed for economics in a different setting altogether. In addition to the required text, I gave the class a list of 40 or 50 issues I figured even they would have heard something about and let them pick two for two page presentations which along with their discussion of others’ papers would be 50% of their grade. They were to describe the issue and the two sides disputing it, the facts of the thing as independently of the views as they could discern, the different philosophical, world view, or biases they could identify in the two positions, and the personal and institutional interests, involved in the two sides. In the early part of the course I held forth on a number of the fundamental differences people bring to such issues so they’d have some notion of what I meant by philosophical/world views. These were not serious students, the course was required and we were in a resort town where most young people were ski bums, so they didn’t do a particularly good job, but they were engaged and I think they learned a few things. I was ignorant of what a kid knew or didn’t, so needed several such courses under my belt to be able to communicate with them. I used it again teaching foreign policy in a different school where I had more time to learn my audience.

    • #13
    • December 15, 2015, at 5:51 AM PST
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  14. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    There probably isn’t time to do this — and I suppose there’s a risk of it backfiring — but perhaps it’s worth a lesson going over some typical fallacies of logic and or common errors is reasoning and judgement. Ideally, with a focus on something that you could very easily expose as false (9/11 comes to mind) but show how poor reasoning and a lack of judgement easily lead people astray?

    Stipulating that I came into it a fan of the lecturer — and that his politics aren’t mine — I found a lot of the material in this Great Courses series to be extremely useful. If there was some way to adapt a few of the lectures into a single lesson.

    • #14
    • December 15, 2015, at 6:48 AM PST
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  15. Son of Spengler Contributor

    Maybe you should consider walking your students through an analysis of a contentious Ricochet post (with comments).

    • #15
    • December 15, 2015, at 7:43 AM PST
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  16. Mike Hubbard Member
    Mike HubbardJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Huh. Back when I was in college, I’d sometimes try to tweak my government professors with citations from authors that I knew would get a rise out of them, e.g., a quote from Ann Coulter. Though one time, I cited William Safire as a conservative, but the professor wrote a note suggesting that I ought to cite a real conservative rather a house-broken one.

    • #16
    • December 15, 2015, at 7:59 AM PST
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  17. Brian Clendinen Member
    Brian ClendinenJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    You need to use analogies and apply the bad logic to subjects the students know a decent amount about and even better on subject they care about. Or use real life stories at how people suffered because they did not question what was written.

    The most effective is use all the different techniques in a seamless manner which flow together so each communicate to a variety of ways of how people learn best. However only brilliant teachers are able to do that and it is a lot of work and they don’t always succeed.

    When people are simple minded like your students and exist in a narrative based culture they can’t identify with traditional western thought processes you are using. The real problem is they don’t have experience with getting screwed over in the personal life when cons (or politicians) apply the same logic to these sheep. There is nothing better at seeing through this crap than trusting someone’s bad logic at face value and then getting railroaded. That is because they choose to lack wisdom by listening to their elders who have already suffered from making many of the same logic mistakes.

    If you could just teach them to identify ideas that only exist in the mine of man and on paper, and have not bearing on reality you they would be so far ahead of the game, it would not be funny.

    • #17
    • December 15, 2015, at 8:00 AM PST
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  18. Pelayo Inactive

    I would suggest incorporating some of the tools of Psychology and Logic into your class in the first few weeks. You won’t have enough time to do it justice but it may help to get people to look at the books through a different lens.

    My father has a minor in Philosophy and was a Psychologist early in his professional life. For as long as I can remember he trained me to look at events and focus on the people involved. He trained me to look for motives and hidden agendas. He taught me to question assumptions. Too many conversations over the years to remember, but it worked. I cannot watch a movie any more without looking for the underlying messages. I analyze current events in terms of the motivations and assumptions behind them all the time. It just becomes a habit.

    I listen to Rush Limbaugh during my lunch breaks when I am able to. He makes a living by taking current events and analyzing them in this way.

    I am sure anyone who has been in a position where they constantly had to audit or inspect something can relate. An elementary school teacher instantly spots spelling and grammar mistakes, a building inspector can spot code violations, a Radiologist can spot illness on an MRI, etc…

    • #18
    • December 15, 2015, at 8:02 AM PST
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  19. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    Sabrance, to put it as bluntly as possible, are you noticing that your students are gullible, or are you noticing that they’re just not that bright?

    • #19
    • December 15, 2015, at 8:15 AM PST
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  20. The Question Inactive

    I agree with Melissa O’Sullivan. You’ll never know what seeds you sow will flourish. When I was an undergrad, I was persuaded that world government was a good idea. My dad said, “Well, if the whole world is one state, and things go bad, there’d be nowhere to escape. Do you see how that could be a problem?” I said “No.” I thought that freedom was provided by the government, so the idea that you might need to escape the government didn’t compute. Of course, I now know that my dad was entirely correct. I was too young and stupid to understand what my dad was saying, but I did remember it.

    • #20
    • December 15, 2015, at 8:39 AM PST
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  21. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:Sabrance, to put it as bluntly as possible, are you noticing that your students are gullible, or are you noticing that they’re just not that bright?

    I’m not sure what the relevant difference is in this case. To the extent there is a difference between gullible and dim, my students are too trusting of authority so long as it confirms their prior beliefs, have no strong prior beliefs of their own that they are willing to state, and so are willing to trust an argument so long as it is presented authoritatively -and if they have something in them that twinges “something wrong here” they have a well developed ability to squash that belief.

    My students are capable of following an argument. What they are not capable of doing is figuring out when the argument they are following is a trick, or noticing when it is dancing around a hole if it doesn’t mention the hole. I see this in the papers of students with ACT scores of 18 or 36.

    I sometimes wonder about people with letters after their names -the number of times I get grief from reviewers over a problem that I point out, explain, and discuss why it cannot now be solved in the paper sometimes makes me wonder if I just left the caveats out whether my research would sail through -like that idiotic study Rob was talking about earlier today.

    • #21
    • December 15, 2015, at 8:53 AM PST
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  22. Layla Member
    LaylaJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Sabrdance, my best friend would concur with you. She is a community college professor of history and Humanities out here in the far DC exurbs. She usually kicks off her students’ study of the Americas with an article by Zinn because so many/most of her students come from relatively conservative homes (many are homeschooled). It distresses me how many of her students are ready to practically renounce their US citizenship when they read Zinn. Apparently they’ve never been exposed to historical revisionism or even to high-quality history that points out their country’s warts.

    From her experience I have determined two things. First, conflating politics and religion–as I have seen many fellow homeschoolers do especially when teaching their kids US history and government–can backfire bigtime. Second, the time to expose our kids to alternative viewpoints is NOW. And don’t just set up straw men; discuss and debate those viewpoints honestly and authentically.

    • #22
    • December 15, 2015, at 9:24 AM PST
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  23. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    Sabrdance: What they are not capable of doing is figuring out when the argument they are following is a trick, or noticing when it is dancing around a hole if it doesn’t mention the hole.

    That’s pretty characteristic of people who aren’t mentally that agile, isn’t it? Half the American people are of below-average intelligence. By definition. And as you note, the Founders were quite aware of public gullibility and stupidity, terrified of it, and put immense thought into the placing of safeguards against the formations of absolute majorities.

    But the difference between “gullible” and “unintelligent” is important. You could rephrase “gullible” as “innocent and uncynical,” which is actually the state you’d hope young Americans would be in. The bright ones can be taught to think more rigorously — that’s what education’s for. And don’t despair if by the end of the term what you’ve taught still doesn’t seem to have sunk in. They may well come back to it when they’re older and realize that what you said is worth revisiting.

    • #23
    • December 15, 2015, at 9:28 AM PST
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  24. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Could be Anyone: My advice would be to somehow inculcate some degree of an understanding of logic. That way they understand deductive and inductive reasoning so they can argue at least.

    Eh… I’m a little less sanguine about this working as expected. There’s logic, and logic. Mathematicians, for example, quite skilled at very pure, formal logic, are not known for being particularly street-smart (or immune to, say, conspiracy theories). Nor are champion debaters (those skilled at advancing plausible-sounding arguments) terribly logical from mathematicians’ perspective.

    Deductive reasoning is “easy” – not easy in the sense that stupid or untrained people can expect to do it well, but that, whatever personal cognitive difficulties one must overcome in order to master it, there are clear rules for it. But of course, deductive reasoning is also open to simply accepting fanciful premises – and will not, for example rule out many conspiracy theories on the grounds of logical impossibility: They are logically possible. Just very, very implausible.

    Agreeing on inductive reasoning is much harder – in part because people with differing prior beliefs should sometimes logically come to divergent conclusions in the face of the same new data. ET Jaynes explained this well in “Probability Theory”. The Cultural Cognition Project is also fairly good at acknowledging this.

    Being good at deductive logic and good at “commonsense”, informal, inductive logic are different skills. People good at one often assume they’re good at the other and resent (and disbelieve) evidence suggesting they’re not.

    • #24
    • December 15, 2015, at 9:29 AM PST
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  25. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Sabrdance:

    That’s pretty characteristic of people who aren’t mentally that agile, isn’t it? Half the American people are of below-average intelligence. By definition.

    Sorry, deformacion profesional -half are below average only if we specify a symmetric distribution. In a diverse society, this is a questionable assumption.

    But those aren’t my students. I teach at a regional comprehensive, but we do have standards: the worst student I teach is at the 40th percentile, and I have students with 36 ACT scores. The problem runs the length of my students. Even among the students who can write coherently for 2500 words, I observe the same issue.

    A very good student, upper division, going to a good law school wrote a paper explaining a wet-vote’s success in a neighboring city -cites the mayor’s belief that the support of the government was key, and then stopped. That was the explanation -the mayor supported it. The authority for that statement was… the mayor’s own testimony.

    In the class we had covered a dozen ways that statement could be true -local officials know their voters, local officials have skills at campaigning, local officials have networks of other activists they can call on to support campaigns. The student even picked up that the mayor had asked the initiative to be limited to improve the chances of passing.

    Not one of these arguments was invoked to justify the belief -just the mayor’s word.

    • #25
    • December 15, 2015, at 9:41 AM PST
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  26. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama ToadJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: But the difference between “gullible” and “unintelligent” is important. You could rephrase “gullible” as “innocent and uncynical,” which is actually the state you’d hope young Americans would be in. The bright ones can be taught to think more rigorously — that’s what education’s for. And don’t despair if by the end of the term what you’ve taught still doesn’t seem to have sunk in. They may well come back to it when they’re older and realize that what you said is worth revisiting.

    Sabrdance, do you have your students annotate? Maybe analyze something like a speech in depth, maybe even through an outline? Talk about point of view or audience?

    I’d recommend using class time to do it, since an assignment might well baffle and/or frustrate them.

    I find it useful in my high school homeschool students to link history and literature, and include poetry and speeches of the era when possible.

    • #26
    • December 15, 2015, at 9:43 AM PST
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  27. Pilgrim Thatcher
    PilgrimJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I am struggling to remember a quote from some dead white British guy to the effect that it is best that the vast majority, being dim, should not attempt to think, it sufficing that their thought be governed by adherence to authority. The trick then is to establish the right authorities.

    • #27
    • December 15, 2015, at 9:46 AM PST
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  28. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance

    Layla:She usually kicks off her students’ study of the Americas with an article by Zinn because so many/most of her students come from relatively conservative homes (many are homeschooled).

    That seems a bit like trying to invoke Mithridatism by starting with a lethal dose of Arsenic…

    Nonetheless, I take the point.

    I take a slightly different tack: rather than dropping Zinn on my students, I start by trying to work them through the better arguments about Locke and Hobbes, Rousseau, and the other guys I referenced earlier. They didn’t get the good arguments at home, they didn’t get the good arguments in school, but they will get the good arguments from me. If, at that time, they choose to convert to Zinnism, so be it. At least it is an informed choice.

    What worries me is that they aren’t getting the arguments at all, not even picking them up from me. Thus, their conversion to Zinnism doesn’t reflect a decision at all, it reflects… I don’t know what. Emotionalism? Crowd psychology?

    • #28
    • December 15, 2015, at 9:49 AM PST
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  29. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad:

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: But the difference between “gullible” and “unintelligent” is important. You could rephrase “gullible” as “innocent and uncynical,” which is actually the state you’d hope young Americans would be in. The bright ones can be taught to think more rigorously — that’s what education’s for. And don’t despair if by the end of the term what you’ve taught still doesn’t seem to have sunk in. They may well come back to it when they’re older and realize that what you said is worth revisiting.

    Sabrdance, do you have your students annotate? Maybe analyze something like a speech in depth, maybe even through an outline? Talk about point of view or audience?

    I’d recommend using class time to do it, since an assignment might well baffle and/or frustrate them.

    I find it useful in my high school homeschool students to link history and literature, and include poetry and speeches of the era when possible.

    In class we go line by line through Federalist 9 and 10 fairly early on. The students do get that -I see the concepts re-appearing in later papers. If they need more practice, we go line by line through Democracy in America‘s treatment of Tyranny of the Majority.

    The problem is, this takes 3 days to do. “Faction opposing Faction” is one part of one lecture on interest groups that should take only 2 days.

    • #29
    • December 15, 2015, at 9:54 AM PST
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  30. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Sabrdance: In one paper, on Prohibition, the entire book was about how conservatives in the 1860-1880s wanted to impose Prohibition to reform society… The phrasing of the review alone should have set off alarm bells: conservatives do not, as a rule, wish to end long traditions… To some extent, the book detailed the coalition (women and mainline Protestants) which also should have been a tip-off. I do not blame the student for not knowing this in advance, but the student should have at least noticed the incongruity — that groups not normally thought conservative, doing things not usually called conservative were being hung with monicker “conservative”…

    Given the very limited prior information sheltered, college-bound 18-year-olds typically have about women and mainline Protestants, it doesn’t seem surprising that they’d be hard to persuade out of their (unspoken) prior mindset that women and mainline Protestants are “conservative”.

    To many teens, “women and mainline Protestants” mean “mothers and Sunday School” – two institutions that understandably strike teens as some of the more conservative influences in their lives. Yes, this is a very self-centered understanding of women and mainline Protestantism, but until you have plenty of exposure to other perspectives, the perspective centered around yourself is the natural one.

    So much of teen education revolves around mothers and churches being the “conservative” ones telling teens not to do “fun stuff” that reorienting teens’ vision to perceive such groups as politically Progressive sounds like it would be unusually tough.

    • #30
    • December 15, 2015, at 9:59 AM PST
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