Language & Composition

Mr. Eure | Brewster High School

The Science of Good Sense

Politics is the science of good sense applied to public affairs, and, as those are forever changing, what is wisdom to-day would be folly and perhaps ruin tomorrow. Politics is not a science so properly as a business. It cannot have fixed principles, from which a wise man would never swerve, unless the inconstancy of men’s view of interest and the capriciousness of the tempers could be fixed. [Fisher Ames (1758-1808)]

For the time being, we are holding abeyance the usual sequence of events for Q1:

  1. An introduction to opinions, facts, and critical thinking
  2. An introduction to claims, support, and warrants
  3. An article by Roger Ebert arguing that there is a point at which “personal opinion shades off into an error of fact”
  4. Training in the DAMAGES+ rubric
  5. Essay scores, conferences, and revisions

This is an election year, and you are in a course in rhetoric and argument; we have an obligation to examine the political engine that now surrounds us (belching, we might say, its particular brand of toxicity). To meet that obligation, you’ve already

  1. sorted yourselves into groups;
  2. justified that sorting to me, knowing that your group choices must be based in learning and collaboration and nothing else;
  3. acknowledged that failure to stick to #2 will have all groups disbanded and reforged by me.

You will be quizzed in your group as a kind of carrot-and-stick approach to the final products outlined below. One of you will be chosen at random; that person will answer my questions, follow-up questions, and redirections; the rest of the group can help that person; but no other member of the class may participate. When not conducted aloud, these quizzes will be written collaboratively.

Quizzes, of course, aren’t the point. They are necessitated by the operant conditioning of a decade in a sequence of educational Skinner boxes. The point is somewhere in this list:

  1. You will teach yourselves basic reasoning terminology, basic appeals, basic rhetoric, and—most importantly—logical fallacies.
  2. Then you will monitor different politicians for specious rhetoric and intellectual dishonesty. For every ugly, unfair, or illogical argument, you will act as police, identifying, unpacking, and analyzing the fallacies and manipulations.
  3. You will then contact that politician. You will hold them accountable to their future constituents—and you are their future constituents—for their reasoning and arguments.
  4. This contact will take the form of websites you build or (more likely) a controlled sequence of emails filtered through me.

You will target all political campaigns, from local senate races to the presidential fisticuffs. We will not play favorites. There is no partisan loyalty here; your only loyalty, while you are working on this enterprise, is to

  1. the truth, and
  2. rational thinking.

Our enemies are lies, misdirection, and the poisoning of public discourse. We will hold as our common belief that the ruling of a county, state, or country is not about manipulating voters or persuading swing states; it is about the measured, honest, and fair ruling of that county, state, or country. We will not accept specious rhetoric. We will not accept logical fallacies. And if there are pundits who do notice falsehoods and twisted logic, they seem to be drowned out by a sort of cacophonous apathy. We are going to see if the voices of youth ring more loudly.

Put simply, we are going to see if you can shame politicians into being reasonable people.

The points is that talk generally is not aimless. A good deal of everyday talk, even gossip, is intended to influence the beliefs and actions of others and thus constitutes a kind of argument. [Howard Kahane and Nancy Cavender, Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric (p.4)]

One of the marks of genius is the ability to recognize that information is relevant when the rest of us fail to notice. [Howard Kahane and Nancy Cavender, Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric (p.6)]

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