Friday, September 20, 2013

How Important are Fallacies?


For you and me, the ordinary human being, the word “fallacy” sounds only an academic gimmick. We do not find any significance to them in our personal lives. Still, we often wonder, why we are bombarded with fallacies and arguments in our critical thinking course, for first semester graduation. What practical use do fallacies entail?  

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According to Merriam-Webster, Fallacy means, “deceptive appearance”. In most of my classes, I tell students, learning about ‘fallacies’ enable us to see if we are misled or given false advice. Considering the students’ lower vocabulary levels, I often have to cut my explanation down to words that cannot carry deeper nuances. I am not saying some words are better than others are. The risk in teaching a class with lesser vocabulary than what is expected from a ‘normal’ Under Graduate class is, even the surface meanings are often missed.

Next is translating this idea into the student’s mother tongue. This is a formidable way of getting into the students’ heads, although quite often in English classrooms, this method gets onto the teacher’s nerves. The interpretation of surface meaning and then its translation, damages the full flow of complete information. Consider this the nature of many learning facilities (colleges and schools) in Kerala. Consider teaching arguments, and fallacies in this background, and you will understand.

Many teachers I talk with, often, refer to the syllabi as incapable of reflecting the needs of technical education as well as keeping the professional standard of education. “No further need.” They’d all say.

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When the teachers I discussed this issue with, talk about ‘further need’, they actually mean a sense of ‘usefulness’. This sense of usefulness, sadly, is associated with the ethics of the Victorian industrialization, where usefulness is the key in deciding acceptability. ‘Uselessness’ is viewed upon as a sin and the criteria for “use” is inspired solely based of the performance of machines that took humanity into its new flight in the era of Dickens and Queen Victoria.

What is relevant about this idea is the force with which it denies ‘relativity’. Classrooms in Kerala are still equipped with the same old scales of certainty and totalitarian constrictions. Not that ambiguity is preferable as a solution. The prevalent discourse of certainty actually breeds a serious ambiguity at its centre. Ironically, this ambiguity is addressed in every classroom. It is marked by the dichotomy of syllabus and the student. Teachers are the middle agency, handling the two in balance, but they fail seriously to manage to provide a fixed sense to the conflicting nature of the syllabi and the world outside. In other words, what is taught in schools is not what is seen in the outside world. Teachers make it a point to remark how flawed the syllabi are, instead of, at least, telling the students how to manipulate what they have into useful byproducts (which seems equally impossible, given the circumstances). Thus, they inaugurate the ambiguity. If the syllabus is incapable to impart the desired result for higher education, who is imposing it, and why?
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No one answers this question though. When uneducated politicians become educations ministers and leaders, education suffers, and its purpose is mistaken to be creating stereotypes.

I discussed this issue with another fellow English teacher. He has the best answer I have received, yet. Prasanth (name imaginary) said it’s not about if learning about ‘fallacies’ would benefit these students in any way in their lives. Our only chance at finding some ‘usefulness’ with fallacies is in looking for an indirect result. Through a course in critical thinking and fallacies, Prasanth told me, we could give these students, at least some words, to hold on to, when in the colosseum of life they fail.

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