In a sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLlv_aZjHXc), a gentleman walks into an office and asks the secretary “I would like to have an argument please.” Looking up, she promptly replies “Certainly… Were you thinking of having the full argument or were you thinking of having a course?” After getting the pricing, he decides to start with a full argument. The secretary sends him off for his appointment, and when he opens the door he is lambasted by a man who barks “What do you want?!” and then proceeds to take his head off with verbal abuse. Surprised, the gentleman says “I came in here for an argument.” “Oh” says the man behind the desk, “this is abuse. You want room 12A next door.” The gentleman walks into the next room, and immediately begins to volley comments back and forth about what was said or not, sounding like 3 year olds “Yes I did.. No you didn’t… Yes I did… No you most certainly did not.” After a few of these exchanges, the gentleman, quite exasperated says “Look, this isn’t an argument, it is just contradiction.” In classic Monty Python style, the discussion carries on to absurdity, but cleverly teaches the viewer about what an argument IS and what it isn’t. It’s a brilliant sketch. It’s fun. It’s what teaching should be: intelligent and engaging.
I have shown this sketch to dozens of classes, from middle school to college. It always elicits smiles and laughter. It quickly eases everyone into the class. And it provides fodder for discussion. In contrast, most of the material I have looked at for course work in critical reasoning makes the Sahara look tropical. It is dry and a turnoff from the get go. There is no reason for this. Not only is critical reasoning the foundation of all content-based material that we hope our students will learn, but it is the basis for living a meaningful life. If we fail to provide our students with the tools to make good decisions, we have failed as educators.
The material in this manual is based on 18 years of teaching undergraduates, graduate students and post-docs, and most relevantly, eight years teaching at-risk middle and high school students in alternative education schools. It is based on watching timid students come to life. It is based on observing elementary school children smile and beam self-esteem after they have worked hard to explain themselves and defend a position. It is based on seeing children of all ages shift from definitive, reflexively delivered moral conclusions to more reflective and nuanced arguments from different perspectives. It is based on concrete evidence of growth.