Thursday, October 27, 2011

Honesty and Pedagogy

Is this good pedagogy?
About 100 students [in introductory logic] were told to convince the campus that it [a claim that the campus dining services would be going 100% vegetarian and local] was real by whatever means they thought would be most effective.
I've heard of things like this before. A year or so ago (I think) a law professor started a rumor that one of the Supreme Court justices was stepping down, to prove a point about how quickly unverified rumors spread.

But what does the exercise above prove/teach? How bad the non-logic students at Smith College are at assessing arguments? How to be a sophist? Perhaps what the "lesson" is is one of the things the students are expected to reflect upon?

But what about the climate of campus trust? How long can a prank like this go on before it sets up a situation of reduced trust? What if the school does make a big, controversial change? Who can the students trust? I don't want to overreact, but I also think these are serious questions. If you think lying (and fooling others, etc.) is generally wrong, then can students learn to care about the truth by engaging in an activity where they deprive unwitting others of it? (Would something like this pass IRB? Does that matter?)


  1. I used to have my students in ethics push a fat man off a bridge but the locals all avoid bridges now so I've had to change the assignment. I suppose that could be challenged on similar grounds.

    One strange thing about the Smith case is that the point of the exercise is obscure, at least to me after reading that news story. Spreading rumors (or lying) has nothing to do with logic, surely. Perhaps the idea is to teach something about critical thinking, but (and I take it this is part of your point) what exactly? Don't believe your friends? It would surely be much better to take actual myths and trace their origins. Less newsworthy though.

  2. Funny. As I said over at ISW, it might be helpful to hear what the profs have to say, beyond the nonsense that it generally gets distilled into in the news (even the venerable CBS...)