This particular session concerned a voucher program allowing parents to select and pay for an alternative education to that provided by the public school system.
I was struck by an interchange between a representative (he) favoring the plan and an advocate (she) decrying it. It went something like this:
He: “Would you come with me to visit…” and he mentioned a charter school in his neighborhood with an excellent reputation.
She: “Certainly, if you will go with me to a public school.”
Then he, showing the intellect of the fifth grader, said, “The public school in my area is terrible.”
She did not respond because, once he had the last word, she was dismissed. But I’m sure she could have referenced studies that pinpointed private and charter schools with miserable academic standards, untrained teachers, poor or absent accounting practices, and outright lying about facilities.
The logic of these arguments is terrible—on both sides.
His touting of an instance of one excellent private school and one bad public one is meant to convince that all private schools are great and all public schools are poor.
Her argument is just the opposite as she mentions or could mention, one good public school and one poor private one.
It’s similar to a joke mathematicians sometime express. Yes, mathematicians can enjoy a good laugh. Here’s an example that will make you question the definition of “joke.” Suppose a blossoming scientist wants to show the truth of the statement “Every odd integer greater that 1 is a prime number.” A prime number, you may recall, is a number like 17 where the only numbers that divide into it are 1 and itself, that is, 1 and 17 in this case.
So our budding analyst says, “Look, 3 is a prime and 5 is a prime and 7 is a prime. So what I said must be true.” Mathematicians, when trying to see if something involving odd numbers greater than 1 is true might experiment with the idea by doing something similar, that is, prove it for 3 and for 5 and for 7. Then they might say, “Must be true for all odd integers.” Then they laugh. You’re not laughing? Well, we mathematicians are a strange lot.
But why are we laughing? Because we know basing a general result on one or ten or a hundred examples does not prove anything, except it’s true for those examples.
So when the young scientist says all odd numbers greater than 1 are primes based on the first three values, he’s employing poor logic. In fact, as I’m sure you’ve divined, he’s wrong and the very first number he didn’t check, 9, proves it. After all, 3 divides into 9 with no trouble at all.
Do you see that both our antagonists make the same illogical argument as the youngster? One or more instances of good or bad private or public schools tells us nothing about other schools.
It turns out that some charter schools, including those serving students with special needs, fill an important void and are deserving of support. Others really are rip-offs.
Some public schools have many problems. Others do superb work educating a diverse population whose makeup they cannot control.
Clearly there is a middle ground. But will it ever be found by our antagonists? Not if they argue the way they have been. If the legislator really thinks a single excellent example means private education is best, he won’t see the problems with it. If the advocate really thinks a good public school means they are all good, she won’t see the advantages of specialized educational needs outside the public system.
This type of approach does not lend itself to compromise.
Instead, it exacerbates the rigid partisan bickering that has taken over our nation and to a larger extent our world. Frankly, I’m sick of it.
So here’s my plea. No matter what the topic, be it political or personal, do not attempt to make a point by spouting a single example. Instead have the courage to consider additional examples you could give including ones not fostering your argument. If you can do that—if we can do that—maybe we can take some tiny steps toward a kinder and more productive society.
Because I fear if we don’t alter our ways soon, it may become too late.