Teaching Argument Evaluation in An Introductory Philosophy Course

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Teaching Argument Evaluation in An Introductory Philosophy Course

ABSTRACT: One of the greatest challenges in teaching an introductory philosophy course is convincing students that there are, indeed, reliable standards for the evaluation of arguments. Too often introductory students criticize an argument simply by contesting the truth of one of its claims. And far too often, the only claim in an argument that meets serious objections is its conclusion. For many students, the idea that an argument displays a structure which can be evaluated on its own terms is not very difficult to grasp. Unfortunately, the idea is grasped only in an abstract way, with insufficient appreciation of how structural problems manifest themselves in concrete
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The introductory philosophy student's inability to recognize argument structure presents us with a problem that cannot be addressed simply by "teaching logic." The problem that confronts us addresses a fundamental pedagogical concern: Our task is to instill in the student the habit of clear thinking. When we send our students out into the world, we have to make sure that they're prepared for it. This is not simply a matter of providing them with "tools." We've looked at logic that way — and we've approached teaching logic that way — for far too long. Certainly logic may be employed as a tool; it can serve as an incredibly powerful tool, as we who teach it know full well. But it's not logic per se that we should be concerned with in our introductory courses. We want to teach our students how to think clearly and responsibly. There is certainly a moral edge to this view of the situation, and the manner in which we approach our pedagogical concern will not be without further philosophical prejudice. Ours is Aristotelian. We have found that giving our students the basics of term logic serves our purpose well. We do not introduce it as a tool for argument analysis — a strong case can easily be made for the superiority of truth-functional logic in that respect — we present it, rather, in the way that a kindergarten teacher brings toys into the classroom. And we make it clear that term logic has limitations — it's not an all-purpose tool.
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