Incompetence vs Deception
Whether from arrogance or incompetence, supporters of Carrie Chapman Catt have put up such a sad defense that I was almost surprised to see a letter to the editor on December 9 (“Deception surrounds Catt Hall debate”) based on citations rather hasty generalization; however, I must take issue with the conclusion that the September 29 Movement is guilty of “deception.”
Poor scholarship does not in and of itself constitute academic dishonesty, and I would be surprised if the students of Patrick James in Political Science never misread their source material to conform with their preconceived ideas of how the world works. I have been teaching composition for way too many years to make that mistake. A charge of academic dishonesty should not be made lightly, and telling doubters to go dig through the archives and find out for themselves is an unpersuasive argument.
Although I was not identified by name, Jane Cox once condemned me in print for “celebrating ignorance” for commenting on the argument while disavowing certain knowledge (ISU Daily, September 30, 1996). Did she misrepresent my comment on purpose? Probably not. Does the fact that she did an incompetent job of representing what I said at the time make her dishonest? I would never say so. Because of the nature of the work I have been doing with students learning to write and handle research material for the past thirty years, my first assumption is always that such errors arise from incompetence rather than deceit.
One example only: I am baffled by what “deception” the multiple authors of Tuesday’s letter see in Meron Wondwosen¹s comment that “women of color could not vote in most southern states until 1965.” I have not seen the context for that remark, but the Voting Rights Act of 1965 DID have a purpose. The “literacy requirement,” especially when selectively applied, was a powerful deterrent. If that is an example of September 29 “deception,” I really must protest. The FACT given to counter the STATEMENT and the anguish that underlies the essence of its truth seems to hinge on the accessibility of records that prove that some people of color always defied proscriptive custom and many paid for their defiance with their very lives. I might tell a student who wrote such a sentence to be careful of overgeneralization, but it would be beyond the absurd to accuse such a student of academic dishonesty.
Historians, musicians, vice presidents, and people committed to political education, we all have one thing in common: we are citizens, educated common readers, makers of a fragile democracy, this insane political experiment that--given human nature--never had a realistic chance of succeeding over the long haul. We urgently need to do a better job of teaching our kids to read, write, argue fairly, and detect logical fallacies used against them. Aristotle said that in the same way that a man ought to be ashamed not to be able to defend himself “by means of his body,” he ought also to be ashamed not to be able to defend himself with speech and reason. If university professors do not believe in or cannot practice the clarifying sport of debate and model the process for our students, the experiment begun in 1776 will surely fail and we will be at fault.
Elsewhere Aristotle says that men cannot judge rightly when their own interests are involved. (I always add “and neither can women.”) I understand that, and I do not question the sincerity that motivates the defenders of Catt any more than I question Cox’s personal integrity for misrepresenting what I had to say on the subject of expediency and institutional integrity.
This controversy that ought to have been a university-wide lesson in academic research, citizen debate, and conflict resolution has turned into an embarrassing two-year rhetorical circus.
The burden of proof has been on the supporters of Catt Hall for a long time. It is high time they paid the opposition the RESPECT of taking their argument seriously. Catt supporters may be right. I don’t know and have no present intention of doing the necessary research myself to find out; I have confined my public remarks to the process of the argument and will continue to do so.
And from that perspective, I assert with unequivocal certainty
that these academic folks and their friends have absolutely no idea
whether deception motivated any errors the students may have made (or not)
in representing their sources. Errors arise both from deception and
incompetence, and the evidence provided in no way supports a charge of
deception. The fallacy is called ignoratio elenchi or irrelevant