By Nathan Fox
I went to journalism school (M.A. Northeastern, 2004), which is a great way to turn yourself into a curmudgeon who can’t read anything without criticizing it. Which, in turn, is an almost ideal way to turn yourself into a badass on the LSAT’s Logical Reasoning. Anyway, I just read this “news” story, which seriously sucked in my opinion:
Harvard Cheaper Than Cal State (nbcbayarea.com)
Go ahead and read it, and ARGUE as you read. What’s the conclusion of the argument? What’s the evidence that supposedly backs up that conclusion? See any assumptions? See any flaws? How would you weaken this argument? How would you strengthen it? Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Here’s my analysis:
The actual evidence presented in this story is basically, “Harvard offers a ton of scholarships for middle class students. Cal State tuitions have been rising constantly in recent years due to budget cuts, etcetera. The end result of this is that many middle-class students would pay more money to attend Cal State than they would to attend Harvard.”
Fine. I don’t argue with any of that. Those are facts.
But the conclusion of this story, down near the end, is this load of horseshit: “Who is to blame? All of us.”
Wait, what? We’re all to blame? You’re to blame? I’m to blame? Well, I don’t know if you accept this, but I do not.
In LSAT terms, there are a million problems here. But let’s just go ahead and start with the following:
- The argument has assumed, necessarily, that someone can be “to blame” here in the first place. The article presents no evidence to support the assertion that “blame” exists (the term is undefined), or that “blame” should be placed in this case. If it’s true that a rich institution like Harvard can choose, without causing anyone else to be “blamed,” to offer scholarships to whichever students it damn well pleases, then the conclusion of the argument is completely destroyed. Why are we to blame for Harvard’s wealth? Why is a very good thing for some lucky students (those chosen by Harvard) suddenly blameworthy for us?
- Similarly, the argument ignores the fact that a zillion more students go to Cal State schools than go to Harvard. So the argument has committed the logical flaw of making overly broad conclusions from insufficiently narrow facts. This is like saying “George Clooney goes swimming naked in Lake Como every night with supermodels, and the rest of us don’t, therefore the rest of us are complete losers. On an individual level, there will always be someone at the top–it’s logically flawed to look at whoever is at the top at any given moment and conclude that everyone else is failing somehow.
- Also similarly, but on a macro level, this argument is similar to saying “professional athletes make an average of $1 million dollars a year, and janitors make an average of $30,000 a year, therefore we as a society value professional sports more than we value cleaning toilets,” while ignoring the fact that janitors are all over your neighborhood every single day of the week, there are a zillion of them, and professional athletes are extraordinarily few and far between. I’m not sure of the exact numbers here, but I’d be fairly comfortable claiming that janitors, collectively, make way more money than professional athletes, collectively, do. So it’s possible that the Cal State system is actually doing a better job than Harvard, since it educates far more people.
- On a totally different track, the argument has also committed a fairly common logical flaw by blaming rising tuition on “budget cuts” without even considering the possibility that expenses might be the real culprit. Now, I’m not claiming that the Cal State universities are inefficiently managed and/or taking down Bernie Madoff-sized fraudulent paychecks. For all I know, these institutions might be paragons of efficient modern management techniques, with nary a wasted penny to be found on their supertight balance sheets that evoke six-pack abs, and hold standards of corporate virtue that would make Warren Buffet blush for ordering two Cokes at lunch on his birthday instead of one. This is possible. But if you’re going to blame us for rising costs at certain universities, don’t you at least have to consider the possibility that those universities might simply be sluggish, inefficient, dying institutions full of weak managers, tenured professors, and lazy staff who just show up every day for a couple hours, between long coffee breaks and lunches, to pick up their paychecks before retiring after 20 years on bloated pensions? Again, I’m not saying this is true–and in any case it would never be true of every manager, professor, or staffer–but I’m definitely of the opinion that it must, logically, be considered. (I’m a graduate of UC Hastings, by the way. I heard a lot of whining about evil state budget cuts while I was there, but I would have liked to have heard at least an equal measure about cost-cutting and ways to keep the school competitive.) Isn’t it at least possible that Harvard, a private institution, is simply outcompeting the state-funded Cal State schools? And if that’s true, then why would everyone be to blame, rather than the Cal State schools themselves?