Generally speaking…

A somewhat peevish pet of mine:

I’m having a discussion with a friend about the quality of education, and I note that one big hindrance to educating our kids is that teachers tend to be weak academically themselves. This is important, because you can’t teach what you don’t know.

Friend: “That’s a generalization.”

Me: Silence.

I’m dumbfounded. The discussion stalls, all momentum collapses under the weight of my dismay at the nonsequitor.

Huh? Well, yes. It’s a generalization. And your point is…

Her point, of course, is that my statement doesn’t hold true for all teachers, everywhere, and is therefore invalid.

In fact, my statement is valid, but explaining why this is so means pushing our substantive discussion aside while we detour into Logic 101. It also means by the time we work through it all, my original point will have died of starvation and neglect. Maybe it’s a personality flaw, but I just don’t have the patience for these types of diversions. They make me want to go lie down.

Remember the old Marx Brothers’ skits where Harpo keeps hanging his knee on some poor guy’s hand while the guy struggles to expound on something? I’m that guy at this point. I’ve lost not only my momentrum and my train of thought, but possibly my will to live.

I don’t know why so many people have it in their heads that generalizations are some sort of logical fallacy, as if simply pointing out the use of one somehow refutes the point being made. Generalizations are not only valid logical devices, they are extremely helpful mechanisms for conveying and working with ideas, and for drawing meaningful conclusions.

Sure, instead of saying teachers are weak academically, I could have said something like: on average, teachers, as a group, consistently earn lower grades and score lower on standardized academic tests than their counterparts in other fields. Okay, so now I’ve avoided using a generalization. But that sure is a mouthful. It’s harder to understand, and it isn’t any more meaningful than what I actually said. And besides, it makes me sounds like a pompous jerk.

Try this one: Men have larger feet than women.

This is a very valid, and helpful generalization. Does it mean that every man has larger feet than every woman? Of course not. It does accurately convey a simple and meaningful truth, however. The shoe owner that says, “Wait! I can’t rely on that. It’s a generalization,” will soon find himself at a disadvantage, as his competitors use knowledge of this meaningful truth to cut their overhead by restricting their inventory to a range of sizes appropriate to each gender.

This doesn’t mean a generalization can’t be used improperly, of course. Suppose I know that Eskimos are short. Is this a reason to kick a 7-foot Eskimo off my basketball team? Not at all, and not because the generalization is invalid, but because generalizations, by definition, give us meaningful information about the nature of a group, not about each individual within that group.

So the above generalization isn’t very helpful in figuring what to do with my 7-foot Eskimo. Does that mean it’s a bad generalization and shouldn’t be relied on? It all depends on the circumstances. Suppose I need a 7-foot center for my basketball team. Scouting Eskimo villages probably wouldn’t be the best use of my time.

The point, if it isn’t painfully obvious by now, is that generalizations can be both valid and helpful, if used appropriately.

So, if someone uses a generalization improperly, by all means challenge him on it and set the discussion straight. But I implore you, don’t simply say “that’s a generalization” in the belief that you’ve refuted a point or forwarded the discussion. You might just as well have said, “You’re speaking English,” for all the relevence you’ve lent.

And now I’m going to go lie down.

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