“The new stores will increase traffic in the neighborhood, thereby increasing population.”

Years ago, in a mixed blue-collar/no-collar neighborhood in New Haven, a group got together and won permission from the State to use part of a strip that had been leveled for a highway that never got built, to start a co-op farm. After several years of hard work, they had a thriving organic garden that was not only a food source for co-op members and an educational resource for nearby schools but also a salad bowl of racial, generational, and cultural harmony. But thirteen years later the State deeded the land to the City, and the city’s development office decided to seek entrepreneurs and developers to turn the strip into a productive mixed-use area, bringing in shopping, clean manufacturing, and residential facilities. They argued that although the farm would have to go, the benefits of the development to the neighborhood (and to the city, by way of increased facilities and an increased tax base) would far outweigh the loss to the co-op group. My students had to support the farm, support the development, or propose a compromise.

Today’s sentence comes from a future Developer. But, much like South Park‘s “underpants gnomes,” he omits the crucial middle, or transactional, step in the process that begins with building stores and increasing traffic and ends with increased population.

Actually, I hope he doesn’t mean that the population per se increases, or that traffic jams proliferate (or that the city is still back in 1962, when the more cars with back seats you had, the more pregnant girls you had…). The neighborhood is already fairly densely populated, except for that strip. What classroom discussion of the case would suggest he has in mind is that the increased productive activity (stores, jobs=shopping, working=business profits, personal income) and auto and foot traffic will make the neighborhood look more productive and seem safer; and that change in atmosphere, coupled with increased work and housing opportunities, will draw more people who want to live there as well as work there and thus stabilize the neighborhood at a higher level of prosperity and productivity. But his argument omits the means by which Step One leads to Step Three, and therefore is no argument at all but rather an expression of faith: build the mall and they will come.

This is the part of argument students have the hardest time with: the middle. We live in a culture of assertions; associating only with those who generally agree with us means we rarely have to justify those assertions, and so we learn to equate stating a point with making a point, asserting a conclusion with justifying a conclusion. My father gave his daughters no allowance (oh, Daddy, but everybody gets an allowance!!!), but he gave us something much more valuable in the long run: if we could make a good case for needing the money, he’d give it to us—all the way up to the money for me to buy my first new car, an Audi Fox (when as an employee of a steel company he had always driven American cars, and when the Audi Fox cost over $2500 and I could have had a nice American car for $2000, and when the Audi Fox was a standard shift and I had driven only automatics up till then). My fourteen years of faithful and joyous service from that wonderful vehicle pleased him as well as it did me. My father taught me to argue.

I discovered this morning, by Googling “underpants gnomes” to find a link for this post, that other professors also invoke the underpants gnomes to demonstrate the missing middle. (I’m finding it especially, not surprisingly, on the blogs of professors of economics and business.) I believe everyone who tries to teach critical thinking and argument needs to know the underpants gnomes. I can’t share my Daddy with my students, but I can point them to this South Park episode and hope they at least begin to get the point.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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