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Volume 8, Issue 3: Repairing the Ruins

False Alternative

Douglas Wilson

A very popular logical fallacy is called "false alternative." The hapless victim of said fallacy is presented with two, and only two, choices. When the fallacy is on line and operational, those two choices do not represent all the choices available. For example, if someone is told that the car must either be yellow or blue, he is left wondering why it couldn't be another color. But other times there really are just two choices. If one is told, for example, that the car was either yellow or not yellow, then he really is confronting the only two logical possibilities.

The world is full of these false alternatives masquerading as true "logical" choices. In the realm of Christian education, one of the most popular forms of this fallacy is the dilemma constantly presented between "character" and "academics." In the education of your children, take your pickwhich will it be? Do you want godly kids or do you want smart kids? Do you want Christian character or do you want strong academics?
All Christian schools which undertake the mission to teach loving God with the mind will at some point have to confront this question. When parents are asking about two hours of homework a night, after eight hours of school work during the day, their questions will frequently assume this form. "Don't you think you are emphasizing academics too much? What about the character issues?"
But consider. Given these three elements - children, character training, and strong academics - we actually have four general choices. Do we want kids who are godly and well-educated? Or do we want kids who are godly and less well-educated? Further, do we want our children to be ungodly and well-educated? And lastly, do we want our kids to be ungodly and less well-educated?
Of course, in both our sanctification and in our learning we are always dealing with a range of possibilities, and so it will never be as simple as ordering up ten pounds of either, neither, or both. Nevertheless, given the reality of these general categories, we do have these four general choices.
Obviously, any parent would chose to have the kids poorly educated if the true alternative consisted of going to Hell. This is clearly a no-brainer, and it gives this particular false alternative whatever force it possesses. I would live in Newark too, if the alternative were going somewhere Else. Whenever the fallacy is presented in a ludicrous way, the problems are immediately apparent. "What would you rather have? Children who are well-educated, or children who have eaten a quarter-pounder?" But whether or not the fallacy is presented in a ridiculous fashion, it remains a fallacy.
When the false alternative is embraced, it can and will be implemented by parents in both directions. Some parents will accept the false choice, and they will choose academicswhich will then become a soul-destroying idol. Others will accept the choice presented to them, and then withhold an education from their children in the name of character development.
Great danger lurks in this false alternative. If I am choosing between academics and character, and if these are my only two choices, then the simple rejection of "academics" can be seen as the automatic instilling of character. It would be nice if it were so easy. Parents who allow this to happen have fallen between two stools. They have assumed that the rejection of "academics" is a vote for character, and that voting for character is all it takes. But according to Scripture, character is established throughout the process of education. Fathers are told to bring up their children in the education and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4).
Confused thinking and sin are close cousins. We should not be surprised that this false alternative refuses to recognize the clear connection between the two categories. Is the hard work of academic performance "character-neutral"? And when parents allow their children to take it easy on the academics are they teaching the character trait of laziness?" The Christian world has had no shortage of souls who pursued piety at the expense of their duties. And many of them were brought up that way.
The greatest commandment says we are to love the Lord our God with everything we have. The commandment is given to us in Deuteronomy 6, where the context is that of parents teaching and educating their children. When Jesus quotes this commandment in Matthew 22:37, He says that this includes loving God with all our minds. The greatest commandment requiring our submission and humble obedience was first given to parents as they were being charged with the education of their little ones, and Christ says that obedience to this command involves loving God with your brains. Moreover, we are to love Him with all our brains. Obedience to this commandment cannot be separated from rigorous education.
So do you want your children educated to their capacity in loving God? Or do you want them to be hit by a meteor?

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