Friday, February 8, 2008

Gone Wild

joe francis
humanitarian and public servant Joe Francis

My students in Argument-based Research are writing a values argument on the topic of civic responsibility. They've been asked to write a 5-7-page argument in which they take a position and support it with clear criteria and proofs.

First, they have to identify the criteria for making such a values judgment in the first place, and then apply that criteria to the individuals they feel have contributed the most to society.

For background, they read JFK's inaugural address ("Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country"), along with comparable essays by Barack Obama, the head of the Brookings Institution, and the editor of Christianity Today magazine, among others.

We spent all of class on Wednesday discussing the concept of the "common good."

Today we went over their rough drafts in class. Unsurprisingly, Oprah Winfrey has been mentioned a lot, perhaps because I used her repeatedly as an example while explaining the assignment--and, contrary to my goal of shaping young minds into independent, critical thinkers, half my students followed their herd instinct to write on O.

Other subjects include Bill Gates, Al Gore, Bono, and Mikhail Gorbachev. My Christian school grads appear to be gravitating towards Billy Graham, James Dobson, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Warren.

But one young female student boldly announced her choice of Joe Francis, creator of the Girls Gone Wild series.

Francis, she argues, is a smart entrepreneur who could be every young person's role model.

She refutes Francis's detractors by noting that the girls are all "of age" and not "all that drunk" when they agree to appear in the GGW vids, and that the contract they sign gives them a full week to opt out if they change their minds. In compensation for showing their tits to the world, the girls get a free T-shirt.

At first I thought the student was pulling my leg. The jocks in the back row snickered.

But no. She further pointed out that Francis contributes a lot of money to charitable organizations--such as for Hurricane Katrina relief. How much she couldn't say, since Francis likes to keep his charity work a bit of a secret.

She is taking this seriously, so, so did I.

I asked whether she was qualifying her claim--say, by stipulating that Francis is her choice just among "entrepreneurs under 40" or among "businessmen in adult entertainment." I thought perhaps there is reason to believe that Francis has been more charitable than, say, Guccione or Hefner, whom she seemed never to have heard of.

But, no, apparently she is ready to put the Girls Gone Wild guy right up there with Oprah and Bob Geldof.

She defends her choice by saying that Francis has made a lot of money, while managing to spend very little up front.

Pun intended, and point taken.

But in what context was she ready to prove Francis more civic minded than other rags-to-riches entrepreneurs or amateur softcore porn producers? She didn't get my point.

I explained the problem with "dangling" superlatives and comparatives, as when advertisers or propagandists say their products or ideas are "better" or "best," without actually answering the questions "better than what?"

"Our toothpaste gets teeth cleaner," OK, but cleaner than what? Cleaner than they would be if you used a different brand? Cleaner than they were before you brushed them? Cleaner than dirt?

Even if we're willing to go with the concept that Francis is indeed a better citizen than the average profiteer off women's mammary glands, some knowledge of what others in the field (e.g., Hefner, Flynt, and Guccione) have paid back to the community would be crucial to the argument.

I think (I hope) by the end of the class, she had a clearer sense of the logical challenges she faces. But the next student to volunteer to share her argument with the class, another young female, named Tyra Banks as her choice as the great contributor to humanity.

Her proof?

Tyra wore nothing but a bikini for an entire episode of her talk show to demonstrate that her body, while incredible and worth more in one hour than most English teachers will see in a lifetime, is not, after all, "perfect."

Fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt.

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