Lesson Plans: Using Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” To Teach Logical Fallacies
Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” must stand as one of the most anthologized works in literature textbook history. Here, from the vantage point of my professorial desk, I can lay eyes on at least four volumes that feature it.
What’s so great about “The Lottery?” For one, the story lends itself to teaching many elements of the short story genre, including mood, foreshadowing, dialogue, narration, character, irony, and theme. It’s also accessible in language and content to students at the secondary level, while still offering ideas complex and provocative enough to inspire college-level discussion. The story is a quiet masterpiece, so deceptively simple and straightforward that its polemical content remains deferred almost to the ghastly end.
It’s a lovely piece for a literature instructor, no question. But “The Lottery” also offers “teachable moments” for skepticism and critical thinking, namely lessons in confirmation bias, post hoc fallacy, and argument from antiquity/tradition.
The critical passage for skeptical instruction appears in the center of the narrative. While the townsfolk stand about waiting to discover the identity of the neighbor they will stone to death this year, the following conversation takes place:
“They do say,” Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner, who stood next to him, “that over in the north village they’re talking of giving up the lottery.” Old Man Warner snorted. “Pack of crazy fools,” he said. “Listening to the young folks, nothing’s good enough for them. Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work any more, live that way for a while. Used to be a saying about ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.’ First thing you know, we’d all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns. There’s always been a lottery,” he added petulantly. “Bad enough to see young Joe Summers up there joking with everybody.” “Some places have already quit lotteries.” Mrs. Adams said. “Nothing but trouble in that,” Old Man Warner said stoutly. “Pack of young fools.”
After we have exhausted our literary business, I point my students toward this passage and ask them to explain on what Old Man Warner bases his pro-lottery argument. Why would the lottery affect the corn harvest? We discuss various superstitions, such as baseball players who feel they must perform the same ritual movements before each at bat. What might cause a community to associate their crop yield with the sacrifice of a scapegoat? The answer, of course, is the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. It seems clear that at some point in these people’s distant past, a death preceded a fine harvest and someone concluded that the former caused the latter merely because it preceded it. (The story doesn’t provide details about that catalyzing event, in part because the story dramatizes blind adherence to traditional beliefs, so that providing a more particular reason for the stonings would distract from that message.)
Additionally, the passage facilitates discussion of confirmation bias. As long as the townspeople believe that heavy corn follows a public stoning, they will note healthy corn yields as evidence in favor of ritually executing their neighbors and dismiss disappointing crops with disclaimers, perhaps as the result of young people’s deviating and “joking,” for example. Old Man Warner suggests that discontinuing the lottery would be thoughtless, even dangerous, leaving citizens without work or food; yet, when Mr. and Mrs. Adams start to explain that other communities have not suffered these hardships upon ending their lotteries, Warner cuts them off, refusing to entertain evidence that contradicts his worldview. Students discuss possible reasons for this, quickly realizing that we cling harder to beliefs with higher stakes. In Old Man Warner’s case, we are told that he has participated in decades of lotteries, meaning he has helped to murder dozens of people. How much trauma would he suffer if he found the lottery to be superstitious nonsense at this point in his life? How would he live with the knowledge of what he has done? When we invest ourselves too deeply in a belief or ideology, such that our entire sense of self could be shaken by its loss, we subject ourselves to fallacious thinking, and Jackson shows us how devastating the consequences can be.
Which brings us to the final fallacy I discuss with this story, the argument from tradition or antiquity that Old Man Warner’s character embodies. Ultimately, Warner’s argument is that there has always been a lottery. Students need no help from me to understand why this is a wretched argument, and they often present insightful examples from their own experiences. As young people themselves (non-traditional students notwithstanding) they are personally frustrated by Warner’s claims, and they sympathize with the young people alluded to in the story, who look at the world of their parents and grandparents and wish to improve it. The conflict between past and future written into this story’s young and old characters begs readers to consider whether we have dismissed new ideas from discomfort with change, or from fear that our ways will be exposed as foolish and outdated and that we will be implicated in having espoused them.
“The Lottery” represents an accessible, entertaining vehicle for skeptical inquiry in the classroom. I would love to hear from others who use the story this way, or from those who plan to do so in future. Thanks for visiting the first School of Doubt “Lesson Plans” column, and we hope to see you here alternate Mondays. Cheers!