A Short Course in Intellectual Self-Defense

By Normand Baillargeon

The idea behind this book, as well as its title, is explained in an epigraph from Noam Chomsky: “citizens of the democratic societies should undertake a course of intellectual self-defense to protect themselves from manipulation and control.” So it’s no surprise then to find in a conclusion suggesting “Thirty-one strategies for fostering a critical approach to the media” that number 28 is simply to “Read Chomsky.” This Short Course is a prophylactic guide geared toward activists on the left, people who want to stay independent of the corporate or mass media’s barrage of advertising and propaganda.

Author Normand Baillargeon, a professor of education fundamentals at the University of Quebec in Montreal, has essentially written a textbook for a first-year course in logic and critical thinking. The format is textbook-inspired, with plenty of graphics, cartoons, sidebars, practice problems, and the like. It’s not a book to read from beginning to end, but it is easy to pick up and rummage through and makes for a decent reference.

The first two sections, on language and mathematics, explain the basic concepts. Unfortunately, the mathematics chapter is not a model of clarity. Even a relatively simple matter like determining the average is made to seem confusing by introducing the formula in scientific notation and then attempting to explain it. Laypersons will not find this very helpful. But most of the discussion is kept at an introductory level.

Later chapters deal with problems of perception, science, and the media, and demonstrate some of the “indispensable tools” learned earlier in action. Frequently drawing from recent new stories for material and case studies helps make the discussion seem all the more relevant, if not urgent. As one might expect, there is a definite political angle to all of it. Baillargeon reminds readers to keep in mind his own anti-authoritarian belief system, and how it may colour his values and presuppositions. Of course most students of such a course will share these views, but even general readers should find this book a useful overview of the fundamentals of critical thought.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, May 2008.

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