Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | April 7, 2009

Let’s define our terms

Need a glaring example of the importance of critical thinking? See Patty Curtis’ recent letter to the editor decrying the Morgan Hill Chamber of Commerce’s decision to move the Friday Night Music Series from one downtown location — Second and Monterey — to another — the Community & Cultural Center.

The Morgan Hill Chamber, which has sponsored the concert series for 16 summers, wants to take advantage of the community center’s lovely amphitheater. The Chamber decided to move the music series last year but reversed itself after some downtown merchants complained. With this year’s decision, complaints are again being raised.

I don’t need to analyze Curtis’ entire letter to highlight the importance of critical thinking; I need only to examine her opening phrase: “Once again the Downtown Music Series is being taken from us …”

A key part of critical thinking is defining terms. In those 11 words, Curtis, a downtown business owner, provides three examples of using undefined or poorly defined terms.

Sloppy writing techniques like using vague terms often signal sloppy thinking. Other times, they’re used deliberately because precision doesn’t advance the writer’s case. Either way, sloppy writing is a red flag for critical thinkers.

Curtis uses the term “Downtown Music Series.” The correct name is “Friday Night Music Series.” Does this misuse signal sloppy thinking or does using the wrong name advance Curtis’ case?

Curtis also uses the term “us” but never tells her readers who she means by “us” (the pronoun lacks an antecedent). Thus, we’re forced to guess:

• If Curtis means the Morgan Hill community, she’s wrong. Moving the concert series to the community center doesn’t take it away from Morgan Hill residents.

• If Curtis means folks who like the Friday Night Music Series at Second and Monterey, she’s probably at least accurate. But that definition doesn’t help Curtis make her case to a broader audience, which she’s trying to do.

• If Curtis means downtown merchants, she’s wrong. The community center is part of downtown. Located at Monterey and Dunne, it was designed to be downtown’s anchor, to draw people downtown. Its amphitheater was included to host exactly these kinds of events.

Which brings me to another vague term: “downtown.” What does Curtis mean by downtown?

I’ve heard definitions ranging from small (Monterey from First to Third), to medium (Monterey from Dunne to Main) or large (Monterey from Dunne to Main, west to Del Monte and east to Depot) to describe the geography that constitutes downtown Morgan Hill. The last definition is clearly the best of these.

The first definition is much too narrow. Besides the community center, it excludes the Caltrain station, the Morgan Hill Times office, BookSmart, the playhouse, and the Methodist church, among many other downtown institutions.

Sometimes people use the small downtown definition when it suits their purposes (say, lobbying to keep the Friday Night Music Series at Second and Monterey) but switch to the large downtown definition when it suits other purposes (say, lobbying for a community center, playhouse, promenade or courthouse to be built in or near downtown Morgan Hill). That might be convenient, but it’s not intellectually honest or compatible with critical thinking principles.

But Curtis is not the only opponent of moving the concert series with whom I disagree. Reporter Natalie Everett quoted another downtown merchant, Bill Quenneville, who claims that people won’t walk from the community center amphitheater to restaurants and businesses near the old concert site.

Even using the large downtown definition, Morgan Hill’s downtown is no larger than the typical shopping mall. If people are willing to walk long distances from parking garages and through Valley Fair Mall to patronize its run-of-the-mill, more-of-the-same stores and restaurants, I cannot believe that they won’t walk a shorter or similar distance from a free concert to the unique shops and restaurants that fill Morgan Hill’s downtown.

In addition, Morgan Hill’s downtown compares favorably to the difficult parking and extensive walking that’s required to visit downtowns like Los Gatos and Palo Alto and faux downtowns like Santana Row.

The community center provides plenty of easy parking, better restroom facilities, a lovely venue, and a host of other advantages to visitors. And, let me emphasize: It’s part of downtown Morgan Hill.

Moving the Friday Night Music Series to the community center amphitheater is a chance to revitalize the event and to help it grow. Let’s give it time to settle into a new location and then honestly evaluate the results using critical thinking principles.



  1. […] church’s proselytizing campaign. The shifting definition of “downtown” was at the center of my column addressing the controversy in Morgan Hill about the Friday Night Music Series’ venue change. Just […]

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