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Some More Learning How To Think, Sort Of

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John says that teaching somebody to recognize whether an op-ed is in favor of abortion or against it, for instance, isn’t teaching how to read but teaching how to think.

And I’ve thought about it, and I don’t agree. 

Teaching someone to disset the op-ed’s argument and decide whether it’s valid or not is teaching how to think, but simply teaching students to recognize WHAT is being said–with that WHAT defined very broadly, so far–is a mechanical process that requires less thinking than it does information.

It requires first expanding vocabularies–it’s remarkable how few words my students know, but it’s even more remarkable how few works even good students know.  What’s even more frustrating is how unwilling they are to ask anyone what a word means, or to look it  up, even on a computer with Internet access.  If they don’t know what a word means, they glide over it and try to “get” it from context, which almost never works, especially when they’re faced with an unfamiliar idea, opinion or subject. 

Nor or these words necessarily difficult or esoteric–I’ve run into brick walls on words that appear nearly every day in any newspaper, even theones aimed at not very educated audiences.

What’s more, vocabulary has to include not just individual words but at least some idiomatic phrases, and some cultural touchstones–not being able to decipher ‘the tower of Babel” or “the ant and the grasshopper” will make it difficult to read in any meaningful sense, which is why the E.D. Hirsch cultural literacy approach works as well as it does.

After vocabulary, in the broadest sense, you have to teach forms and structures.

It’s not that it’s so important to know specifically what English and Italian sonnets are and how they differ, and that McLuhan was, to an extent, right–the medium is at least partially the message, and form frames and informs content.  An essay entitled “A Modest Proposal to Solve Global Warming” is different than an essay entitled “What We Need To Do About Global Warming”–if you can’t recognize that the first title signals satire and that satire does not advocate the things it seems to be advocating, you’re going to get yourself in a lot of trouble.

My students invariably read Katha Pollitt’s “It Takes Two:  A Modest Proposal for Holding Fathers Equally Accountable” as if she meant every word of a set of completely outrageous and unlikely proposals, and respond to essays by Dave Barry with, “Sometimes I thought this writer was trying to be funny.”

Literary form is not simply “nice to know.”  If you want to understand what you’re reading, it’s essential that you be able to recognize what it is you are reading. 

But most of all, I think what students need to learn to read is a wide range of experience in works of the imagination and ideas.

So much of K-12 education has become handing out bromides–hate and elitism are bad!  tolerance is good!  everything is an opinion!–that it can be almost impossible for a college freshman to recognize the fact that they’re looking at a different opinion.

And it’s not that they can’t learn.  When they’ve been presented with alternatives by their schools or by the culture at large, they’ve got no problem hearing what that side wants to say.  On Big Issues, like abortion or gay marriage, where the culture is full of debate, they can figure out whether Author A is for or against, almost entirely because they’re aware that there is a for and against.

Take something a little subtler, however, and you’ll see my problem.  Every term, I pass out a set of short pieces to be rendered into paraphrase, and one of these was a short article for a midwestern newspaper in praise of elitism.

The piece was not difficult in terms of vocabulary, and the woman who wrote it was not shy about coming out and saying what she meant:  there is good art and bad art, the difference between the two is fact and not opinion, and you are a better and more worthwhile person if you can recognize and appreciate the first instead of the second.

Now, you can agree with the sentiment or not, but the fact is that my students can’t even identify it.  Their most common resopnse to this piece is to declare that they didn’t  understand a word of it.  Their second most common response is to say it says that “everybody has different opinons about what is good or bad art, so it’s up to you to decide what you like.”  In other words, exactly the opposite of what the article actually says.

The discussions that follow this reading are fascinating–it sometimes takes me an entire class to convince some students that the writer is saying what she is actually saying.  When they find out that there is an entire tradition in the same vein, hundreds of years of people saying this same thing, and lots of people in the same institution they are thinking it, they’re literally stupefied.

If there is one thing that students do not get in their education before college, it is an acquaintance with contending ideas and traditions.  Rather, back to that therapeutic culture again, we have decided what is “healthy” for them to have, and we push it in a way that implies that nobody anywhere ever thought anything else–or, if they did, it was a long time ago, when people were ignorant.

In other words, I think s tudents, to learn to read well, need to read some things that are not the Official Version of events.  People used to smoke, a lot.  They knew it was bad–no, they weren’t being duped by the tobacco companies; they were calling them “coffin nails” even in the Twenties–but they liked it, and lots of admirable people did it.  Lots of people think that the Warrior Ethic is a good thing, not a bad one, and that war sometimes is the answer.  There are people who reject equality and do no believe it is a good thing.  They have reasons, and arguments, that are coherent.

What I’m getting at, I think, is that we need to provide students with an acquaintance with a broad range of nonfiction, including nonfiction whose ideas we find morally wrong or hateful, and that we REALLY need to provide students with an acquaintance with imaginative literature that rejects the conventional wisdom of the therapeutic ethic–a pciture of men and women behaving throughout the full range of human possibility, almost none of it “sick” just because we don’t like it.

Which goes to indicate that I saw Janet’s post just a few seconds ago, and not only won’t I throw her off the blog–I don’t actually know how to throw anybody off the blog, and I don’t want to–I’ll devote all of tomorrow’s post to why I think she’s wrong.

As for The Iliad and men behaving badly–yes, of course  Exactly.

Written by janeh

March 19th, 2009 at 10:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Some More Learning How To Think, Sort Of'

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  1. I hope Jane will forgive me for injecting some politics into this blog.


    is a column by William Kristof in which he claims that a problem with getting news from the Internet is that we tend to read things we agree with. That is certainly true, I’ve noticed the same tendancy in my own reading.

    What amused me was one of the readers comment which said “Liberals, like Mr. Kristof, became concerned with news sources when their domination was challenged.”

    If I recall correctly, there was a big fuss when the NY Times hired Kristoff. The major objection was that he is a conservative!

    BTW, Jane refers to a post by Janet. It took me some time to find it in the comments on “Yes, Given the Chance I cause even more confusion.” I agree with Janet. And if I was going to use Ancient Greek literature in high school, I’d probably use the plays by Sophocles or Euripides.


    19 Mar 09 at 1:32 pm

  2. I think this dispute is over definitions. I define ‘reading’ as the basic skills of looking at the letters and identifying words. Anything more is a higher-order skill, like analysis or interpretations. Spotting allusions seems to require a combination of curiosity, opportunity to indulge it in a bigger world than one’s immediate family, and the kind of brain that likes to store that kind of information.

    I think that reading what you agree with far pre-dates the Internet. Back in the days when there were two local daily newspapers, everyone knew what the particular political slant of each paper was, and chose accordingly!


    19 Mar 09 at 4:24 pm

  3. I agree with Cheryl that the dispute is about definitions. She and I are both using the same definition. Jane is using a much more extended definition.

    Kristof’s point is that good newspapers often have opinion pieces from both conservative and liberal authors.

    But when we use the net, we tend to use sites which only have opinions we agree on.


    19 Mar 09 at 7:24 pm

  4. I think there is some truth to what Janet wrote. As Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno said:

    “If you ever dealt with kids, teenagers or younger, you know that to them the world is black and white; It’s fair; It’s not fair; He’s my best friend; He’s my worse enemy. When did we learn science? When did we learn religion? We learned it until we were about 12 years old, and then we were distracted by other things. And so most of us are going through life with a 12-year-old’s understanding of what science is and a 12-year-old’s understanding of what religion is.”

    The distractions Guy mentions may include being “hormonally challenged” as Janet mentions. Therefore, it could be a lost cause to get high-schoolers to participate in the Great Conversation when their world’s most important issue consists of getting invited to the dance.

    Certainly gifted kids should be nurtured, but for many one may have to settle with getting them to at least read something and hope when they mature they can move up to more valuable works of literature.

    I fully expect Jane to marvelously change my opinion when her next promised post arrives.


    19 Mar 09 at 10:35 pm

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