Don’t fix civics class. Fix civics.

The rise of Donald Trump has led to calls to fix high school civics. Some want to change its content, others its delivery, and still others its share of the curriculum. Representing this last view is the Washington Post‘s Colbert I. King, whose column includes this peroration: “The declining civic portion of public education . . . is a threat to our democratic values. It must be addressed, and now. Only a demagogue would argue with that.”

I argue with that.

In Kansas, the Post informs me this morning (we demagogues, unlike our victims, still read the paper), six high school boys are running for governor. The article is full of ironies: the would-be governors aren’t old enough to vote; one candidate, Tyler Ruzich, rushes from a debate to his part-time work as a grocery store cashier; and Ruzich observes that, in Hamilton’s time, “someone my age could be commander of a frigate.”

The article’s climax involves an interchange among two of these candidates, Ruzich and Jack Bergeson, and Soledad O’Brien on her nationally syndicated show. The show is taped the day after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The article implies that the Florida shooting makes O’Brien take the candidates seriously: O’Brien “didn’t ask whether they were old enough to drive.”

Instead, she asks Ruzich about Parkland.

Instead of finding better ways to tell teens the political facts of life, many adults after Parkland have begun to listen to and learn from high school students. As a high school English teacher, I’ve spent years learning from them through their discussions and research papers, most of which address matters of public concern. Now some American students, suddenly in the news, are taking their learning outside the classroom to discover how the kind of argumentation they’ve been trained in, based on facts and reasoning and respect, works in our public realm.

Parkland students were in the galleries when, days after the shooting, Florida’s House of Representatives voted two-to-one not to consider a bill banning the kind of military weapon that mowed down their friends. One Parkland student was photographed covering her mouth as if she were about to sob or vomit. So it goes.

At his hotel with his mom the morning of O’Brien’s show, Ruzich watches Parkland student David Hogg address Florida’s lawmakers on CNN: “We’re children. You guys are the adults. You need to take some action.”

But most of the action recently has come from the students. They – and we – are up against what Hannah Arendt calls “automatic historical or political processes,” ones that seem both disastrous and inevitable. Yet action – “the work of faith,” as Arendt calls it – can perform miracles to interrupt these processes1:

. . . in the realm of human affairs, we know the author of the “miracles.” It is men who perform them – men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.2

Man’s civic action stems from his ontological relation to the world, Arendt says: “man is a beginning and a beginner.”3 Because these teens are closer to their beginning than adults are, as I see it, Arendt’s “men” now include boys.

On national television, Ruzich, a Republican, answers O’Brien’s question about gun control:

If I’m making an enemy of the NRA, that’s something I’m kind of proud of, to be honest. I’ve seen what gun violence does. It’s time that we change the rhetoric and the discussion. Because clearly we are too far gone to say it’s a mental illness problem.

The students in Florida and Kansas are not just entering public space; they are creating it.

Our public realm is shrinking. As Philip Gorski puts it, our society believes, with Ronald Reagan, that “the true domain of human freedom [is] the marketplace, not the public square.”4 We are not far behind China in this respect. Our students are trained in civics, but they leave high school or college for the “real world” in which leadership and creativity are not often put to the public’s service but to private gain. American conservatives used to mistrust the modern marketplace – a liberal idea, after all – precisely because it tempted citizens away from republican virtue.

We vaguely believe our democracy is modeled after ancient Athens’s, but we’ve forgotten our civics lessons that informed us about Athenian democracy. It wasn’t just the city’s small size that permitted more participation. After all, Athens became the center of a Greek empire after the Persian Wars, and most places its league conquered became their own democratic poleis. Athenian juries sat not twelve but at least five hundred.5 Any citizen could speak at the general assemblies. In nearly every civic position, Athens had not a single officeholder but a college or a group of magistrates, and the citizens rotated in and out of office annually. These policies were inspired by the Athenians’ fear of tyranny.6 Many Americans believe that a fuller democracy leads to demagoguery and tyranny. But the Athenians reasoned that the greater the democracy, the smaller the chance of tyranny.

Mr. Trump wasn’t elected because of democracy; he was elected because of an institutional check on democracy that gave him the election despite his losing it by almost three million votes.

A lack of democracy causes misinformation, which in turn can lead to tyranny. King cites a study indicating that only a third of American adults in a recent survey could name their country’s vice president. But misinformation that exploits powerlessness is worse than ignorance. Vast numbers of Americans believe, for instance, that Trump won the popular vote and should postpone our next presidential election until he is satisfied that the system is no longer rigged. This isn’t the result of an inadequate civics curriculum. It’s the result of inadequate civics. Our politics is a spectator sport, and a dull one at that. People are susceptible to believing anti-government, “deep state” conspiracies because they feel powerless and invisible.

This invisibility worried John Adams. America’s poor wouldn’t disrupt society, he believed, but would not have the leisure time for civic engagement and the public visibility it brings:

The poor man’s conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed . . . He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind takes no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market . . . he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is only not seen . . . To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable.7

Of course, Adams’s observations about the poor’s lack of free time apply as well to a large portion of today’s American middle class, which works longer and harder than its counterparts in other industrialized countries. Our emphasis on the marketplace over the public square is costing us.

Compared with today’s America, my public high school is a hotbed of democracy. Its many clubs and teams resemble what Alexis de Tocqueville describes in his 1835 classic Democracy in America. Like most high schools, the cafeteria is broken into cliques, and students must learn how to navigate among them, a great skill in a pluralistic society. Students are inoculated against demagoguery not so much by learning the three branches of government as by learning how to distinguish popularity from friendship and truth. The student-officeholder-to-student ratio is high. When they vote – and they vote in both class and schoolwide elections, and their turnout is near one hundred percent each election – they listen to candidates who are empowered to make changes that affect how students experience high school. Officeholders negotiate with the school administration to realize changes that are outside of their direct control. By the way, the civics classes and teachers are first rate. I saw all of this at my previous high school, too.

How does this high school civics experience apply to the civic responsibilities students face when they graduate from high school or college? We consider an adult a model citizen if she doesn’t dodge jury duty and votes once a year. Is that enough democracy? The students go from practicing democracy in school to becoming mere spectators as adults, and the school’s inoculation against demagogues, in many cases, loses its efficacy.

How can we transplant high school’s civic engagement to our adult world? For one thing, we should seek to shield politics from necessity. We can learn even from the Athenians’ practice of slavery if we understand the institution as a cruel means of conquering necessity, which for the Greeks constituted a private, pre-political sphere. Only Athenian men who had conquered economic necessity could participate in public life. A school tries to insulate students from some aspects of poverty – it institutes clothing drives and free and reduced lunch programs, for instance – in part for the same reason Athens allowed only free men in its polis – so its members can learn and participate without the distraction of necessity, and so the community can have the benefit of their talent and insights. If we believe in equality, then we could take steps to move the poor into the public realm, not because they otherwise wouldn’t be adequately represented but because they otherwise wouldn’t be seen – wouldn’t be fully human in our eyes, despite our idealistic protestations to the contrary. In the private realm, their poverty is measured by their lack of life’s necessities. In the public realm, though, their poverty is measured by their transparency and ultimately by our own commensurate civic poverty.

High school teaches us also to take responsibility for the local. We connect to government if we participate in it. What if we took steps to take responsibility for our subdivisions the way the Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students are taking responsibility for their school community? What if the states ceded more power to the local governments, and the local governments more power to the precincts, boroughs, and subdivisions? What if the local mattered again? Edmund Burke may have gotten it right if one applies his idea of the local not to love but to civic friendship and engagement:

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.8

We need a revival of local, civic engagement. Our republic, in other words, needs a deeper democracy.

Public space can be created by policy, as the Athenians created it, or by acts of faith, as the members of the French Resistance created it when, as Arendt puts it, “without premonition and probably against their conscious inclinations, they had come to constitute wily-nilly a public realm where – without the paraphernalia of officialdom and hidden from the eyes of friend and foe – all relevant business in the affairs of the country were transacted in deed and word.”9

Through action, these students in Kansas and Florida are creating public space. At the risk of sounding like a demagogue, I think we could learn more about democracy from our children.

Feature image: “Philly students #CounselorsNotCops rally” by Joe Piette. Above image: “Student lie-in at the White House to protest gun laws” by Lorie Shaull. Both used by permission.

  1. Arendt, Hanna. Between Past and Future, at 166.
  2. Id. at 169.
  3. Id.
  4. Gorski, Philip. American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present, at 188.
  5. McInerney, Jeremy. “Athenian Courts and Justice.” The Age of Pericles. www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/age-of-pericles.html.
  6. McInerney, Jeremy. “Democracy and Government.” The Age of Pericles. www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/age-of-pericles.html.
  7. Adams, John. Discourses on Davila, Works, Boston, 1851, vol. V1, p. 239-40, 267. 279.
  8. Burke, Edmund, quoted in Haidt, Jonathan, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, at 359.
  9. Arendt, supra, at 3.

Pith

So much of a devotional is what you pack of it. Last night, Victoria recalled Jesus’ impossible command to “love your enemies,” the nub of what we had read that morning from Matthew, and applied it. The impossible becomes possible when I chunk my learning.

“These aphorisms frame, and then are forgotten.”

“Love your enemies” may be an example of Hannah Arendt’s “certain concepts, certain guideposts for future remembrance, and even for sheer reference” that I wrote about three days ago and that serve as bridges between talk and talk — the bridges and the talk that will help revive the spirit of the American revolution.

If we look at these guideposts as short-term memory aids — as “takeaways” from our reading for us to apply in the emerging public sphere — then we won’t dismiss them or, worse, revere them as aphorisms. They’ll be on the level of the sayings of the Desert Fathers — wisdom reduced to aphorism but made mysterious (i.e., infinitely scalable) by either lost or extant context.

The aphorisms, so understood, don’t just carry us from one talk to the next. They aren’t minutes to be read at a next meeting. They frame experience and permit experience — all of experience, and not just the harshest of it — to teach. Life becomes, in a way, what we look for in the best computer simulators, technology that, as educational theorist Ulrich Boser puts it, “allows people to apply their skills in a real-world setting without the high stakes.”1

These aphorisms frame, and then are forgotten. Experts are generally poor teachers of their expertise because they have automated what we once had in common with them — aphoristic knowledge suitable for our narrow but essential short-term memory:

. . . most of what experts know is simply beyond their actual ken. They don’t really know what they know; they made it fully automatic. (55)

The automation comes from a steady diet of word and context. The words, no longer needed and relegated to books, are forgotten. So I’m evolving my curriculum to speak less in class. Boser again:

Fewer words—and more breaks between ideas—make it easier for people to grapple with new information. (42)

Lincoln, someone whose life’s mission was to restore what he understood to be the revolutionary spirit, wrote with a lawyerly reductionism. He liked words like “nub” and “rub.” Here’s how the president-elect ended his letter to his friend, Alexander H. Stephens, the future vice-president of the Confederacy:

You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us. [Emphasis original]

Here’s practice in the emerging school of democracy: talk, pith, experience, repeat.

[Feature photo by Luna715 and insert photo by milkan. Both used by permission.]

  1. Boser, Ulrich. Learn Better at 126.

To have more talk

Every year I hear these words, new to each succeeding class of ninth graders, at the conclusion of Romeo and Juliet:

Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some will be pardoned, and some punished;
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

Hannah Arendt

When I thought at all about the prince’s command to talk — and I didn’t most years I read it — I thought the prince was Shakespeare trying to generate buzz: “go hence, to have more talk” means “go talk about my play.” But Hannah Arendt put the prince’s command in a new light for me this morning, as Victoria and I talked about what I had just read in Arendt’s On Revolution.

Arendt is not the first writer to observe that the American Revolution was a success and the French Revolution was a failure. But why, then, she wonders, do all the subsequent revolutions model themselves after the French one? She concludes that the difference is in the talking. The French never stopped discussing their revolution, while the Americans stopped talking political theory almost as quickly as they began revering their new Constitution.

° ° °

“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.

° ° °

After introducing her idea about Americans’ failure to talk, Arendt steps back into a brief discussion about learning and memory, something that immediately felt familiar to me as a teacher:

For if it is true that all thought begins with remembrance, it is also true that no remembrance remains secure unless it is condensed and distilled into a framework of conceptual notions within which it can further exercise itself. (212)

To translate Arendt’s observations here into always-helpful educational jargon, “all thought begins with remembrance” means that learners “build on prior knowledge.” Aware of this, teachers create “anticipatory sets” largely to put students in mind of what they already know about an upcoming lesson. Arendt’s distillation “into a framework of conceptual notions” means that teachers have students do something with the new learning: students apply it to a project, they discuss it in small groups and write down summaries of what they discuss – in other words, students begin the process of making the learning their own. To employ the title of a famous book by the psychologist and educational theorist Jean Piaget, “to understand is to invent.” The converse is also true: no invention, no understanding.

Part of the invention is talking. Many of my blog posts come out of Victoria and my “devotionals,” our term for our deliberate morning talks and prayer we’ve committed to only after a quarter-century of marriage. We discuss what we’ve been reading, thinking, and feeling, and because we’re two different people – in our case, two completely different people – we’ve taken some time to learn how to relate the other’s perspective to our own perspective in order to enrich the latter.

This is deliberate talking. It doesn’t replace, nor can it really be compared with, the talking we do in the course of living together. But I think the deliberate talking helps the rest of the talk.

Arendt goes on talking about talking:

Experiences and even the stories which grow out of what men do and endure, of happenings and events, sink back into the futility inherent in the living word and the living deed unless they are talked about over and over again. (212)

What does Arendt mean by the “futility inherent in the living word and the living deed,” particularly as it applies to the American Revolution? In his address to Springfield’s Young Men’s Lyceum 180 years ago this month, Lincoln seems to amplify Arendt’s concern about the “futility inherent”:

I do not mean to say, that the scenes of the revolution are now or ever will be entirely forgotten; but that like every thing else, they must fade upon the memory of the world, and grow more and more dim by the lapse of time. . . they cannot be so universally known, nor so vividly felt, as they were by the generation just gone to rest.

Lincoln goes on to propose that reason’s materials “be molded into general intelligence, sound morality, and, in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws” so that, upon George Washington’s rising at the last trump, he will find “that we improved to the last; that we remained free to the last; that we revered his name to the last.” Lincoln’s seeming reliance on reason alone is belied by the patriotic image of the sleeping Washington. A fidelity to the dead, and a reinvention of the dead consistent with the stone-cold facts, keeps them warm in our memory through our talk.

° ° °

……………………………………………………………“Do
“You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
“Nothing?”

……..I remember
Those are pearls that were his eyes.

° ° °

T.S. Eliot

How much, for instance, we’ve talked of Alexander Hamilton over the past two years! Sometimes I think theater has saved us, just as comedy saved us in 2008. But I think we need a firmer, more local foundation based more on our own talk because our national civic resources are running out. One hopeful sign appears in this morning’s Washington Post, which contains the paper’s annual list of what’s out and what’s in. “Running (for office)” is in, and running can help if there are local public spaces and actions left for those candidacies to generate our talk. Jefferson also had a great idea: he “devoted many of his later years to the promotion of a system of local ‘wards’ or ‘hundreds,’ which were intended to be ‘little republics’ and schools of democracy.” 1 How could we create this kind of public space for public talk?

The next installment from Arendt:

What saves the affairs of mortal men from their inherent futility is nothing but this incessant talk about them, which in its turn remains futile unless certain concepts, certain guideposts for future remembrance, and even for sheer reference, arise out of it. (212)

A Swiss stamp honoring Jean Piaget

My blog posts are never as good as the talking. There is no comparison, of course: they are different genres. But I often want the writing to contain some of the turns of phrase, turns of conversation (including 180-degree non sequiturs) and other charms of the talking. The challenge, never met, at least helps the writing come. (More educational theory: talking leads to writing.) And the writing, in turn, is important, Arendt would say, because it helps “to generate incessant talk about” the principles and practices that led to the American Revolution. Her book proves it: as Philip Gorski points out, Arendt’s On Revolution “quickly became required reading for young advocates of ‘participatory democracy’ during the 1960s and 1970s.”2

But blogging is a way for me not to generate talking but to invent by making my talking and my reading my own. Facebook, by contrast, can’t help me talk or write. I think it’s because most of Facebook is the kind of talk that makes talk impossible. Already our physical architecture, our social strata, our racism, our suburban planning, and our technology keep us from talking. Now even our talking keeps us from talking.

° ° °

O O O O that Shakespearian Rag –
It’s so elegant
So Intelligent
“What shall I do now? What shall I do?”

° ° °

Social media generates buzz, but it doesn’t generate talk. Quite the opposite, overall — it displaces talk. Shakespeare, I now think, wasn’t trying to generate buzz through the prince’s final command to talk, any more than God was through Moses when, after giving the law, he issued this command:

And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. (Deut. 6:7, KJV)

To understand this command to talk as pertaining to hermeneutics or theology is to see ourselves becoming only founts (or spouts, anyway) of scripture. But if we go with the action verbs, which I think are indicative rather than exclusive, we’d find a context for deliberate talk in the things we do every day: sit, walk, lie down, get up. (Note: we don’t buzz.) When we add deliberate talk to our daily talk – that is, to the kind of talk we do anyway when we do other things we do, then the words work themselves into and enrich our days. The words move from theory, if you will, to practice. We reinvent the words we speak and apply, and they become our own.

How do we do this? Not through social media or any other form of that enervating oxymoron, a “national conversation,” favored by pundits and some national politicians, who don’t really, when all is said and done, talk. All talk is local and is usually in the context of daily action. We need to talk in the coffee shops, in the spas,3 at work, and in our marriages. To the extent we don’t talk in these places, then we need to understand them better by reinventing them.

The talk isn’t necessarily deep or theoretical or practical or personal — at least not all at once. We may need help in “reclaiming conversation,” to put to use another book title, this one by Sherry Turkle. But the talk will lead to new thinking that we can reduce to a kind of shorthand as we get to know one another again. In this regard, I recall E.D. Hirsch’s account of his father’s business associates becoming familiar with his allusions to Julius Caesar. I’m not advocating cultural literacy at this point, of course — just talk. But my final installment from Arendt suggests how such relationally developed shorthand can serve memory and future talk:

How such guideposts for future reference and remembrance arise out of this incessant talk, not, to be sure, in the form of concepts but as single brief sentences and condensed aphorisms, may best be seen in the novels of William Faulkner. Faulkner’s literary procedure, rather than the content of his work, is highly ‘political’, and, in spite of many imitations, he has remained, as far as I can see, the only author to use it. (307)

William Faulkner

That’s all she says about Faulkner, but I think I know what she means. Faulkner’s characters, even the usually silent ones, are obsessed by talk. Some action, some speech – some spark – causes a character to respond with largely aphoristic remarks that incorporate the past and present. These remarks often make evident an obsession with and reinvention of the past that makes the present possible, if (particularly for Faulkner’s characters) often unbearable. Maybe they help to make a desired future possible, too, if we accept more agency than a lot of Faulkner’s characters seem capable of. When Faulkner’s character, the lawyer Gavin Stevens, says, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” he speaks with an understanding of talk and reinvention that I think Abraham Lincoln4 would have admired.

° ° °

The above inserts, of course, are from T.S. Eliot’s “A Game of Chess,” the second section of The Waste Land. At a New Year’s Eve party last night, Victoria complained to friends that she still often doesn’t know what I think until she reads it somewhere. Check. Perhaps reinvention has its limits.

[The feature photo is of our development in Leesburg early last month, just before dawn.]

  1. Gorski, Philip. American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present, at 65.
  2. Gorski, supra, at 146.
  3. Gorski points out that Reagan understood freedom in mostly economic terms — free to make money without government interference. For Reagan, “the true domain of human freedom was the marketplace, not the public square.” Gorski, supra, at 188. If I asked you to color-code a map of your town or city for these two kinds places — red, say, for areas that serve as marketplaces and green for those that serve as public squares — I suppose the marketplace color would predominate.
  4. Gorski’s understanding of Lincoln’s understanding of the political past is, I think, the correct one: “Like the literalists but unlike the progressives, the civil religionists emphasized the periodic return to sources. They envisioned the future by not only revisiting but also reinterpreting the past: there lay the break with the literalists. Gorski, supra, at 108.

Cache

When I read my students’ papers, I think of a chewed-up cache of my own papers my teachers read and marked. My father recently found the cache while cleaning my childhood attic. The professors corrected a few wording issues, raised some questions in the margins, and never required second drafts. One teaching assistant, though, wrote all over my papers with enthusiasm and judgment. Some of his comments were exactly as I’ve remembered them years since.

And I think of my dear father, strewing the silverfish and saving my writing.

IMG_5231

 

The French on French and other languages

When Jack and I got off the ferry in Calais, my bad French figured to be more valuable to us than his pretty good Latin. I was, in effect, my younger brother’s lifeline to the world around him for the upcoming week.

[Note: I wrote this essay last week as one of the models for my students’ research comparison paper. It features an evolving thesis.]

We boarded the train for Paris. Even though everyone on the train had just come from England, the announcements over the train’s speakers were only in French. I recognized few of the words from my high school French classes, so there was little I could do to dispel Jack’s growing anxiety. But I did remember what I had learned in college about the French’s fears of their language being invaded by English words.

This seemingly unreasonable fear continues today. The French have what The Guardian describes as “a deep-rooted anxiety over linguistic decay and decline” (Gallix). The first paragraph in the latest edition of Fodor’s France, one of the most popular tour books available in English, states that “it may be a cliché to say that the French fret over their place in the world, but they do.” To maintain their place, the French “are rallying to protect” their language, Fodor’s reports (Hervieux 10). But when weren’t the French so rallying?

The French have made protecting their language’s purity and influence a national, and even a governmental, policy for centuries. The French government started the French Academy in 1635, and from that point until the present, the Academy has been “the world’s most powerful state-backed linguistic authority.” The Academy’s chief mission is to maintain France’s official dictionary, which is also “a registry of what is officially French.” The dictionary doesn’t get updated often, with new editions coming out no more often than every fifty years or so. If you want to speak true French, your diction is stuck in a time warp and includes just the words contained in the latest edition, which was published in 1935, along with words contained in infrequent updates (Smith).

Besides serving as an official lexicographer, the French Academy serves as “the recognized authority on neologisms, particularly those coined to replace persistent Anglicisms in the language, like courriel for e-mail” (Smith). French agencies send them English words and phrases that have crept into French, and the Academy invents phrases to replace them.

By the time Jack and I left the train and its (to us) incomprehensible intercom, I felt as if we were creeping into France, too, and that we were as unwanted as our American English. I needed to find out how to catch a bus to meet our hosts in a Parisian suburb, so I approached the lady at the train station’s information kiosk.

“Do you speak English?” I asked in flawless English.

She frowned at me. She lifted her head dramatically to face the station’s domed ceiling. She sighed dramatically. She lowered her head, slowly and dramatically, and she stared at me again.

“Yes,” she said, finally. Resignedly.

I determined at that moment to speak only in my butchered French for the rest of the trip. It would be a form of revenge. The person at this information kiosk was by design the face of France, I figured, the first person in France with whom many people from England, at least, would come in contact. Who in the world could relate to this lady, or by extension, to such a people?

After all these centuries, too, the English-speaking world still can’t relate to the French Academy. Britain’s newspaper The Telegraph recently asked readers to imagine Britain’s Department for Culture, Media & Sport “setting up a website called ‘Say It in English’ where you can key in French terms such as ‘cul-de-sac’ . . . and learn that the correct way to say [it] is ‘dead-end road’” (Edge). In other words, the shoe couldn’t possibly be on the other foot.

But it is, in a way. Like the French, the English have an all-encompassing dictionary that takes a select group decades to update. Unlike its French counterpart, however, the Oxford English Dictionary (“OED”) doesn’t exist to control the language. Instead, the OED is a sprawling affair, accepting entries so long as its lexicographers find “evidence of widespread currency.” It has over 600,000 words compared with the French Academy dictionary’s 35,000 words (Wallop). As the OED’s web site says, the OED contains “the history of individual words, and of the language – traced through 3 million quotations, from classic literature and specialist periodicals to film scripts and cookery books” (“About”). Comparing the French Academy’s proscriptive dictionary with the freewheeling and labyrinthine OED, therefore, is like comparing Paris’s wide avenues with London’s hodgepodge streets.

A comparison of dog breeds, though, may be more instructive than a comparison of street layouts. English is “a mongrel language” while French is a purebred. The Telegraph points out that English “has absorbed vast numbers of foreign words over centuries of invasion or takeover by Saxons, Danes, Normans, Dutch and Germans [while] the French tongue is more self-contained.” France regulates its language like dog breeders regulate breeding: “French is treated as a top-down affair, policed by the state: an affaire d’état, if you will.” English, on the other hand, is unregulated and flexible, which “probably gives it an extra edge in our ever-shifting digital world” (Gallix). English is a howling, unpretentious language that roams the streets at night.

As my brother and I roamed the streets of Paris, Versailles, and Chartres for a week that summer after my graduation from law school, I was surprised to find a uniformly positive response by the French to the vengeance I had intended to inflict on them for their representative’s rudeness. For some reason, the French loved my broken French. Everyone I ran into grinned – not with derision, mind you, but with appreciation – as I employed my rusty French. Granted, they patiently corrected me, but never offensively. They wanted me to try.

Was this French friendliness a sign of the French language’s frailty? Were the French so desperate about maintaining their language’s future that they would fawn over any attempt by a member of the English-speaking world to speak their language? Years later, when my wife and I hosted a French teenager for a week in our Virginia home, the case was altered: he never attempted to speak French with us, and we were critical, at least inwardly, of his intermediate-level English. My wife and I were certainly not as encouraging with our guest as I remembered everyone in France as being with me.

French may be frailer than English, but French isn’t dying. In fact, over a recent four-year period, the world’s French speakers grew by twenty-five percent: the “number of French speakers increased from about 220 million in 2010 to 274 million in 2014, making it the fifth most widely spoken language in the world” (Irish). French still doesn’t rival English in world use, but decades after the loss of France’s worldwide empire, French is holding its own. If French isn’t dying, then what explains France’s positive reception to my meager attempts at speaking its language?

The French love all modern languages, not just French. They love to learn them. The French’s arguably self-defeating protection of its own language doesn’t extend to its educational system. Even though the French constitution “states in its second article, ‘la langue de la République est le français’” (Radford), the French child learns two or three modern foreign languages by the time he or she graduates from high school (“Promoting”). In the debate about making English America’s national language, many Americans have associated the argument in favor of officially sanctioning English with the “dumbing down” of foreign-language instruction in American schools. The French have proven that the two aren’t necessarily associated.

France is innovative, too, in foreign language instruction. For instance, each French school, be it elementary, middle, or high school, “must form at least one partnership with a school abroad as a basis for easier organization of language trips and exchanges between French and foreign students.” French schools’ language instruction is reinforced in many French cities by cultural institutes “founded with the aim of highlighting the key role that foreign cultural institutes in Paris play in promoting cultural diversity.” The result is not just a greater number of students taking a greater number of language courses. French students graduate fully proficient in two or three foreign languages (“Promoting”). By contrast, I didn’t graduate from either my American high school or my American college proficient in French, a language I took for many semesters in both institutions.

I’m not an unusual American in this regard. Only a quarter of Americans claim to speak a language other than English well. Of that quarter, “89% acquired these skills in the childhood home, compared with 7% citing school as their main setting for language acquisition” (Devlin). In other words, almost all Americans fluent in a language other than English learned that language at home, not at school. In contrast to French schools’ stringent foreign-language requirements, the U.S. has no nationwide standards for foreign-language learning. Instead, as a recent Pew Research Center report concludes, many “states allow individual school districts to set language requirements for high school graduation, and primary schools have very low rates of even offering foreign-language course work” (Devlin). Given the American public’s ambivalence about the utility of learning a foreign language, it’s not surprising that less than two percent of Americans claim to have learned a foreign language in school.

The French weren’t showing weakness when they encouraged my attempts at broken French. They were showing strength: they love language, and they were encouraging me in my own nascent love. Their protection of French does not come at the expense of their children’s foreign-language education. Perhaps, at bottom, it’s the French people’s love of language that drives them to learn foreign languages while so fiercely regulating their own.

Works Cited

“About.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2016, public.oed.com/about/. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

Devlin, Kat. “Learning a Foreign Language a ‘Must’ in Europe, Not so in America.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 13 July 2015, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/13/learning-a-foreign-language-a-must-in-europe-not-so-in-america/#. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

Edge, Simon. “The British Invasion the French Cannot Ignore.” Telegraph.co.uk, Jul 31 2013, ProQuest Newsstand, http://eznvcc.vccs.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.eznvcc.vccs.edu:2048/docview/1415911317?accountid=12902.

Gallix, Andrew. “The French Protect Their Language like the British Protect Their Currency | Andrew Gallix.” Opinion, Guardian News and Media, 23 May 2013, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/may/23/language-french-identity. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

Hervieux, Linda, et al. Fodor’s 2016 France. New York, Fodor’s Travel, 2016.

Irish, John. “Rise in French Speakers since 2010 a Boost for France: Report.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 5 Nov. 2014, www.reuters.com/article/us-france-language-economy-idUSKBN0IP1V220141105. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

“Promoting Multilingualism.” France Diplomatie, French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development, 2017, www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/french-foreign-policy/francophony/promoting-multilingualism/. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

Radford, Gavin. “French Language Law: The Attempted Ruination of France’s Linguistic Diversity.” Trinity College Law Review, Dublin University Law Society, 13 July 2015, trinitycollegelawreview.org/french-language-law-the-attempted-ruination-of-frances-linguistic-diversity/. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

Smith, Craig S. “Académie Solemnly Mans the Barricades Against Impure French.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 31 May 2005, www.nytimes.com/2005/05/31/books/academie-solemnly-mans-the-barricades-against-impure-french.html. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

Wallop, Harry. “Oxford English Dictionary: How the Words Are Chosen.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 30 Nov. 2010, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/8168472/Oxford-English-Dictionary-how-the-words-are-chosen.html. Accessed 7 Mar. 2017.

Induction


I started class yesterday as I often do: I turned off the overhead lights to draw attention to the Promethean board, and I turned on the lamp up front for some house light.

But the lamp didn’t work. Not being particularly handy, I asked the class for advice. “Maybe it’s not plugged in.” “Maybe the bulb’s burned out.” “The lamp might be broken.” I found a plug in the socket, and when we exchanged bulbs with a working lamp, the front lamp still didn’t work. Faced with having to inspect the lamp itself, I checked the plug again. The plug in the socket belonged to the electric pencil sharpener. I plugged in the lamp, and there was light.

My class and I were engaged in the scientific method and the bright narrative of induction. Induction works in essay writing, too. I showed the class how a thesis that evolves as it accounts for more evidence is more interesting than a static thesis stated at an essay’s outset. Consider the outlines of two papers about our lamp issue:

The Evolving Thesis Version

  • Problem and initial thesis: The lamp isn’t working. It seems as if the lamp is unplugged or the bulb is burned out.
  • Evidence: I checked the plug, and it appears to be attached to the electrical outlet.
  • Amended thesis: The bulb must be burned out after all.
  • Evidence: I swapped the old bulb for one I know works, and the lamp still didn’t work.
  • Amended thesis: Is the lamp broken?
  • Evidence: I don’t fix lamps. I check the plug again to make sure. I was wrong earlier: the electric pencil sharpener is plugged in, but the lamp isn’t.
  • Amended thesis: The lamp isn’t working because it’s unplugged.

The Five-Paragraph Essay Version

  • Problem and thesis: The lamp isn’t working. It’s not plugged in.
  • Body paragraph(s): The lamp isn’t working. The lamp is electric. Electric lamps don’t work unless they’re plugged in. The lamp isn’t plugged in. When I plug it in, the lamp works.
  • Conclusion: Because it’s an electrical appliance and isn’t plugged in, the lamp isn’t working.

In their book Writing Analytically, David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen call the five-paragraph essay “a meat grinder that can turn any content into sausage” (113). By putting a static thesis in its first paragraph, this high school essay format “reduces the remainder of the essay to redundancy” (114). The structure conceals the writer’s mind, which is the most interesting thing about essays from Montaigne forward. Peter Elbow makes the same point in contraposition: “the most common reason weak essays don’t hang together is that the writing is all statement, all consonance, all answer” (296).

My friend David Arbogast, an administrator and an English teacher with far more experience than I have, likes to say that all good writing contains a narrative element. People do like stories, but his point is that people like to step into the shoes of an inquiring mind at work. This need for engagement is why Thomas Newkirk finds the five paragraph essay to be a dead genre that many English teachers refuse to bury:

If participation in the mental activity of the writer compels us to read on, it is clear that the thesis-oriented paper may work against this participation because the form is so front-loaded. Readers are given too much, too early. (49)

An unvarying thesis at an essay’s outset with a straightjacket means of proving it trains an essay’s readers not to think. After all, the five-paragraph essay model implies that learning is dyadic, objective, and static. By contrast, an essay with an evolving thesis, like the inductive scientific method, is triadic. One can apply triadic semiotics to the scientific method: the sign is some strange phenomena or data, the interpretant is the scientist’s response (“Hm, that’s funny”), and the object or referent is a new theory that accounts for the new phenomena. On the other hand, to lead with the object, to support the object with the sign, and to eliminate the interpretant — three essential steps in the five-paragraph essay — make for dull writing and (worse) an unthinking generation of underdeveloped writers.

It hurts to write only if it hurts to think.

(I wrote a model essay with an expanded thesis for our current assignment, a comparison research paper. Here’s the link.)

°°°°

The celebration of a new Episcopal rector is broken into four parts: the institution, the liturgy of the Word, the induction, and the eucharist. During the induction, members of the congregation bring gifts and state what the gifts signify. (This is triadic, too. Consider this line from the Book of Common Prayer: “Bruce [the interpretant], use this oil [the sign], and be among us as a healer and a reconciler [the referent].” Imagine the oil and the concept of healing without a healer.)

(In fact, the Trinity is triadic: the Son’s the sign that points to the Father (the referent), and the Holy Spirit’s the interpretant.)

The prayer book prescribes some of the gifts (the oil, the Bible, the stole, for instance), but the presentations may be “adapted as appropriate to the nature of the new ministry.”

Rev. Bruce Cheney received several gifts not in the prayer book’s list, and the one that stood out to me was the work bucket, including a hammer, an air filter face mask, and some caulk. Bruce repairs buildings and, by God’s grace, men’s lives.

Bruce was installed a month ago at St. Paul’s in downtown Newport News. Here he is after the service with Victoria and Bethany.

Works Cited

The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church: According Tho the Use of the Episcopal Church. Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David. Seabury Press, 1979.

Elbow, Peter. “The Shifting Relationship Between Speech and Writing.” College Composition and Communication, 35(3), October 1985, pp. 283 – 303.

Newkirk, Thomas. The School Essay Manifesto: Reclaiming the Essay for Students and Teachers. Shoreham, VT, Discover Writing Press, 2005.

Rosenwasser, David, and Jill Stephen. Writing Analytically. 2nd ed., Stamford, CT, Wadsworth Publishing, 1999.

America first

These days I’m grading and grading. Some of my kids’ speeches are good. The school’s subscription databases, though, suddenly seem so dated. I’ll update a student controversy, one that mirrors an article from the likes of Issues and Controversies: “Should the United States provide direct support for pro-democracy movements in the United States?”

My seniors don’t know what to think. We were openly horrified this past spring, but now any discussion of it is effectively banned. The speeches’ chosen topics have coalesced around global warming, stress & mental illness, and the need for manned space travel. To this aging ear, the speeches sound of would you betray us? would you divide us? would you, after all, prevent us? This generation’s rendezvous with destiny may come as a hurried, hunted assignation.

Occupation meets preoccupation: a year of reading

3PictureUNHFacadeThis year, thanks to my reading, my blog’s abiding preoccupations made my occupation more meaningful.

A few years ago, my blog taught me something: my outlooks on my three areas of preoccupation – critical, civil, and spiritual – are the same. In each area I wish, borrowing Karl Barth’s phrase here, to “think dogmatically.” Barth uses the phrase to compliment F.D.E. Schleiermacher, a nineteenth century theologian, and Ann E. Berthoff amplifies the notion of dogmatic thinking in her own paean to Schleiermacher. It involves, she says, “the charge of keeping the code” but not by “pretending that knowledge and understanding are independent of interpretation” (Berthoff, Mysterious, 97).

I offer two more quotes, the first by Susanne K. Langer, the twentieth-century American philosopher, and the second by Jean Piaget, the twentieth-century Swiss psychologist, that put Berthoff’s understanding of hermeneutics in different ways:

All knowledge is an interpretation, and we must choose such perspectives as will yield meanings of the universe which interest us . . . (82)

To understand is to invent.

This summer, I learned a nice word for my outlook: triadicity. In semiotic terms, it means that a sign and what it signifies, by themselves, don’t explain much and can lead to, as Berthoff puts it, “getting rid of the interpreter or destroying what he is meant to interpret” (Berthoff, Sense, 133). To avoid hermeneutical (and, I would add, political, critical, or spiritual) disaster, the sign and signified – the chief elements of a dyadic approach to language – need a mediator:

The only way to get from symbol to what is symbolized is by means of a mediating idea which must, in turn, be interpreted. (Berthoff, Mysterious, 73)

I began to understand my outlook in semiotic terms. I saw that, for instance, my preoccupation with the challenges the abolitionists and the secessionists present to Lincoln fit triadic thinking: Lincoln advances a “mediating idea” – the Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal” – as a way to counter both the secessionists’ strict construction of the Constitution (Berthoff’s “getting rid of the interpreter”) as well as the abolitionists’ desire to destroy the Constitution as a pact with the devil (Berthoff’s “destroying what he is meant to interpret”).

I read and wrote a lot this summer while taking three courses in composition instruction to prepare to teach some college freshman composition sections. These three courses largely gave me the flexibility to pursue my interests, and the chief interest became triadicity.

I started to see triadicity everywhere whether or not it was referred to as such. Triangles always worked. One instructor at the University of New Hampshire read a few paragraphs from Susin Nielsen’s young adult novel We Are All Made of Molecules. In it, Stewart describes his mother’s death as the collapse of an equilateral triangle in which his father, mother, and he makes up the triangle’s sides. It reminded me of the sad reliance on dualistic philosophy in the Common Core, in American politics, in many American churches’ hermeneutics, and in Constitutional construction. Like Stewart, I visualized a triangle with a missing base in order to cope with a tragedy.

I quickly began to summarize my three preoccupations around Stewart’s triangle, and I found a good fit for nine expressions of them:

3PictureTriangle

After my summer classes ended, I created my classroom’s bulletin board to summarize and contrast dyadic and triadic approaches to education:

3PictureBulletinBoard

One can hear this contrast in Piaget’s writing. The above quote from Piaget, “To understand is to invent,” is really the title of one of his two seminal books on how to apply advances in psychology to educational practice, this one published in 1973. Early in To Understand Is To Invent, Piaget compares what he refers to as “three tendencies” in applying then-recent “research on the development of the intelligence and cognitive structures” to education:

The first, remaining loyal to venerable Anglo-Saxon traditions, continues to pursue an empirical associationism with would assign a purely exterior origin to all knowledge, deriving it from experience or verbal or audio-visual representations controlled by adults.

The second is characterized by an unexpected return to factors of innateness and internal development. . . . Here education would mainly consist in training an innate “reason.”

The third tendency, which is decidedly my own, is of a constructivist nature. . . . It recognizes neither external preformations (empiricism) nor immanent preformations (innateness), but rather affirms a continuous surpassing of successive stages. This obviously leads to placing all educational stress on the spontaneous aspects of the child’s activity. (10 – 11)

Although Piaget never mentions Locke or “innate ideas” directly, one sees hints in the “first tendency” of an oversimplification of Locke’s empiricism that, to some extent, was designed to counter the doctrine of “innate ideas” prevalent in Locke’s day. The oversimplification, however, is on the part of the American educational system, which, particularly with its emphasis on multiple-choice, standardized testing and its business model of teaching, has doubled down on Piaget’s first reported tendency. The left side of my bulletin board illustrates this tendency.

One can see in Piaget’s summaries the same tendencies in education that Berthoff finds in hermeneutics. Piaget’s first tendency seeks to “get rid of the interpreter” – the student – as a meaning-maker. His second tendency seeks to “destroy what he is meant to interpret” by devaluing any text used in favor of developing the student’s innate gifts.

As Berthoff says, “thinking dogmatically means honoring a commitment to the third way” (Berthoff, Mysterious, 97).

° ° °

I’ve run up a great debt to Ann Berthoff. She has written passionately and thoughtfully over several decades about triadicity. Most of her earlier writings addressed triadicity in the context of writing instruction. Her writing tends to be highly theoretical and critical of dyadic thinking. However, unlike many composition theorists, Berthoff has done pedagogy: she has coupled her engaging works on composition theory (The Making of Meaning; The Sense of Learning) with a full-blown textbook for the college freshman composition class (Forming, Thinking, Writing). Without her textbook, Berthoff would seem to take on the role of the perpetual backbencher, a gadfly who would come “out of her corner again and again . . . to attack a would-be pedagogical savior,” as Philip Keith describes her modus operandi. Keith is enthusiastic about her textbook:

It is a putting of cards on the table after long study, thought and analysis. It is serious and, to use the word of an earlier reviewer,?amiable; tough and nurturing, careful and strange. It organizes?while it swamps. It is a wonderful book, and the world might well become a very different place if it were used in even a quarter of the freshman composition classes in the country. (98)

Instead, like all of Berthoff’s books, it is out of print. This past summer, to get her latest book, The Mysterious Barricades: Language and its Limits, for less than fifty dollars, I had to order a used copy from Australia. Her relative obscurity is no reflection on her, of course. After reading her, I’m convinced it speaks more to the intransigent nature of American classroom practice, an intransigence that helps to give old, classic pedagogic texts (like Piaget’s) a certain immediacy since they often describe the same challenges and mindsets that continue to plague writing classrooms today.

In a way – and this is a grand sentiment – I hope to do for Berthoff in my college composition and ninth-grade classes what she did for her intellectual forebears. She gives fresh thought and new application to two fellow writing instructors, I. A. Richards and Louise M. Rosenblatt, as well as to several other theorists – among them Charles Sanders Pierce, Kenneth Burke, and Lev Vygotsky – who weren’t thinking a great deal about writing instruction per se when they worked out their theories.

° ° °

Here are the books and the Great Courses I’ve read this year. Thanks to my three graduate classes, I’ve also read too many academic articles, none of which I’ve included here.

Peter Ackroyd. Rebellion: The History of England from James I to the Glorious Revolution

James Baldwin. Giovanni’s Room

James Baldwin. Go Tell It on the Mountain

Anna Beer. Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot

John Berger. To the Wedding

James A. Berlin. Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-Century American Colleges

Ann E. Bertoff. Forming, Thinking, Writing (2nd Ed.)

Ann E. Bertoff. The Mysterious Barricades: Language and Its Limits (two reads)

Ann E. Berthoff. The Sense of Learning

Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Teju Cole. Every Day Is for the Thief (second read)

Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness

Maurice Cranston. John Locke: A Biography

John Dewey. Experience in Education.

David Herbert Donald. Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era (3rd edition)

Dave Eggers. What is the What

William Faulkner. Intruder in the Dust (second read)

L. Dee Fink. Creating Significant Learning Experiences

Joseph A. Fitzmyer (introduction, translation, and notes). The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke (I – IX)

Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage

Malcolm Gladwell. Outliers: The Story of Success

Howard Holzer. Lincoln and the Power of the Press

Michael Korda. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee

Alan Charles Kors. The Birth of the Modern Mind: The Intellectual History of the 17th and 18th Centuries (Great Courses)

Pauline Meier. Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

Stephen Mitchell, trans. Gilgamesh

Michel E. de Montaigne (Donald M. Frame, trans.). Essays, Book One

Reinhold Niebuhr. The Irony of American History (third read)

Tim O’Brien. In the Lake of the Woods

Walker Percy. The Moviegoer

Walker Percy. The Thanatos Syndrome

Raymond P. Scheindlin, trans. The Book of Job

Dan Senor and Saul Singer. Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle

William Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet (three reads; countless previous reads)

Dava Sobel. Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

Mark A. Stoler. The Skeptic’s Guide to American History (Great Courses)

Stephen Toulmin. The Uses of Argument

Alice Walker. The Color Purple

Philip Weinstein. Becoming Faulkner

Garry Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (three reads)

° ° °

Works Cited

Berthoff, Ann E., and James Stephens. Forming, Thinking, Writing. 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1988. Print.

Berthoff, Ann E. The Mysterious Barricades: Language and Its Limits. Toronto: U of Toronto, 1999. Print.

Berthoff, Ann E. The Sense of Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1990. Print.

Keith, Philip M. “Ann Berthoff and the Problem of Method in Writing: A Review Essay.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 10.2 (1980): 98-103. Print.

Nielsen-Fernlund, Susin. We Are All Made of Molecules. New York: Wendy Lamb, 2015. Print.

Piaget, Jean. To Understand Is To Invent: The Future of Education. New York: Grossman, 1973. Print.

3PictureUNHFacade1Photos of building facade taken this past summer at the University of New Hampshire.

Slow, immediate

FullSizeRenderOver break I filled my
green, mechanical pencil with
lead.

What else. Alone

it represents
nothing, is indicative of
nothing, suggests,
intimates,
prefigures,
symbolizes
nothing that I am immediately aware of.

It counterposes, offsets, analogizes, compares with, offsets, is juxtaposed with, supports, qualifies, contrasts with, is inimical to, controverts, contends with, counters, challenges, counteracts, oppugns, parallels, withstands, matches, relates to, is set off against, and is weighed in the balance with nothing.

Nothing, after all, I can be only immediately aware of.

In fact, this lack of awareness
equates with, or at least is indicative of,
the immediate.

(You see, then, how I’ve spoiled
everything. I should’ve kept quiet.)

“Immediate” means, first of all, “acting or being without the intervention of another object, cause, or agency” (Merriam-Webster). Immediate, then, means slow, not fast.

We are the immediate, the mediators between perception and meaning. We have to find ourselves there before we learn anything else.

Most classes use the present to understand the past or to build a future. Eternity, if it exists, comes later. But I want to put my class, as much as I can and should, on a quixotic journey to find the present.

Ye who teach that eternity defies explanation,
go back and learn that explanation defies eternity.

The immediate is the calm inside the confusion before a comparison comes to mind, before the elemental lead is compounded with — as (God!) I just did here — or similized or metaphorized with — something prior or employed to foreshadow something coming. It is the slow, dumb present.

Toulmin and the reasoning of children

3PictureStephenToulminStephen Toulmin, the twentieth-century British philosopher whose book The Uses of Argument helped to make logic available for everyday use, seems bemused in his preface to that book’s updated edition about the first edition’s significant contribution to informal logic. He had not, he says, “set out to expound a theory of rhetoric or argumentation: my concern was with twentieth-century epistemology, not informal logic” (vii). I’ll ignore his protestations as I present two practical contributions his book has made – and will make – in my classroom, but I’ll take him at his word in examining how his epistemological approach may have inadvertently contributed to my own educational theory and practice.

I’ve taught “the Toulmin model” in AP Language and Composition courses as a modern means of argument, more flexible than Aristotle’s compromise between Plato and the Sophists. Aristotle’s syllogisms and deductive reasoning get one only so far, and it would be tragic if logic of some kind might not be used for matters of that call for less than mathematical certainty, particularly matters of morality and public policy. Toulmin’s flexible construction of claims, data, and warrants meets this need. If Toulmin has successfully identified these “modes in which we assess arguments, the standards by reference to which we assess them and the manner in which we qualify our conclusions about them, [that] are the same regardless of field (field-invariant)” (15), or at least if he has created a model that makes something like logic more accessible to arguments normally impervious to Aristotle’s more syllogistic logic, then my students at least have a way of talking about, critiquing, and challenging many kinds of arguments the same way.

Toulmin oversimplifies Aristotle, however, and ends up duplicating Aristotle’s method for informal argument to some extent. Toulmin implicitly blames Aristotle for boiling down argument to “‘minor premiss; major premiss; so conclusion’” (89). However, Toulmin’s model, particularly his notion of the warrant as “incidental and explanatory, its task being simply to register explicitly the legitimacy of the step involved and to refer it back to the larger class of steps whose legitimacy is being presupposed” (92), is a lot like Aristotle’s notion of an enthymeme. Toulmin gives an example of an argument over someone’s hair color and identifies its trivial warrant: “the knowledge that Harry’s hair is red entitles us to set aside any suggestion that it is black, on account of the warrant, ‘If anything is red, it will not also be black’” (91). Yet Aristotle’s enthymeme, called by rhetorician Thomas De Quincey a “syllogism of which one proposition is suppressed” (Seaton 113), has some overlap with Toulmin’s warrant, which is distinguished from his data in part because of the former’s implicitness: “This is one of the reasons for distinguishing between data and warrants: data are appealed to explicitly, warrants implicitly” (92). Specifically, if an enthymeme’s minor premise is implied, then it serves also as Toulmin’s warrant. I’ve stopped teaching enthymemes in AP Language classes: the potential for overlap and confusion seems to outweigh the benefit from learning the subtle differences between enthymemes and Toulmin arguments.

Uses, now that I’ve read it, may help me teach argumentation in other ways. Toulmin’s occasional templates may also help my students express the relationships among claim, data, and warrants. He offers two such templates here: “‘Data such as D entitle one to draw conclusions, or make claims, such as C’, or alternatively ‘Given data D, one may take it that C’” (91). Toulmin, in fact, seems to have provided the philosophical backbone as well as the pedagogical structure for a popular book on argumentation I assign my students, They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say has a section on “Prove it” (Toulmin’s “data”)(42) and on “So what?” (Toulmin’s “warrant”)(92). It also discourages the use of formal logic (xxv) and expands on Toulmin’s use of templates (e.g., 64 – 65). They Say and its ilk, then, may be seen as means of implementing Toulmin’s theory into the classroom and expanding his practice there.

But the biggest contribution Toulmin makes to my classroom could be in the area of educational theory. Ironically, he addresses educational theory in Uses only in passing and then only to disclaim his theory’s applicability to educational theory:

If one asks how in the course of children’s lives they come to pick up the concepts and facts they do, or by what educational devices particular rational techniques and procedures are inculcated, one will of course have to proceed a posteriori, using methods drawn from psychology and sociology . . . (200)

Yet if one believes with Maria Montessori that a child’s reason begins functioning at birth (Standing 206), then the more logical side of Toulmin’s epistemology may be helpful in discovering in what sense that reasoning occurs. Seventeenth-century British philosopher John Locke also believes that children begin to reason at birth; his famous epistemological work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding famously dismisses the notion of “innate ideas” in favor of what has since been called a child’s tabula rasa, or “blank slate” (White 16 – 19). Locke’s position has been misunderstood: his “blank slate” protects the political sanctity of children since the existence of innate ideas would give “no small power,” as Locke puts it, to “one man over another, to have the authority to be the dictator of principles, and teacher of unquestionable truths; and to make a man swallow that for an innate principle which may serve to his purpose who teacheth them” (18 – 19).  Toulmin tacitly acknowledges the link between his epistemology and this aspect of educational theory when he finds himself unable to wholly dismiss the seventeenth-century controversy over innate ideas because “in the last resort one cannot set the psychological and logical aspects of epistemology utterly and completely apart” (196 – 197).

Toulmin, then, refuses to take a stand on either side of the “innate ideas” controversy, but his epistemology favors Locke’s and Montessori’s positions. Toulmin is often seen as an unwitting antidote to the extreme position of the early twentieth-century logical positivists, whose radical division of logic from rhetoric caused them to regard “statements of value as merely reports on the state of one’s glands,” as Northwestern University School of Communication Professor David Zarefsky puts it. Zarefsky sees Toulmin’s model as one of a few “reformulations of the concepts of reason and rationality” that came later in the twentieth century (16). Toulmin’s broadening of the notion of reason to include moral and practical concerns mirrors similar efforts by Locke and by Montessori, the latter of whom in discussing the Western world’s “moral paralysis” states that “reason today is hidden under a dark cloud and has almost gone down to defeat. Moral chaos in fact is nothing but one side of the coin of our psychic decline; the other side is the loss of our powers of reason. The pre-eminent characteristic of our present state is an insidious madness, and our most immediate need a return to reason” (Montessori 13 – 14). Toulmin, whom Zarefsky sees as attempting “to explain ethical reasoning” (16), seems to have unwittingly affirmed Locke (an educational theorist as well as a philosopher) in restoring reason as a tool of epistemology and educational theory.

Aided by the Toulmin model and the license to moral inquiry that the model represents, my students are empowered to argue claims of fact, value, policy, and definition without having to pretend that those claims’ moral implications are beyond the scope of reason.

Works Cited

Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. “They Say / I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2014. Print.

Montessori, Maria. Education and Peace. Trans. Helen R. Lane. Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Pub., 2007. Print.

Seaton, R. C. “The Aristotelian Enthymeme.” The Classical Review 28.4 (1914): 113-19. JSTOR. Web. 25 May 2015.

Standing, E. M. Maria Montessori, Her Life and Work. New York: Plume, 1998. Print.

Toulmin, Stephen. The Uses of Argument. Updated ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.

White, Morton. The Philosophy of the American Revolution. New York: Oxford UP, 1978. Print.

Zarefsky, David. “History of Argumentation Studies.” Argumentation: The Study of Effective Reasoning. 2nd ed. Chantilly, VA: Teaching, 2005. Print.