Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Writing: Creative or Discursive?
   How do we think?

College writing teacher Tina Blue believes that students can best learn to be rational by practicing discursive writing. She points out, correctly, that humans aren’t naturally rational but that they “have the capacity to learn how to reason.”

“Creative writing"--writing focused on self-revelation and relying on personal experience rather than on developing organized and supported thoughts--is not nearly so useful, she says. In ”Why Students Should Have to Learn How to Write Discursive Essays” she observes that “just as the skilled athlete has, through diligent effort and application, honed physical capacities that are inherent but not well developed in most human beings, so the skilled thinker has studied and trained himself to apply mental skills in a manner beyond the reach of most untrained minds.”

She speaks from within the classical liberal tradition, arguing that “the function of training in discursive writing is to enable the student to learn the habits and techniques of discursive thought, not to provide him with an outlet for expressing his feelings.”

I agree with this without believing that it’s the whole story. I almost agree with her when she says that “discursive writing is a process which exercises both simultaneously and sequentially all of the mental skills needed for learning new information and for thinking deeply and carefully about important or difficult ideas: observation, analysis, classification, analogy, synthesis, verbalization, and memory.” My disagreement is that I think she neglects to mention the most powerful mental skill we need to learn new information and think deeply: the power of making metaphors. It is something more than skill with analogies. More about that later.

Thomas F. Bertonneau makes a similar argument in The Montana Professor. He goes further than Blue in that he links the decline in the teaching of discursive writing to the rise of political views that don’t fare well in the bright lights of critical thought:

Why then do those educators not remediate their students? Because the power of analysis, the ambit of an adult vocabulary, the salvation implicit in a skill at concepts--all of this represents the bourgeois consciousness that the “cutting edge” wishes to suppress in favor of sub-proletarian authenticity. The creation of this huge class of matriculants and graduates who have been led, unwittingly, into the state of epistemological correctness represents the radical revenge against the civilized order perpetrated by would-be revolutionaries who spurn any demand not their own. Affective agendas, like those of multiculturalism, feminism, and “sensitivity,” stand to gain in an environment from which ratiocination has been expelled. Where raw emotion has been tamed by the power of reason, such movements must answer to criticism, a confrontation that their adherents seek assiduously to avoid.

Bertonneau develops his argument more thoroughly than does Blue by analyzing samples of student writing that provide insights into how their minds work. These analyses alone are worth the time it takes to read his article. After tracing the students’ thought through their essays, Bertonneau concludes that “in situations outside those of their day-to-day social activities, these students face the blooming, buzzing confusion which the raw stuff of existence is supposed to be, according to one school of philosophy.” Because they are incapable of rigorous thought themselves, they are unaware that rigorous thought exists and that others do engage in it. “Pandered to and propagandized for years by advocates of the postmodern project, the students ‘know’ that the important things are (1) their own uniqueness and (2) the diversity of the collegial milieu.” In other words, they know what they have been repeatedly told.

Though I don’t disagree with either writer’s points about discursive writing, their arguments leave me wanting more. This is because there is much more to “creative writing” than Blue suggests. The best imaginative writers use the mental powers Blue and Bertonneau champion, and more.

In particular, they work with metaphor and kindred powers of mind. Not metaphor as simple figurative speech--"her eyes were forest pools"--but metaphor as a fundamental power of human thought, a way of thinking that allows us to contemplate something in one conceptual domain, like culture, by projecting concepts from a different domain, like geography:

. . .let’s parabolically imagine concepts as countries. These countries are often distinguished from each other by borders that appear as clear, natural divisions, like rivers or mountain ranges. Sometimes they are divided by unmapped wastelands, or by swampy and disputed marshes. Some are islands, with the sea such an obvious natural boundary that no one even thinks to question it. Over on the continent of mathematics, borders are laid out in straight, stipulated grids, which at least makes foreign relations tidy. Concept-countries have centers of life, major cities and capitals. The country of Art, which interests me especially, has many, some inhabited by the likes of Homer, Lady Murasaki, and Shakespeare, while in others are to be found Praxiteles, Bernini, and Rodin. There are less powerful towns as well, and on the frontier you can find dusty settlements of refugees from the nearby country of Craft. Some cynics claim these illegals are nothing more than economic refugees who ought to be sent home. At a border post, Marcel Duchamp argues with the guards. They are confused whether to let him in, while he laughs, telling them their post is not at the border at all, but a hundred miles inside it.  Denis Dutton

Dutton is here drawing on the work of Mark Turner.  What he points out in his mixing of concepts from the world of ideas with those from the world of geography is that it is both impossible and instantly intelligible. Our ability to think in this way, mixing features of one ”mental space” with features from another, is the source of our ability to innovate, to apply lessons learned to new situations, and, at bottom, to think as humans.

Literary writers more than any other group have explored and developed the imaginative uses of mental spaces that allow us to think about “things” that are on the border of being impossible to render in ratiocinated prose. All students should be invited to study and contemplate their work, ranging from the poetry of Yeats to the travel writing of Tim Cahill. Part of that study and contemplation, most especially for students who choose it, should include attempting similar writing themselves, including poetry, fiction, and newer genres such as narrative journalism.

Still, I would agree that the focus of writing instruction in required courses should be discursive prose. Discursive prose can be taught systematically, anyone can learn it, and it is used regularly by all who do learn it. Its powers are enormous and eminently teachable. Though I also believe there are more powerful ways of writing, they are harder to learn and much harder to teach.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 11/02 at 07:25 PM
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© 2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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