Trivial vs Substantive Writing

For teachers who intend the teaching of writing to further their students’ critical thinking abilities, not just any writing will do. These observations from the Foundation for Critical Thinking:

It is possible to write with an emphasis on style, variety of sentence structure, and rhetorical principles without learnign to write in a substantive manner. Rhetorically powerful writing may be, and in our culture often is, intellectually bankrupt. Many intellectually imporverished thinkers write well in the purely rhetorical sense. Propaganda. . .is often expressed in a rhetorically effective way. Political speeches empty of significant content are often rhetorically well-designed. Sophistry and self-delusion often thrive in rhetorically proficient prose.

A New York Times special supplement on education (Aug. 4, 2002) included a description of a new section in the SAT focused on a “20-minute writing exercise.” The prompt those taking the test were asked to write on was as follows: “There is always a however.” One might as justifiably ask a person to write on the theme, “There is always an always!” Or “There is never a never!” Such writing prompts are the equivalent of an intellectual Rorschach inkblot. They do not define a clear intellectual task. There is no issue to be reasoned through. Thus, the writer is encouraged to pontificate using rhetorical and stylistic devices rather than reason using intellectual good sense, to talk about nothing as if it is something.

Substantive writing requires that the writer begin with a significant, intellectually well-defined task. This writing can be assessed for clarity, accuracy, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, significance, and fairness (rather than rhetorical style and flourish). Substantive writing enables the author to take ownership of ideas worth understanding ♦ Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder (How to Write a Paragraph)

The talk about “substantive writing” shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that high school students need to be writing like Kant or Hume. When Chennell Brewer tries to unravel the mystery of a 1918 crime in her hometown of White Sulphur Springs, she’s involved in a substantive quest. So is Ronan High School student Britney Maddox, when she tells the story of her grandmother’s experiences under Hitler, or Rachel Reckin, when she gathers evidence of the role music played in helping people in Libby flourish during the Great Depression.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 02/27 at 05:32 AM
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Questions for Close Reading

Practice at close reading is essential to learning to write well. Close reading is a fundamental strategy of critical thinking.

Here’s a worksheet that may be useful for applying these questions to specific texts.

Adapted from The Art of Close Reading by Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder (The Foundation for Critical Thinking).

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 02/26 at 01:54 AM
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©2006 Montana Heritage Project

Prisoners of ideas

A few years ago I visited three different classrooms in Montana high schools on the same day. All three classrooms featured a poster with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote: “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.”

Few professions appear more like a herd of nonconformists than that of today’s English teachers.

I suspect that were that good gentleman to find himself thrust into the mêlée of contemporary American culture he might be saddened to learn that the people he hoped would free themselves from the old authorities so they could move toward transcendental understandings of eternal truths have simply turned him into an old authority--and, what’s sadder, one who in their minds condones indifference to those transcendental principles he was so sure might guide us.

He might be dismayed to see that, as the old authorities have been forgotten, people are ever more tightly bound by the limits of the present, with all its opposition to truth.

Here’s an Emerson quote I would like more young people to ponder: 

I believe the Christian religion to be profoundly true; true to an extent that they who are styled its most orthodox defenders have never, or but in rarest glimpses, once or twice in a lifetime, reached. I, who seek to be a realist, to deny and put off everything that I do not heartily accept, do yet catch myself continually in a practical unbelief of its deepest teachings. It taught, it teaches the eternal opposition of the world to the truth, and introduced the absolute authority of the spiritual law. Journal, December 27, 1834.

Or this:

As soon as beauty is sought not from religion and love, but for pleasure, it degrades the seeker. “Art,” Essays, First Series, 1841.

And what would Emerson’s young acolyte, Thoreau, think of tree spikers who claim his good name as authority for their pranks?

I imagine they learned about him from books much like the literature anthology I was provided to teach juniors. It includes a 3,000-word excerpt from his 10,000-word essay “Civil Disobedience.” Nowhere in the background material or the followup “shaping interpretations” and “extending the text” questions is the slightest hint that there might be anything problematic about the idea of disobeying laws that you don’t like. It’s all offered as unquestioned nobility.

I would think that in the wake of the ”Battle of Seattle” and dozens of like events, people who like peace and government by those who have actually won elections might consider the case for order worth at least mentioning.

For myself, I’ve been suspicious of street politics since Elliot Gould’s character in the 1973 movie Paper Chase pointed out that “riots are sexy” and that quite a lot of civil disobedience and protest had more to do with getting laid than with any enduring principle. When they aren’t just partying, protesters quite often come across as obnoxious thugs trying to impose their views by force--intimidating officials who won elections and jamming processes that quite often derive from the consent of the governed.

They like to speak the language of democracy, but if they could win elections with their points of view they wouldn’t need to tip over cars and scream obscentities.

James Lopach and Jean Luckowski have correctly noted the unbalanced and somewhat thoughtless way the teaching of civil disobedience is handled in school. They observe that

Traditional civil disobedience has usually combined deep spiritual beliefs with intense political ones. And while appreciating the differences in the two worlds—render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s—practitioners respected both. Gandhi, for instance, while leading a massive populist movement against British occupation of India (in the 1930s and 1940s), grew distrustful of mass demonstrations because participants were unwilling to go through the difficult process of purifying their actions; that is, grounding their activism in religious faith and human dignity. Martin Luther King, who warned that civil disobedience risked anarchy, went to jail “openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”

The discussion of civil disobedience should include also, at minimum, a discussion of the rule of law, of the social contract, and of the difficulties inherent in setting oneself up as a judge of one’s own case.

There is little depth in most of the materials I’ve been able to find for teaching Thoreau’s ideas of civil disobedience. Most seem to be written by twenty-something teachers enthralled with the idea of a noble intellectual resisting the forces of the state. It’s a fun posture for young people who have not yet learned how fragile government of the people and by the people can be.

Here are a few readings that might help in deepening the understanding of what is at stake in acts of civil disobedience:

First things First
Insight on the News
The Future of the End of Democracy

I would welcome readers sending others.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 12/08 at 11:51 PM
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