Bad Theory and the Practice of College Composition

RV Young on changes in Freshman composition over the past 40 years.

HT Martin at Vital Remnants

Why we think and how we can do it better

Portrait of Chaucer from a manuscript by Thoma...

Image via Wikipedia

We think to determine three things: whether something is true, whether something should be done, and whether something commands our appreciation. In other words, we think to know truth, goodness, and beauty.

In each case, a judgment is made. A judgment is embodied in a decision and expressed in a proposition.

When we know the truth, we don’t need to think about it so much as to enjoy it. When we know what is good, we need to act, which will arouse a thousand more questions, few of which will reach the conscious mind. When we know what is beautiful, we need to adore.

Thinking begins when we feel a contradiction. This is because thinking, as we generally experience it, is the quest for harmony, that is, a mind without contradictions. Thus Socrates: “Great is the power of contradiction.” It makes us think.

How then does The Lost Tools of Writing teach thinking? Mainly by pushing the responsibility for making decisions back to the students. Every essay involves making a decision – whether so and so should have done such and such, whether X should do Y, etc.

But if you want to undercut thinking in a hurry, give someone a responsibility without the tools to fulfill it. In my view, this is the cause of over 95% of students’ laziness. Therefore, LTW does not drop the task on the student, telling him to bear a burden that his teachers won’t bother carrying, and then walk away. It provides the tools to make decisions.

First, it provides the topics of invention. These are the categories of thought, without which one cannot possibly think about any issue adequately. It provides practice using these categories (topics) in real world issues, but not issues that concern them directly. They have not yet learned how to think based on principles, so I don’t want them getting emotionally involved in issues they cannot understand yet.

Because thinking takes practice.

It also takes order, and that’s what the canon of arrangement teaches. I’m not sure people generally appreciate how important order is to sound thinking. After all, the object of thought is a harmonious solution to a question, and the only way we can know if our solutions are harmonious (i.e. lacking contradictions) is if we see the parts in relation to each other.

Thought also requires judgment or assessment. The thinker needs to know if the form of his thought is sound, if the proportions and emphases match the reality about which he is thinking, if the more important parts are given their due emphasis.

This tends not to come under the Progressive reduction of thought to “critical thinking” but it is an essential element of clear and honest thinking.

In the canon of Elocution, LTW teachers yet another mode of thinking: the quest for the fitting expression, which requires a subtlety of judgment that cannot be gainsaid.

Here’s the thing: we can only appreciate what we can perceive. What we perceive depends on two things: the thing we are perceiving and the eyes with which we perceive it.

Now by “the eyes with which we perceive it” I do not mean only the eyes of the body, but also what Shakespeare called “the mind’s eye.” The mind’s eye perceives what it perceives as it perceives it because of the concepts it possesses while it perceives it.

When I listen to music, I cannot hear what my good friend John Hodges can hear. He is a composer with a tremendous and informed gift for music. But notice that he has an informed gift. He knows music. As a result, his experience of music is very different than mine.

In fact, he once converted me about a piece of music. When first I saw Les Miserables, I thought of it mostly in political terms and judged it to be sentimental claptrap. But when John explained the musical qualities, how characters had their own tunes, how the story put melodies out in one place, then withdrew them, the reinserted them in other places to tell the story through the music, I came to understand why it is regarded by those who can perceive these things as a masterpiece.

I was informed. My mind’s eye could see better. My appreciation grew.

Even so, modern readers (and that means most of us) struggle to read great poetry, while we can watch movies with incredible complexity. Why? Because since we were very little we have gone to the theatres and learned how to watch movies. We understand the art form without even having to think about it very much.

Poetry is not what it used to be, at least not in the classroom. The conventions are regarded as evil, the forms as tyrannical. Consequently, nobody reads Longfellow anymore.

But LTW is a classical curriculum. If that means anything it means that we respect the conventions. 2500 years of artistry gave us quite a remarkable treasure trove of riches. In elocution,  we teach students schemes and tropes so they are capable of appreciating Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, and Spenser, and by appreciating their artistry, they can enter into the astounding insights that lie between their paradoxes and dilemmas.

Through LTW students begin or continue to grow toward a perceptive, insightful, and refined mind. Standardized testing and critical thinking become fleas they snap off their shoulders because they are on to important things, like making decisions and acting on them, adoring the beautiful, and knowing truth.

The Lost Tools of Birthing

Between Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales who died in 1400, and Edmund Spenser, who published The Sheapherd’s Calendar in 1576, you will scan your anthologies of English verse in vain for a renowned poet.
Why did English literature blossom in the 14th century only to enter an aesthetic dark age until Spenser? And why did the late 16th century, the Elizabethan age, experience a flowering that many students of English literature still consider a golden age? How did nearly 200 obscure years disappear in the radiance of Spencer, Sidney, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Donne, and so many great poets, writers, explorers, and scientists?
Grammar and rhetoric.
In 1540, King Henry VIII issued an Executive Order that every school throughout the realm should teach a uniform grammar. In the 1544 version, the following “letter to the reader” explains why he issued his history-altering decree:
“His majesty considering the great encumbrance and confusion of the young and tender wits, by reason of the diversity of grammar rules and teachings (for heretofore every master had his grammar, and every school diverse teachings, and changing of masters and schools did many times utterly dull and undo good wits) hath appointed certain learned men meet for such a purpose, to compile one brief, plain, and uniform grammar, which only (all others set apart) for the more speediness, and less trouble of young wits, his highness hath commanded all schoolmasters and teachers of grammar within this his realm, and other his dominions, to teach their scholars.”
Every English school child in Elizabethan England memorized this famous “Lily’s Grammar.” Even earlier, Dean Colet had re-founded St. Paul’s school in London, where he implemented a curriculum and text books written and assisted by his friend, Erasmus. By the time Shakespeare reached the Stratford Grammar School in 1571, the curriculum and methods of St. Paul’s had spread throughout England. Sister Miriam Joseph describes the manner of teaching:
“The method prescribed unremitting exercise in grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Grammar dominated the lower forms, logic and rhetoric the upper. In all forms the order was first to learn precepts, then to employ them as a tool of analysis in reading, and finally to use them as a guide in composition…. The boy must first be grounded in the topics of logic through Cicero’s Topica before he could properly understand the one hundred and thirty-two figures of speech defined and illustrated in Susenbrotus’ Epitome Troporum ac schematum et grammaticorum et rhetoricorum”
The assumption behind this Renaissance curriculum is the same assumption that an athlete or a painter or a dancer makes when he seeks excellence: virtue requires “unremitting exercise,” which is to say, disciplined mastery of the craft.
The Lost Tools of Writing is a shadow of the curriculum Erasmus and Lily established in 16th century England. It is hoped that this shadow, learned by eager students and taught by humble teachers, can plant the seeds of a thousand individual Renaissancen.
The Lost Tools of Writing rests on the conviction that our world is populated by geniuses and intelligent people who fail to realize their genius or fulfill their intelligence for lack of disciplined training in the craft of writing. When the insights and epiphanies come, the unprepared mind has no vessel to preserve it.
The more intelligent the student, the more frustrating the experience.
Perhaps it strains the point to insist that writing is a craft with tools that empower the craftsman through practice, that writing produces artifacts that can be objectively assessed for their consistency with the principles of the art, and that the goal of instruction is for the student to attain self-mastery, which is synonymous with freedom.
If American education is going to be reborn, if the United States are going to experience a much-needed rebirth of freedom, it will only occur through a wide-spread commitment to the verbal arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

Could William Faulkner Write?

I don’t like to travel without an interesting compelling time-filling book, and I’m driving up to PA tomorrow in what is still called a car because that is what the people over at Hertz call it – a bright cool air-conditioned chamber with the windows all closed because as a man I realize that hot air prevents coolness from spreading and the open window will let more heat than cool in – so I was glancing over my office qua study bookcase covered with anthologies of great books and poems and individual novels from which life-changing insights broke in random gusts, breaking the backs of cultures on the rack of history and I made the mistake of picking up Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom. I read the first page and a half and thought, “This demands a response.”

So, even though I have no time for it, and even though I can’t possibly say anything intelligent, I am going to take a few moments and respond to this page and a half.

My first thought, by the time it formed itself into a proposition, sounded something like this: “How does such a book find a publisher?”

It’s not that it doesn’t deserve to be published, it’s just that it breaks every rule in the publishers library of rule books. How did the first editor get past the second page? This book, were it handed in to a college professor, would have almost certainly been dismissed as ridiculous.

But the error would have been the professor’s, I guess, because its now among the great books in the American canon.

My trouble, and the trouble is mine and it is a vice, is that when I pick up a book to read on my own, I want to know it will be worth my time. I am a distressingly pragmatic reader. I want to take something out of the reading and I want to do it quickly.

So when I read, “From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that — a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with ….” I wonder:

How do I know Faulkner isn’t playing a joke on me?

The thing is, it may be that Faulkner is writing this exactly as it needed to be written given the reality he is embodying in this description. It may be that unless we see all these things interpenetrating each other verbally we can never perceive how they interpenetrated each other in reality. In other words, maybe high school essay prose won’t express the idea Faulkner is trying to express.

So I flip randomly and end up on my head. Then I flip the pages of my book randomly and end up on page 87, where I read this:

“She must have seen Judith now and Judith probably urged her to come out to Sutpen’s Hundred to live, but I believe that this is the reason she did not go, even though she did not know where Bon and Henry were and Judith apparently never thought to tell her.”

And just as I’m about to plunge into despair, he follows that with this:

“Because Judith knew. She may have known for some time; even Ellen may have known. Or perhaps Judith never told her mother either.”

He can write short sentences – but he won’t write in a perfectly linear way, that’s evident. Every phrase seems to be a qualification of the preceding one.

Now, being a child of the age, I prefer to read fast and to get on to the next book, but it’s pretty obvious that if I’m going to read Absalom, Absalom I’m going to have to slow down and think about what I’m reading. I’ll probably even, horror of horrors, have to read it more than once.

Who’s got time for that? There are 54 great books in the great books set and this isn’t even one of them! Plus I have to read Hicks, Plato’s Phaedrus, and The Tempest for the apprenticeship, study Latin, study poetics for LTW development, and read things for next year’s conference – etc. etc.

Who’s got time for a leisurely read?

It reminds me of Emo Phillips doing the triathlon. He swims for about five minutes and then thinks, “This is stupid, the bike is getting rusty.”

So who knows, maybe I’ll read Faulkner or maybe I won’t. I know that until I do I can’t be considered educated, but that’s the way the cookie bounces. I blew my chance to get educated when I went to school as a child. Now I just do what I can.

But it does seem to me that the effort would be worth it. For one thing, I would have to read in a manner I’m not accustomed to reading and that’s always a good thing to do. Reading is an almost miraculous activity in that it opens the mind, not only to new ideas, but to new forms of thinking, to new patterns of perception.

I like the standard clear strong manly English sentence with a subject, predicate, direct object. I like the periodic sentence too, where the verb (imitating Latin and German), till the end of the sentence, is withheld. It seems to hold the attention while the reader, anxious to see whether the sentence will heal or wound itself with its ending, poised on a balance beam, waits; and the writer, heels over head, dismounting the same beam, nothing promises.

But Faulkner: what is he doing?

Here’s how it appears to me. He is not writing, or so it seems to me from the two pages I’ve read, about actions or about the world outside. He seems instead to be writing about perceptions, relationships, and recollections all flowing together – not a flow of thought subjectivism, but a dynamic interaction between the world around and the organ of perception.

His form, therefore, while it is not easy, would seem to be essential, as much a part of the story as the words themselves. It will be demanding, as much poetry as prose. But if I ever have the time and if I ever feel like it, I might well read this book. For now, I’m happy with my Spider-Man comic.

How to Cultivate Wisdom Through Writing (Part V)

Part 1

In my previous post, I argued, with David Hicks, that wisdom can be cultivated through writing when you move from the whole to the part, rather than from the part to the whole, or when you approach the task synthetically first rather than analytically.

I’m guessing that requires a bit of clarification.

The phrase Mr. Hicks uses to describe this process is contextual learning, by which he seems to mean something very broad, for he says later in the same paragraph that contextual learning “draws the interest of the student into any subject, no matter how obscure or far removed from his day-to-day concerns.”

What then is contextual or synthetic learning?

It might help to think for a moment about the contrast between analytic and synthetic learning as it commonly plays out. You can easily see analytic learning at play, because it gives rise to the text book and the text book is supported by it.

Here’s what analytic learning looks like a little caricatured (but not as much as one might have hoped would be necessary):

You assign a story. When the students are done reading it, you give them a list of vocabulary words from the story and either tell them what they mean (if you don’t like learning at all) or ask them what they mean (if a trace of the love of learning has survived your education).

Then you ask them to list the characters and to describe each one: what they are wearing, their physical characteristics, maybe even some subjective elements like their motives or desires.

Not having recognized that the story is now dead (and the students interest in it), you proceed to discuss themes and motifs.

I hope you see the point, because just imagining/remembering this approach truly hurts me.

On the other hand, you can approach a story synthetically – as a whole from the whole.

Suppose I am going to read the fable of the tortoise and the hare. First, I would engage in a discussion about things they’ll encounter in the story that they have already experienced.

For example, depending on their CONTEXT (age, experiences, location, etc.) I’d ask them if they have ever seen or had a rabbit or a turtle. If so, I’d ask them to tell the rest of the group about the turtle and/or the rabbit. Do they like to pet their turtle? Do they ever race it?

I’d ask them if they’ve ever raced – especially a long race. Have they ever had to do a job that took what to them would be a long time (2 minutes for a kindergartner, 2 hours for a third grader, 2 days for a middle schooler, and 2 weeks for a high schooler).

What does it feel like to look at a big job at the beginning? etc. etc.

In other words, before engaging in the story itself, I would enter into the context of the story.

Next I would read it whole (if it is a huge story, like the Iliad, I’d read chunks of it whole). While we go through it, I’d watch for clues that some of them might not know words or anything else that causes them to stumble.

After reading the text, I’d do a little mini-analysis to heal the story. In other words, I’d make sure they didn’t fall into a ditch of incomprehension while we were reading and I’d pull them out. (If, while we were reading, the text became so difficult that some of the students couldn’t follow it, I’d stop and save them right then and there).

Here we could discuss (not define from a dictionary) what some of the words mean – always asking the students if they know or can determine before telling them.

After reading the story, I’d ask the core question that drove it. I WOULD NOT EVER TELL THEM THE MORAL OF THE STORY.

In the case of the tortoise and the hare, the moral is pretty obvious so it’s not as useful a fable as, say, The Ass’s Shadow. But there’s still a worthy discussion.

The driving question is, “Should the hare have rested?” This central question is always about a concrete action, not an abstract idea.

The fact is, the rabbit did rest. And so do we. So we need to figure out why it did so so that we can understand why we do.

So I urge my students to take a position and defend it or at least to argue both sides of the case. “Give me a few reasons why the hare should have rested,” I’ll say, and have someone write them down under an A.

  • He was tired
  • He was way in the lead
  • He didn’t need to hurry
  • His feet hurt
  • He felt confident
  • etc.

Meanwhile, I’m also asking why the hare shouldn’t have rested and having someone record the reasons under N.

  • He was arrogant
  • He was lazy
  • He lost
  • A hunter could have shot him
  • etc. etc.

Now notice something. I have begun to analyze the story. But I’m coming into the particulars from the whole (the context) rather than imagining that I can have much success working from the particulars analyzed out of their context to the whole (the context).

Now I’m going to read even more closely, but never leave the context. I’ll ask questions drawn from material logic and applied to rhetoric under the topics of invention.

  • What is a hare?
  • What is a tortoise?
  • What do you mean by rest?
  • How is the tortoise like the hare?
  • How are they different? in kind? In degree?
  • What is the relationship between the tortoise and the hare?
  • What caused them to race?
  • What caused the hare to rest?
  • What caused the tortoise to keep going?
  • What was the effect of the hare resting?
  • What was going on while the hare was resting?
  • Were there any experts or judges who had an opinion on this event?
  • Witnesses?
  • What other stories or characters does this remind you of?

The value of these questions varies from story to story, but the student who internalizes them is a good reader. He can do the analysis without even knowing he’s analyzing.

He does a character study, he learns the vocabulary, he examines the plot, he discovers themes and motifs – but all in a living context of reading the story as a story – not as a carcass to be dissected.

This matters enormously, because the task of the teacher is to arouse and direct the intellectual energy of his students. Teaching from the whole to the part makes this much easier.

Let me summarize.

Contextual learning, or teaching from the whole to the part, occurs when a person learns, as a person with a context, reading a book (or otherwise encountering ideas) that is a human artifact with a context of its own, in a context that brings the learner and the artifact together.

All three of those contexts are moral because they are human.

The opposite of contextual learning is reading, as a computer, a decontextualized text that contains information to be culled or, occasionally, understood at a very low level.

This approach gives rise to multiple choice tests which to prepare for undercuts the development of the students’ reading skills by compelling him to read in an unnatural, decontextualized manner with an extraordinarily narrow focus of attention.

It also gives rise to the sort of writing that a person brought up on that kind of teaching would be inclined to write, namely stories that can fit into an analytical test-taking context by avoiding moral issues and therefore compelling human interest.

Reading from the whole begins with the core question (Should….) and uses the analytical tools purposefully in order to answer the core question.

Good writing arises from good reading. You write to become wise when you read to become wise.

In my next writing post, I’ll explore how to put writing and reading in a symbiotic relationship.

How to Cultivate Wisdom Through Writing (part IV)

Here is: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

I have vigorously defended contextual learning in my book because I believe that it is the key to how we learn as well as to the delight we find in learning. Children learn to speak by hearing words used in context, not by memorizing their definitions or studying their etymologies.

David Hicks: Norms and Nobility, page vi

Contextual learning is called by some synthetic learning. It is the learning that comes out of the whole to engage the part. It is the context that makes learning interesting, delightful, and profitable.

However, in the excessively analytical modes of thinking that dominate our schools, we are continually required to learn things out of their contexts, and therefore in ways that are less interesting, less delightful, and less profitable.

The archetype of the decontextualized lesson is the dissected frog. Wordsworth even treated this activity as a metaphor if not a synechdoce for modern education: we murder to dissect. We do it to Robert Herrick’s poetry as much as we do to the frog.

You don’t learn what a frog is by dissecting it. You have to experience it in context – at the pond, with its mates, etc.

All human action takes place in a moral context. Every human action arises from a human decision, and every human decision has a moral context.

Every historical or literary event, therefore, is fundamentally moral. Every story turns on an action by the protagonist and every action follows on a decision. In most stories it is the moral dilemma that drives the plot. Every story ends up celebrating some virtue, even James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, or DH Lawrence.

For this reason, literature and history have always been seen as morally formative “subjects.” Fundamentally, as Mr. Hicks points out elsewhere, history and literature are driven by the same basic questions.

Although in my curriculum proposal I use history as the paradigm for contextual learning, the ethical question “What should one do?” might provide an even richer context for acquiring general knowledge. This question elicits not only knowledge, but wisdom, and it draws the interest of the student into any subject, no matter how obscure or far removed from his day-to-day concerns. It challenges the imagination and makes life the laboratory it ought to be for testing the hypotheses and lessons of the classroom.

ibid

The question that drives the human spirit, that arouses thought in child or adult, and that makes an education worth getting is this very simple question, “What should one do?”

Writing, therefore, can be used to cultivate wisdom when we teach students to engage in this inquiry. It must not be taught in isolation, as a specialized, abstracted skill. It should be taught as a way to refine thinking about things that matter, like whether Huckleberry Finn should have helped Jim escape, whether the colonies should have revolted against George III, whether Brutus should have assassinated Caesar, whether the grasshopper should have spent his summer playing music, whether Edmund should have followed the White Witch, etc.

It should be contextualized. Notice what Mr. Hicks said above: “This question elicits not only knowledge, but wisdom.”

I’ll have more to say on how to do this in later posts, but this is an important starting point. Not only can writing be used to cultivate wisdom, it must be so used. When you use writing as a tool by which your students ask the question, “What should be done?” or more precisely, “Should something be done?” you have begun to do so.

You’ve also just made reading, writing, history, and literature exponentially more interesting, delightful, and profitable.

I don’t know if there is any other question that can properly integrate or synthesize the curriculum (Most attempts at integration fail because of their analytical bias. They try to integrate at too low a level, setting aside ethical and philosophical matters).

How To Cultivate Wisdom Through Writing (Pt. 3)

Part 1 is here and part 2 is here

Given the earlier, practical, description of wisdom, the question arises, “How do we get wisdom?”

There are four essential acts that we must perform to gain wisdom, and each grows in importance as we climb to the more advanced forms of wisdom.

First, we must believe in wisdom. If we don’t believe in wisdom and if we don’t believe it matters, we won’t seek it. This sounds silly, but the truth is, very few people believe in it. Most people want their immediate tensions resolved, and that is all the wisdom they believe matters. But if you believe in truth, your immediate tensions take their place.

Believe in wisdom. Get wisdom.

Second, since wisdom really exists and since I don’t have it, and since wisdom is bound to truth, and since truth exists independently of me, I must begin my quest for wisdom by opening my eyes. It’s not enough to desire it. I must seek it. It is not enough to long for it. I must will it.

Open your eyes. Get understanding.

I speak of the powers of perception. Wisdom arises from seeing things as and for what they really are.

Third, since my eyes are cloudy, befogged, dysfunctional, once I open them I encounter discomfort and unease. I am confronted with a choice. I can either close my eyes again, or I can clean them.

If you would walk the path of wisdom, you must have your eyes cleaned. I speak of purity.

Fourth, if my eyes are open and cleaned, I still find that my vision is short and that the room is dark. I need to turn on the lights.

I speak of contemplation. With open and receptive eyes, I must behold what is (the truth), I must seek out its glory (the good), and I must love its radiance (the beautiful).

If I take this quest seriously, I have to begin at the simplest level. I should “simply” let the tree be a tree and not seek to insert it into my paradigm or worldview. I should let a story tell itself, so I can learn the truth of the story. I should let a painting be a painting first, not an expression of a philosophy.

We do see through paradigms, I understand that. But that is why we need our eyes cleaned. Wisdom submits to the nature of what it observes, knowing that there is no other way to know that thing.

For example, if I have a philosophy on what a woman should be and I continually impose it on my wife, spite of her nature, God help us both. If that philosophy does not arise from and cannot be corrected by actual women, then it is false, evil, and ugly.

It is not wise.

Wisdom that comes from above, therefore, is first gentle. It does not overthrow what it is learning about. It loves it. There is no other way to know anything.

Thus to become wise, we must begin by believing in wisdom, and with a vehement appetite, we must open our eyes, purify them, and turn on the lights.

And writing can help us do those things.