April 15, 2008
Ask Them No Questions, They’ll Tell You More Lies

Here I am again, back from one of my idiotic (to you, not to me) herpetological explorations in Georgia and the Carolinas. Meanwhile far more dangerous crawling things have been active elsewhere, I see by the papers. More on that later. Right now, for your semantic pleasure, a selection from Neil Postman’s 1999 book, Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century:


Twenty-three hundred years ago, educators devised a pattern of instruction whose purpose was to help students defend themselves against both the seductions of eloquence and the appeal of nonsense.

The pattern was formalized in the Middle Ages, and came to be known as The Trivium. It included logic, rhetoric, and grammar. This tradition survives among modern American educators in a truncated form: they teach the one subject among the three — grammar — that is the least potent, the least able to help students do what we call critical thinking. In fact grammar, which takes up about a third of the English curriculum in junior high school, is not even taught with a view toward helping students think critically. Indeed, it is difficult to know why grammar, as it is presently taught, is included in the curriculum at all.

Since the early 1900s, studies have been conducted to discover if there is any relationship between the teaching of grammar and a variety of language behaviors, such as reading and writing. Almost without exception the studies have found no positive relationship whatsoever.

Although the other two subjects, logic and rhetoric, sometimes go by different names today — among them, practical reasoning, semantics, and general semantics — I would suggest, whatever we call them, that they be given a prominent place in the curriculum.

These subjects are about the relationship between language and reality; they are about the differences among kinds of statements, about the nature of propaganda, about the ways in which we search for truths, and just about everything else one needs to know in order to use language in a disciplined way and to know when others aren’t.

With all the talk these days about how we are going through an information revolution, I should think that the question of what language skills are necessary to survive it would be uppermost in teachers’ minds.

I know that educational research is not always useful, and sometimes absurd, but for what it may be worth, a clear and positive relationship between the study of semantics and critical thinking is well established in the research literature. As with the absence of question-asking from the curriculum, the absence of semantics — the study of the relationship between the world of words and the world of non-words — is also something of a mystery, if not an outrage.

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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at April 15, 2008 04:19 PM
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Hear, hear!

Posted by: nolierob on April 15, 2008 4:41 PM

As a starting point, I recommend the "Fallacious Appeals" guidebook at http://www.sjsu.edu/depts/itl/graphics/adhom/appeal.html .

Posted by: Martha Bridegam on April 15, 2008 11:24 PM

Thanks, Martha. And the link is also over in the right hand column of B.A. — "How to Think Straight," in the Resources section.

Posted by: Jerry Doolittle on April 16, 2008 10:14 AM
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