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    “We’re Anesthetizing Our Children”

    Here’s a brilliant lecture, brilliantly animated, on “divergent thinking.” Sir Ken Robinson speaks directly to Figaro’s current dilemma. He (that is, Jay) is writing a book on using figures to make your words memorable. The dilemma: do we open readers up to the richness of possibility—the idea that any one sentence can be written a thousand equally valid ways—or we set hard and fast rules?

    On one side, we have the great enlightenment philosopher Desiderius Erasmus. He argued for copia, a celebration of God’s riches through our language. Shakespeare copiously followed this generous philosophy. On the opposite side, we have Strunk & White and education systems.  (In his lecture, Sir Ken Robinson even manages to link the ADHD “epidemic” to standardized testing!)

    Watch the video, then please advise in the comments.


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    Reader Comments (22)

    When's the book coming out? We've all been waiting with bated breath.
    November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEndo
    Next October, Endo. There's this little matter of writing it first.
    November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    So the question is whether to write another Strunk & White--do this, don't do that--or...what?
    November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Faxon
    The alternative, John, is what I'm actually writing: a cornucopia of "tools" that enrich your language. The problem is, the people reviewing my ms. want me to tell them exactly when, and when not to, use each tool.

    It's true, some of the tools work better in some situations than others. But to restrict each tool to one or two occasions would turn the book into a Strunk & White, a book that has sold in the millions...

    Oh, wait.
    November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    What is Strunk & White?
    November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFocaccio
    "Strunk & White" wrote The Elements of Style, a guidebook to writing. The author E.B. White expanded on and published the mimeographed notes of his writing professor at Cornell.
    November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    What do you have against Strunk & White? That little book has really helped me.
    November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSusan R.
    Other than green jealousy? Nothing really, Susan. The problem is, people think they can stop there--SHOULD stop there--without considering other stylistic alternatives. It's Luther vs. Erasmus: limitations vs. copia.
    November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    You're a copia man, Fig! Follow your copious bliss!
    November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNancy Edgar
    Of course you should do the divergent approach of many possibilities. That is the only possible answer. How could you think anything else? Ridiculous. Absurd. Now stop daydreaming and teach us how to start daydreaming.
    November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPhil Maymin
    What did you say? I was daydreaming.
    November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Cut it out. Straighten up and fly right.
    November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPhil Maymin
    I think you've made your choice already fig, your problem is how to convince your publishers that its the right choice for them as well as you. If only there was a book available that could help you with forming persuasive arguments...
    November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJamesb
    Oh, they're with me. I persuaded them. Kind of. We'll see whether the public can be. When I teach classes on figures, people seem more interested in grammar. But maybe that explains why I'm not a teacher.
    November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    I don't see why you can't utilize both divergent and convergent thinking when trying to figure out the best way to convey something. Once you figure out what tone you are aiming for, surely you can come to the conclusion that some answers will be more suitable than others.

    Use divergent thinking to imagine as many possibilities as you can. Make a list of them all, regardless of how good or bad they are.

    Then shoot them through the convergent thinking funnel and see which possibilities are the most plausible or unique or fit the purposes of your aim. In a group setting, this would lead to spirited debates as well as better and more varied answers.

    I think you said yourself you went through a similar process when writing "Thank you for Arguing"

    Even with those divergent thinking tests, I always wondered how plausible some of those ideas were. If a kindergardener told you that the paperclip could be used for transportation and to help his sister with her homework would that be an acceptable answer?

    Or would the researcher fill in the blanks and say "well clearly the child meant that the paper clip would hold money for a cab and the tie his sister's hair in a bow"?

    I mean if you are just being silly you can come up with tons of uses for a paperclip but how many are plausible? I mean I can rearrange letters and words in thousands of different ways but if I type tjoiahtiohoiehtoihate thats far less coherent than "all's well that ends well".

    As I believe you said in your book, the most convincing figures will be dependent on your audience. While something very general will have general appeal (love), something more pointed and specific will alienate some but catch the attention of a niche market who will appreciate the reference. Perhaps teachers merely need to be aware of what their class and age group will find salient and cater lesson plans to this material. This requires flexibility of the teacher but once a child realizes that someone is making an effort to understand where they are coming from, the rule of reciprocity will take hold.

    btw I also look forward to your new book. Good luck
    November 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSam
    Very moderately said, Sam. Aristotle would be proud.
    November 21, 2010 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    Hi Figaro!

    I wish to comment on a few, limited issues raised by the RSA video. First of all, thanks to the industrialized conception of educating students by age, separating students by age/maturity does have its reasons. I teach middle school, the 8th grade, comprised of the 6th through 8th grades, student ages between 11 and 15 years old. Would a parent want his or her young and vulnerable child to be in the same environment with others students much older than his or her child? For example, sometimes low-level learners take intensive classes outside of their age group with other students outside of their immediate age group. I do not want a 16 year old low-level learner, who typically has behavioral issues (often for horrible reasons), around students younger than him or her (think a 16 year-old male encountering a 12 year-old female during class time by the restrooms.).

    Next, I teach language arts classes, where there is no right or wrong answer. I witness the timidity and conformity students have developed when they wish to write "outside of the box." Fortunately for them, I ask simple questions that allow them to decide what is the best decision. When a student asks me about using a different approach or strategy to writing, I ask them questions instead of providing answers. "You are intelligent. Use your judgement. Do you think your idea will help the reader understand better what you are trying to communicate?" If they answer yes, which is typical, I then request that they also write an example in the usual approach so that they can compare and contrast the two attempts. I constantly stress thinking over answers. I wish more educators would take this approach.

    When it some to our state's standardized essay test, I advise them to consider their audience (kairos). In fact, my 8th grade students are currently reading "Thank You For Arguing." They are beginning to understand with whom they are communicating and what the expectations (decorum) are. For me, they write as freely and expressively as they can (well, some of them). They are also aware that they should write differently for a standardized test, where a formulaic evaluation awaits their compositions by the hand, or eye, or a $10 an hour essay scanner who is seeking the compliance with benchmarks spelled out in a simple state-wide rubric.

    Advice for your next publication on language: please choose a printing format that does not permit words to to separated into parts by being hyphenated at the end of a line. Younger scholars have difficulty recombining these words into the whole, individual units that we adults almost automatically recognize as a whole word. Also, please limit your far-ranging cultural allusions and references. I understand that TYFA was meant for wide-spread appeal, but if you wish to develop a generation of rhetorically knowledgable individuals, then please strongly consider our adolescents and their previous knowledge limitations. As a long-time follower and obvious devotee (ethos! and the fact that my 8th graders are very interested in, though sometimes confused by, TYFA), I look forward to your next publication. In fact, my students and I often discuss how best to use rhetorical devices within an expository or persuasive essay (all writing is persuasive!).

    Thank you in advance. I know that you would be willing to make a pro bono visit to my students in the interest of advancing rhetoric!

    Mark Matluck
    November 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMark Matluck
    I should add, in consideration of the video, that the narrator does not directly address the ethos of the disadvanataged students involved. If things so could be so simple with my students with issues. . .

    November 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMark Matluck
    Stephen Fry put it best in the last video you posted: Language is necessarily contextual. Struck and White certainly have their place, and Struck said it best in a line that White quotes in his introduction:

    "It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules." (p. xi-xii, The Elements of Style).

    You can't break the rules in exchange for some "compensating merit" if you don't know them to begin with--probably the reason that grammar comes up frequently in your own lessons.

    Or to use your phrasing, exposure to all of the variations on expression is fine provided you have the foundation to assess which are "valid" and which confuse the reader, muddle the point, or diminish from the overall ethos of your writing.
    November 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChris Cunningham
    Excellent comments, all. Mark, thanks for the thoughtful teacher's perspective. Hyphenation isn't my choice, I'm afraid; it's the publisher's call, along with the (crummy) paper and (horrible) binding. As for the cultural references, get ready for more wildness in the next book. but I'll compensate by giving your class a phone chat. Email Figaro and let's set up a time.

    Chris, your point is well taken. i just wish White had violated some of his rules a bit more in his own writing.

    November 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro

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