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    Left Behind

    We’re putting a tremendous amount of value on being able to pick the right one out of four little bubbles. 

    Diane Ravitch on No Child Left Behind, interviewed in Slate

    epiphoneme, the memorable sum-up. From the Greek, epiphonema, meaning “speak out on.”

    No thinker did more to push for No Child Left Behind than Diane Ravitch, who served as assistant secretary of education under George Bush the First. She got her reforms, but now she calls them “deforms.” In a new book, she says she was flat-out wrong.

    Her take on No Child Left Behind, the federal law that mandates tests to ensure accountability of public schools, boils down to the ultimate boil-down figure.  Pay close attention, class: the epiphoneme can make the difference whether you pass or fail as a memorable person yourself.

    The figure acts like a reductio ad absurdum without the absurdum. Reduce an issue to its simplest, starkest point. If the result adds wisdom, you win. If you sound like Sarah Palin, you lose.

    One of the most winning epiphonemes of all time comes from Charles Darwin, who neatly wrapped up human evolution and stuck a tail on it.  (You can see other examples from Figaro here and here.)

    We’ll declare Ravitch a winner as well. But we’ll give her an F for timing.

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    Reader Comments (12)

    So who gets to determine whether your reductio is absurd, Fig? You???
    May 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDonnareed
    Those three questions marks imply that you find me unqualified to grade our national reductios, Donna. So I propose a national test. Let no figure be left behind.
    May 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Does the punchline of a joke qualify as an epiphoneme?
    May 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFran Johnson
    Only a longish, shaggy-dog sort of joke can lend itself to an epiphoneme, Fran. Scroll back through earlier Figaro posts for the one on Feghoots, for example. (Or type "Feghoot" in the search bar on the right.)
    May 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Isn't politics screwed up enough without reducing everything to bumper stickers? Come on, Figaro, you're bigger than that!
    May 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Axel
    Much bigger. You should have seen what I had for breakfast.

    Yes, there's a danger to any reduction. But we're talking sum-ups here, not bumper stickers. An epiphoneme is the tail of an argument, not its substitute. Of course, a great epiphoneme makes the perfect sound bite, and the media are likely to make it stand for the whole shebang. But Ravitch wrote a whole book backing her epiphoneme. Darwin dabbled a little in science.

    Besides, a good sum-up fixes the argument in people's heads, like the glue that affixes the bumper sticker to a....

    Never mind that last part. Bad epiphoneme.
    May 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Is an epiphoneme the same as an epiphany?
    May 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMerissa
    No. To the ancient Greeks, an epiphany was a divine manifestation; e.g., Zeus coming down as an ox in search of tail. Christians later appropriated the word to denote the advent of Christ. James Joyce updated the connotation, using "epiphany" to describe one of those light bulb over the head moments.

    In that sense an epiphoneme can cause an epiphany. Which would be divine.
    May 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Fig, I'm astonished by your breadth of knowledge. And yet you claim not to be a scholar. From whence did all that erudition come?
    May 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSol Schwartzman
    My claim not to be a scholar is fully verified by a solid lack of higher degrees. As for my figurative background, my major sources are the rhetoricians of old, particularly Quintillian and Puttenham; modern sources such as Lanham and the great Forest of Rhetoric site, Silvae Rhetoricae; the Oxford English Dictionary; and my own highly developed skill of faking it.
    May 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro

    It's now 6 months since Figaro vowed to refrain from Palin references (that is, unless she runs for President) - a few slip ups later it now looks as though all bets are off. As the Internet Kool Kids say, "Palin pwns you!"

    "For a while it was all just smooth sailin'
    Avoid the critiques the slurs and the railin'
    But Fig is infected
    So all that's rejected
    Resistance is futile - 'I'm wailin' 'bout Palin' "
    May 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPeter
    Is this a cool site or what? I reveal myself as a hypocrite and the weapon used to deliver a well-deserved smack on my rhetorical wrist is a limerick.

    I'm not just duly smacked, Peter. I'm touched.
    May 18, 2010 | Registered CommenterFigaro

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