Saturday, February 18, 2017


This work is Romantic because the author used lots of Romantic ideas, and the characters behave in a Romantic way that captures just how very extremely Romantic the work really is. The author has really infused Romanticism into the whole writing in a way that makes in undeniably Romantic.

Welcome to my world. While this is not a direct quote of an actual student essay, it's of a type that English teachers often see. Call it support via assertion, or argument by modifiers (the more adjectives and adverbs you throw in, the more absolutely very clearly definitively true your argument is).

It is one of the few things that the Common Core actually gets right-- if you are going to make a case for a point, you need to provide evidence.

Evidence can take many forms, but it needs to be specific. It needs to be true.

Repetition is not evidence. Here's another archetypical essay paragraph.

Good parents need to be patient, because you need patience to be a good parent. A good parent is able to be patient. If you can't be patient, then you will not be a good parent. Every day, good parents must display patience, because if you are not patient, you cannot be a good parent.

It's hard to say exactly where students pick up the technique of un-supported ideas. Certainly we can reinforce it in school without meaning to. Tests where the student just has to mention a key idea or fact without backing it up help 0push the notion that we just want you to say the right thing. And of course our young humans come with plenty of pre-packaged ideas from home-- it must be true because it's what I learned from my folks, what do you mean I have to back it up with something.

And of course, it is tried and true in our culture that evidence is not really necessary. Yes, I can make the easy point that our current President and his administration are huge on the whole Just Repeat It Till People Believe It approach. Biggest inauguration crowd ever. Huge margin of victory. Millions of illegal voters. Urban hell holes. Just keep saying it and insisting that anyone who contradicts you is a liar, a faker, a Bad Person, even as you offer not one shred of evidence of the truth of what you say.

Yes, I could point at Herr Trump and say, "See! Our President does it. How am I supposed to teach children to do better, to use evidence?" But that would be the low-hanging fruit, and it would treat us all to the soothing notion that Trump somehow emerged out of the ether, full-blown flush with his lies and his fact-free anti-evidence zone.

But that would be going to easy on our culture. It's no coincidence that the Trumpistan flag was first planted on television, where citizens are bombarded with a constant stream of thirty-second playlets built on spin, deception, half-truths, and plain old bullshit. We soak in lies all the time, soak in them so that we can be softened up to be happy consumers of things we don't need that offer magic that doesn't work in order to solve problems that we don't have. We watch longer dramas that tell us lies about how people think, how the world works, what makes human beings click and work and become their best.

Where in our culture would students find examples of the notion that an idea should be grounded in truth, built out of evidence, supported by substance. What do we have in our culture that works that way?

The best I can do is present the practical notion that you have to do some sort of work in order to convince people to agree with you. The idea of pursuing the truth as a value in and of itself is a far bridge indeed. Evidence? That's a hard sell. We can all do better.


  1. Ah, the lonely world of mathematics. No matter how you spin it, you cannot say 3 plus 2 is anything but 5 and not be laughed at. In Geometry, I am always stressing to our young humans that they must know, they cannot assume from looking at a picture, if you say it's a right angle, you must have a reason for saying so.

    1. As an Algebra teacher, I agree. I have students who wish to give an answer without supporting mathematical reasoning ("Show your work!" They have an answer and that should be enough.

  2. These are examples of circular reasoning, a form of begging the question understood as a fallacy in logic. Some instruction in logic would help students begin to understand the different between a good argument and a fallacy.

  3. Veteran community college comp teacher here. I'm not convinced that teaching logic helps. Who has not had to negotiate with a 3rd grader, deteremined to show you why that second donut is totally legit? When they really have a purpose and a reason for communicating, kids understand evidence well enough. "You said I could go to the movies if I cleaned my room - I did! Look, I swept the floor, and all the books are on the shelf, and I made my bed, and you didn't even have to ask me."

    Students write drivel for a lot of reasons. They're putting on a phony voice to participate in what they often perceive as phony discourse, or at least discourse they don't connect with. They have been pressed to provide reasons and evidence from childhood, and thus perhaps have not acquired the habit of quiet and unseen cogitation that helps us understand what we're thinking. Often, they just don't *have* any evidence and they're hoping that if they just fill up sentences with words, things will be fine. And often, they don't give a toss. None of this is news to Peter, or anyone who teaches writing, I'm sure.

    And - I think there's another thing: Students don't seem always to have the habit of retrieving those tiny associations and memories that produce impressions. Students will give you a general idea, like how parents should be patient, and often the evidence consists of hundreds of little real-life encounters or moments - but students don't know how to retrieve these memories from the stacks. They can't delve as easily into their inner life.

    I suppose the reason why we ask children to justify opinions, from an early age, is because we believe that rehearsing this performance - selecting evidence from the shelf and sharing it with others - will help them do it well. But is this true? I would like to know if there is any evidence that suggests that children benefit intellectually from always having to perform, to externalize their thoughts. *Should* we ask 8 year olds to try to articulate why they liked, or did not like, a particular story? Will this rehearsal of unformed thoughts help them perform better when they *have* formed thoughts, or will it interfere with their cultivating the ability to form thoughts?

    If I were one of these people who starts a charter school on the "pedagogy hunch" system, here's what I'd do: I'd stop trying to teach children how to write, and I'd let children use the method they use to learn to walk and talk: I'd have them write, and read, and write, and read, and never correct them, but just let them listen to each other, and fail or succeed in whatever their purpose was, and try to figure out why. I also wouldn't pester them to explain why they liked that line in the Frost poem about the woods filling up with snow. It's OK to have a line or poetry or a moment from a story linger in the back of your mind. Talking about it can kill the whole thing.

    I wonder if it would work. Maybe not, but I bet it wouldn't be that much worse than worksheets and multiple choice reading comprehension quizzes....