Suppose Trivial Grammar Were Actually the Road Map

Sometimes, the hardest part of teaching felt like finding a way to reach students when they just didn’t get it. But if there’s one thing I learned while teaching, it’s that it takes two. In fact, the hardest part of teaching was coming to realise it wasn’t them not getting it, it was me not getting them. In my own defense, I think we just never can know what another person’s motive truly is. It was times like that when I really discovered how constructive respect and a good rapport could be. To have any hope of being open-minded, I intentionally needed to respect my students’ dignity, and I needed to be more self-aware as to how open- or closed-minded I was being. Humility has that way of being, well, humbling. These days I’m still fallible but a lot better off for knowing it. And, yes, humility’s easier said than done.

Over sixteen marvellous years teaching secondary English in a high school classroom, I learned that teaching is a relationship. Better still, it’s a rapport. I learned that it takes two, not just hearing and talking but listening and speaking in turn, and willingly. And, because bias is inescapable, I learned to consider a constructive question: what motives and incentives are driving anyone to listen and speak to anyone else? It has an admittedly unscrupulous undertone: what’s in it for me, what’s in it for them, who’s more likely to win out? The thought of incentives in high school likely evokes report cards, which is undeniable. But where listening (maybe speaking, too) to some degree means interpreting, what my students and I valued most was open-minded class discussion. With great respect for our rapport, we found the most positive approach was, “What’s in it for us?” The resulting back-and-forth was a continual quest for clarity, motivated on everyone’s behalf by incentives to want to understand – mutual trust and respect. Looking back, I’m pleased to say that tests and curricula seldom prevented us from pursuing what stimulated us most of all. We enjoyed very constructive lessons.

Of course, we studied through a lens of language and literature. Of particular interest to me was the construction of writing, by which I mean not just words but the grammar and punctuation that fit them together. My fascination for writing has been one of the best consequences of my own education, and I had encouraging – and one very demanding – writing teachers. In the classroom and on my own, I’ve always been drawn to structure as much as content, if not more so, which isn’t unorthodox although maybe not so common. The structure of writing gets me thinking on behalf of others: why has the writer phrased it this certain way? What other ways might be more or less well-suited for this audience? How might I have phrased something differently than this writer, and why? Most English teachers I know would agree that pondering such questions embodies a valuable constructive skill, these days trumpeted as critical thinking. I’d argue further that it’s even a pathway to virtue. Situated in context, such questions are inexhaustible, enabling a lifetime of learning, as literally every moment or utterance might be chosen for study.

In that respect, we loosely defined text beyond writing to include speech, body language, film, painting, music, architecture – literally any human interaction or endeavour. I’ll stick mostly with listening and speaking, reading and writing, just to simplify this discussion. The scope being so wide, really what our class sought to consider were aim and intention. So when students read a text for content, the WHAT, I’d ask them to consider choices made around vocabulary, syntax, arrangement, and so forth, the HOW. That inevitably posed further questions about occasion and motive, the WHY, which obliged varying degrees of empathy, humility, and discernment in reply: for a given writer, how best to write effectively on a topic while, for a given audience, what makes for skillful reading? What motives are inherent to each side of the dialogue? What incentives? These and others were the broader-based “BIG Question” objectives of my courses. They demanded detailed understanding of texts – heaven knows we did plenty of that. More importantly, the BIG Questions widened our context and appreciation even while they gave us focus. When times were frustrating, we had an answer for why studying texts mattered. Questions reflect motivation. Prior to exercising a constructive frame-of-mind, they help create one.

Questions, like everything else, also occur in a particular context. “Context is everything,” I would famously say, to the point where one class had it stencilled for me on a T-Shirt. So much packed into those three plain words – everything, I suppose. And that’s really my thesis here: if we aim to be constructive, and somehow do justice to that over-taxed concept, critical thinking, then we need to be actively considering what we hear and say or read and write alongside other people, and what it all makes us think for ourselves – especially when we disagree. (Is active thinking the same as critical thinking? I’m sure the phrase is hardly original, but I’ll consider the two kinds of thinking synonymous.) During my last 3-4 years in the classroom, all this came to be known by the rallying cry, “Raise the level of discourse!” These days, however, the sentiment is proving far more serious than something emblazoned on a T-Shirt.

I’m referring, of course, to the debacle that has been the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and its aftermath. Specifically, I have in mind two individual remarks, classic teachable moments inspired by current events. The first remark, from an NPR article by Brian Naylor on the fallout over the executive order banning Muslim immigrants, is attributed to the President. The second remark is a response in the comment section that follows Naylor’s article, representative of many commenters’ opinions. To begin, I’ll explain how something as detailed as grammar and punctuation can help raise the level of discourse, especially with such a divisive topic. From there, I’ll consider more broadly how and why we must always accept responsibility for this active language – sometimes correct grammar should matter not just to nit-pickers but to everybody.

In the article (February 8, 2017), Brian Naylor writes:

“Trump read parts of the statute that he says gives him authority to issue the ban on travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations, as well as a temporary halt in refugee admissions. ‘A bad high school student would understand this; anybody would understand this,’ he said.”

We all know the 45th U.S. President can be brusque, even bellicose, besides his already being a belligerent blundering buffoon. This comment was received in that light by plenty, me included. For instance, by classifying “bad” (versus “good”), the President appeals at once to familiar opposites: insecurity and self-worth. We’ve all felt the highs and lows of being judged by others, so “bad” versus “good” is an easy comparison and, thereby, a rudimentary emotional appeal. However, more to my point, his choice to compare high school students with lawyers, hyperbole or not, was readily construed as belittling since, rationally, everyone knows the difference between adult judges and teenaged students. That his ire on this occasion was aimed at U.S. District Judge James Robart is not to be misunderstood. Ironically, though, the President invokes the support of minors in a situation where they have neither legal standing nor professional qualification, rendering his remark not just unnecessarily divisive but inappropriate, and ignorant besides – although he must have known kids aren’t judges, right?

To be fair, here’s a slightly longer quotation of the President’s first usage of “bad student”:

“I thought, before I spoke about what we’re really here to speak about, I would read something to you. Because you could be a lawyer– or you don’t have to be a lawyer: if you were a good student in high school or a bad student in high school, you can understand this.”

Notice, in the first place, that I’ve transcribed and punctuated his vocal statement, having watched and listened to video coverage. As a result, I have subtly yet inevitably interpreted his intended meaning, whatever it actually was. Yet my punctuation offers only what I believe the President meant since they’re my punctuation marks.

So here’s another way to punctuate it, for anyone who feels this is what the President said:

“Because you could be a lawyer, or you don’t have to be a lawyer – if you were a good student in high school or a bad student in high school, you can understand this.”

Here’s another:

“Because you could be a lawyer. Or you don’t have to be a lawyer. If you were a good student in high school or a bad student in high school, you can understand this.”

Finally, but not exhaustively, here’s another:

“Because you could be a lawyer… or you don’t have to be a lawyer; if you were a good student in high school or a bad student in high school, you can understand this.”

Other combinations are possible.

Rather than dismiss all this as pedantry, I’d encourage you to see where I’m coming from and consider the semantics of punctuation. I’m hardly the only one to make the claim, and I don’t just refer to Lynne Truss. Punctuation does affect meaning, both what was intended and what was perceived. To interpret the President’s tone-of-voice, or his self-interrupting stream-of-consciousness, or his jarring pattern-of-speech, or whatever else, is to partly infer what he had in mind while speaking. We interpret all the time, listening not only to words but tone and volume, and by watching body language and facial expression. None of that is typically written down as such, except perhaps as narrative prose in some novel. The point here is that, in writing, punctuation fills part of the interpretive gloss.

Note also where a number of news headlines have used the word “even” as an interpreted addition of a word the President did not actually say. Depending upon how we punctuate his statement, inclusive of everything from words to tone to gestures to previous behaviour, perhaps we can conclude that he did imply “even” or, more accurately, perhaps it’s okay to suggest that it’s what he intended to imply. But he didn’t say it.

If we’re going to raise the level of discourse to something constructive, we need to balance between accepting whatever the President intended to mean by his statement with what we’ve decided he intended to mean. In the classroom, I put it to students as such: “Ask yourself where his meaning ends and yours begins.” It’s something akin to the difference between assuming (based on out-and-out guesswork because, honestly, who besides himself could possibly know what the President is thinking) and presuming (based on some likelihood from the past because, heaven knows, this President has offered plenty to influence our expectations). Whatever he meant by referring to good and bad students might be enraging, humbling, enlightening – anything. But only if we consider the overlap, where his meaning ends and ours begins, are we any better off ourselves, as analysts. Effective communication takes two sides, and critical thinking accounts for both of them.

Effective, though, is sometimes up for debate, not merely defining it but even deciding why it matters. Anyway, can’t we all generally figure out what somebody means? Isn’t fussing over details like grammar more about somebody’s need to be right? I’d argue that taking responsibility for our language includes details like grammar precisely so that an audience is not left to figure things out, or at least so they have as little ambiguity to figure out as possible. Anything less from a speaker or writer is lazy and irresponsible.

In the Comments section following Naylor’s article, a reader responds as follows:

“Precisely describing Trump’s base…bad high school students who’s [sic] level of education topped out in high school, and poorly at that. This is exactly what Trump and the GOP want, a poorly educated populous [sic] that they can control with lies and bigoted rhetoric.”

Substantively, the commenter – let’s call him Joe – uses words that (a) oversimplify, blanketing his fellow citizens, and (b) presume, placing Joe inside the President’s intentions. Who knows, maybe Joe’s correct, but I doubt he’s clairvoyant or part of the President’s inner circle. On the other hand, we’re all free to draw conclusions, to figure things out. So, on what basis has Joe made his claims? At a word count of 42, what was he aiming to contribute? Some of his diction is charged, yet at a mere two sentences, it’s chancy to discern his motives or incentives, lest we be as guilty as he is by characterising him as he characterises the President. Even if I’m supportive of Joe, it’s problematic defending his remarks for the same reason – they leave such a gap to fill. At 42 words, where he ends is necessarily where the rest of us begin, and maybe I’m simply better off ignoring his comment and starting from scratch. Maybe that’s fine, too, since we should all have our own opinions. In any event, Joe has hardly lived up to any measure of responsibility to anybody, himself included – here I am parsing his words months later in another country. I’d even say Joe loses this fight since his inflammatory diction and sweeping fallacy play to his opponents, if they so choose. Unsurprisingly, Joe’s comment is not at all constructive.

For all its faults, his comment aptly demonstrates the two-way nature of dialogue. On the one side, responsibility falls to each reader or listener to bring their research and experience, then discern for themselves what was meant. In that regard, Joe has left us with a lot of work to do, if we’re motivated enough to bother. Yet I chose his particular comment as mere illustration – literally hundreds of others, just as brief and labour-intensive, scroll by below Naylor’s article… so much work for us to do, or else to dismiss, or perhaps to gain-say, if not insult. On that note, consider the other side: responsibility falls to the speaker or writer to offer substantive claims as well as the evidence that prompted them. In this instance, no matter the justification for offering something at all, what can a two-sentence comment add to issues as complex and long-standing as, say, Presidential politics? Whether or not on-line comments are democracy in action, certainly offering 42 words in two sentences struggles to promote a meaningful, substantive exchange of ideas.

I used to liken such on-line comments to my students as standing in line, debating with others while waiting for coffee, before returning to our cars or our lives none the more informed, except perhaps annoyed by some while appreciative of others. With the best intentions, we might excuse them, overlooking that we’re the ones who walked out and drove away – maybe we were late for work that day. We’ve been closed-minded to the degree that we haven’t sought to reach a thorough understanding, and certainly we’ve failed to raise the level of discourse. Would it have been better to just say nothing, grab our coffee, and leave?

Yes, I think so, which may not be easy to accept. Conversely, consider that reasoning from presumption and enthymeme is not reasoning at all. Further, consider that two sentences of 42 words or a few minutes spent chatting in the coffee line will barely scratch the surface. Who can say what motivates people to contribute so readily yet so sparsely? Recent times are emotional, growing more volatile, and potentially far more dangerous, as a result. We see in Joe’s comment, and so many others like it, that trust and respect are divisively encased in separate echo chambers. By virtue of us versus them, both sides are challenged to be open-minded.

Worse, the so-called era of “post-truth” impedes exactly the constructive dialogue we need right now, raising ire and diatribe in place of substance and equanimity. Satire compounds disagreement and grows that much more venomous, and ridicule has a way of locking closed doors. I don’t support proceeding from pretence or unfounded opinion – there’s nothing whatsoever to show for an exchange-of-opinion based on falsehood. The burden of post-truth is far too high. A bias and the truth can co-exist, and they do, guaranteed – one truth, objective, and one bias per person, subjective. Bias is an inevitable fact of existence. Left unchecked, bias obviates respect, which is why a constructive approach is so crucial. As I’ve said elsewhere, post-truth is anti-trust, at least for me, and, at its furthest extent, a threat to civil security, which sounds alarmist – good, let it. We need to attend to this. More than ever now, we need respect or, failing that, at least greater tolerance. That’s for starters.

Worse still, in this post-truth world, fictional claims face no arbiter but the other side so distrusted and maligned. The kind of polarised situation made infamous in Washington, DC is spreading, realised in a zillion on-line comments like Joe’s with every article published. Hopefully not this one, unless maybe someone hasn’t actually read this. On such a perilous path – facts in dispute, emotions enflamed – each side qualifies “open-minded” as unique to themselves and misappropriated by the rest. That’s significantly divisive and the recipe for unrest that I spy, and it sounds my alarm. In that divided state, in lieu of anything left to discuss, even as reality has its way of catching up, what damage might already be done? Especially when facing fellow citizens, whatever we choose now must accord with what we’re prepared to accept later. Let that sober thought sink to the core because the less we share common goals, the more we’re set to clash over unshared ones. But it’s within us to converse and to converge.

Let’s be willing to listen with empathy, understand with compassion, research with diligence, and respond with substance. Do your own investigation. Accept responsibility to inform yourself. Yes, take what you find with a grain of salt until you can believe to your own satisfaction what is right and trustworthy. Yet, even then, be tolerant if not respectful of others – too much salt is harmful. We all have our own motives and incentives for listening and participating, so let’s dig deeper than how pissed off we are with the other side: walking the high road with pride or smug assurance is really the low road and a path of hubris. It’s closed-minded, but not in the sense that we haven’t sought to reach a thorough understanding of the other side. It’s closed-minded to the degree that we haven’t sought to understand how and why the other side reached their position to begin with.

None of this is hard to understand. Once upon a time, we decided that education mattered, and it’s no accident that the trivium – grammar, rhetoric, dialectic – was given a central role. These days, its value in niche markets, notably private Christian education, is enough to switch some people off, which sadly exemplifies this entire discussion. I believe classical education is valuable for all. We’ve neglected it to our detriment, perhaps to our peril. We have a lot in common, more than we might credit, with our neighbours and fellow citizens. It’s not like they grew up on Mars. We’re not significantly different – hands up if you’re a human being. Start with that, some basic human dignity.

There’s a lot to be offered by rapport in our relationships, and little to expect without it. All we can do is understand the other person’s interpretation, and they ours, and go from there – or else not. And it’s easy to nod and say, “I already do that while others do not.” But reflect upon yourself anyway, in every conversation, debate, or exchange. Humility is a virtue, even when kept low-key. Everybody bears responsibility for their own participation. The more we live up to being respectful, even of those whom we oppose, the more progress we’re liable to make – however slowly it might happen.

As I said at the outset, yes, humility’s easier said than done. But by the same token, why write this essay if 42 words would do? We must neither hide ourselves away nor proceed prematurely. We must be able to discern flaws of reason, and we must be able to communicate with humility if we aim to deliver – and, more critically, if we hope to be received – from a place of thoughtfully considered understanding. Whether or not we truly trust one another, let’s help put the logos back in dialogue and accept our own responsibility to approach people with intentional self-awareness. Let’s seize the opportunity to be role-models – you just never know what somebody else is thinking. Let’s raise the level of discourse. And let’s remember that taking the high road must be open-hearted as well as open-minded.



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