Language, Truth and Power in the Classroom – Part II

This is part II of some thoughts  about language and power in the English classroom I posted a few days ago.

So, good English teachers try to teach their students to support their ideas with evidence. Indeed, the new Common Core standards state this objective specifically:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.11-12.1b Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly and thoroughly, supplying the most relevant data and evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both claim(s) and counterclaims in a discipline-appropriate form that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level, concerns, values, and possible biases. (Common Core Standards)

And this is a very important skill to learn. You can’t just claim anything you want. You need to be able to back it up. That’s just part of good thinking.

because_i_said_so_thats_why_post_cards-p239452208012560831baanr_400However, Mallory* and her peers realized providing strong textual evidence was the way to earn full credit on my assessments, and I realized that this incentive was somewhat misleading. Many of my students were no longer concerned with finding out what the poet was really trying to say to them—instead, they were concerned with trying to use the poet’s words in such a way as to justify whatever ideas they could come up with. This is not to say they were intentionally lying—but they were no longer primarily concerned with being truthful, as I tried to demonstrate in my own expert mishandling of evidence.

However, in his “Discourse in the Novel,” Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin suggests that such manipulation of language is a challenge inherent to communication itself:

Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated — overpopulated with the intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one’s own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process. (294, as quoted by Lee Honeycutt)

It is also, above all, a moral process that inevitably reaches beyond the borders of the English classroom. In his essay on the often-concealed relationship between power and language, Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper succinctly describes the unique challenge language teachers face in helping their students learn to engage and even “expropriate” language, since their subject can never remain safely behind the confines of a class:

Word and language, in essence, do not constitute a specific or specialized area; they are not a particular discipline or field. No, word and language form the medium that sustains the common existence of the human spirit as such. The reality of the word in eminent ways makes existential interaction happen. And so, if the word becomes corrupted, human existence itself will not remain unaffected and untainted. (Pieper, “Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power” 15)

imagesI think Pieper has revealed the precious—and precarious—nature of language in a way that should give English teachers pause. Are we aware of our own capacity to nourish or to “corrupt” our student’s relationship with language? Demolishing one of my shyest student’s arguments with our class’s agreed-upon standard for legitimacy—textual evidence—had indeed “corrupted” the word in my classroom and momentarily tainted the delicate relationship of trust I had formerly established with my students. I did this purposefully, but rather recklessly.

Why is it that my action seemed so violent?

Because I had abused Emily Dickinson’s language and Abbey’s interpretation of it with my own misuse of skillful argumentation—I had been untruthful. In doing so, I presented the problem of what ‘rightness’ really means (or, at least, what it does not mean) to my students, with rather powerful results.

However, I had also inadvertently touched upon the twofold reason why sensitivity and care is required in experiments like these. Pieper expresses it this way:

Human words and language accomplish a twofold purpose […] First, words convey reality. We speak in order to name and identify something that is real, to identify it for someone, of course—and this points to the second aspect in question, the interpersonal character of human speech. (Ibid, emphasis added 15)

Inevitably human beings are given the responsibility of trying to “name reality” in an “interpersonal” context—and perhaps this is the real reason why teaching English is so challenging. Finding authentic ways to help  students name reality involves approaching the question of truthfulness in a developmentally-appropriate manner for adolescents.

Accosting Abbey’s argument about Emily Dickinson’s tone worked to an extent—it roused her peers to come to her defense, for they could see the issue was, at heart, an important moral one—but unfortunately I did not know how to follow up my experiment. I certainly made an impression, but probably a fleeting one. In the rush of that first year, I did not pause to tie up any loose ends I had unstrung in that conversation, nor did I really give my students the opportunity to do so because in many ways I was fumbling around in the dark as much as they were.

I had, indeed, observed my student’s cognitive construction of a certain skill—that of learning to use textual evidence to back up claims—and I responded spontaneously to the moral dilemma that arose as a consequence. However, I failed to follow through on my experiment by giving my students a way to process this experience. For instance, I could have given them the opportunity to write about it—and to provide evidence demonstrating why my response to Abbey was unjust. This would have been a metacognitive task indeed—and one that would have reinforced the moral possibilities in writing and providing evidence for one’s claims.

Although I had successfully shown that the academic task of providing evidence for one’s claims is morally complex and problematic, I hesitated to pursue the issue further. I fear that, if we get this far at all, many English teachers are also hesitant about going further. We are not philosophy or religion teachers. Besides preaching against the evils of plagiarism, how else can we justify an exploration of truthfulness in language?

I would respond to this question with another: how can we justify not exploring the issue of truthfulness in language in our classrooms, when it remains the implicit moral dilemma students face on every test, every quiz, every essay—indeed, every conversation?

Stuff You Should Read

I have been meaning for a while to write about the Common Core, since it has been causing such an uproar in certain Catholic circles. Yet I do not think I have researched it sufficiently to say anything extensive about it yet. I know the Common Core standards for high school English (since I’ve had to try to implement them for two years), and I have spoken to “higher ups” in the ACE program at Notre Dame for their opinions on the matter–which so far seem strangely genial and un-curious.

Here are two articles that present pretty different views. To give you an idea, I am actually much more inclined to agree with Rocha, but I’ll let you decide:

1. “Why I’m Not Too Worked Up About Common Core” – Sam Rocha

2. “Common Core’s Substandard Writing Standards” – Anthony Esolen

Note: Stay tuned for an upcoming post on why I think Esolen is very wrong about his theory of teaching writing–at least at the secondary level. His claims might work better for the more sophisticated college student who already knows how to write, but from my own experience, as much as I appreciate his ideals, I think his comments are irrelevant for the high school English teacher.

Students - Death_to_high_school_English

I just discovered a new blog (new in the sense that it is “new” to me), and I am quickly becoming a big fan: Artur Rosman’s Cosmos in the Lost. Literature, philosophy, theology – you name it – all of my favorite things seem to be here.

He has two particularly helpful posts for my English major friends out there about contemporary writers who actually take religion seriously and who aren’t suffocated by “nihilism,” which according to O’Connor is the very “air we breathe” these days:

3. Fresh Caught Fish: Part I

Note: The best part about this list is that Rosman actually gives you substantial pieces of his favorite poems by these poets, so that you can get a feel for them. I am already adding names to my Christmas list.

A taste:

Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition;

like any poem, it must be inexhaustible and complete

with turns where we ask Now why did the poet do that?

(Les Murray)

4. Fresh Caught Fish: Part II

Note: For me, more of these are familiar names, but I am still looking forward to exploring new landscapes.

And, thanks to Rosman, a beautiful Advent reflection by my favorite theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar:

5. “Into the Dark with God” – Hans Urs von Balthasar

A taste:

Because the Lord, the High God, has taken the same path as they have: he has left his glory behind him and gone into the dark world, into the child’s apparent insignificance, into the unfreedom of human restrictions and bonds, into the poverty of the crib. This is the Word in action, and as yet the shepherds do not know, no one knows, how far down into the darkness this Word-in-action will lead. At all events it will descend much deeper than anyone else into what is worldly, apparently insignificant and profane; into what is bound, poor and powerless; so much so that we shall not be able to follow the last stage of his path. A heavy stone will block the way, preventing the others from approaching, while, in utter night, in ultimate loneliness and forsakenness, he descends to his dead human brothers. (Balthasar)

Lastly, because this Advent has been so dark — with the shootings at nearby Arapahoe High School, a major accident on LA 1 which I took every day for the past two years to drive to my old school, the anniversary of Sandy Hook, the suffering of my friends who are grieving the untimely loss of loved ones so close to Christmas… need I say more? Because it has been so dark:

6. Presence as Absence – by Marc at “Bad Catholic”

Especially this: “We feel the missing person like an atmosphere, not gone so much as everywhere, the whole world crowded as a Parisian metro with their nearness.”