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Beware the Enthymeme!

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It's bad enough to debate complex issues in slogans, but even worse when the slogans so cheerfully lie.

In Florida, as in many states, there are a variety of license plate designs for car owners to choose from. I always think that these, like bumper stickers, are a strange way to express oneself, though I’ve been known to slap a bumper sticker on my car now and then. Last presidential election cycle, I had two Obama stickers stolen off my car, and I have a long-term one that says, “Please don’t breed or buy while shelter pets die. Opt to adopt.” Other than one time when a friend at first thought it protested the breeding of humans and was an insult to his parenthood, that one has been uncontroversial. At least as far as I know. And I guess that’s the joy of broadcasting one’s opinions this way. Unless you meet up with a crazy person who will bash into your vehicle, you are safe from argument.

One of the popular license plates around here is a yellow one with red crayon-like boy and girl figures that imply they were drawn by a child and that says “Choose Life.”

It might be an okay message if it really meant what it says. Of course, most of those who sport this license plate don’t actually mean that. What they mean is that they would rather force every pregnant woman to bring any pregnancy to term. What they mean is not “choose life,” but “choose to support laws and organizations that offer no choice to women.” And, as this Slate article reports, “the legislation in most states [that have these plates] expressly provides that any program offering referrals or even discussing the option of abortion is barred from funding.” In other words, these plates support lack of choice, not a choice.

There is an odd way in which the language gets twisted like this. Of course, progressives and liberals do it too, but what I notice lately is the way that Republicans and right-wingers do this all the freaking time. No doubt, we are gearing up for a maelstrom of misused language in this coming election season.

What I also notice is that progressives have a hard time correcting these misuses of language. I guess they don’t want to be accused of nit-picking about semantics or something like that. But the use of language is one of the most important things we can pay attention to. This is one of the things that rhetorical analysis is good for, and it pains me that so many can get through high school and freshman comp and even four or more years of college and still not be able to understand the manipulations of language to which they are subject on a daily basis.

I will never forget one of my early teaching experiences, when I was laboring as a freshman-composition TA at Penn State during the fall of 1991. At the same time, playing out in the media, were the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Anita Hill, who had worked as his assistant some years earlier, arrived on the scene with her testimony about Thomas sexually harassing her.

Hill’s testimony lasted only a few hours, but the discussion of it went on for weeks and months, even years. The issue even resurfaced in 2010, when Clarence Thomas’s wife called Anita Hill and suggested she should apologize.

In spite of the fact that Hill subjected herself to a polygraph test that indicated her testimony was honest, whereas Thomas refused a polygraph, and in spite of another woman’s affidavit that she had received similar treatment, Hill’s testimony was vehemently called into question. And one of the prime reasons people gave for their disbelief was that Hill had continued to work for Thomas rather than quitting her job, had in fact even worked for him at a second position after the time during which she said he harassed her. This line of discussion had been begun during her Senate testimony when Republican senators Arlen Specter and Orrin Hatch strove quite clearly to discredit her. (The entire hearings are available via C-Span. About half-way through Day 1, Part 3, Specter grills her about why she continued to work for Thomas).

This discussion nagged at me and nagged at me. Finally one day when I was set to teach the enthymeme, I realized why. Dully, I had been writing a traditional enthymeme lesson (that had been provided to us new TAs) on the chalkboard:

Johnathan lives in Japan.
Johnathan speaks Japanese.

And then out to the side the missing link: People who live in Japan speak Japanese.

In a fit of inspiration, I erased it and wrote instead:

Anita Hill claims she was sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas.
She’s probably lying.

“How many of you agree with this?” I asked. More than half the class raised their hands, most of the men and a few of the women.

For the next half hour, we explored the possible unstated assumptions behind the conclusion. The students eventually had to admit that the basic assumption they were making was that women should always put their “purity” above their careers. Certainly, that was the assumption that the all-male panel of senators who had grilled Hill clearly made. If this were not true, there might be a host of other priorities that Hill would put before quitting her job to escape Thomas’s advances and inappropriate comments.

Once we teased these assumptions out into the open, there were very few students (maybe only one) in the class who agreed with the statement that women should always put their “purity” over their career advancement. Most of them found themselves confronted with an assumption they didn’t agree with but that they had allowed to underpin their opinions on a matter of national importance.

A few of the young women in class began to make the connection to their own experience. “Oh, yeah,” one said, “I have a manager who is so offensive—he always stares at us waitresses too much and puts his hands on us whenever he can—but I haven’t quit my job! We all just ignore him. And it’s a nothing job.” Every female in the class could cite at least one instance of sexual harassment that she had let slide. We agreed that none of us would quit a job over it unless there was actual threat of rape or a high level of severity and directness in the harassment, but that this did not erase the fact of the harassment. It was a daily part of our collective lives.

By the end of class, because they could understand why Anita Hill might have stayed in her job in spite of harassment, they no longer deemed her a liar. I will never forget their mouths hanging open in disbelief at what they had been duped into repeating from the media to friends and family members. They rushed off after class to correct themselves. Thomas, of course, had already been approved as a Supreme Court justice.

I wonder about this kind of thing in the media. It seems to me that both the “neutral” media and the progressive factions do too little to correct this kind of blatantly stupid and unsupported claim. They do too little to monitor the use of language in blatantly deceptive ways. Some, including, of course, FOX News, are notorious for participating in this kind of ridiculous bias themselves (several examples here and one here that’s particularly about twisting of language). Lately, even our senators and representatives have felt free to make utterly false and ridiculous claims, and later to say they didn’t mean them as factual or to insist on defending their mischaracterizations. Only in these most blatant of examples are they called out on it.

For instance, in response to an email I sent to Florida Governor Rick Scott’s ridiculous decision to sign off on establishment of a new (unneeded) state university in Florida, I received a reply containing this statement: “Governor Scott’s top priority this legislative session was adding $1.06 billion in new funding for K-12 education.” First, nothing in Scott’s email responded to the subject I had addressed. And second, this is bull. Scott has been ballyhooing his great increase in state funding for K-12 education this year, after he cut $1.3 billion last year. A few reporters note toward the end of their articles that Scott’s budget doesn’t even replace what he has previously cut, but the headlines mostly remain that he is raising the budget. (Notice that this blogger put a more accurate headline on the same article published with an innocuous-sounding headline in the Palm Coast Observer. But, hey, at least the reporter mentions the facts.)

I believe that these twisted uses of language are one of the reasons why our society has become so divided and discussions so disharmonious. I think that we need to do all we can every time we hear these false uses of language to stop them in their tracks, even if it means making conversation halting. The fact is that it’s one thing to disagree about the substance of things and another for someone to lie in order to exaggerate our disagreements.

There are many examples, but I have gone on long enough. Today’s exhortation, again in support of so many friends who are ending long semesters of teaching freshman comp (and other courses that attempt to teach critical thinking), is: REMEMBER THE ENTHYMEME! Talk about the enthymeme. Pick apart the enthymeme.

School’s Out & The Little Red Schoolbook

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Today’s song (lyrics here) is a little old anthem to help all my friends get through the next week or so (or more for those in el-hi) to the end of the school year. It took me a long time to realize that teachers feels the same sense of relief at the end of the year that students do.

Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” dates to 1972, but I was still a goody-two-shoes child then and didn’t fully appreciate it until I was in high school and going through my own teenage rebellion. Even then, I was rebellious in a goody-two-shoes way. I wasn’t smoking in the parking lot, at least most of the time, and I wasn’t yet drinking or losing my sexual innocence. I was just disobedient and disrespectful to my teachers.

Watching the above version of “School’s Out,” filmed at a concert in Sweden, made me think of one of my inspirations for my rebellion, The Little Red Schoolbook. (I mistakenly thought it originated in Sweden, but it was Denmark.) The Little Red Schoolbook made the rounds in the U.S. about the same time “School’s Out” did.

I don’t remember much about my own rebellion, except that I got thrown permanently out of geometry class and that the school administrators summoned my parents to confer about how to make me behave. My geometry teacher frequently assigned students who whispered in class to copy out passages from books as extra homework. He often suggested the Bible as a source. When I received this punishment one day, I chose The Little Red Schoolbook as my source—a passage about how authoritarian teachers are actually insecure. “All grown-ups are paper tigers…” “If you’re bored, you only learn how to be bored.” And so on. Mr. Houser greeted this with outrage. The one detail I will never forget is the shade of red his face turned when his eyes fell on the words I had copied out in my prissy schoolgirl hand. I was satisfied with that.

It’s interesting to me how those mixed feelings about school have stayed with me even though I chose a life in education. That doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy teaching, but I feel a constant tension with these issues of authority. And even my fellow academics, most of whom I believe generally love school more purely than I do, get burned out and look forward to summer or whatever short breaks we may get.

We don’t get cut many breaks in education these days, especially not in public education. When I found a video excerpt of a documentary about the Australian release of The Little Red Schoolbook, called As It Happened: The Book That Shook the World (2007), I was struck by its emphasis on the possibility of students striking. I had just posted on Facebook about the sorry state of higher education funding in the state of Florida and noted that “IMHO it’s time to start thinking about strikes, though we are all too grateful just to have a job.” I guess the rabble-rousing Little Red Schoolbook is still somewhere inside of me, though I have long since been absorbed into the status quo and the nation has backslid in terms of progressive education.

Below is the short strike-related documentary excerpt, and a longer, more general one is here.

Here’s to dreams-soon-to-come-true of summer, freedom, and much-needed rebellion.

“Why Don’t He Come In Here?”—Crying for Public Education

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The osprey is a common bird in Florida, but like problems with public education is also ubiquitous further afield.

I have been meaning to delve more into education issues since writing about Rick Scott’s attacks on higher ed in Florida last fall, but have been following different avenues lately. Fortunately, my friend and colleague Terry Thaxton has provided this terrific guest post, a tapestry of thoughts about childhood school days, her time in the public school trenches, and concerns about today.


* * *

“Why Don’t He Come in Here?”–Crying for Public Education

by Terry Thaxton

Just mention public education, and I’m likely to walk away. Or cry. I cannot fathom where to begin with what needs fixing. I don’t know how to articulate the enormous inadequacies of our education system. I’m a product of public education, and at one point I attempted to teach in our public school system.

I lasted two years as a teacher. The first year, almost every day, on the way to school, I had to pull my car off the road, open the car door, and vomit, worried about what lay ahead that day. On the drive home, I cried because of the conditions of the building, the poverty many of the children were living in, the lack of support for teachers to do their jobs, the expectations that created Catch-22s for students, teachers, and administrators. I cried because of the media which usually reported what some politician in power had to say, that all society’s ills lay at the feet of public school teachers. For my own sanity and health, I left high school to teach part time at the university, taking a huge pay cut, but I was no longer sick every morning or crying all night.

I still live in Seminole County, Florida, the county where I taught for those two years (1997-99). Last year, the School Board closed one elementary school despite community protests. The closing, the Board claimed, was a necessary measure because of state budget cuts by Governor Rick Scott which he began touting at a Tea Party meeting in February 2011, suggesting cutting the State’s education budget by $4.8 billion. By March—due in part to public outrage—he’d reduced the cut down to $1.75 billion. That money would not be lost, he assured us all. No, it would provide tax breaks to corporations. By December 2011, he declared an “increase” for this upcoming year’s education budget of $1 billion. Perhaps because of his low approval ratings, Scott changed his tune, but this still in reality represents a net loss to schools of $.75 billion over 2 years.

Just a month ago, January (2012), the Seminole County School Board announced the impending closing of at least two more elementary schools with several others on the chopping block. Thanks to the parents, students, and teachers of these schools, the Board has agreed to not close the schools (at least for now), and to look for other options for saving money. Teachers, however, haven’t had a raise in three years, and I’m betting most are still purchasing their own classroom supplies (as I did during the two years I braved the classroom). I know of at least two teachers who, in the past three days, have said after this semester, they’re leaving.

When I was in fourth grade, the Florida Education Association staged and successfully carried out a teacher’s strike. Teachers did not show up in their classrooms–in some schools for a couple of months. Before the strike began, the teachers at my elementary school told us they would not be in class during this time period because they were concerned, like all teachers, about budget cuts and lack of support from the State (I can’t recall how long our teachers were on strike, but I do remember it), and I remember all of the parents supporting them. I’m not sure why teachers aren’t uniting in a strike now, but perhaps it has something to do with the state of the economy.

In May 1970, Sarasota County School Board threatened to close Osprey School, the six-classroom schoolhouse where I attended elementary school. Parents, led by my father, protested. My father, already Vice Chairman of Osprey Chamber of Commerce, formed “Osprey Citizens Committee” and attended every School Board meeting from the moment the Board announced this possibility until the Board backed down. My father rallied parents and teachers, presented the school board with “petitions signed by about 450 Osprey residents.” His petition argued that “closing of the school would halt growth of the area and virtually assure that no school would ever be built or reopened in the community.” It was a valiant, and successful, effort to keep our small neighborhood school open.

At the time, I was in sixth grade and I had siblings in fifth, third, and first grades. The school had been built in 1927, and though there had been updates on the building, each grade level had one room. I still remember the hard-wood floors, the scoop of honey-peanut butter Mrs. Reardon gave us for dessert if we cleaned off our lunch plates, the parent and teacher organized Halloween party that included games like bean-bag tossing and (my favorite) the cake walk, which was held in Mrs. Draggoo’s classroom.

I should point out that there are of course, many factors that enter into a school board’s decision to close schools. In 1970, there was of course, the issue of desegregation. Osprey was an all-white school. This complicated things, but the “Osprey delegation indicated…they would have no objection to Negro children being bussed in”; however, they did not want their children bussed out.

My father’s motives to halt the closing of Osprey School were not pure, and were even tinged with racism. But 1970 wasn’t the first time the Board had threatened to close the school, nor would it be the last. In 1975, the Board again announced the closing of the school, and this time they succeeded, closing at the end of the 1975-1976 school year. In addition to desegregation, Osprey School served only about 145 students with another small school, Laurel School, two miles away serving another 100, and another larger school, Nokomis, about five miles away that could absorb the students from Osprey and Laurel. Fiscally, it was a wise decision.

And the school has continued to serve the community in other ways. For a couple of years, the building was used as a continuing education center for public school teachers, and then leased to the Spanish Point Historical Society, then eventually sold to the Historical Society. The building is still there, serving as the Visitor and Welcome Center for Spanish Point. Last time I visited, I walked through each of the old classrooms, each now serving some type of educational purpose—though no teachers standing in front of their group of students—now updated into gift shops, historical information about the Palmers and Webbs (wealthy land owners), displays of old ships, explanations of burial mounds, and meeting rooms.

Osprey School today has become the welcome center for the Spanish Point Historical Society.

I loved Osprey School. I loved knowing all of the other kids’ parents, knowing each teacher.

With less funding coming from the state, local parents here in Seminole County have realized the only way to keep their neighborhood schools open is by increasing property taxes. Last year, Seminole County residents voted down a property tax increase. This coming fall, I’m expecting it will pass because the parents are eager to do whatever they can to be able to walk their children to school where they know all the teachers.

While there are a few teachers who do less than others, and there are teachers who abuse their students, most teachers deserve much more than the even modest pay raises they’ve been denied in recent years. Every morning I am aware of the teachers who make an attempt at teaching our children. They do this in spite of their pay not keeping up with the cost of living, in spite of larger class sizes, in spite of inadequate supplies and buildings, and some do it in spite of the lack of parental or administrative support, mostly in spite of the lack of State and Federal support rather than with it.

I remember the day in 1997 when Governor Jeb Bush came to “tour” our school. I was teaching tenth grade English. I had forty students in a room with thirty desks. I’d gotten my own desk from “the shed” at the beginning of the school semester. I had no idea what color the carpet was originally because now it was stained with urine, gum, dirt, sweat, and who knows what else. The only markers for the marker board were ones I’d purchased at the office supply store. My students were referred to as “general” students, meaning they were not “honors,” a designation primarily for students whose parents had insisted they be in those types of classes; honors had very little to do with intellectual ability.

Anyway, as I was teaching in that classroom, Bush’s entourage of security, media, and school administration came down the exterior hallway. I knew this because all of the students in my class stopped whatever they were doing and ran to the side windows. They asked me what was going on. “Oh, Governor Bush is touring the school. He wants to see how well the school is doing,” I said.

“Why don’t he come in here?” several of them asked.

“He’s going to the Magnet Program classrooms and the IB classrooms.”

In the IB classrooms there were a maximum of fifteen students; in the Magnet Program classes, twenty. And though all of my classes had at least forty, the ratio of teacher/student at our school was well within the State’s requirements.

“He need to come in here,” my students argued. “We should be the ones showing him what be real.”

When politicians use education as platforms, I can only roll my eyes. They have no idea what happens in most classrooms every day. Like former Governor Bush, they see only the “pretty” parts of the schools. He saw the delightful art in the hallway of the IB building, the eager students, the caring administrators, and the bountiful supplies in the Magnet Program building. I’m sure this confirmed for him the need for the FCAT which began that following spring in 1998. Created to hold schools and particularly teachers accountable for their students’ learning, FCAT hassles have been the reason for many teachers, good teachers, leaving the school system.

For the most part those two hundred forty students I “taught” that year graduated. I watched them walk across the stage. I knew which of them still could not write, could not spell, and could not read a paragraph and comprehend it.

Despite what some politicians think, teachers do know what they’re doing and parents do care a great deal. Sadly, many politicians can’t comprehend what teachers and schools really need—an end to posturing and slashing and a start to genuine and consistent financial and practical support.