What Makes Humans Human?

Little, today, is as it was.

Anatomically modern humans have existed for about 200,000 years, but only since the end of the eighteenth century has artificial lighting been widely used. Gas lamps were introduced in European cities about that time, and electric lights came into use only in the twentieth century.

In other words, for most of human history, when night fell, it fell hard. Things got really, really dark,

and people gathered under the stars, which they could actually see, in those days before nighttime light pollution,

and under those stars, they told stories.

In EVERY culture around the globe, storytelling, in the form of narrative poetry, existed LONG before the invention of writing. We know this because the earliest manuscripts that we have from every culture record stories that were already ancient when they were finally written down. One of the earliest texts in English is that of the poem Beowulf. It reworks and retells, in a much distorted manner, much, much older stories—ones that predate the emergence of English as a distinct language. Stith Thompson, the great folklorist, did the literary world an enormous favor by compiling a massive index, today known as the Arne-Thompson Index, of motifs of ancient folktales worldwide. Name a story motif—three wishes, talking animals, the grateful dead, cruel stepsisters, golden apples, dragons, the fairy or demon lover, the instrument that plays itself –and you will find that the motif has an ancient pedigree and was already spread about the world long before historical times.

English is a Germanic language. All ancient Germanic societies had official storytellers whose job it was to entertain people in those days before modern entertainments like television and movies and the Internet and drones with laser-guided Hellfire missiles. In ancient Denmark, the storyteller was called a skaald. In Anglo-Saxon England, the storyteller was a scop (pronounced like MnE “shop”). The scop accompanied his stories on the Anglo-Saxon harp, a kind of lyre.

Of course, the telling of stories wasn’t the only entertainment around campfires. In most cultures, people danced and chanted and sang as well, and sometimes stories were told by the dancers or singers or chanters. All this was part of acting out the stories. (Want to know where the Christian devil, with his red body and horns, comes from? Well, in ancient Europe, people worshiped an Earth Mother and her consort, a Lord of the Forest, and they told stories of the hunt. When they acted these out around campfires, they held up to their heads animal horns, or branches in the shape of horns, and that’s how they pictured their Lord of the Forest, as a therianthrope, red from the campfire, with horns. When the Christians spread North across Europe, they made the god of the Old Religion into The Adversary. Grendel’s mother, the monster from the bog in Beowulf, is a demonized version, in a Christian story, of the ancient Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess Nerthus, to whom sacrifices were made by binding people, cutting their throats, and throwing them into a bog. You can see an ancient bas relief of the Lord of the Forest, btw, on the Gundestrup cauldron dating from 150 to 1 BCE. See the accompanying illustration.)

But where does this storytelling urge among humans come from, and why is it universal? Storytelling takes energy. And it doesn’t produce tangible results. It doesn’t mend bones or build houses or plant crops. So, why would it survive and be found among every people on Earth from the earliest times onward?

Contemporary cognitive scientists have learned that storytelling is an essential, built-in part of the human psyche, involved in every aspect of our lives, including our dreams, memories, and beliefs about ourselves and the world. Storytelling turns out to be one of the fundamental ways in which our brains are organized to make sense of our experience. Only in very recent years have we come to understand this. We are ESSENTIALLY storytelling creatures, in the Aristotelian sense of essentially. That is, it’s our storytelling that defines us. If that sounds like an overstatement, attend to what I am about to tell you. It’s amazing, and it may make you rethink a LOT of what you think you know.

At the back of each of your eyes are retinas containing rods and cones. These take in visual information from your environment. In each retina, there is a place where the optic nerve breaks through it. This is the nerve that carries visual signals to your brain. Because of this interruption of the retinas, there is a blind spot in each where NO INFORMATION AT ALL IS AVAILABLE. If what you saw was based on what signals actually hit your retina at a given moment, you would have two big black spots in your field of vision. Instead, you see a continuous visual field. Why? Because your brain automatically fills in the missing information for you, based on what was there when your eye saccaded over it a bit earlier. In other words, your brain makes up a story about what’s there. Spend some time studying optical illusions, and you will learn that this is only one example of many ways in which you don’t see the world as it is but, rather, as the story concocted by your brain says it is.

This sort of filling in of missing pieces also happens with our memories. Scientists have discovered that at any given moment, people attend to at most about seven bits of information from their immediate environment. There’s a well-known limitation of short-term memory to about seven items, give or take two, and that’s why telephone numbers are seven digits long. So, at any given moment, you are attending to only about seven items from, potentially, billions in your environment. When you remember an event, your brain FILLS IN WHAT YOU WERE NOT ATTENDING TO AT THE TIME based on general information you’ve gathered, on its predispositions, and on general beliefs that you have about the world. In short, based on very partial information, your brain makes up and tells you a STORY about that past time, and that is what you “see” in memory in your “mind’s eye.”

So, people tend to have a LOT of false memories because the brain CONFABULATES—it makes up a complete, whole story about what was PROBABLY the case and presents that whole memory to you, with the gaps filled in, for your conscious inspection. In short, memory is very, very, very faulty and is based upon the storytelling functions of the brain!!!! (And what are we except our memories? I am that boy in the Dr. Dentons, in my memory, sitting before the TV with the rabbit ears; I am that teenager in the car at the Drive-in with the girl whom I never thought in a million years would actually go out with me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

You can also see this storytelling function of the brain at work in dreaming. Years ago, I had a dream that I was flying into the island of Cuba on a little prop plane. Through the window, I could see the island below the plane. It looked like a big, white sheet cake, floating in an emerald sea. Next to me on the airplane sat a big, red orangutan smoking a cigar.

Weird, huh? So why did I have that dream? Well, in the days preceding the dream I had read a newspaper story about the Fidel Castro, the leader of Cuba, being ill; I had flown on a small prop plane; I had attended a wedding where there was a big, white sheet cake; I had been to the zoo with my grandson, where we saw an orangutan; and I had played golf with some friends, and we had smoked cigars.

The neural circuits in my brain that had recorded these bits and pieces were firing randomly in my sleeping brain, and the part of the brain that does storytelling was working hard, trying to piece these random fragments together into a coherent, unified story. That’s the most plausible current explanation of why most dreams occur. The storytelling parts of the brain are responding to random inputs and tying them together—making sense of this random input by making a plausible story of them. This is akin to the process by which people see angels in cloud formations and pictures of Jesus on their toast.

So, those are three important reasons why the brain is set up as a storytelling device. Storytelling allows us to see a complete visual field; creates for us, from incomplete data, coherent memories; and ties together random neural firings in our brains to into the wholes that we call dreams.
But that’s not all that storytelling does for us. Storytelling about the future allows us to look ahead—for example, to determine what another creature is going to do. We often play scenarios in our minds that involve possible futures. What will she say if I ask her to the prom? What will the boss say if I ask for a raise? How will that go down? In other words, storytelling provides us with a THEORY OF MIND for predicting others’ behavior.

Stories also help people to connect to one another. When we tell others a story, we literally attune to them. We actually get “on the same wavelengths.” Uri Hasson, a neuroscientist at Princeton, recorded the brainwaves of people during rest and while listening to a story. During rest, their waves were all over the place. While listening to the same story, even at different times and places, those people had brainwaves that were in synch.

Storytelling also provides a mechanism for exploring and attempting to understand others generally. Our basic situation in life is that your mind is over there and mine is over here. We’re different, and we have to try to figure each other out—to have a theory of other people’s minds. By telling myself a story about you, I can attempt to bridge that ontological gap. Unfortunately, the stories we tell ourselves about others tend to be fairly unidimensional. You are simply this or that. I, on the other hand, am an international man of mystery. This is a tendency we need to guard against.

When we tell stories, we spin possible futures—we try things on, hypothetically. And that helps us to develop ideas about who we want to be and what we want to do. Gee, if I travel down that road, I may end up in this better place.

And that observation leads to one final, supremely important function of storytelling: Who you are—your very SELF—is a story that you tell yourself about yourself and your history and your relations to others—a story with you as the main character. The stories you tell yourself about yourself become the person you are. The word person, by the way, comes from the Latin persona, for a mask worn by an actor in the Roman theatre.

So, our very idea of ourselves, of our own personal identity, is dependent upon this storytelling capacity of the human brain, which takes place, for the most part, automatically. There is even a new form of psychotherapy called cognitive narrative therapy that is all about teaching people to tell themselves more life-enhancing, affirmative stories about themselves, about who they are.

Telling yourself the right kinds of stories about yourself and others can unlock your creative potential, improve your relationships, and help you to self create—to be the person you want to be.

So, to recapitulate, storytelling . . .

helps us to fill in the gaps so that we have coherent memories,

tries together random firings in the brain into coherent dreams,

enables us to sort and make sense of past experience,

gives us theories of what others think and how they will behave,

enables us to try on various futures, and

helps us to form a personal identity, a sense of who were are.

Kinda important, all that!

Storytelling, in fact, is key to being human. It’s our defining characteristic. It’s deeply embedded in our brains. It runs through every aspect of our lives. It makes us who we are.

It’s no wonder then, that people throughout history have told stories. People are made to construct stories—plausible and engaging accounts of things—the way a stapler is made to staple and a hammer is made to hammer. We are Homo relator, man the storyteller.

(BTW, the root *man, meaning “human being” in general, without a specific gender reference, is ancient. It goes all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, but there’s still good reason, today, to seek out gender-neutral alternatives, when possible, of course.)

Copyright 2015. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

Art: Detail from the Gundestrup Cauldron. Nationalmuseet [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0

) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5


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It’s about Time (a Catena)



A brief tour of fascinating (and lunatic) notions that philosophers (and a few poets) have had about time. 

The Mystery of Time

“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain it to one who asks, I know not.”

–St. Augustine (345–430 CE), Confessions

PART 1: What Is Time? Types of Time

Albert_Einstein_at_the_age_of_three_(1882)Absolute or Scientific Newtonian Time

“Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external, and by another name is called duration.”

–Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727), Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy)

The Specious (Nonexistent) Present

“The relation of experience to time has not been profoundly studied. Its objects are given as being of the present, but the part of time referred to by the datum is a very different thing from the conterminous of the past and future which philosophy denotes by the name Present. The present to which the datum refers is really a part of the past — a recent past — delusively given as being a time that intervenes between the past and the future. Let it be named the specious present, and let the past, that is given as being the past, be known as the obvious past. [Each of] all the notes of a bar of a song seem to the listener to be contained in the [specious] present. [Each of] all the changes of place of a meteor seem to the beholder to be contained in the [specious] present. At the instant of the termination of [each element in] such series, no part of the time measured by them seems to be [an obvious] past. Time, then, considered relatively to human apprehension, consists of four parts, viz., the obvious past, the specious present, the real present, and the future. Omitting the specious present, it consists of three . . . nonentities — the [obvious] past, which does not [really] exist, the future, which does not [yet] exist, and their conterminous, the [specious] present; the faculty from which it proceeds lies to us in the fiction of the specious present.”

–E. Robert Kelley, from The Alternative, a Study in Psychology (1882). Kelley’s concept of the specious present has been extremely influential in both Continental and Anglo-American philosophy despite the fact that Kelley was not a professional philosopher.

Albert_Einstein_as_a_childSubjective Time

“Oh, yeah. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. I never finished it, though I did spent about a year with it one evening.”

Experienced Time: The “Wide” Present

“In short, the practically cognized present is no knife-edge, but a saddle-back, with a certain breadth of its own on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions into time. The unit of composition of our perception of time is a duration, with a bow and a stern, as it were—a rearward- and a forward-looking end. It is only as parts of this duration-block that the relation or succession of one end to the other is perceived. We do not first feel one end and then feel the other after it, and forming the perception of the succession infer an interval of time between, but we seem to feel the interval of time as a whole, with its two ends embedded in it.”

–William James, “The Perception of Time,” from The Principles of Psychology, Book I

459px-Einstein_patentofficeA, B, and C Series Time (Three Ways of Looking at Time)

  • The A Series: Time as Past, Present, and Future
  • The B Series: Time as Earlier, Simultaneous, and Later
  • The C Series: Time as an Ordered Relation of Events (with the direction being irrelevant)

Influential distinctions made by John Ellis McTaggart in “The Unreality of Time.” Mind 17 (1908): 456-476. The three types are much discussed by philosophers in the Anglo-American analytic tradition.

See also The Unreality of Time 2: Block Time, below

PART 2: Does Time Exist?

No, It Doesn’t: Change Is a Self-Contradictory Idea

“For this view can never predominate, that that which IS NOT exists. You must debar your thought from this way of search. . . .There is only one other description of the way remaining, namely, that what IS, is. To this way there are very many signposts: that Being has no coming-into-being . . . . Nor shall I allow you to speak or think of it as springing from not-being; for it is neither expressive nor thinkable that what-is-not is. . . . How could Being perish? How could it come into being? If it came into being, it is not; and so too if it is about-to-be at some future time. . . .For nothing else either is or shall be except Being, since Fate has tied it down to be a whole and motionless; therefore all things that mortals have established, believing in their truth, are just a name: Becoming and Perishing, Being and Not-Being, and Change of position, and alteration of bright color.”

–Parmenides of Elea (c. 475 BCE), fragment from The Way of Truth, in Ancilla to the PreSocratic Philosophers, ed. Kathleen Freeman

Albert_Einstein_(Nobel)“Does the arrow move when the archer shoots it at the target? If there is a reality of space, the arrow must at all times occupy a particular position in space on its way to the target. But for an arrow to occupy a position in space that is equal to its length is precisely what is meant when one says that the arrow is at rest. Since the arrow must always occupy such a position on its trajectory which is equal to its length, the arrow must be always at rest. Therefore, motion is an illusion.”

–Zeno of Elea (c. 450 BCE), fragment from Epicheriemata (Attacks), in Ancilla to the PreSocratic Philosophers, ed. Kathleen Freeman

“One part of time has been [the past] and is not, while the other is going to be and is not yet [the future]. Yet time, both infinite time and any time you care to take, is made up of these. One would naturally suppose that what is made up of things which do not exist could have no share in reality.”

–Aristotle (384–322 BCE), Physics, IV, 10–14. 217b-244a.

462px-Einstein-formal_portrait-35Yes, It Does: Change Is the Fundamental Reality of Our Lives

“It is not possible to step twice into the same river.”

–Heraclitus, (c. 475 BCE), fragment from unnamed book, in Ancilla to the PreSocratic Philosophers, ed. Kathleen Freeman

[Heraclitus seems to have held this fact to be one of many indications of the essential unworthiness/irredeemability of this life; the other fragments of his writings that have survived suggest that Heraclitus was a kind of 5th century fundamentalist preacher, upset about the moral decay around him, who viewed the world as synonymous with decay, and who wanted to point his readers, instead, toward the eternal Logos. Plato inherited this view; the Christian church inherited Plato’s. Such contemptu mundi (contempt for the world) is often, in that tradition, expressed as contempt for that which exists “in time” and is not eternal.]

“Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once.”

–Woody Allen (1935–      )


No, It Doesn’t: Time is an Illusion Due to Vantage Point in an Eternal Space Time (the “Block Time” Hypothesis):

“Now Besso has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing, for we physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.”

–Albert Einstein (1879­–1955), in a letter written to the family of Michele Besso, on Besso’s death

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”

462px-Einstein-formal_portrait-35–Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922–2007), who is in heaven now, Slaughterhouse Five

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

–T.S. Eliot (1888–1965), “Burt Norton,” from Four Quartets

No, It Doesn’t: The Now as Consequence of the Blindness of the Brain to Its Own Processing of Temporal Data (the “Blind Brain” Hypothesis)

“Nothing, I think, illustrates this forced magic quite like the experiential present, the Now. Recall what we discussed earlier regarding the visual field. Although it’s true that you can never explicitly ‘see the limits of seeing’–no matter how fast you move your head–those limits are nonetheless a central structural feature of seeing. The way your visual field simply ‘runs out’ without edge or demarcation is implicit in all seeing–and, I suspect, without the benefit of any ‘visual run off’ circuits. Your field of vision simply hangs in a kind of blindness you cannot see.

“This, the Blind Brain Hypothesis suggests, is what the now is: a temporal analogue to the edgelessness of vision, an implicit structural artifact of the way our ‘temporal field’–what James called the ‘specious present’–hangs in a kind temporal hyper-blindness. Time passes in experience, sure, but thanks to the information horizon of the thalamocortical system, experience itself stands still, and with nary a neural circuit to send a Christmas card to. There is time in experience, but no time of experience. The same way seeing relies on secondary systems to stitch our keyhole glimpses into a visual world, timing relies on things like narrative and long term memory to situate our present within a greater temporal context.

“Given the Blind Brain Hypothesis, you would expect the thalamocortical system to track time against a background of temporal oblivion. You would expect something like the Now. Perhaps this is why, no matter where we find ourselves on the line of history, we always stand at the beginning. Thus the paradoxical structure of sayings like, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” We’re not simply running on hamster wheels, we are hamster wheels, traveling lifetimes without moving at all.

“Which is to say that the Blind Brain Hypothesis offers possible theoretical purchase on the apparent absurdity of conscious existence, the way a life of differences can be crammed into a singular moment.”

–Scott Bakker, “The End of the World As We Knew It: Neuroscience and the Semantic Apocalypse”

PART 3: What Contemplation of Time Teaches Us about Living

Carpe Diem

“Such,” he said, “O King, seems to me the present life of men on Earth, in comparison with that time which to us is uncertain, as if when on a winter’s night, you sit feasting . . . and a simple sparrow should fly into the hall, and coming in at one door, instantly fly out through another. In that time in which it is indoors it is indeed not touched by the fury of winter; but yet, this smallest space of calmness being passed almost in a flash, from winter going into winter again, it is lost to our eyes.

“Something like this appears the life of man, but of what follows or what went before, we are utterly ignorant.”

–The Venerable Bede (c. 672–735), Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book II


“Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future.”

–Horace (65–8 BCE), Odes 1.11

Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

Omar Khayyám (1048–1131), “Rubiyat,” trans. Edward FitzGerald

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

–Robert Herrick (1591–1674), “To the Virgins, to Make Use of Time”

459px-Einstein_patentofficeBut at my back I alwaies hear
Times winged Charriot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lye
Desarts of vast Eternity.
Thy Beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble Vault, shall sound
My ecchoing Song: then Worms shall try
That long preserv’d Virginity:
And your quaint Honour turn to durst;
And into ashes all my Lust.
The Grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hew
Sits on thy skin like morning glew,
And while thy willing Soul transpires
At every pore with instant Fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am’rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our Time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapt pow’r.
Let us roll all our Strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one Ball:
And tear our Pleasures with rough strife,
Thorough the Iron gates of Life.
Thus, though we cannot make our Sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

–Andrew Marvell (1621–1678), “To His Coy Mistress”

“Get it while you can.
Don’t you turn your back on love.”

–The American philosopher Janis Joplin (1943–1970)

Albert_Einstein_as_a_childGive Up/It’s All Futile Anyway

“A man finds himself, to his great astonishment, suddenly existing, after thousands of years of nonexistence: he lives for a little while; and then, again, comes an equally long period when he must exist no more. The heart rebels against this, and feels that it cannot be true.

“Of every event in our life we can say only for one moment that it is; for ever after, that it was. Every evening we are poorer by a day. It might, perhaps, make us mad to see how rapidly our short span of time ebbs away; if it were not that in the furthest depths of our being we are secretly conscious of our share in the exhaustible spring of eternity, so that we can always hope to find life in it again.

“Consideration of the kind, touched on above, might, indeed, lead us to embrace the belief that the greatest wisdom is to make the enjoyment of the present the supreme object of life; because that is the only reality, all else being merely the play of thought. On the other hand, such a course might just as well be called the greatest folly: for that which in the next moment exists no more, and vanishes utterly, like a dream, can never be worth a serious effort.”

–The ever-cheerful Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), “The Vanity of Existence,” from Studies in Pessimism

Three Phenomenologist/Existentialist Views of Time

NB: the following are NOT quotations. I’ve summarized material that appears in much longer works. You’re welcome. I have included Husserl in this section, even though his work is just an attempted explanation of time, because the other two philosophers treated here are reacting to Husserl’s ideas.

Albert_Einstein_at_the_age_of_three_(1882)Husserl (very bright dude, this one): All our ideas about time spring from our conscious experience of the present. That experience is characterized by being intentional, by being toward something. We typically recognize three kinds of time: 1. scientific, objective, Newtonian time, which we think of as being independent of ourselves and as independently verifiable; 2. subjective time, in which events seem to move slower or faster; and 3. phenomenological or intentional time, which is the fundamental experience on which the other concepts of time are based, from which the other concepts derive because the phenomenological present includes not only awareness of present phenomena (the present), but retention (awareness of that which is not present because it no longer is—the past), and protention (awareness of that which is not present because it is about to be). The present is intentionality toward phenomena before us here, now. The past is present intentionality toward phenomena that are not present but are with us and so must be past (that’s where the definition of past comes from). The future is present intentionality toward phenomena that also are present but are not with us (as the past is) and so must be the future, which will be (that’s where the definition of future comes from). Therefore, in their origins in our phenomenological experiences, the future and the past are parts of the present, conceptual phenomena held in the present, alongside actual phenomena, as phenomena no longer present and not yet present.

Albert_Einstein_as_a_childHeidegger: Husserl had it all wrong. It’s the future, not the present, that is fundamental. We are future-oriented temporalities by nature, essentially so. Our particular type of being, Dasein, or being-there, is characterized by having care (about its projects, its current conditions, about other beings)—about matters as they relate to those projects. Our being is characterized by understanding, thrownness, and fallenness. Understanding, is the most fundamental of the three. It is projection toward the future, comportment toward the possibilities that present themselves, potentiality for being. Our understanding seizes upon projects, projecting itself on various possibilities. In its thrownness, Dasein always finds itself in a certain spiritual and material, historically conditioned environment that limits the space of those possibilities. As fallenness, Dasein finds itself among other beings, some of which are also Dasein and some of which (e.g., rocks) are not Dasein, and it has, generally respectively, “being-with” them or “being alongside” them, and these help to define what possibilities there are.  “Our sort of being (Dasein) is being for which being is an issue.” Why is it an issue? Well, we are finite. We know that we are going to die. This is the undercurrent that informs our essential being, which is care, concern. We are projections toward the future because undertaking these projects is an attempt, however quixotic, to distract ourselves from or even to cheat death. We care about our projects because, at some level, we care about not dying, having this projection toward the future for which we are living.

459px-Einstein_patentofficeSartre: The world is divided into two kinds of being: being-for-itself (the kind of being that you and I have) and being-in-itself (the kind of being that a rock or a refrigerator has). Let’s think a bit about our kind of being. Take away your perceptions, your body, your thoughts. Strip everything away, and you still have pure being, the being of the being-for-itself, but it is a being that is also nothing. (The Buddha thought this, too). Being-for-itself has intentional objects, but itself is no object (there’s no there there) and so is nothing, a nothingness. Time is like being in that respect. It consists entirely of the past (which doesn’t exist) and the future (which doesn’t exist) and the present (which is infinitesimally small and so doesn’t exist). So time, like being, is a nothingness. This being-for-itself is not just nothingness, however; it has some other bizarre, contradictory characteristics: Its being, though nothing, allows a world to be manifest (how this is so is unclear), a world that includes all this stuff, including others, for example, who want to objectify the being-for-itself, to make it into a something, a thing, a being-in-itself, like a rock. (“Oh, I know you. I’m wise to you. You’re . . . .” whatever.) The being-for-itself also has a present past (in Husserl’s sense) and is subject to certain conditions of material construction (the body) and material conditions (in an environment of things), and all these givens—the body, the environment, one’s own past, and other people seen from the outside in their thinginess—make up the being-for-itself’s facticity. The being-for-itself wants to be SOMETHING, and so lies to itself. It acts in bad faith, playing various roles (playing at being a waiter, for example) and creating for itself an ego (via self-deceptive, magical thinking). But in fact, being in reality nothing, being-for-itself (each of us) knows that that’s all a lie. We transcend our facticity and can be anything whatsoever, act in any way whatsoever. In other words, we are absolutely free and therefore absolutely responsible. This responsibility is absurd, because there is no reason for being/doing any particular thing. “Man is a meaningless passion.” But the absolute freedom that derives from our essential nothingness also allows for action to be truly authentic (as opposed to the play-acting) in addition to being responsible. Only in death does the being-for-itself succeed in becoming a being-in-itself, a completed thing, and then only if and in the manner in which he or she is remembered by others. A person who is not remembered never existed. Death is a time stamp or, if we are not remembered, an expiration date.

Albert_Einstein_(Nobel)The Eternal Return and the Weight of Being

“341. The Greatest Weight. What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’

“Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”

–Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), The Gay Science

462px-Einstein-formal_portrait-35The Fleeting One-Offness of Everything and the Resulting Unbearable Lightness of Being

“But Nietzsche’s demon is, of course, wrong. There is no eternal return. Where does that leave us? Isn’t life ALWAYS a matter of I should have’s and I would have’s and if I had only knowns? “[W]hat happens but once, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all. . . .

“The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”

–Milan Kundera (1929­–     ), contra Nietzsche, from The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Albert_Einstein_HeadCopyright 2010, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

Posted in Existentialism, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Time | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

The Coring of the Six Hundred (with apologies to Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

Row on row, row on row,

Row on row stationed

Sick at their monitors

Sat the six hundred.

“You may now type your Username”

Said the test proctor.

Set up for failure

Sat the six hundred.


“Enter your password key!

“Mercy upon you!

“During the testing

“No one can help you.”

Someone had blundered.

The unspoken truth. But

Theirs was not to make reply,

Theirs was not to reason why,

Theirs was but to do or die,

Theirs was but to try and cry.

Set up for failure

Sat the six hundred.


Text to the right of them

Complex, out of context,

Bubbles in front of them,

Plausible answers,

Tricky and tortured,

Boldly they bubbled and well

Though smack in the mouth of hell

Sat the six hundred.


This is what reading means,

Now that Gates/Pearson

Has reified testing

Far beyond reason.

Pearson not persons.

Plutocrats plundering

Taxpayer dollars

Spent to abuse.

The children are used.

They bubble and squirm

To reveal their stack ranking

And never again

Will know joy in learning

Never again

Humane joy in reading

And writing, no never again,

Not the six hundred.


Text to the right of them

Complex, out of context,

Bubbles in front of them,

Plausible answers,

Tricky and tortured,

Boldly they bubbled and well.

Gritfully slogging through hell

Sat the six hundred.


When shall their innocence,

Innate curiosity,

Joy in their learning

Ever return?

This never shall be.

Theirs is to gritfully

Show the obedience

Proper for proles,

Their preordained role

In the New Feudal Order.

Standardized children

Standardized minds.

Common, not great,

Though sufficient to serve

The ends of the state.

Lost to themselves

And the fruits of their labors.

Honor this children’s crusade.

Honor the price they paid.

Remember when they played.

Our once-young six hundred.

Copyright 2012, Bob Shepherd. This piece may be freely reproduced as long as it is reproduced in its entirety, without alteration, with attribution to its author, and with this copyright notice.

Posted in Ed Reform, Poetry, Teaching Literature and Writing | 8 Comments

For David Coleman, on the Occasion of Shakespeare’s 450th Birthday

Wrote this piece some time ago. Just getting around to posting it.

I once read, in “The American Scholar,” I think, or perhaps it was in “Verbatim,” a tragic report on the paucity of dedicated swear words in classical Latin. The Romans were always envious of the subtlety of the Greek tongue, of its rich resources for philosophical and literary purposes, but the Greeks were even less well endowed with profanities than the Romans were. The poor Romans had to result to graffiti, which they did with wild and glorious abandon, while the Greeks stuck to salacious statuary and decoration of vases.

I have a nice little collection of books on cursing in various languages. French, Spanish, German, Italian–the modern European languages, generally–are rich mines of lively expressions. But our language, which has been so promiscuous through the centuries, has to be the finest for cursing that we apes have yet developed. We English speakers are blessed with borrowed riches, there, that speakers of other tongues can only dream of.

So, when I watch a David Coleman video, there’s a lot for me to say, and a lot of choice language to say it with.

Those of you who are English teachers will be familiar with the Homeric catalog. It’s a literary technique that is basically a list. The simple list isn’t much to write home about, you might think, but this humble trope can be extraordinarily effective. Consider the following trove of treasures. What are these all names of? (Take a guess. Don’t cheat. The answer is below.)

Green Darner
Roseate Skimmer
Great Pondhawk
Ringed Cascader
Comet Darner
Banded Pennant
Orange Emperor
Banded Groundling
Black Percher
Little Scarlet
Tau Emerald
Southern Yellowjack
Vagrant Darter
Beautiful Demoiselle
Large Red
Mercury Bluet
Eastern Spectre
Somber Goldenring

Back to my dreams of properly cursing Coleman and the Core, of dumping the full Homeric catalog of English invective on them.

I have wanted to do so on Diane Ravitch’s blog, but Diane doesn’t allow such language in her living room, and I respect that. So I am sending this post, re Coleman and the Core, thinking that perhaps Diane won’t mind a little Shakespeare. (After all, it’s almost Shakespeare’s birthday. His 450th. Happy birthday, Willie!)

Let’s begin with some adjectives:

Artless, beslubbering, bootless, churlish, craven, dissembling, errant, fawning, forward, gleeking, impertinent, loggerheaded, mammering, merkin-faced, mewling, qualling, rank, reeky, rougish, pleeny, scurvie, venomed, villainous, warped and weedy,

And then add some compound participles:

beef-witted, boil-brained, dismal-dreaming, earth-vexing, fen-sucked, folly-fallen, idle-headed, rude-growing, spur-galled, . . .
And round it all off with a noun (pick any one that you please):


Or, if you want whole statements from the Bard himself:

“Thy tongue outvenoms all the worms of the Nile.” (worms = snakes)

“Methink’st thou art a general offence and every man should beat thee.”

“You scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian! I’ll tickle your catastrophe!”

“You starvelling, you eel-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, you bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish–O for breath to utter what is like thee!-you tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bow-case, you vile standing tuck!”

“Thou sycophantic, merkin-faced varlet.”

“Thou cream-faced loon!”

There. Glad I got that out of my system.

BTW. Those are names of dragonflies, above. Beautiful, aren’t they? Shakespeare loved odd names of things. Scholars have shown that he used in writing a wider vocabulary than any other author who has ever wrote in our glorious tongue. Again, happy birthday, Willie. What fools those Ed Deformers be!

Posted in Ed Reform, Teaching Literature and Writing | 6 Comments

Will Wonders Never Cease?

For Princesa Krystalina de Columbia y Japón

Dreams of flying are part of the universal, archetypal, collective consciousness of our species. They harken back to some common ancestor that we share with monkeys and with the great apes. A million and a half years ago, a snake is making its way up an acacia tree in East Africa. Your ancient primate ancestor and mine escapes by taking to the air and sailing from one branch to another. Later, in that monkey’s dreams, that skimming between branches takes the form of flight.

I suspect that most of the 100 billion or so people who have lived on this planet since the days of Homo heidelbergensis (about 600,000 years ago) have envied birds their ability to fly. Now, here I am–I and two hundred others–behaving as though we were doing something pedestrian, something we have to put up with between, say, breakfast and that meeting in the afternoon in Tampa. Here I am, at 35,000 feet, looking down upon clouds and coastlines and rivers. If only Homo heidelbergensis could see me now!”

I submit that anyone who does this, who flies, without being spellbound simply is not being there. He or she is oblivious. If you don’t believe me, hold a séance, call up the shade of the Roman emperor Tiberius and ask him about it. He would have given half his empire to do what we are doing, just once.

And speaking of séances, we humans love a cheap thrill. We are like those country bumpkins who used to line up outside tents at carnivals to catch a glimpse of a two-headed calf or of an alligator man (some fellow with advanced psoriasis).  Consider how we are bombarded with stories about ships and airplanes disappearing in the Bermuda Triangle, Big Foot, and people who can bend spoons with their minds. Think of the money that people spend on magnetic bracelets to cure cancer or pieces of cloth to wrap around their feet to “draw out toxins.” In the nineteenth century, it was séances, Joseph Smith’s magic eyeglasses from heaven, the Cardiff giant, and fairies in the garden. Why do we have such a taste for highly questionable wonders when there are so many real wonders all around us? All fun to think about but. . . but. . . come on, we can fly! All we have to do is to buy a ticket and try to be aware.

“The world is so full of a number of things. I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. I eat at a café. In the course of dinner, even in this age of the locovore, and even though the meal I am eating is fairly ordinary by American standards, I consume food and beverages assembled from ingredients that came from California and Morocco and New Jersey and Italy and Costa Rica and Sumatra and Madagascar and Japan. What hands picked those coffee beans, and on what hillside? How, and how well, were the owners of those hands compensated? From what sea was this salt harvested, ancient or modern, and down what rivers did it wash into that sea? By what subterranean routes did this water come, and what bodies did it inhabit before mine?

I pay the bill with money that is just a sort of collective fantasy and walk out onto a sidewalk past scurrying ants that are part of a single colony that stretches for sixty square miles around this epicenter, each ant a cell in what is perhaps best thought of as a single organism being fed instructions via chemical signals originating from one great Queen of the Borg. She rules an empire far greater than Tiberius’s. Her subjects enslave ants of other species, and they domesticate other creatures and milk them. I glance at the sky and even through the light pollution of this city, I see planets and stars and galaxies, and some of that light left on its journey to my retinas half a billion years ago. That constellation, there, is known today as Ophiuchus, the Serpent-Holder, but among some of the ancients, it was Erysichthon, whose name means, literally, “earth tearer.” He went into a grove sacred to the Earth goddess Demeter and started chopping down a tree. As he chopped, blood started pouring from the places where his blade landed. The hamadryad within the tree called out to him, begging him to stop, but he didn’t, so Demeter punished Erysichthon with a hunger that could not be satisfied. He sold all his possessions and even his own daughter to purchase food. Eventually, he consumed himself. He is there in the sky as a reminder of what happens to us when we mess with our Mother.

As I think of this story, I walk. My ten trillion cells coordinate this for me, without my thinking about it in the least, and some of these cells have trade agreements, of sorts, with 100 trillion other cells in my body that aren’t me at all, that are separate organisms hitching a ride. For these 100 trillion creatures, I am a biome, a sort of walking Great Barrier Reef. I share 40 percent of my genes with those blades of grass around the street trees. The blades of grass are my cousins, a few million times removed. I am, and everything around me is, mostly empty space. If you stuffed the stuff that makes me up all together, with no space intervening, I would be so small that you couldn’t see me at all. The very stuff that makes up my body is fuzzy, at the smallest level, and spread out infinitely, so that any given electron within me is interacting in a minute way, at this moment, with every other particle in the universe, and the total of all those interactions can be described by a single probability wave equation. One equation for the universe. This is our current scientific understanding.

My mind leaps in an instant from the universe as a whole to that street tree on the corner. It’s a maple, and as such, is capable of changing its sex . Gee, I think I’ll try things as a female for a while. That other tree, across the street, is a ginkgo, thought to be extinct until three lone specimens were found on a hillside in China. A shadow flits through the air–a bat, seeing the world with eyes, yes, but mostly with its sonar. And even its eyes see different wavelengths of light than mine do. It sees infrared radiation, which we experience as heat. It sees heat! It FREAKING SEES HEAT!!! It inhabits an alien universe. What could it possibly be like to be like that? What’s its idea of an evening? Oh, Mr. Nagel, good question, that!

A new Mongolian restaurant is opening. I, myself, have Genghis Khan as an ancestor, but so do ALL of the other people on this street because of something called combinatorial explosion, the doubling of the size of each generation going backward. Genghis murdered more people than live in this city. The people of this city ate a few hundred thousand of their fellow creatures this evening. Young people are coming in and out of bars, their minds crazy with dopamine and oxytocin, far stronger drugs, produced by their own brains, than those they smoked or swallowed earlier in the evening. Their bodies are flushed with the ancient mystery dance of sex and love and romance. Well over twenty-five percent of the women on this street, according to various studies of American females, will never orgasm, though they could. Half of the young men have no clue, even roughly, where the clitoris might be, and not one knows, unless he or she is a medical student, that the clitoral nub is the tip of a vast clitoral iceberg and that the nub alone has double the number of nerve ends of their precious penises. The beer that most are drinking, this evening, comes from slightly modified recipes developed by Middle Easterners who lived in caves or in holes they dug in the ground in the late Neolithic, 9,000 years ago. So what was it like to party with those guys? There’s a rainbow in the oil slick on the curb by that car. Why? That question, one of the most profound mysteries of the universe, was answered by Richard Feynman, the physicist, and for that answer, he received the Nobel Prize.

I think about all this, but what is this I that is thinking? I know you. I’ve got you pegged. But I, well, I’m the frigging intergalactic man of mystery. OK. You are, too. So, I was just kidding about that.

Real wonders, real mysteries, are all about us. They never cease. We should be reeling from the real, constantly, from the sheer bizarreness and beauty of it all. But we are dead to it. We aren’t paying attention. We’re on our way to the movie about the aliens: you know, the really imaginative, surprising movie in which the aliens appear, like, out of nowhere, see, and they hover over cities, see, in these big flying saucers and then–OMFG!!!–start blowing everything up. Can you believe that!!!????

Cheap thrills, and not all that thrilling. We squat in a pastry shop, the shelves filled with fresh baklava and brioche and éclairs, eating three-day-old hotdog buns. The reel of the world—the dream of the One—is real magic, and every day is strewn with diamonds and philosopher’s stones.

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion | 2 Comments

Our Boadicea, Our Jeanne d’Arc, Is a 79-year-old Grandmother, an Existence Proof of the Stupidity of Ageism

On this Labor Day, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the Herculean labors of Diane Ravitch. Dr. Ravitch has for many years now been the most significant force for sanity in all of U.S. K-12 education. Day in and day out, she indefatigably calls out the charlatans and grifters on the education carnival midway and fights to protect our most important institution, our public schools. In addition to being our foremost historian of education, she has also become our premier muckraker–the Ambrose Bierce, Ida B. Wells, Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Nelly Bly, and Upton Sinclair of our age. God bless her. My admiration and respect for this brilliant and relentless fighter for justice in U.S. education, for our Boadicea, our Jeanne d’Arc, knows no bounds.

Posted in Ed Reform, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

On the Pseudoscience of Strategies-Based Reading Comprehension Instruction, or What Current Comprehension Instruction Has in Common with Astrology

Why the Standards-and Testing Approach, as Currently Designed, Doesn’t Work in ELA

Permit me to start with an analogy. As a hobby, I make and repair guitars. This is exacting work, requiring precise measurement. If the top (or soundboard) of a guitar is half a millimeter too thin, the wood may crack along the grain. If the top is half a millimeter too thick, the guitar will not properly resonate.  For a classical guitar soundboard made of Engelmann spruce (the usual material), the ideal thickness is between 1.5 and 2 mm, depending on the width of the woodgrain. However, experienced luthiers typically dome their soundboards, adding thickness (about half a millimeter) around the edges, at the joins, and in the area just around the soundhole (to accommodate an inset, decorative rosette and to compensate for the weakness introduced by cutting the hole).

To measure an object this precisely, one needs good measuring equipment. To measure around the soundhole, one might use a device like this, a Starrett micrometer that sells for about $450:

It probably goes without saying that one doesn’t use an expensive, precision tool like this for a purpose for which it was not designed. You could use it to hammer in frets, but you wouldn’t want to, obviously. It wouldn’t do the job properly, and you would end up destroying both the work and the tool.

But that’s just what Reading teachers and English teachers are now doing, almost universally, when they teach “reading comprehension.” They are applying astonishingly sophisticated tools—the minds of their students—in ways that they were not designed to work, and in the process, they are doing significant damage. To understand why the default method for teaching reading comprehension now being implemented in our classrooms fails, utterly, to work, one has to understand how the internal mechanism for language is designed to operate.

Linguists, since Chomsky, use the phrase Language Acquisition Device, or LAD, to refer to the innate mechanism—hardwired into the human brain—for learning spoken language, including grammar and vocabulary. The parts of the brain that carry out this learning work coordinate with other parts of the brain that do pattern recognition (for decoding) and long-term storage and retrieval of knowledge about the world (for recognizing context and reference) to form the complex mental tool for comprehending texts. Sadly, many English teachers, reading teachers, curriculum coordinators, education professors, test makers, leaders of textbook companies, and bureaucrats and politicians who mandate state testing of reading typically understand almost nothing of how the internal tools for comprehending a text work, for almost to a person, they know very little of contemporary linguistic and cognitive science, and so instead of basing their instruction and assessment on those sciences, they fall back on unexamined folk ideas—established habits of the tribe—and implement instruction and assessment that can most charitably be described as prescientific folk-theory and superstition. The internal tool—the language mechanism of the student brain—is not designed to work in the ways in which “reading comprehension specialists” are asking students to use it. Ironically, the person with the doctorate in Reading Comprehension from an education school is the one most likely to be wedded to prescientific techniques (pedagogy) and materials (curricula and assessments). Such people direct reading instruction in our schools, and the result is predictable: kids who don’t read on their own, typically, for pleasure because they can’t—because for them reading is too difficult to be enjoyable.

The Persistence of the Prescientific

In the past fifty years, we have had dramatic scientific revolutions in both linguistics and in cognitive psychology. We now know a lot about how language and knowledge are acquired and about how people make sense of texts, and almost none of this science has made its way into instructional techniques and materials. A digression on the history of physics will provide an illuminating contrast to the current state of reading instruction.

In their brilliant and accessible little book The Evolution of Physics, Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld describe how Galileo used a thought experiment to overturn the 1700 -year-old Aristotelian notion that objects in motion contain a motive force that is used up until they come to rest. Galileo imagined using oil to make the object travel further. Then he imagined using a perfect oil that would perfectly reduce the friction acting on the object. The result was the idea codified in Newton’s First Law of Motion: objects don’t move until they use up their force; instead, they persevere indefinitely (forever) in uniform motion until they are acted upon by an external force that changes their motion. The Aristotelian notion is entirely intuitive. The Galilean/Newtonian notion is quite counterintuitive. However, the Aristotelian notion is false, and the Galilean/Newtonian one true. Aristotle’s was a prescientific folk theory of motion. It made sense to people, but it was wrong, wrong, wrong, and the development of modern technology and science was not possible until it was overthrown.

Other folk and pseudo-scientific theories of physics and astrophysics have held sway throughout the centuries—the theory that fire is the release, during combustion, of an element called phlogiston; the theory that light propagates as waves in an invisible medium called the ether that fills space; the theory that heavier objects fall faster than light ones do; the theory that the Earth is flat; the theory that the sun travels across the sky; the theory that the Earth is at the center of the universe and that planets revolve around it in epicycles—spheres within spheres. All these notions made sense based on people’s everyday observations and their intuitive thinking about those observations, and all were absolutely wrong.

Now, imagine that you go into a high school in the United States today (in 2016), pick up an introductory physical science text, and find that it teaches the Aristotelian theory of motion, the phlogiston theory of fire, and the waves-through-ether theory of light propagation. Suppose the space science textbook in that school teaches that a flat earth sits at the center of the universe and that planets travel around it in epicycles. You would be shocked, appalled, scandalized. But, of course, this would never happen. Our physics textbooks try to teach elementary contemporary physics.

But walk into almost any K-12 school in the United States today and you will find instructional and assessment techniques and materials that are built upon prescientific, folk theories of grammar, vocabulary acquisition, and reading comprehension that are completely at odds with our contemporary scientific understandings of these. Walk into teacher training institutions and you will find, typically, that the prescientific, folk theories are the ones being taught. Pick up any state or district interim reading assessment, and you will find that they were built on these folk theories.

What Reading Comprehension Involves

In order to read a text with comprehension, one needs to be able to

  1. Interpret automatically (unconsciously and fluidly) the symbols being used (the phonics component of decoding). Note that this crucial precursor for reading comprehension requires that the student be able to recognize, quickly and without effort and, indeed, without conscious rehearsal of the fact that they are doing so, the roughly 42 separate sound-symbol correspondences of written English.
  2. Parse automatically (unconsciously and fluidly) the syntax of the sentences (the grammar component of decoding). Note that this crucial precursor for reading comprehension requires that the student be able to parse, quickly and without effort and, indeed, without conscious rehearsal of the fact that they are doing so, many thousands of syntactic forms.
  3. Interpret the meanings of the words and phrases (based on what they refer to and how they are used in relevant real-world contexts). Note that this crucial element of reading comprehension depends, fundamentally, upon specific world knowledge in the domain that the text treats. A contemporary philosophy text might use words like defeasible, propositional calculus, modal operator, zombie, counterfactual, supervenience, indexicality, and grue, and one will have to know how these words are used in contemporary philosophy and quite a bit about how they are related to one another in order to understand the text at all.
  4. Recognize the kairos, or total context, of the text (its who, what, where, when, why, and how, including its genre, or type, the concerns of its author, and its literary and rhetorical conventions). Note that this crucial element of reading comprehension depends upon prior experience with similar extra-textual elements.

Let’s look at each of these in turn to learn what science now tells us about them and how our reading comprehension instruction goes wrong.

Phonics and Reading Comprehension

This is the one bright spot in our reading instruction, an area where practice has caught up to scientific understanding. However, it’s taken us a while to get there. In the middle of the last century, we were using what is known as the “Look-Say” method for teaching kids to decode texts. This method was enshrined in such curricula as the Dick and Jane readers. The method was based on a now-discredited Behaviorist theory that saw language learning as repeated exposure to increasingly complex language stimuli paired with ostensive objects (in the case of the Dick and Jane readers, with illustrations). See Dick run. Dick runs fast. See, see, how fast Dick runs. The theory of language learning by mere association of the stimulus and its object dates all the way back to St. Augustine, who wrote in his Confessions:

When grown-ups named some object and at the same time turned towards it, I perceived this, and I grasped that the thing was signified by the sound they uttered, since they meant to point it out. . . . In this way, little by little, I learnt to understand what things the words, which I heard uttered in their respective places in various sentences, signified. And once I got my tongue around these signs, I used them to express my wishes.[1]

It’s an intuitive theory, like the theory that moving objects use up their force until they stop, but like that theory, it’s wrong. Look-Say was a flawed approach because it was based on a false theory of how language was acquired. The fullest exposition of that flawed theory can be found in B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior (1957). In 1959, Noam Chomsky, who has done more than anyone to create a true science of language learning, delivered a devastating blow to behaviorist theories of language learning in a seminal review of Skinner’s book.[2] Basically, Chomsky described aspects of language, such as its embedded recursiveness and infinite generativity, that, like jazz improvisation, cannot be explained solely on the basis of responses to stimuli. More about the Chomskian revolution later.

Toward the end of the last century, hundreds of thousands of educators around the country embraced something called “Whole Language instruction.” Proponents argued that it wasn’t necessary to teach kids sound-symbol correspondences because language was learned automatically, in meaningful contexts. The idea was that one simply had to expose kids to meaningful language at their level, and the decoding stuff would take care of itself, in the absence of explicit decoding instruction. Those states and school districts that adopted Whole Language approaches saw their students’ reading scores fall precipitously. Education is given to such fads and to such disastrous results.

A little knowledge of linguistic science would have prevented the debacle that was Whole Language. The best current scientific thinking is that language emerged some 50,000-to-70,000 years ago. For many thousands of years, people learned to use spoken language without explicit instruction. However, writing is a relatively recent phenomenon. It’s been around for only about 5,000 years (It emerged in Mesopotamia around 3,000 BCE, in China around 1,200 BCE, and in Mesoamerica around 600 BCE). Both the Look-Say and Whole Language proponents failed to recognize that spoken language has been around long enough for brains to evolve specific mechanisms for learning it automatically, in the absence of explicit instruction, but that this is not true of writing. There is no evolved, internal mechanism, in the brain, specifically wired for decoding of written language, as there is for spoken language. Instead, decoding of written symbols and associating them with speech sounds requires, usually, explicit instruction. Such decoding appropriates general pattern recognition abilities of the brain and puts them to this particular use. Some few children are good enough at pattern recognition and get enough exposure to sound-symbol correspondences to be able to learn to decode in the absence of explicit instruction in interpretation of those correspondences, but those kids often don’t develop the automaticity needed for truly fluent reading. There is now no question about this: There is voluminous research showing that most students have to be taught phonics (sound-symbol correspondences) explicitly if they are to learn to decode fluently. For excellent reviews of this research, see Diane McGuiness’s Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us about How to Teach Reading. Cambridge, MA: Bradford/MIT P., 2004, and Why Our Children Can’t Read and What We Can Do about It: A Scientific Revolution in Reading. New York: Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, 1999.

The Look-Say advocates got their ideas from simplistic Behaviorist models of learning, but where did the Whole Language people get theirs? Well, from listening at the keyholes of linguists. As often happens in education, professional educators half heard and half understood something being said by scientists and applied it in a crazy fashion. What they half heard was that linguists were saying that language is learned automatically. The part that they missed is that the linguists were talking about spoken language, not written.

The upshot: In order to be able to comprehend texts, there is a prerequisite: automaticity with regard to decoding of sound-symbol correspondences. Where does one get this automaticity? From explicit phonics instruction. This is a lesson that we have learned. The science has caught up with classroom practice, and most elementary schools now use, successfully, an explicit early phonics curriculum. That’s the good news. Now for the rest, which is not so good.

Grammatical Fluency

In the last decade of the twentieth century, the U.S. Department of Education committed billions of dollars to an initiative called Reading First, with the aim of improving reading among schoolchildren nationwide. It’s a mark of how scientifically backward and benighted our professional reading establishment is that when the directors of this program consulted with “experts” and outlined the areas of focus to be addressed by Reading First (and assessed by reading examinations), they included among items to be addressed by the program students’ decoding skills (phonemic awareness and phonics), vocabulary, and comprehension but completely ignored grammatical fluency. However, and this ought to be obvious, written texts consist of sentences that have particular syntactic patterns. If students cannot automatically—that is, fluently and unconsciously—parse the syntactic patterns being used, then they might have some idea what the subject of the text is, but they won’t have a ghost of a chance of understanding what the text is saying. Syntactic complexity is a significant determinant of complexity and readability. Consider the opening two sentences of the Declaration of Independence:

Sentence One:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with one another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare which impel them to the separation.

Sentence Two:

We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness—that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —that whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

These sentences contain a few vocabulary items that might be challenging to young people—impel, endowed, and unalienable—but for the most part, the words used have high frequency and present no great challenge. The most significant stumbling block for comprehension of these sentences is their syntactic complexity. The first sentence consists of a long adverbial clause, beginning with When in the Course and ending with entitle them, that specifies the conditions under which it is necessary to take the action described in a main clause that follows it (a decent respect . . . requires). The second sentence consists of a main clause that introduces a list in the form of five relative clauses, each specifying a truth held to be self evident. Here’s the point: the student who can’t follow the basic syntactic form of these sentences will be completely lost. He or she won’t understand how a given idea in one of these sentences relates to another idea in them (for that is what syntax does; it relates ideas in particular ways). An automatic, fluid grasp of the syntax of a sentence is critical to comprehending what it means. What’s true of complicated sentences like these from the Declaration of Independence is true of sentences in general. One can’t comprehend them if one cannot parse their syntax automatically (quickly and unconsciously). Grammatical competence is one of the keys to decoding, and decoding is a prerequisite for comprehension.

So, are schools today ensuring via their instructional methods and assessments that students are gaining the automatic syntactic fluency necessary for decoding? Well, no. In fact, they are implementing materials based on a folk theory of grammar that predates the current scientific model of language acquisition. Consider, for example, this gem from the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English Language Arts, which provide the outline for current instruction in English and reading. According to the CCSS, an eighth-grade student should be able to

Explain the function of verbals (gerunds, participles, infinitives) in general and their function in particular sentences. (CCSS.ELA-Literacy-L.8.1a).

The other grammar-related “standards” in the CCSS are similar. They all show that at the highest levels in our educational establishment, there is a complete lack of understanding of what science now tells us about how the grammar of a language is acquired. The standard instantiates a prescientific, folk theory of grammar that assumes that it is explicitly acquired and is available for explicit description by someone who knows it (“Explain the function”).

This standard tells us that students are to be instructed in and assessed on the ability a) to explain the function of verbals (gerunds, participles, and infinitives) in general and b) their function in particular sentences. In order for students to be able to do this, they will have to be taught how to identify gerunds, participles, and infinitives and how to explain their functions generally and in particular sentences. In order for the standard to be met, these bits of grammatical taxonomy will have to be explicitly taught and explicitly learned, for the standard requires students to be able to make explicit explanations. Now, there is a difference between having learned an explicit grammatical taxonomy and having acquired competence in using the grammatical forms listed in that taxonomy. The authors of the standard seem not to have understood this.

Let’s think about the kind of activity that this standard envisions our having students do. Identifying the functions of verbals in sentences would require students to be able to do, among other things, something like this:

Underline the gerund phrases in the following sentences and tell whether each is functioning as a subject, direct object, indirect object, object of a preposition, predicate nominative, retained object, subjective complement, objective complement, or appositive of any of these.

That’s what’s entailed by PART of the standard. And since the standard just mentions verbals generally and not any of the many forms that these can take, one doesn’t know whether it covers, for example, infintives used without the infinitive marker “to,” so-called “bare infinitives,” as in “Let there be peace.” (Compare “John wanted there to be peace.”) Obviously, meeting this ONE standard would require YEARS of explicit, formal instruction in syntax, and what contemporary linguistic science teaches us is that all of that instruction would be completely irrelevant to students being able to formulate and comprehend sentences.

Contemporary linguistic science teaches that the grammar of a language is learned not through explicit instruction in grammatical forms but, rather, automatically (fluently and unconsciously) via the operation of an internal mechanism dedicated to such learning. Permit me an example. If you are a native speaker of English, you know that

the green, great dragon

“sounds weird” (e.g., is ungrammatical) and that

the great, green dragon

“sounds fine” (e.g., is grammatical).

That’s because, based on the ambient linguistic environment in which you came of age, you intuited, automatically, without your being aware that you were doing so, a complex set of rules governing the proper syntax of adjectives in a series. No one taught you, explicitly, these rules governing the order of precedence of adjectives in English, and the chances are that you cannot even state the rules that you nonetheless know. And what’s true of this set of rules is true of all but a miniscule portion of the grammar of a language that a speaker “knows”—that he or she can use. Knowledge of grammar is like knowledge of how to walk. It is not conscious knowledge. The walker did not learn to do so by studying the physics of motion and the operation of motor neurons, bones, and muscles. The brain and body are designed in such a way as to do these things automatically. The same is true, contemporary linguistic science teaches us, of the learning of the grammar of a language. Speakers and writers of English follow hundreds of thousands of rules, such as the C-command condition on the binding of anaphors (a key component of the syntax of languages worldwide), that they know nothing about explicitly. Following this rule, they will say that “The president may blame himself” but will never say “Supporters of the president may blame himself,”[3] which violates the rule, even though they were never taught the rule explicitly and could not explain, unless they have had an introductory Syntax course, what the rule is that they have been following all their lives. Since the ground-breaking work by Noam Chomsky in the 1950s, we have over the past sixty years developed a robust scientific model of how the grammar of a language is acquired. It is acquired unconsciously and automatically by an internal language acquisition mechanism.

Like many great thinkers, Chomsky started with a simple question, asking himself how it is possible that most children gain a reasonable degree of mastery over something as complicated as a spoken language. With almost no direct instruction, almost every child learns, within a few years’ time, enough of his or her language to be able to communicate with ease most of what he or she wishes to communicate. This learning seems not to be correlated with the child’s general intelligence and fails to occur only when there is a physical problem with the child’s brain or in conditions of extreme deprivation in which the child has limited exposure to language. If one looks scientifically at what a child knows of his or her language at the age of, say, six or seven, it turns out that that knowledge is extraordinarily complex. Furthermore, almost all of what the child knows has not been directly and explicitly taught. For example, long before going to school and without being taught what direct objects and objects of prepositions are, an English- speaking child understands that the first two sentences, below, “sound right” and that the second two sentences do not.

Jose threw the football.

The football landed in the neighbor’s yard.

* The football threw Jose.

* Landed the football the yard neighbor’s in.

In other words, on some level, the English-speaking child “knows” that objects follow (and do not precede) the verbs and prepositions that govern them, even though he or she has no clue what objects, verbs, and prepositions are. The Japanese child, in contrast, “knows” just as well that in Japanese objects precede (and do not follow) the verbs and prepositions that govern them. So, imagine that the sentences, above, were translated word-by-word into Japanese and that the word order were retained. To a Japanese child, the word order of the first two sentences above would sound quite strange, while the word order of the second two sentences would be unexceptional—just the opposite from English. English is a head first language, in which the head of a grammatical phrase precedes its objects and complements. Japanese is a head-last language, in which the head of a grammatical phrase follows its objects and complements. Kids are not taught this. They are born with part of the grammar (the fact that there are heads, objects, and complements, for example) already hard wired into their heads. Then, based on their ambient linguistic environments, they automatically set certain parameters of the hard-wired internal grammar, such as head position. Children do not learn such rules by being taught them any more than a whale learns to echolocate by attending echolocation classes.

Chomsky’s central insight was that in order for a child to be able to learn a spoken language with such rapidity and thoroughness, that child must be born with large portions of a universal grammar of language already hardwired into his or her head. So, for example, the neural mechanisms that provide for classification of items from the stream of speech into verbs and prepositions and objects, and those mechanisms that allow verbs and prepositions to govern their objects, are inborn. They are part of the equipment with which human children come into the world. Then, when a child hears a particular language, English or Japanese, for example, certain parameters of the inborn language mechanism, such as the position of objects with respect to their governors, are set by a completely unconscious, autonomic process that is itself part of the innate neural machinery for language learning.

Because the learning of a grammar is done automatically and unconsciously by the brain, explicit instruction in grammatical forms of the kind called for by the Common Core State Standard quoted above is irrelevant. And, in fact, such instruction is most likely going to get in the way, much as if one tried to teach a child to walk by making him or her memorize the names of the relevant muscles, nerves, and skeletal structures or tried to teach a baseball player how to hit by teaching him or her calculus to describe the aerodynamics of baseballs in motion. In other words, the national standard is based on a prescientific understanding of how grammar is acquired. This should be a national scandal. It’s as though we had new standards for tactics for the U.S. Navy that warned against the possibility of sailing off the edge of the earth.

To return to the main topic, we have seen, above, that grammatical fluency and automaticity is an essential prerequisite to reading comprehension. So, if such fluency and automaticity is not gained via explicit instruction, how is it to be acquired? The answer is quite simple: The child has to be exposed to an ambient linguistic environment containing increasingly complex syntactic structures so that the language acquisition device in the brain has the material on which to work to put together a model of the language.

So, why do some kids have, early on, a great deal of syntactic competence while other kids do not? The answer should be obvious from the foregoing. Some were raised in syntactically rich linguistic environments, and some were not. In 2003, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley of the University of Kansas published a study showing that students from low-income families were exposed, before the age of three, to 30 million fewer words (to a lot less language) than were students from high-income families, and that the language to which they were exposed was extremely syntactically impoverished.[4]

Shockingly, however, what reading comprehension people commonly do in their classrooms mirrors what happens to kids from impoverished families and is precisely the opposite of what is required by the language acquisition device, or LAD. Instead of providing syntactically complex materials as part of the child’s ambient linguistic environment so that the LAD can “learn” those forms automatically and incorporate them into the child’s working syntax, reading “professionals” intentionally use with children what are known as levelled readers. These intentionally contain short (and thus, usually, syntactically impoverished) sentences that will come out “at grade level” according to simplistic (and simple-minded) “readability formulas” like Lexile and Flesch-Kincaid. The readability formulas used to “level” the texts put before children vary in minor details, but almost all are based on sentence length and word frequency (how frequently the words used in the text occur in some language collection known as a corpus). Shorter sentences are, of course, statistically likely to be syntactically simple. So, as a direct result of the method of text selection, complex syntactic forms are, de facto, banished from textbooks and other reading materials used in reading classes. Teachers go off to education schools to take their master’s degrees and doctorates in reading, where they learn to use such formulas to ensure that reading is “on grade level,” and by using such formulas, they inadvertently deprive kids of precisely the material that they need to be exposed to in order for their LADs to do their work. After years of exposure to nothing but texts that have been intentionally syntactically impoverished, the students have not developed the necessary syntactic fluency for adult reading. When confronted with real-world texts, with their embedded relative and subordinate clauses, verbal phrases, appositives, absolute constructions, correlative constructions, and so on, they can’t make heads or tails of what is being said because the sentences are syntactically opaque. A sentence from the Declaration of Independence, The Scarlet Letter, a legal document, or a technical manual might as well be written in Swahili or Linear B.

What can be done to ensure that students develop syntactic fluency? I am not suggesting that students be given texts too difficult for them to comprehend, obviously. I am saying that they must be given texts that are challenging syntactically—that present them with syntactic forms that they cannot, at their stage of development, parse automatically, for it is only by this means that the innate grammar-learning mechanism can operate to expand the student’s syntactic range. Here are a few techniques: In conversation with students, use syntactically complex language. Present them with texts that are routinely just above their current level of syntactic decoding ability. Have them listen to syntactically complex texts (because syntactic decoding of spoken language outpaces syntactic decoding of written language). Have them memorize passages containing complex syntactic constructions. Have them do sentence combining and sentence expansion exercises. And most of all, as soon as they can begin to do so, with difficulty, have them read real-world materials—novels and essays and nonfiction books that have NOT been leveled but that are high interest enough to repay their effort. That such materials will contain difficult-to-parse constructions is precisely the point. Those are the materials on which the LAD works to acquire internal grammatical competence.


Vocabulary and World Knowledge

So, with regard to the grammatical fluency component of reading comprehension, the state of our pedagogy is abysmal. We have things precisely backward. In the whole language days, we avoided explicit instruction in phonics when it was precisely explicit instruction that was required by the inadequacy of the internal language-learning mechanism with regard to the task of interpreting sound-symbol correspondences. Today, we do explicit instruction in grammar, when the internal language-learning mechanism is set up to learn grammar automatically, without explicit instruction.

Are things any better with regard to the vocabulary component of comprehension? Sadly, no. The most common way in which vocabulary instruction is approached in the United States today is by giving students a list of “difficult” (low-frequency) words taken from a selection. So, for example, a student might be assigned the reading of Chapter 1 of Wuthering Heights and be given this list of words from the chapter:





















Students are then asked to look the words up in the dictionary or in a glossary, define them, write sentences using them, and memorize them for a vocabulary quiz. As with grammar, the preferred approach involves explicit instruction.

Now, the thing that should strike you, in looking at that list, taken, as it is, out of the context of the novel, is that they might as well be words taken at random. The task facing the student is quite similar to memorizing a random list of telephone numbers.

Other commonly used instructional techniques include teaching students to do word analysis by having them memorize Greek and Latin prefixes, suffixes and roots and teaching them to use context clues such as examples, synonyms, antonyms, and definitions.

Again, these instructional approaches fly in the face of the established science of language acquisition. We now know, because linguists have studied this, that almost all of the vocabulary that an adult uses (active vocabulary) and understands (passive vocabulary) is learned unconsciously, without explicit instruction. Far less than one percent of adult vocabulary has been acquired by direct, explicit instruction because direct, explicit instruction is not the means by which vocabulary is acquired. As with grammar, there is a way in which the language-learning mechanism in the brain is set up to learn vocabulary, and that way is not via explicit instruction. So, how do people learn vocabulary? A person takes a painting class at the Y. In the course of the coming weeks, the people around him or her use, in that class, terms like gesso, chiaroscuro, stippling, filbert brush, titanium white, and so on, and, in the absence of explicit instruction, the speaker picks the words up because people’s brains are built to acquire vocabulary automatically in semantic networks in meaningful contexts. Vocabulary is a variety of world knowledge, and like other world knowledge, it is added, incidentally, to the network of knowledge that one has about a context in which it was actually used. For vocabulary to be acquired and retained, it has to be learned in the context of other vocabulary and world-knowledge having to do with a particular domain. Human brains are connection machines. Knowledge is easily acquired and retained if it is connected to existing knowledge. The message for educators is clear: If you want students to learn vocabulary, skip the explicit vocabulary instruction and concentrate, instead, on extended exposure to knowledge in particular domains and enable the students to acquire, in context, the vocabulary native to that domain. The focus has to be on the knowledge domain—on turtles or Egypt or Medieval balladry or whatever—and the vocabulary has to be learned incidentally and in batches of semantically related terms because that is how vocabulary is actually learned. It’s how the brain is set up to learn new words. As it stands now, students are subjected to many, many thousands of hours of explicit instruction in random vocabulary items, with the result that far less than one percent of the vocabulary that they actually learn was acquired by this means. The opportunity cost of this heedless approach is staggering.

My teachers should have ridden with Jesse James

For all the time they stole from me.

–Richard Brautigan

With regard to the vocabulary from Wuthering Heights, teachers are well advised to read with the kids and stop, from time to time, to clarify the meaning of a word in its immediate context but to skip the list and its attendant fruitless pedagogical activities.

Kairos and World Knowledge

Texts exist in context. If someone says, “We need to tie up the loose ends here,” it makes a difference whether the speaker is a macramé instructor or Tony Soprano. Is the statement about pieces of string or about a mob hit? The context matters. Comprehending the sentence—understanding what it means—depends crucially on the context in which it is uttered. The same is true of almost all language.

The ancient Greeks used the term kairos to refer to a speaker’s sensitivity to his or her audience, to the occasion, and to the immediate context of the utterance. I’ll be using it, here, in a slightly expanded sense to refer to all the extra-textual stuff that goes into understanding a text. For years, reading comprehension teachers have been told to begin the reading of a text by “activating their student’s prior knowledge.” Millions of teachers dutifully learned this “strategy” and attempted to apply it in their classrooms even though a moment’s reflection would have revealed it to be completely absurd. If a student already has the relevant background knowledge to understand a text, then it will not need to be “activated.” It will simply be there. And if the student does NOT have the relevant background knowledge, no amount of having students tell what they already know will supply it. That said, and here we have yet another example of educators half hearing what scientists have been saying, cognitive scientists like Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia and the education theorist E.D. Hirsch, Jr., have shown beyond any reasonable doubt that background knowledge—what the writer assumes that the reader already knows—is one of the great keys to reading comprehension. Let’s consider an example. My students’ eleventh-grade literature textbook contains a passage about how Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible in reaction to the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. The passage mentions people being hauled before the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations and being accused of being Communists. It goes on to say that Miller was concerned by the hysteria and guilt-by-association attendant to these hearings and wrote the play to show how the same sort of thing occurred during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Now, if the students reading that do not know the background—what a Communist is; that the United States is a Capitalist country; that Communism and Capitalism are antagonistic; that in the 1950s, the United States was involved in a Cold War with the Communist Soviet Union; that the Soviet Union had vowed to bring down the American system; that certain Senators and Congressmen in the 1950s were concerned about Communist infiltration of the media, the government, and the armed services; what a subcommittee is; what a hearing is; and that the Subcommittee on Investigations attempted to identify Communist sympathizers, then the passage in the text will be meaningless. In short, comprehension depends critically on world knowledge. Without the relevant background knowledge, comprehension cannot occur. A student cannot read Milton or Dante with comprehension if he or she is ignorant of the Bible and won’t comprehend the title of George Bernard Shaw’s play about Professor Higgins and Liza if he or she is ignorant of the Greek myth in which Pygmalion falls in love with a statue. Consider this opaque text from Dylan Thomas:

The twelve triangles of the cherub wind

This impenetrable text becomes crystal clear when one realizes that Thomas is referring to old maps that represented the winds as cherubs whose breath—the winds—inscribed triangles across the maps.[5] One can’t begin to understand Plato’s allegory of the cave without understanding that he was highly influenced by Greek mathematics, recognized that perfect forms (like a point or a perfect triangle) did not exist in the world but did exist in the mind, used a single word (psyche) for both mind and spirit, and thus thought of anything perfect (and thus, he thought, good) as existing in a separate, spiritual plane that could be accessed through mental/spiritual activity. One has to have a lot of information about the background—the concepts available to Plato and what he was concerned with—to make any sense at all of his bizarre little story. Domains of knowledge, from auto mechanics to the growing of orchids to theodicy and dirigible driving all have their associated vocabulary—not just jargon but words and phrases that appear with particular frequency and particular meaning within them. And knowledge of this vocabulary is not a matter of possession of a bunch of definitions taken in the abstract but, rather, possession of an understanding of how those words and phrases are used and in what contexts within the relevant domain. Life coaches and physicists use the word potential in related but distinct ways and about different objects. Understanding what is meant by the word, in a text, requires, in addition to knowledge of its definition, knowledge of how it is used in the subset of the world that is the knowledge domain of the text. Furthermore, the ability to use a term actively involves mastering not only its definition but also its inflected and derivative forms, something that is learned not through explicit, rote study but through use in context. A student hasn’t really learned the word imply unless he or she can properly use such inflected forms as implying, implied, and implies as well as such derivative forms as implication, and one learns those forms, really learns them, only through repeated use in a context. Simply memorizing the definition for a test is a recipe for forgetting.

A Summary of the Prerequisites for Reading Comprehension

Decoding ability—phonics and grammatical fluency—are, of course, prerequisites to comprehension. They must be mastered before comprehension is possible. The same is true of domain-specific world knowledge—knowledge about Communists, the Bible, Greek myths, old maps, geometrical forms, or whatever it is that the author is taking for granted that the reader knows, including the vocabulary used in that context, or domain. E.D. Hirsch, Jr., has written eloquently and persuasively on precisely this subject in numerous works, including The Schools We Need and The Knowledge Deficit. (See also Reading Instruction: The Two Keys, by University of Virginia English professor Matthew Davis.) The reader is referred to those works for further information. Suffice it to say that the teacher must ensure that students have the relevant background knowledge, including domain-specific vocabulary, to understand what they are being asked to read and that instruction should be focused on extended time spent in particular knowledge domains so that students can build the bodies of knowledge that they need for comprehending texts in the future. New knowledge needs a hook to hang on. That hook is other knowledge in the relevant knowledge domain.

That ought to be obvious. However, today, reading instruction has devolved into isolated practice of “comprehension strategies” using short texts taken absolutely at random—a snippet of text here on invasive species, a snippet of text there on Harriet Tubman. But brains are built to acquire knowledge in connected networks, and the hundreds of thousands of hours spent doing this practice of strategies applied to random, isolated texts is time completely wasted. More about that later.

So, knowledge is essential to comprehension. But there are other extra-textual matters—other parts of the overall kairos of the text—that are also essential. Among these are genre and a whole raft of conventions of usage—idioms, transitional devices and turns, figures of speech, rhetorical techniques, manuscript formatting, and so on. So, for example, comprehending a text by Sir Phillip Sidney or one of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence may require knowledge of the conventions of the genre of pastoral—that lambs represent innocence, that shepherds are uncorrupted by city life, that spring represents youth and rebirth, and so on. The semantic component of language is highly conventional. Understanding a poem often requires familiarity with conventional symbol systems like that which relates the cycles of the seasons to the life cycle (spring/youth, summer/maturity, autumn/age, winter/death). One has to know the convention, or one is lost.

Given all this, one would expect that reading comprehension instructors were devoting their time to a) ensuring that students have automaticity in phonetic and grammatical decoding, building vocabulary and world knowledge through extended work in critical knowledge domains, and acquainting students with the conventions of various genres and the primary literary and rhetorical conventions. After all, that’s what reading comprehension requires. But if you made such an assumption, you would be wrong. What reading comprehension teachers are doing, instead, is spending their time teaching “reading strategies.”


The Devolution of Reading Comprehension Instruction and Assessment

Back in 1984, Palinscar and Brown wrote a highly influential paper about something they called “reciprocal learning.”[6] They suggested, in that paper, that teachers conducting reading circles encourage dialogue about texts by having students do prediction, ask questions, clarify the text, and summarize. Excellent advice. But this little paper had an enormously detrimental unintended effect on the professional education community. All groups are naturally protective of their own turf. The paper by Palinscar and Brown had handed the professional education community a definition of their turf: You see, we do, after all, have a unique, respectable, scientific field of our own that justifies our existence—we are the keepers of “strategies” for learning. The reading community, in particular, embraced this notion wholeheartedly. Reading comprehension instruction became MOSTLY about teaching reading strategies, and an industry for identifying reading strategies and teaching those emerged. The vast, complex field of reading comprehension was narrowed to a few precepts: teach kids

to identify the main idea and supporting details,

to identify sequences,

to identify cause and effect relationships,

to make predictions,

to make inferences,

to use context clues,

to identify text elements.

In the real world, outside school, a strategy is a broad approach to accomplishing a goal. In EdSpeak, weirdly, a strategy is any particular thing, whatsoever, that one might do to advance toward a goal (what in the real world would be called a tactic). It’s typical of people in education to use words imprecisely, like this—to borrow a term and then use it improperly. Consider the term benchmark. In the real world, a benchmark is a standard reflecting the highest performance in a given industry. So, for example, the highest read-write time for a disc drive achieved by any manufacturer is a benchmark, or goal, for other disc drive manufacturers to meet. In education, a benchmark is any sort of interim evaluation. Educators confused the goal (the benchmark) with the method of evaluating achievement of the goal. Education schools are bastions of such sloppy thinking—confusion of means and ends, misapplication of concepts, and so on.

Throughout American K-12 education, in the late 1980s, we started seeing curriculum materials organized around teaching some variant of the list of “reading comprehension strategies” given above. Where before a student might do a lesson on reading Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” he or she would now do a lesson on Making Predictions, and any random snippet of text that contained some examples of predictions, as long as it was “on grade level,” would be a worthy object of study.

One problem with working at such a high level of abstraction—of having our lessons be about, say, “making inferences,” is that the abstraction reifies, it hypostatizes. It combines apples and shoelaces and football teams under a single term and creates a false belief that some particular thing—not an enormous range of disparate phenomena—is referred to by the abstraction. In the years after Palinscar and Brown’s paper, educational publishers produced hundreds of thousands of lessons on “Making Inferences,” and one can look through all of them, in vain, for any sign of awareness on the part of the lessons’ creators that inference is enormously varied and that “making proper inferences” involves an enormous amount of learning that is specific to inferences of different kinds. There are, in fact, whole sciences devoted to the various types of inference—deduction, induction, and abduction—and whole sciences devoted to specific problems within each. The question of how to “make an inference” is extraordinarily complex, and a great deal human attention has been given to it over the centuries, and a quick glance at any of the hundreds of thousands of Making Inferences lessons in our textbooks and in papers about reading strategies by education professors will reveal that almost nothing of what is actually known about this subject has found its way into our instruction. If professional educators were really interested in teaching their students how to “make inferences,” then they would, themselves, take the trouble to learn some propositional and predicate logic so that they would understand what deductive inference is about. They would have taken the trouble to learn some basic probability and techniques for hypothesis testing so that they would understand the tools of inductive and abductive inference. But they haven’t done this because it’s difficult, and so, when they write their papers and create their lessons about “making inferences,” they are doing this in blissful ignorance of what making inferences really means and, importantly, of the key concepts that would be useful for students to know about making inferences that are reasonable. This is but one example of how, over the past few decades, a façade, a veneer of scientific respectability has been erected in the field of “English language arts” that has precious little real value.

I bring up the issue of instruction in making inferences in order to make a more general point—the professional education establishment, and especially that part of it that concerns itself with English language arts and reading instruction, has retreated into dealing in poorly conceived generalization and abstraction. Reading comprehension instruction, in particular, has DEVOLVED into the teaching of reading strategies, and those strategies are not much more than puffery and vagueness. To borrow Gertrude Stein’s phrase, is no there there. No kid walks away from his or her Making Inferences lesson with any substantive learning, with any world knowledge or concept or set of procedures that can actually be applied in order to determine what kind of inference a particular one is and whether that inference is reasonable. A kid does not learn, for example, that some approaches to making inductive inferences include looking at historical frequency, analyzing propensities, making systematic observations and tallies, calculating the probabilities, conducting a A/B split survey, holding a focus group, and performing a Gedankenexperiment or an actual experiment involving a control group and an experimental group. Why? Because one has to learn and teach a lot of complex material in order to do these things at all, and professional education folks have decided, oddly, that they can teach making inferences without, themselves, learning about what kinds of inferences there are, how one can make them rationally, and how one evaluates the various kinds.

Though reading comprehension instruction has now almost completely devolved into the teaching of “reading comprehension strategies,” those strategies do not, themselves, hold up to close inspection. They all exemplify a fundamental kind of error that philosophers call a “category error”–a mistaken belief that one kind of thing is like and so belongs in the same category as some completely different kind of thing. Reading comprehension “specialists” now speak of “learning comprehension strategies,” as though recognizing the main idea, making inferences, and so on, were discrete, monolithic, invariant skills that one can learn, akin to learning how to sew on a button or learning how to carry a number when adding, but the “reading comprehension strategies” are nothing like that. Being able to identify the main idea of a given piece of prose, poetry, or drama is NOT a general, universally applicable procedural skill like being able to carry out the standard algorithm for multiplying multi-digit numbers, and placing them into the same category (“skill”) is an example of the logical fallacy known as a category error.

When you see a list of the skills to be tested for math and the skills to be tested in ELA–that is, when you look at a list of “standards”–it’s important that you understand that there are very, very different KINDS of thing on those lists, the one for math and the one for English. These are not only as different as are apples and oranges, they are as different as an apple is from a hope for the future or the pattern of freckles on Socrates’s forehead or the square root of negative one. They are different sorts of thing ALTOGETHER because the math skills are discrete, monolithic, and invariant, and those “reading strategies” are not.

Let me illustrate the point about “the main idea.”

What is the main idea of the following?

The ready to hand is encountered within the world. The Being of this entity, readiness to hand, thus stands in some ontological relationship toward the world and toward worldhood. In anything ready-to-hand, the world is always ‘there.’ Whenever we encounter anything, the world has already been previously discovered, though not thematically.[7]

Now, note that this passage would have a pretty low Lexile level. It doesn’t contain a lot of difficult (long, complicated, low-frequency) words, and the difficult words (ontological, ready-to-hand, thematically) can be explained. It doesn’t contain long or syntactically complicated sentences. But the chances are good that unless you are familiar with continental philosophy, you will have NO CLUE WHATSOEVER what this passage is saying. In order for you to understand the main idea of this passage, you would need, at a minimum, an introduction to the philosophical problems that Heidegger is addressing in the passage. In other words, you would have to have a lot of world knowledge about continental philosophy. Otherwise, the passage will be impenetrable to you. No general “finding-the-main-idea skill” will help you to make sense of the passage.

Now, what is the main idea of the following?

One of the limits of reality
Presents itself in Oley when they hay,
Baked through long days, is piled in mows. It is
A land too ripe for enigmas, too serene.
There the distant fails the clairvoyant eye.

Things stop in that direction and since they stop
The direction stops and we accept what is
As good. The utmost must be good and is
And is our fortune and honey hived in the trees
And mingling of colors at a festival.[8]

Again, the language is not that difficult. One can easily define the less frequent words–enigmas, serene, clairvoyant, and utmost. But that’s not going to help you figure out what the “main idea” here is. For that, the royal road is an introduction to the kinds of concerns that Wallace Stevens took up in his poetry. If you know from his other work that Stevens wrote, time and time again, about the failure of our abstractions to account for the concrete facts of the world and about our tendency to live in our abstractions rather than in the real world, if you know that Stevens was distrustful of abstractions of all kinds—religious, political, philosophical, and so on, then the passage will make sense to you. If you don’t, well, good luck.

Now, notice that what is involved in figuring out the main idea of each of these passages is entirely different. Oh, sure, there are similarities between the passages. Both are passages in English. Both deal with a philosophical idea. Actually, they both deal with the same philosophical idea. But in the one case, to grasp the main idea, you have to be familiar with a lot of Continental philosophy and with the kinds of problems that such philosophy addresses. In the other, you need to be able to recognize that Stevens is revisiting what is, for him, a recurring theme.

This is the key point: there is no one procedure–no one finding the main idea procedure–that I can teach you that will enable to you to determine what each passage, and any other passage taken at random from a piece of writing, means.

In other words, no instruction in some general finding-the-main-idea skill is going to help you, usually, to find the main idea. There’s a reason for that: THERE IS NO “general finding the main idea skill.” That such a thing exists is an UTTER FICTION. The “general finding-the-main-idea skill” is as fictional as one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fairies.

Finding the main idea is context dependent in a way that adding multi-digit numbers isn’t. It makes no difference whether you are adding 462 and 23 or 1842 and 748, you are going to follow the same procedure and draw upon the same class of facts. Not so with “finding the main idea.” There is no magical procedure for main idea finding that applies to all texts and scoots around the necessity of engaging with a particular text—decoding it, parsing it, applying world knowledge to understanding it, recognizing its context and conventions, and then generalizing about it or recognizing that some statement within it encapsulates that idea. Sure, occasionally one will encounter, in the real world, a puerile piece of writing of the five-paragraph theme variety that states its main idea in an introduction or conclusion. One can teach students, for a few limited types of texts, to do that. But most texts in the real world contain no such idea readily identifiable using a particular procedure. Hedda Gabler contains no thesis statement. Neither does the Gettysburg Address or The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Determining what the main idea of each text is a tall order and requires, for each, a unique procedure. Schooling in reading comprehension should teach kids to make sense of real-world writing, and writing in the real world does not take the form of five-paragraph themes with the main idea neatly tucked in at the conclusion of the introductory paragraph. And as long as we continue cooking up pieces of fake writing for use in exercises on finding the main idea in those, we are perpetuating a myth.

And, of course, attempting to test for possession of this mythical general finding-the-main-idea faculty that is being magically transmitted to students via “reading comprehension instruction” is like requiring people to bag and bring home any other sort of mythical entity–a unicorn, Pegasus, or the golden apples from the tree at the edge of the world.

Now, how is it that people have come to believe that there is exists a “general finding-the-main-idea skill”? Well, they have committed a category error. They’ve made the mistake of thinking that figuring out what’s happening in a piece of poetry or prose is a discrete, specific, universally applicable general skill like the ability to carry out the algorithm for adding multi-digit numbers.

It’s not.

And, of course, since there exists no “general finding-the-main-idea skill,” there can exist no valid test of general finding-the-main-idea skill. The tests, like the curricula, have to be cooked to contain passages that work with the formula that the reading comprehension teachers teach—look for the thesis statement in the introduction and in the conclusion or the topic sentence in the paragraph.  For brevity, let’s look at just the latter.

In 1866, Alexander Bain published his English Composition and Rhetoric: a Manual,[9] the great grandfather of the writing textbooks of today. It was Bain who first characterized the paragraph as school texts have ever since, as a group of sentences related to or supporting a single topic sentence and characterized by unity and coherence. Here we have a classic categorical definition. The set of paragraphs has these essential, or defining, characteristics:


  • Possession of a topic sentence
  • Possession of a number of sentences related to or supporting the topic sentence
  • Unity
  • Coherence

Building on this definition, a school text might provide the following heuristic for writing a paragraph: “State a general idea. Then back it up with specific details (or examples or instances). Make sure not to include any unrelated ideas, and make sure to make the connections among your ideas clear by using transitions.”


Of course, individual paragraphs in the real world simply do not fit the standard textbook definition, though that definition has been repeated with only minor variation ever since Bain. Most pieces of writing and, ipso facto, most paragraphs, are narrative, and rarely does a narrative paragraph have a topic sentence. Narrative paragraphs are typically just one darned thing after another. Two of the most common types of paragraphs, those that make up newspaper articles and those that present dialogue in stories, typically contain only one or two sentences, and a paragraph in dialogue can be as short as a grunt or an exhalation. And, of course, it makes little sense to speak of a sentence or fragment as being unified or coherent in the senses in which those terms are usually used when describing paragraphs. Of all the types of writing that exist, only nonfiction academic prose contains paragraphs that frequently contain topic sentences, and in such prose, only about half the paragraphs do.[10]


The fact is that the traditional schoolroom definition of a paragraph describes the fairly rare case in which a single general main idea is illustrated by specifics. Of course, few paragraphs in the real world work that way. Throw a dart at a page in Harper’s magazine. You will not hit a Bain-style paragraph. There are many, many other ways to put several sentences together sensibly. The narrative way is the simplest: Present one darned thing after another. But one can also write quite an effective paragraph that, for example, consists of a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis; such a paragraph comes to a conclusion but has no overall main idea in any reasonable sense of the term “main idea.” Many well-crafted nonnarrative paragraphs depart radically from the schoolbook model, having no overall, paragraph-level organizational scheme but, rather, only a part-by-part organization in which each sentence is connected to the one before it and to the one after it in any of a myriad ways. In such cases, the writer often begins a new paragraph only because he or she has run out one head of steam. Whew! The study of these part-by-part connections that hold ideas together is sometimes referred to as discourse analysis.
Because of the variety of that exists in paragraphs in real-world writing, no general finding-the-main-idea skill for paragraphs exists. The same is true for other kinds of writing—for poems, essays, memoirs, oral histories, plays, technical manuals, nonfiction books, sermons, and so on. Writing is too various, and the reading comprehension strategy is far, far too specific, akin to determining whether a given entity is a human being by asking if his or her name is Bob.

Teachers would be disabused of their notion that paragraphs typically contain topic sentences that state “the main idea” if they actually studied paragraphs in the wild, as linguists sometimes do.

That there exists no general, universally or even often applicable finding-the-main-idea skill does not mean, of course, that there don’t exist some passages, in written works, that have main ideas and some subset of those in which the main ideas are stated explicitly. But it does mean that there is no essential characteristic that all main ideas or passages or paragraphs that have main ideas have and that there is no general ability to find main ideas, the possession of which can be tested for reliably across all texts at grade level. One has to be an educator, living in a world of cooked, formulaic, schoolroom writing, to believe in such a mythical entity.

Again, treating basic mathematics and ELA as though they were the same sort of thing, with skills that can be similarly enumerated and tested, is a fundamental mistake of the kind that philosophers call a category error. Worse yet, it’s a fundamental category error on which our lists of standards, our summative standardized tests, and our district-level interim standardized tests in ELA are all based!

Correcting this error would mean completely redoing what we are doing in a way that operationalizes our very vague, ill-formulated notions like “finding the mean idea” or “making inferences/drawing conclusions.” But operationalizing them would be impossible because no general set of operations can be delineated.

But that’s not the biggest problem with the reading comprehension strategies approach to teaching reading. As we saw above, comprehending a text requires being able to decode its symbols (phonics); being able, automatically and fluently, to parse its syntax; having knowledge of the vocabulary in the text and of the referents and uses of that vocabulary in specific, real-world knowledge domains; having the requisite background knowledge assumed by the author; and being familiar with the broad range of extra-textual, contextual determinants of meaning that include conventions of genre, particular interests and concerns that the author had, the occasion and audience to which the text responds, and idiomatic, figurative, and rhetorical usages. Ignoring all these in order to teach “reading comprehension strategies,” day in and day out, is like teaching a class in sailing that concentrates, entirely, on methods for polishing the bright work and folding the sails. The important stuff isn’t even dealt with.

The current standards-and-testing regime has acerbated this problem, for the new standards consist almost entirely of vaguely conceived abstractions like the so-called “reading strategies.” Our students spend their days doing test practice questions based on isolated, random snippets of text and applying vaguely conceived strategies to answer those questions, and the real determinants of reading comprehension are not addressed. The opportunity cost of all this is, of course, quite high—our students fail to learn to read well because the actual determinants of comprehension have not, in their education, been addressed. There is no magic bullet—no list of strategies and standards to be mastered via practice exercises—that will substitute for learning to decode; internalizing a robust, sophisticated grammar; acquiring specific domain knowledge; becoming familiar with text conventions; and reading a lot of whole texts—the actual determinants of the ability to comprehend what one reads.

What Reading Comprehension Instruction and Astrology Have in Common

Permit me another analogy. Before there was science, there was magic. Astrology preceded astronomy. The problem with astrology, of course, is that it had no causal mechanism. It was absolutely prescientific. Current approaches to reading comprehension instruction are just like that. Both are performed in ignorance of what science teaches us about causal mechanisms, in the one case with regard to the stars and to determinants of human personality and fortunes, in the other with regard to how children acquire the ability to comprehend texts. We now have actual sciences dealing with human personality and fortunes—psychology and economics. We also have actual sciences dealing with how people learn to comprehend language—linguistics and cognitive science. These last two sciences have taught us a lot about how kids actually learn to make sense of language, and one day, perhaps, our reading teachers, curriculum designers, test designers, and policy makers will learn some of what science has taught us, in the past sixty years, about language. Until then, we shall be in the Dark Ages and might as well replace our classwork—all those practice exercises on reading comprehension skills–with drawing sigils and muttering magical incantations.

[1] Augustine, Confessions. Quoted in Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. 4th ed. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. This reference to Augustine’s view is a standard feature in a lot of introductory linguistics texts and courses.

[2] Chomsky, Noam. “Verbal Behavior. By B.F. Skinner.” Language (1959) 35:26-58.

[3] The examples are from Radford, Andrew. Minimalist Syntax. New York: Cambridge U.P., 2004.

[4] Hart, Betty, and Todd R. Riseley, “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3.” American Educator, Spring 2003, 4-9.

[5] I do not remember what study of Thomas’s work I took this example from. If a reader can enlighten me, I would greatly appreciate this.

[6] Palincsar, A. S., and A.L Brown. “Reciprocal Teaching of Comprehension-Fostering and Comprehension-Monitoring Activities. Cognition and Instruction (1984). 1:2, 117-175.

[7] Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper, 2008. P. 114.

[8] Stevens, Wallace. “Credences of Summer,” in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Knopf, 1982, P. 372.

[9] Bain, Alexander. English Composition and Rhetoric: A Manual. New York: Appleton, 1866.

[10] See McCarthy, et al. “Identifying Topic Sentencehood. Behavior Research and Methods. 40: 647-664 and Popken, R. I. A Study of Topic Sentence Use in Academic Writing. Written Communication 4: 209-228.

Posted in Ed Reform, Teaching Literature and Writing | 7 Comments

Teaching Metaphor (with Comments on Developing Curricula in the Age of the Thought Police)


“The drive toward the formation of metaphors is the fundamental human drive, which one cannot for a single instant dispense with in thought, for one would thereby dispense with man himself.”

–Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” (1873)

One of the nasty, generally unremarked features of the new national “standards” in ELA, and of the state “standards” that preceded them, is that they draw boundaries within the vast design space of possible curricula and pedagogy and say, “What is within these boundaries you may teach, and what is outside you may not.” And in so doing, they rule out almost all the good stuff–great existing material, or curricula, and approaches, or pedagogy, incompatible with someone’s (e.g., Lord Coleman’s) list. And, more importantly, they preclude all material and approaches that might be developed in the future that happen to be incompatible with that list.

I will give a single example to illustrate the general principle, but one could do the same for most of the other “standards” on the bullet list.

At several grade levels in the CC$$ for ELA, there is a literature standard that reads, in part, that the student is to be able to explain “how figurative language affects mood and tone.”

Now, given a topic as rich as figurative language is, doesn’t that “standard” strike you as oddly constricted, or narrow, and even immature? It does me. Why effects of figurative language “on mood and tone” in particular? Why should we be having students think and write about effects of figurative language on the mood and tone of selection after selection in lesson after interminable lesson, year after year? Why not treat any of the thousands of other topics we might consider under the general heading of figurative language?

As an alternative to that “standard,” let’s consider just one topic related to one variety of figurative language. The variety we shall consider is metaphor, and the topic is conceptual framing.

Thinkers as diverse as Emerson, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Borges, Sapir, Whorf, Burke, Hirsch, Derrida, Lakoff, and Kovecses (one could list many others) have all written, to various ends, about how metaphor is one of the fundamental means by which we understand the world. Our ways of conceptualizing the world are to a large extent metaphorical. Language is absolutely shot through with metaphor. And most of the metaphors we use we use unconsciously. They are sometimes called “dead” metaphors.

If you think carefully about the last four sentences of this essay, you will discover that they are heavily (that’s a metaphor) dependent (that’s another) upon metaphorical conceptual framing. The word Let’s depends upon a conceptual frame of a coming together of you, the reader, and me, the writer–a frame that equates consideration of a topic with physical meeting. Topic, of course, comes from the Greek topos, or “place.” Another metaphor. The word ends employs a conceptual frame in which a process of thought is treated as a journey or as a physical object with a beginning part, a middle part, and an end part. The word figurative belongs to a large class of metaphors that describe statements and thoughts as shapes (e.g., “The argument centered on Eliot’s last poems”).  The words fundamental and understand relate to a conceptual framing of ideas as parts of structures–ground on which to stand or overarching shelter. The metaphorical frame of shot through is clear enough: ideas are projectiles. And conceptual framing and dead metaphor are, of course, examples of themselves. The phrases are self-describing. They apply to themselves. In the argot of analytical philosophers, they are autological terms.

Emerson, in the essay “Language,” Chapter 4 of his book Nature (1836), makes the claim that all abstract thinking has its roots in the concrete, is at root metaphorical. He gives the examples of the word right, as in “the right way,” having the literal meaning of being on a straight path, of spirit being derived from wind, and transgression being derived from crossing a line. So common is such metaphorical conceptual framing that Nietzsche, in his  influential, in-your-face early essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” (1873), speaks disparagingly of such unexamined use of such inherited, “prefab” metaphorical concept frames as the essential, or defining, human activity! Heidegger, in the essay “Building Dwelling Thinking” (1951) derives I am from dwelling on Earth, making our  expression of our very existence metaphorical in origin:

“Bauen originally means to dwell. Where the word bauen still speaks in its original sense it also says how far the essence of dwelling reaches. That is, bauen, buan, bhu, beo are our word bin in the versions: ich bin, I am, du bist, you are, the imperative form bis, be. What then does ich bin mean? The old word bauen, to which the bin belongs, answers: ich bin, du bist mean I dwell, you dwell. The way in which you are and I am, the manner in which we humans are on the earth, is buan, dwelling. To be a human being means to be on the earth as a mortal. It means to dwell.”

Heidegger’s etymologies are much disputed, but the wisdom of his general approach is indisputable.

Lakoff and Kovecses have created extensive but by no means exhaustive catalogs of metaphorical conceptual frames.

Example: debate = war:

He won the argument.
Your claims are indefensible.
He shot down all my arguments.
Her criticisms were right on target.
If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.

Example: achievement = harvesting:

She reaped her rewards.
What a plum job!
By your fruits you will be known.
That market is ripe for the picking.

In short, metaphor does a lot of heavy lifting in our language and thought, and limiting ourselves, as teachers, to having students explain, year after year, for selection after selection, how the use of figurative language affects mood and tone is like reducing the study of the Civil War to consideration of the relative sizes of Union and Rebel cannonballs.

Suppose that a curriculum developer were to suggest to an educational publisher, today, that there should be, in a tenth-grade literature program, a unit or a part of a unit dealing with

  • common metaphorical frames in literature (cycles of seasons = the life cycle; a journey = learning, personal change);
  • how metaphors work, structurally (their parts and their mapping to the world);
  • how they shape thought, and the extent to which they do (note: we must reject any contention that metaphor renders certain perceptions or conceptions necessary or impossible–any strong version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis; but a weak version certainly holds, often with dramatic effect–consider the egregious metaphor of “the little woman” used by U.S. husbands in the 1950s to refer to their wives);
  • how most metaphors are dead ones–are unconsciously employed, unexamined, common linguistic inheritances; and
  • how dead metaphors that constrain thought within preconceived patterns often have to be unlearned if progress in thinking is to be made (consider, for example, how the bad metaphor of “using up energy and becoming tired during work” shaped Aristotelian mechanics and had to unlearned by Galileo and Newton).

Such a unit on metaphor as conceptual framing–often inherited, unexamined, culture-shaping conceptual framing–could be extraordinarily valuable and interesting. It could give kids tools of ENORMOUS POWER that even many professional writers and critics don’t have. And those tools would have applicability far, far beyond the classroom. Critique of conceptual framing (itself a metaphor, remember) is a powerful (another metaphor) lever (yet another) for thinking generally. Dan Dennett has suggested that use of such heuristics, such levers, such intuition pumps, as he calls them, likely accounts for the Flynn Effect–the remarkable average continuous increase in IQ over the past century. Dennett’s casual observation should be taken very seriously, I think, by educators–such is the fertility of his mind.

Suppose that I suggested to a K-12 educational publisher, today, that we do a unit on metaphor as conceptual framing, or even a single lesson or “special feature” (in the argot of the educational publishing trade), on the topic. Here’s what the publisher would tell me: “No. You can’t do that. The ‘standards’ [sic] say that you must concentrate on how figurative language affects mood or tone in literary works.”

In comparison, of course, the “higher standard” is, well, not higher (note the metaphor: correct is up/false is down). The “higher standard” is hackneyed and obvious and something teachers have done pretty much unthinkingly for eons, and it’s a LOT LESS interesting and powerful and important than is the alternative (or addition) that I’ve recommended. What we are told to concentrate on in the standards reads, to me, like what might be suggested by an amateur who really doesn’t know much about figurative language and how it works.

And so it is with standard after standard. We find in these “higher standards,” again and again, received, hackneyed notions. Even worse, the mediocre, the common, pushes out the uncommon and valuable: exciting alternatives are, a priori, ruled out. They are not important. They will not be on the test.

Obviously, the alternative that I outlined above is just one of many possible approaches that one could take to this one topic from this one “standard”–one of many ruled out because we have been told that we must do what the “standard” says and not any of a thousand other things that never occurred to Lord Coleman.

Of course, a unit on metaphor as conceptual framing would be in line with the state of the art of research into the cognitive science of thinking and language. Such conceptual framing is fundamental to the thinking via natural prototypes (as opposed to Aristotelian natural kinds) that we actually do. And being aware of what we do, there, is extremely powerful and enriching, to one’s reading, one’s writing, and one’s thinking generally. Knowing about conceptual frames facilitates unlearning, which is the most powerful kind of learning there is.

But no. As an author of curricula for K-12 students, I am not allowed to think about such  matters now. Lord Coleman has done my thinking for me and for all of us, and we shall have new thinking when the CCSSO reconvenes its Politburo  in five years or so to issue its next bullet list. If we want changes in these “standards,” we shall have to await future orders from the Commoners’ Core Curriculum Commissariat and Ministry of Truth, appointed (by divine right?) the “deciders” for the rest of us.

And so it is by such means as I have described above that these “standards” typically limit the possibilities for pedagogical and curricular innovation. We are to limit ourselves to the backward, received, unimaginative, uninformed, often prescientific ideas of the Philistines who put together these “standards” based on the lowest-common-denominator groupthink of the previously existing state “standards.”

I’m not happy about that. Could you tell? How did my use of figurative language in this piece affect my tone and your mood?

And who cares? Wouldn’t you much rather engage what I had to say? to agree or disagree and tell me why?

I thought so.


P.S. If you wish to respond to this piece, please make sure that your response is a five-paragraph theme on how my use of figurative language in the piece affects its tone or mood, and please give at least three pieces of evidence from the piece to substantiate your claims. Do not under any circumstances address what I had to say. That would be outside the parameters for response that I have set here.

See what I mean? The Coleman approach leads to completely unnatural, inauthentic Instawriting, InstaReading, and InstaThinking instead of actual, normal engagement with texts–with what writers actually have to say. But precisely the sort of directions I just gave for your response are being repeated in text after text after text, on test after test after test, because of the CC$$ in ELA. And if that’s not completely screwy (another metaphor), I don’t know what is.

Illustration and text copyright 2014, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved. These may be distributed freely as long as the text is kept entire and is not edited and this copyright notice is retained on all copies.

Posted in Ed Reform, Teaching Literature and Writing, Uncategorized | 16 Comments