Saturday, January 12, 2008

WRITTEN WORD 57 - Debating and Writing VI - "1… 2… 3…"

In debating, the judges were always making notes, making sure you were consistent, making sure that you not only had good points of your own that you could back up but also that you could ably handle all points made by your opponents. When I got up to speak - whether in an Anglophile prep school or before a Rotary Club or in a bare bones rural high school - I would begin by introducing what I was going to say. I would list the items, saying that now I am going to say "1... 2... 3..." Then I would go through each item, "1... 2... 3..." – bringing in statistics and a few quotes – which I would get from my frequently updated card file of quotes and statistics that I had on hand for any eventuality. My newly baritone-base voice would soar as I went along. Then at the end I would note, calmly if triumphantly, that I had thoroughly taken care of "1... 2... 3..."

I was exalting logic, linear thinking, deductive reasoning, and leaving no room for induction, intuition, unfolding. I was, though I did not know it at the time, right in the tradition that began with the art-hating Greek philosophers and still dominates in the Western academic world.

There were some glorious moments in my young days in New Hampshire when I used debating to get out the box in which family and school had placed me. But I suspected it was not glorious to knock the life out of important subjects - this way of approaching a subject so that there would be no loose ends, no room for the opposing side to breathe, no way out.

Whatever the subject under debate, it was no longer a living subject that could grow and take surprising directions. I had successfully contained it. "1... 2... 3..." And so I would return to my boarding school with our latest trophy – topped by another bronze woman, holding high a laurel wreath, this naked bronze girl who would tower over the little sports trophies in the school's trophy case.

Meanwhile I got my top grades by excelling in writing answers to essay exam questions and in doing term papers that followed the debate formula. An introduction saying I will say "1... 2... 3..." Then the body of the work in which I say "1... 2... 3..." And then the conclusion in which I say I have said "1... 2... 3..."

Many years later when I was teaching, to my surprise, a college course, English 101, inside a northern Catskills high school, this old "1... 2... 3..." stuff was just what a hectoring high school principal and a pompous English Department chairman tried in vain to get me to have students do over and over again – those old straight-jacketed research papers that are so honored in academe. I found with these students, who seemed to me much brighter than the principal or the chairman, what I had found with myself so many years back when I was a big debater. I found that with these kids in the Catskills, as it had been with me way back in New Hampshire, it was easy to do winning papers and exam essays if you were ready to falsify something complicated by giving the illusion of wrapping it up neatly. And I found they craved much more.So I got out of the way of what the really wanted and need to write.

That principal and that English chairman told me in memos how important it was to falsify as preparation for college. This was another sad truth, and made me remember how deadly, and easy, college writing had been. For I had found at college that if I was uninterested in a class – as I usually was - I could still figure out what was wanted and scrape by with winning logic, even when unprepared - a little like the way I did it when I was winning debates whether or not I believed in the side I was taking. And very much like my last year in boarding school when I had lost interest and went into debates unprepared, but kept to the linear forms and won anyway.

Back in New Hampshire in the years I prepared thoroughly I had made convincing cases that world government was the wave of the future, which I hoped, and that world government was a foreign idea to bring America down, which I found a contemptible proposition. I argued for universal health care, which seemed an obviously good thing to me, and did just as well if not better when I argued against it, citing really dumb ideas about free enterprise that gullible people swallowed.

I would hate for students to lose such a useful tool as silly linear logic for dealing with silly or malevolent professors. Just as I would hate to have them give up the practice, which is sometimes needed to placate professors, of throwing in a lot of extraneous footnotes. The footnotes, however, are not as valued as the "l... 2... 3..." system. If you get a particularly insular and rigid and maybe bigoted professor, often all you have to do is put his bigoted opinions in "l... 2... 3..." form and hand them back to him.

I wonder how real professors can keep on reading this awful, linear, unneeded writing. Maybe it is because so many of them are numb from having to write and publish similar nonsense in their little-read academic journals in order to get tenure - and remain so frightened afterwards that they still feel they have to do it.

Not me. I was teaching as an underpaid auxiliary professor - operating as if underground, disguised as a professor, doing it because my finances were in such disarray that a bank was about to seize my house. But I had already started the Authentic Writing Workshops. I was not going to do any of the things professors are scared into doing. It was hardly laying the groundwork for an academic career. And anyway the money wasn't much.

I decided I would strive for honesty in this faux academic career, and make up for the times I had been dishonest by writing to order when I was living on free-lance work.

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