A Word on Tone

lucyRecently, two people on my Facebook feed shared The Federalist’s post on the myths of modern education. Since the people who shared it are thoughtful people who work as educators, I checked it out.

I got about halfway through the essay, and before I finish (I really will!) I had to step away and address something that troubles me about it, and nearly (but not quite) keeps me from putting it away altogether.

It’s not the content. So far, the post is making a lot of good points. I agree that students need to learn facts in order to get a holistic understanding of the world. Indeed, the book I just finished reading made the point that in order to think well, students need to have something to think about; if we do not teach them concrete knowledge, they will not be able to think.

I agree that teacher-directed instruction, even lecture, is far under-appreciated. Some of my best instructors in college and graduate school were lecturers, and I know from experience that my students appreciate a good lecture as much as anyone.

No, what bothers me is the tone: dismissive, snarky, and so prone to sweeping generalizations that it’s hard to take seriously.

Here’s how the essay opens:

In many ways, the progressive education establishment is akin to a leftist “Hive”—people who think and speak alike and move in concert, even without centralized control or an active conspiracy.

The education Hive exercises power and influence in every state and nearly all Western countries.

The Hive? Really? To make matters worse, the writer continues to refer to the progressive educational system as “The Hive” throughout the rest of the essay.

To me, the ‘hive’ conjures up images of the Borg from Star Trek, or the Formics from Ender’s Game. To compare people you disagree with to something as alien as this does not show respect for people you disagree with, or a willingness to consider points of view other than your own; it’s hard for me to listen to your point of view, when you characterize other points of view as so utterly foreign.

Because here’s the thing: Not everyone in the progressive system actually subscribes to the myths as wholly as the essay suggests they do.

Take the second myth, that the progressive educational establishment is against teacher-directed learning. Here’s the writer’s take on how contemporary educators feel about lectures:

The Hive, of course, sniffs at the former [teacher-directed learning] and embraces the latter [student-directed learning], arguing that one better achieves deeper conceptual understanding by independent investigation. In fact, Christodoulou recalls that one of her instructors when she was in teacher training warned her that if she was talking, her students were not learning.

Notice first of all the utterly dismissive tone in which the writer portrays contemporary educators: They sniff at lecture, the word ‘sniff’ implying that their reaction against lecture is one of taste and feeling, not one of logic; the writer is suggesting that progressive educators are not a logical bunch. This suggestion is hardly the first step towards a productive conversation.

But beyond that, her characterization is not true. One of my favourite teachers was Dr. Tim Dayton, who taught modernism and literary theory at Kansas State when I attended for graduate school. Most of his classes were entirely lecture-based: engaging, productive lectures, but lectures nonetheless. In fact, when he was asked about educational theory, he said: “You’re a teacher. Teach.” – the idea being, of course, that sometimes the teacher needs to step in and communicate content directly to students, instead of letting them flounder as they try to piece it together on their own.

This was the same message that I got from the writing center at Kansas State, when I tutored there during graduate school. I recall a conversation with the director about teaching methods, when she told me that when she’s in the classroom, she does not play “Guess What’s in the Teacher’s Mind” with her students. Discussion, she said, should only be used when there’s no one right answer, when a range of “right answers” are possible; if there’s a specific idea you want to communicate, such as the proper methods for introducing quotations or citing material in MLA, don’t discuss it. Lecture about it.

I have two points here. One, there is diversity in teaching methods among progressives, and that among progressive educators, the lecture still has its place: truths that the Federalist writer misses, because she insists on calling her opponents names and painting with broad generalizations.

Two, watching our tone in discussions is incredibly important. Writing snarky things about people we disagree with is fun, true; but it’s a temptation that we need to resist, because when we do so, we risk obscuring the truth.

I want to note here that the Federalist essay is hardly alone in writing with a snarky tone. Snark and sweeping generalizations, hyperbole and ad hominem are very common in discourse today. And while progressives and conservatives are equally prone to such talk, I want to address myself to people who are (like me) more conservative: For too long we’ve dismissed the “other side” as dumb. We have to stop it. If we claim to value truth, then we have to talk about big issues in a way that actually gets at the truth, rather than obscuring it. If we claim to value truth, then we have to talk about it in a way that helps other people think about what is true, rather than turning them off it completely.

In her delightful book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn Chandler McEntrye urges us to care for words by using them truthfully, eschewing hyperbole and imprecision; such methods of writing have more in common with our media-saturated and consumerist society than with a life of faith, and they come about because we have devoted neither sufficient attention nor respect to our subject.

Rather, McEntyre encourages us to adopt a discourse of precision, one that gives “care, time, and attention to the person, place or process being described” (51), and relies on the power of understatement to powerfully communicate truth.

Remember, she writes, “the persuasiveness of the ‘still small voice’ that speaks beneath the whirlwind” (51).

So let us watch our tone, and speak more softly, and thus more accurately.



2 thoughts on “A Word on Tone

  1. Keep in mind that the Ender sort of hive mind reference is actually just connecting with an insect metaphor. There’s nothing wrong with a hive, a real hive. The reason it was a boogeyman label in the Ender series is because human beings value their individualism, and so are distressed at group mentalities. That’s not a bad thing. The Ender hive winds up not being a bad thing in itself, and you could argue that one point of the Ender series is that it is not a literal, insect-like hive that is a problem, it is the relinquishment of individual thought in humans that winds up being the issue.

    If I call some group hive-like in its behavior, it can be snarky — but it can be simply metaphorically descriptive, detailing the quality of the bad behavior.

    As a secondary note, I think once you move past secondary ed the faculty is going to work less as a unit and be less subject to the pressure to uniformity. Elementary, middle school, and high school were (I believe) more the subject of the Federalist article. But I think higher ed faculty should pay close attention because the trend persists upwards and the pressure may increase.

  2. I just read the article and as Marie points out the researcher being quoted by the author describes primary and secondary education difficulties observed while a teacher in the british education system. The author’s use of “hive mind” seems analogous to what others have called “groupthink.” Insect metaphors are particularly uncomfortable and for many of us bring a host of unpleasant associations! I did not think the author was particularly harsh in tone – I sensed more a tone of frustration verging on anger. I don’t think she made any ad hominem comments but made generalisations about an ideology. A generalisation does not have to be true all the time but enough of the time to make it useful. I live in a very dry state in Australia, dry probably 95% of the time but it is raining heavily at the moment. It is still fair to describe it as a dry state. Is the author, like Lucy, shouting in order to be heard? I did not find her to be so.

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