Thursday, November 12, 2015

School Days & English Texts

Studying English
I have saved my husband's and my own high school and college English texts, believing they might have a use to me as a writer.  I'm sure I have looked at them a few times over the years, but not that many times, and as our bookcases fill and more boxes of books remain, I decided to reconsider the usefulness of the old textbooks.

I picked up my husband's high school senior year English text first, and on the flyleaf, neatly written in his school boy penmanship, was the following quote:  "Do half of everything you don't want to do and you'll gain twice as much knowledge as if you would have done something you liked."  I was impressed by my 16-year-old husband-to-be choosing to write that advice in his book.  I continued to flip through the pages and was surprised to find much more than grammar exercises.  The text book is titled English in Action, and its contents live up to the title. 

For example, Chapter 9, "Thinking for Yourself" begins by saying, "much depends upon people who have learned to think for themselves, to make decisions, and to act upon them.  The very basis of our democracy is thinking citizens."  It continues by warning "don't accept too quickly what you see, hear, and read," and continues by pointing out the distinction between objective writing, which "tends to rely principally upon reporting observable facts [and] subjective writing [which] tends to describe or convey opinions, emotions, and judgments."  Wow!  I had no recollection that my senior year English text book went so far in explaining the power of words--both the power to inform and the power to mislead and subtly influence readers' and listeners' thinking.

Name Calling
Beyond the power of words we use and words we read and hear, the text book continued with a lesson teaching students the danger of misleading themselves.  "Because we like to think of ourselves as reasonable beings, we sometimes invent reasons for doing what we want to do."  What followed was a simple but very informative summarization of logic and reasoning, beginning with ways in which emotional responses can mislead--Pride that blinds us to seeing our own failings; Fear of things new or different; Prejudice or prejudging; and allowing Daydreaming to persuade us something is reasonable or likely.

Band Wagon
Next came an explanation of Fallacies--Hasty Generalization; Mistaking the Cause; False Analogy; Ignoring the Question; Begging the Question; Attacking the Person, not the Argument; and Misusing Statistics.  A single paragraph explaining each of these was given, and in simple terms the fallacy was described so clearly that each could be understood.

Self editing
The next section dealt with Propaganda, introducing first three propaganda tricks:  Twisting and Distortion, Selective Omission, and Incomplete Quotation.  That was followed with what the text book described as "devices often harmless in themselves...that encourage unthinking acceptance."  Eight examples followed:  Testimonial, in which a well-known person promotes someone or something about which they have no special qualification to testify; Band Wagon, in which it is implied that "everybody" believes or does something; Plain Folks, in which the appeal is based on being a friendly, humble, salt-of-the-earth person just like you; Snob Appeal, which uses the opposite approach to make others feel more discriminating or exclusive; Glittering Generalities, in which words with generally positive appeal are used, like patriotic, forward looking, or other terms popular at any given time; Name Calling, which pins negative labels on those with whom the speaker disagrees, like "radical, reactionary, dictator, isolationist, or appeaser," and Transfer, in which symbols most people admire are used in order to transfer that appeal to the person using them, such as the political use of the flag.

A final example that was given in the text book was Scientific Slant, which the authors explained: "In most people science inspires awe and faith, which can easily be transferred to the product [or concept]."  I'm not sure the use of Scientific Slant necessarily has the same influence on people today, at a time in which scientific evidence is often distrusted or ignored.

Diagramming Sentences
I was surprised and impressed to find training in logic and reasoning included in an English text book published in 1960.  As a teacher, lawyer, and author, I am well aware of the importance and power of language.  I knew that grammar was emphasized when I was in school, more so in my region than in the region of the country in which I taught high school English, where the reading of great books received more emphasis. 

Isaac Werner was respected in his community because of his superior language skills.  Neighbors came to him to put their agreements into the proper words and write their contracts.  He was asked to be a speaker at the meetings where farmers gathered to find ways to educate themselves about farming, marketing, and increasing their political power.  People of Isaac's time respected the importance of education, and the building of schools was one of the earliest things settlers did.

Understanding the impression we make
My high school English text book included many pages diagramming sentences, a skill which I understand is no longer taught, and which I believe should be!  In fact, as a lawyer, I am certain many contract disputes would never happen if the lawyer drafting the contract were schooled in diagramming sentences.  My husband's old English book contains all the topics I would expect to find in a traditional English text, such as parts of speech, punctuation, grammar, and style, and that information is essential.  However, the unexpected discovery of the chapters meant to help students implement language effectively in their daily lives convinced me that as crowded as my book cases are, this book deserves a place!

(All of the images are taken from the 1960 English text book.)


The Blog Fodder said...

That is awesome. We never had anything like that in our texts or lessons at any time. Could have used it for sure.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

I was impressed too! And, I loved the quote about the importance to democracy!!

Shalin Siriwaradhana said...

Diagramming is an impressive way to communicate ideas to people. Which I often see in creately diagram community also.