Saturday, August 11, 2007

The High School Persuasive Essay

I recall how exciting it was to get internet access that would allow me to discuss sports online. Why, there were whole sites devoted to different chat rooms, and one could choose a topic, sign in, and go over issues in detail with like-minded others. I chose a basketball chat room and signed on.

"Knicks Rule!"
"Knicks Drool!"
"KNICKS RULE!!!!!!!"

So, how do you guys think this Alan Houston trade is going to turn out?
Why did I bother? One hour, three sites, and ten rooms later, I swore it off for good.

I forget, when browsing around the political sites and adding comments, that my opponents (and alas, sometimes even my allies) don't rise much above the rule/drool level. I attempt to engage folks I partly or completely disagree with, sometimes chummily, sometimes with asperity. It does not often end well. Adults seldom descend to such obvious mindlessness, but they are frequently just as binary and unable to well, think. Or listen. Or something. Educated adults can disguise this absolutist thinking better, but it's still there.

Somewhere in my bones are the general rules of argument necessary for the high school persuasive essay. When I write, an imaginary intelligent person with a red pen sits over my shoulder and makes notes: Is this what you mean to say? or This doesn't follow. or Weak connection.

The person with the red pen also writes sp and unclear from time to time, but that's a separate problem.

Even people who make their livings with words and ideas, and presumably did well on those persuasive essays at some point in their distant past, make statements that are simply baffling in their poor connection. The writers at the Huffington Post often get picked on for this, and deservedly so. Hoping for another excellent example of prize stupidity from Glenn Greenwald, who produces many, I went over to HuffPo to yank up what he had last written, sure it would suffice. Before I got to Greenwald, however, the first article in the upper left recommended itself to me as a better example. (Greenwald is, BTW, a First Amendment attorney, who one would expect to have some command of what is a reasonable argument. I suspect from his writing that he is instead an expert in what convinces people of his POV, not in what is logical).

Can I just say that again, for those of you like Bethany who skim these things? The. First. Article. How do they do it? Chris Kelly, who I know nothing about, writes
According to a new report in the Journal of Pediatrics, for every hour a day that toddlers watch Baby Einstein, they learn six to eight fewer words than toddlers that don't...I think we're going to spend a lot of time, cleaning up after the Bush Years, correcting things that were glaringly wrong from the start. "Make your baby smart with TV." "Let the extraction industries write their own laws." "Merge the government and the church." "Get the Arabs into democracy by murdering them."
Note: Alert readers will rightly point out that I could have hidden a world of mischief in that ellipsis. If you read the essay, however, you will find I have been just. Bush nowhere praises Baby Einstein as a worthy educational product. Kelly writes as if he does.

I also suspect Baby Einstein might not be educationally valuable, but will point out that Kelly's summary of its weakness contains an ambiguity wide enough to drive a truck through. And I don't think that's accidental.

More to the point, however, is his connecting the bad educational idea to George Bush's policies for reasons that your high-school history teacher would have rejected. Mentally take out your red pen, would you please?

Make your baby smart with TV. Red: Is that what the speaker claimed?
Let the extraction industries write their own laws. Red: What are "extraction industries?" How did they write their own laws. Explain.
Merge the government and the church. Red: ??? Give examples. Look up "merge."
Get the Arabs into democracy by murdering them. Red: Do you mean Persians? Define "murder." Illustrate with actual quotes that this was the plan.

Chris Kelly's killer argument:
You know how we should have known it was a shit idea? Because it's really obviously a shit idea.

I don't think Alma Langlois, my English and Journalism teacher, would have given me many points for that reasoning. Her minimum should be ours.


Anonymous said...

Oh goodness sake. This is so sad. How does one even begin to talk to people with such reasoning powers?
However, I believe there is a link between Bush and the einstien baby dvds. I seem to remember during one of Bush's inaugeral addresses, he welcomed the founder of the baby einstein stuff and held her forth as an example of a person overcoming adversity to become a successful bidnessman.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

That was exactly it. He offered no opinion on the educational value, but stuck to her business acumen and generosity.

Anonymous said...

My bride of nearly three decades - a very much better writer than I...not to mention her facility with learning languages, sorting out economics on a personal level AND the intricacies of EuRail - sat and listened as I read your entire piece. Blessed woman.

My point? (connector, I hope) All that you say is so very true, and so very sad. We (people, generally) both write and talk past each other. We often (always?) think the other person/people know what we are saying, but they (frequently) do not. Many, aren't even listening at all, but just waiting for one to finish so that they may jump in with their world-view. See, I am not saying this very well, right here.

At any rate, it is very well done and the lesson, I hope, isn't lost on me. I will struggle with it and attempt to make myself more - what - clear.

A Post Script of sorts: It is painfully hard to discuss much with so many, if the "so many" have little knowledge. One cannot start at the beginning of each topic....hours, nay, years are needed for that. And thus, I lament the sad state of affairs re: education in America, both formal and personal knowlege seeking.

And He Goes On Department: I looked up "Sarandin" (sp?) and did find the comments of the former Romanian General who defected. More than a plausable story. More WMD will, I believe, be found. We (USA) are treading carefully around the new Tsar. We long, I think, to not be plunged back into the Cold War (II).

Anonymous said...

I wonder when "Rick Ellensberg" is going to show up to comment...

I'm always willing to engage in a discussion of opposing viewpoints, provided the opponent will a) present facts that back their position and b) draw only conclusions that derive from those facts.

The examples you cite don't. I find it hard to fisk Greenwald because there is a nearly overwhelming load of illogic to wade through.

bs king said...

I skim because my superior reading speed allows me to absorb more in 30 seconds than most people get in five minutes. And that's a fact. So there. (insert excessive face making and tongue sticking outage here).

bs king said...

Oh yeah, and sometimes I don't skim. Sometimes I just type my name in to the "search blog" box and see if you wrote about me.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Bethany, since you know about a third of the regulars here, do you really want to go head-to-head with them on your 30 sec = 5 minutes rule? This is probably the highest IQ gathering you attend in a year.

Remember it includes your father...

Anonymous said...

Let me put it this way: Have you ever heard or Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? MORONS! -cp

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Of course we have. Plato Canonas used to run The Puritan restaurants in Manchester, Ari Damionas is a doctor out on the seacoast, and Soc Bobotas played football for Central and UNH, then coached for years up in Laconia.

Jeez, you guys.

Ben Wyman said...

No, AVI, that's a Princess Bride reference that you missed.

By the way, as memory serves, I believe I was the one going on the sports chat, with you standing over my shoulder and scoffing. This was the early days of the internet, with chat rooms still a stunning breakthrough in communication, as witnessed by the exchanges we saw, which I believe I remember clearer than you, as they went more like this:

jordan972: if u love jordan type 23
pinky334: 23
lakersfan774: 23
hotstuff69: 23232323232323233232323
jordan972: 23232323232323232323232323232323232323232323232323323!!!!
bwyman: Hey, what's everybody think about the Allen Houston trade?
lakersfan774: 232323232323232323232323232
pinky334: what?
pinky334: 2323232323232323232
jordan972: F@#$ THE KNICKS!!!!!!1!!!

I think I remember it because - as it is with many great texts - you read it once, and it sticks with you forever.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Ouch. Missed The Princess Bride reference.

Your memory of past events is wrong, as usual.