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The Metaphysics of Enlightenment

Teaching and Learning

To get you to reflect upon what you are doing when you are learning or teaching I want to put to you some leading questions. Would your ability to speak and write clearly, simply and with effect have any direct bearing upon the ability of others to learn from you or your ability to learn from others?

I have noticed that speaking and writing are a large part of teaching; that listening and reading are a large part of learning. When you speak, do others tend to listen to what you have to say? When you write, are others likely to read what you have written? Can others easily follow your instructions? Or do others have difficulty following what you have to say? Do they get lost or bored? Can others easily read what you have written or, again, do they get lost in your words and get easily distracted?

Writing, Speaking, and Learning

Words and numbers are the stuff of knowing and thinking. Many are agreed (2). To say we can know or think in other ways is a practically useless way of speaking (2).

The university students I know seem to think almost exclusively in abstractions, generalizations and criticism. They seem weakest in their powers of observation, perceptual discrimination and data gathering (2). They seldom bother to be accurate or precise in their thinking. To counteract this tendency I would like several suggestions put to the test. I would like students:

a. to be able to tell an inference from a statement of fact

b. to pay attention to logic

c. to be in the habit of making distinctions: noticing differences as well as similarities

d. to notice their biases, even to examine them to know how they affect their decisions and actions

e. to be in touch with their emotions and the impact of emotional thinking on their decisions and actions

Genuine thinking can be threatening to our set ways of living. Thoughtfulness does not usually guarantee an easy-going, harmonious, docile acceptance of standing policies and existing authority. Nobody seems to promise that (2).

Thinking does not appear to come naturally to us. Others have noticed this, too (2). At least, it does not come as naturally to us as eating, drinking and sleeping. First of all, we seem to have to learn to do it. Also, even when we know how to do it, we don't seem often to want to do it (2).

Only recently have I come to question my own thinking about learning and teaching. I have wondered: have I confused teaching with learning? I am not clear about this.

Perhaps we would be better to connect teaching with schooling rather than with university. University seems to me more appropriately a place of learning. For me, teaching seems more like training and training more like indoctrination. I would feel very uncomfortable to think of universities as places devoted solely to training and indoctrination. I am not nearly so bothered when I notice that early childhood education may involve training and some indoctrination.

In checking this out, I find some colleagues tend to agree with my thoughts about learning as opposed to training. Learning and education, if in fact these words refer to anything distinctive and unique, mean exercising the mind in some activity we might best call "rational thoughtfulness. Teaching too often does not mean this. Instead, it may mean inculcating in the student certain beliefs, attitudes and behaviors, those of their teachers. I would like to see university as a place where students have ample opportunity and encouragement to choose their own beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes; and to learn to take responsibility for their choices.

How are people kept from being rational and thoughtful? Resorting to violence will do it. So will overindulgence in physical pleasures; and so will placing too much importance on whatever is popular and valued among peers and contemporaries. Some do this so readily. Why?

Do the suggestions and examples of others unduly influence us? How might we keep the suggestions and example of others in perspective? One way might be to reformulate our values. Another might be to appeal to rational thoughtfulness (2).

If you want to indoctrinate someone don't encourage thoughtful questioning, criticism and judgement. Get them to conform to your thinking. Establish unquestionable standards.

Mind you, I'm not saying that there's something wrong with having standards, with temporarily suspending questions, criticism and judgement. In the process of learning some restraint and receptivity are desirable. Otherwise learning might not take place.

Some docility, receptivity and restraint are probably an important part of learning. Without these qualities of character, I doubt we could ever become educated. Perhaps what is wanted is the wisdom to know when to be docile, receptive and restrained, and when to step in with thoughtful questions, criticism and judgement.

I have a recurring perception: that university graduates seem unable to know the difference between what they do know and what they do not know, when to question and when to listen, when to suspend judgement and when to act on their best knowledge. I am concerned about this. They seem to me only vaguely interested in getting facts and only passingly acquainted with the intricacies of their language and the logic that regulates its use -- both use of words and use of numbers.

I imagine sometimes we as teachers act as we do in the belief that we are guardians of social order and harmony, that we are here to promote the general good, including the good of the students themselves (2). I wonder sometimes if we are not unthinkingly a threat to the very social order and harmony we wish to preserve.

I am inclined to agree with those who argue that the value essential to a free and liberated people is the belief, above all other beliefs, that a knowing and thoughtful people, given a choice, will want to continue to live free from bondage and enslavement to others (2). On the other hand, teaching seems to me, in large part, to mean getting someone to adjust to some ideology or set way of being or doing, to adjust to a set way of believing, feeling and acting -- ways set by those who may consider themselves superior to others, superior in knowledge and motives, without establishing sufficiently verifiable justification for what we are doing.

Some educators seem to be convinced that we poor human beings aren't capable of effective and logical thinking. What we are thought to do best is memorize words. Is there a way out of their clutches? I believe there is.

We could pause in our speaking and writing to choose the most appropriate word for the occasion and for our audience. Then we might be able to notice if we know what we're talking about. Otherwise our listeners (readers) will soon get the idea that we're covering up our uncertainties. Even more, our

listeners may rightly suspect that we are less than knowledgeable, that perhaps we have become thoughtless and uncaring (2).

What can we do to become thoughtful and caring in our writing and speaking. For one thing, we could notice that passive verbs always require more words than active verbs (1). How might you change from passive to active the following:

I am told that..


This letter is being written because..

One effect of using passive verbs is to increase the amount we write. Note, increase the amount not the content. The report looks longer, that is all. We appear to have more to say.

Another effect is to make our writing sound official, informal and impersonal, hence give our thoughts the appearance of being impartial and objective. I urge you to consider that content not style makes our statements objective.

Furthermore, by using passive verbs our writing becomes heavy sounding, hence we may more likely appear to be speaking with authority on the subject we are writing about. Another point: by using passive verbs we are more likely to appear learned. We are following the convention of academe, therefore we are being academic, hence learned. The two do not follow in my opinion, according to any form of logic I know.

What I am suggesting is this. Learning to write and speak well can play a critical role in our growth as individuals. By learning this, we may also contribute greatly to our survival as a free, thoughtful and caring people. Any time, effort, expense and energy spent in this direction I will wholeheartedly support.

Show me the person who can understand the world we're living in without the spoken or written word. And what is speech without grammar (1)? Presuming I want to be easily read and understood, then grammar is an important tool.

What is writing but a way of recording speech. I am recording either my dialogue with others or the dialogue in my head. This makes my writing a special case of speaking, and my discursive prose a special case of writing.

Can you remember the time when you couldn`t write? Can you imagine a time when no one could write? Some say writing began probably 3000 years ago, in Greece. The Greeks seem to have been the ones who developed formal logic, too. The idea of rules of grammar and rules for rational thinking seem to have come from them.

I would be willing to say, then, that rational thinking is no more than coherent discourse. This means writing so that I can be read and understood. Logic seems to go with prose I would think. I seem unable to engage in the one without the other (1).

By writing I discipline my thinking. I can also develop mentally in other ways, like develop imagination, cultivate feeling, and so on. Right now, I'm interested only in what I can do to discipline thinking.

Mainly, I can learn by writing to think logically, rationally and with persuasiveness. But there's more to it than this. Disciplining my thinking does not mean becoming logical and rational in a narrow sense. Rational thinking opens to me the possibility of becoming creative, imaginative and innovative.

Applying logic to my thought is a way of discovering new possibilities of relationships, consequences and alternatives. How else am I going to make discoveries except by playing with ideas and testing what I discover this way (1)?

A person of learning, in my opinion, is someone capable of logic, order and coherence in personal expression of thought. Only such, I am convinced, are capable of leading others in the pursuit of learning. I take comfort in the fact that I am not alone in this conviction (1). Clear, concise writing seems to evolve from practice. Successful practice usually calls for knowledge and discipline.

I have noticed that writing demands I be precise. Being precise usually begins with being accurate in recording my observations mentally or on paper. Being accurate in my observations has some bearing, I imagine, on being grown-up in my outlook.

I have difficulty imagining a society in which people cannot construct a coherent, continuous understandable sentence being civilized. Where would be the people who are capable of coherent, understandable thought?

I like what someone has said about the link among writing, thinking and learning. Here is the claim made: anyone who can't put a string of sentences together in good order can't think. Moreover, any educational system that doesn't teach people to write, and especially the technology of writing, is preventing its people from thinking (1,p.6).

Speaking and Writing

Is there any important way in which speaking and writing differ? Perhaps in clarity and accuracy they differ -- in favour of writing. Ask an audience to visualize or put in writing the following words as you simply speak them:

aloud / allowed

write / right / rite

wait / weight

I'll / isle / aisle

whey / weigh / way

Intimidating Language

I have discovered how easily people can become intimidating as teachers, especially by their way of speaking, which can become teacherish. Sometimes, in the same way, they can sound official and bureaucratic. Consider these possibilities in expressions like:

> It has been brought to my attention..

> You are hereby notified..

> I am surprised and distressed by the rudeness..

Notice in these expressions the use of passive verbs. Do I have to speak and write this way? Can't I do something about the way I speak and write? I suppose I can, but only if I want to; wanting to, only if I notice what I'm saying; and noticing, only if I somehow remember to notice. Humpty Dumpty in Carroll's "Alice-in-Wonderland" fantasy says it well: who's the master, that's all, the words or us.

The Human Touch

I have noticed also that I can get so formal and impersonal in my speaking and writing habits that I lose the human touch. I can then appear cool, aloof, distant and uncaring to the people who are listening to me or reading what I write. If this is the impression anyone wants to give, go ahead. I do not want always to give this impression of myself.

Then, I make a habit of practicing to be clear in my statements and to use active verbs as much as possible. Also, I pay attention to my grammatical subjects, making them persons, not things.

I have noticed that by the choice of grammatical subject I often reveal my attitude towards other people, whether I see them as objects to be used or whether I see them as human beings with feelings and desires, deserving to have a choice in what happens to them. Furthermore, sometimes my grammatical subjects are not just things, but abstractions as well (2).


l. I have been influenced in what I say in this paper not only by my own personal experience of more than thirty years in academic work, but also a great deal by what I have read, especially the two books written by Richard Mitchell which I mention in my list of references. I also wish here to acknowledge other writers who have influenced my thinking about writing, speaking and thinking as they relate to each other.

Consider the work of Milton Erikson, as described by Jay Haley in his book, "Uncommon Therapy. Another is the work of Lewis Carroll, who has always fascinated me, especially with his story of "Alice in Wonderland. Then, there is Leo Postman with his incisive and witty observations about language in "Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk.

More recently, a group of psychotherapists, who call their work neuro linguistic programming, have had much to say about language and health. The founders of this movement are Richard Bandler and John Grinder. Their first major book about neurolinguistic programming is entitled, oddly enough, "The Structure of Magic.

And, finally, much is owed, even by Mitchell, I should say especially by Mitchell, although he does not acknowledge this in his books, to Rudolf Flesch, who in the l940's, was doing some exciting, original research on the subject of writing, speaking and thinking effectively.

Douglas Bush, in reviewing Mitchell's book, "Less Than Words Can Say," has stated Mitchell's thesis in his own words: we have to suspect that coherent, continuous thought is impossible for those who cannot construct coherent, continuous prose (American Scholar, 1980, 49:420).

Again, there are those who are quite convinced that the inability to write comes from an inability to think (cf. Douglas Bush, American Scholar, 1980, 49:420). Dale Roberts in summarizing Mitchell's work sums it up with these words: specious language rots the mind (Library Journal, 1979, 104:2080).


l. Mitchell, Richard. Less Than Words Can Say. Toronto: Little, Brown, 1979.

2. Mitchell, Richard. The Graves of Academe. Toronto: Little, Brown, 1981.