Things That Go Bump in the Mind

Things That Go Bump in the Mind
Look for a new post every Sunday morning.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Talking-Bear Zombie Apocalypse


     When I was a kid, Yogi Bear was a very popular cartoon character. As a child, I had no idea that the cartoon bear was named after the celebrated, Yankees baseball player, Yogi Berra. Even to this day, Hanna-Barbera (the animation studio that created Fred Flintstone, George Jetson, and Scooby Doo in addition to Jellystone's most notorious picnic basket swindler) vehemently denies they named their conniving brown bear after the baseball legend, but it's hard to believe that in 1958, when H-B studios introduced TV audiences to Ranger Smith's woodland nemesis, that Berra (by then a three-time American League MVP) was not what they had in mind when they choose to lop the “ah” off of Berra in naming their character. While it's easy to understand why Hanna-Barbera did not want to pay any royalties to an already wealthy sport hero, it's nearly impossible to accept that the phonetic similarity between the two names is mere coincidence. As Thoreau famously wrote in the fall of 1854 after some dairymen had been accused of watering down their product, “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.”
     Throughout my elementary school days, Saturday mornings were magical: no school and, for a few sweet golden hours, cartoons. I guess you would have to be pretty close to my age to appreciate the magic of Saturday morning cartoons in those days. Today, people can watch cartoons at any time day or night by pulling up a YouTube video, popping in a DVD, or turning to a 24 hour cartoon cable channel. But in my childhood, we could only see cartoons on Saturday mornings or (if we were lucky enough to get to go to the movies) sometimes between the feature film and the coming attractions. The other thing that made cartoons magical while I was growing up in the 1960's is that the studios in those days were not under any governmental dictates to make their products “educational” for kids or “palatable” to parents. No one in those days needed to learn anything from the hijinks of Bugs Bunny, who regularly dabbled in cross-dressing, or Yogi, a bear who felt no need to consider the ethics of filling his stomach with the contents of some random stranger's "pic-a-nic basket." Today producers who make all the new cartoons have to consider their “educational value” because somehow in the past 50 years, American Society has been brainwashed into believing that every single moment of a kid's childhood needs to be “educational.” Do you want to know why American Society is so fascinated with the “zombie apocalypse”? It's because it's already happened, but instead of a virus that makes people stumbling morons that have an appetite for brains, it's a meme that says our kids are only as smart as their last test. In the movies, zombies hunger for brains; in our current “educational climate,” our students hunger for authentic learning.
     The reason I started this post off by talking about Yogi Bear is that his catch phrase was “I'm smarter than the average bear.” That fact that Yogi walked around in a hat and a necktie and he could talk was certainly a tip off that he was intellectually superior to the typical hibernating/honey-loving North American Ursidae, but let's remember that it was Yogi's own self-assessment; Yogi Bear never actually took a standardized test to demonstrate that his intelligence lie above the 50th percentile. Smokey the Bear also wears a hat and can talk so Yogi isn't unique in either his fashion or vocal abilities, but I think it would be pretty safe to predict that compared to most bears we would find in the woods, both Smokey and Yogi would completely skew the bell curve if they were ever tested. Notice, by the way, that while Smokey and Yogi both wear hats, neither wear long sleeve shirts; that's because the 2nd Amendment protects their rights to show off their arms.
     The point about Yogi being smarter than most bears is that even if it's true, in the grand scheme of things it does not really matter much, if at all. The average bear doesn't have the intellectual or verbal capacity to consider its ability to acquire and apply knowledge, and even if through some massive, immediate mutation, all bears gained the capacity to think about their relative intelligence compared to the other bears they know, bears would still be too concerned with surviving hunger and hunters to care. Even if bears are capable of learning to ride bicycles (as some circus bears do), that particular ability has little relevance to surviving in the woods (let's face it, there are plenty of redneck hunters who would love nothing more than to shoot a bear off a bicycle if they had the chance, but I digress).
     As far as humans are concerned, being smarter than the average bear doesn't mean squat. Even in his cartoon world, Yogi does not get any real respect for his verbal, fashion, and problem-solving abilities. He still has to steal from humans to stave off the unrelenting appetite of his bear anatomy. A bear needs around 20,000 calories a day to prepare for hibernation; that's a lot of picnic baskets to purloin especially if you've got a little sidekick to feed. Why Yogi keeps Boo-Boo around defies his supposedly superior bear-intelligence – the only thing Boo-Boo seems to offer is criticism for not buying into Ranger Smith's propaganda that talking bears need to abide by human law. No, Boo-Boo, no; bears should stick it to The Man. Bears have no representatives in human legislatures; bears need to be bears and have their own moral codes based upon their own obligations to each other. Yogi needs to tell Boo-Boo that following the Man's law will only get his head sent to a taxidermist and mounted above Ranger Smith's fireplace.
     So what do cartoon bears have to do with the current slow death of modern education? Just this: there is an important difference between education and propaganda. Education is a human right to knowledge and understanding that will help people both secure their economic prosperity and understand their social obligations to each other; propaganda is information designed to control the thinking of others to manipulate them into making decisions against their own best interests. Real education teaches people to think for themselves; propaganda teaches people not to question what they are being told and that if they end up crushed by a system run for the betterment of an elite few, then its their own fault for not learning to move their pegs quickly enough to the few holes allowed by the system.
     The educational system of the United States has been taken over by the corporate propagandists who both supply the standardized tests and then turn around and sell the remediation materials for the students who fail to achieve at their “acceptable” levels. State governments have been hypnotized by the money being offered by the testing corporations to believe that “the harder we make the tests, the more the students will learn.” I may be only slightly smarter than the average bear, but I have 30 years of classroom experience, and if there is a single thing I know about education, then it's that no one learns anything because it may or may not be on a test. People acquire knowledge because they become engaged in the material based on a wider variety of psychological motivations. Telling students that they will need to know something because it will show up on a test someday is not only the most disengaging method for providing content, it offers fear and anxiety as a reason to learn something. Fear and anxiety not only make for poor inducements to learning, but they suck the life out of children and turn them into zombies only capable of choosing the one right answer out of four on multiple choice questions. These zombies do not hunger for the brains of others; they hunger for understanding. Perhaps they hunger the most to know why they can't be allowed to grow up and learn at their own pace instead of being told how inferior they are for not learning at some mythical rate predicted by a chart with an up-sloping diagonal line.
     There is a simple solution to the madness that comes from “the harder the test, the more they will learn.” State governors and their legislators need to be required to take the tests they are now requiring for high school graduation, and their scores need to be reported on a government website (just as teachers evaluations based on their own students test scores are now being required). This would bring a great dose of sanity to the insanity of the corporate testing machine who increase their profits through requiring more frequent and more difficult exams that require schools and parents to shell out more for remedial materials. A testing corporation's hunger for money is analogous to a bear's hunger for calories – but that's the type of thinking governors, legislators, and departments of education need not worry about – no one is making them accountable to the new, harder tests that they are requiring. Here's another question they apparently do not need to answer: if a state's dropout rate is already more than a third of the student population, who is really being helped by making it more difficult to graduate? If you answered “C,” the corporations who believe that only money can do the real talking in American politics, then you were correct. Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll be back next week.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Hyde We Keep Hidden

(Fredric March in the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)

A change had come over me. It was no longer the fear of the gallows, it was the horror of being Hyde that racked me. – Dr. Henry Jekyll (from Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).

     How many people are you? When you get up in the morning and you're putting on your pants, how many people are with you as pull on your jeans one leg at a time? Sure, physically, there's just the one waist to button up; but, metaphysically, how many folks are you stuffing into those denims?
     Should we begin to count? First, there's the “Presently-Conscious You” that's only semi-aware of putting on those pants because Presently-Conscious You can put on the pants without wasting too many awareness-sucking brain cells on such a mundane task. If you are like most people – that is to say, most other people (I'm not yet including all the people you are going to turn out to be by the end of this essay because so far I've only listed the first) – Presently-Conscious You is spending those few moments it takes to get to the second leg of the trousers to commune with “Future You.” Future You is who Presently-Conscious You is worried about first thing in the morning because there's all those things that could happen to Future You if Future You forgets even one of all those things that needs to get done today, and Presently-Conscious You wants nothing more than to keep Future You out of trouble if Presently-Consciously You can help it.
     Just ten minutes or so before finding the pants to begin the day, both Future You and Presently-Conscious You were nowhere to be found because “Fast-Asleep You” was busily clearing out the memory space in your brain from all the “Dream Yous” that your mind spent being throughout the night. Of course, by the time you've moved past the pants to put your shirt on, Presently-Conscious You has no recollection of the Dream Yous that you were the night before; however, Presently-Conscious You may have a fleeting pang of disgruntlement for “Night-Before You” who stayed up too late (once again), and now Presently-Conscious You is tired and grumpy from not getting enough rest.
     For many people, Presently-Conscious You doesn't become “Entirely-Conscious You” until it's had time for a cup of coffee to drag it from “Wishing-You-Could-Stay-Home You” to “I-Guess-I'm-Leaving-For-Work-Now You.” Once out of the house, “Now-I-Have-To-Deal-With-Other-People You” begins quietly rehearsing the personas you will need to have on hand as you move across the spectrum from the “Gosh-You're-Nice-Why-Can't-More-People-Be-Like-You You” to the “Please-Go-Away-Before-Your-Annoying-Presence-Sucks-The-Soul-Out-Of-Me You.”
     Throughout the course of your day, the “You-At-The-Moment You” has much to do with the people you have to become in order to deal with the people you happen to be with. Get stuck in line at a store behind someone with little patience and less intelligence and you might become “I'm-Clearly-Not-With-This-Person You.” Get a chance to have lunch with a sympathetic friend and you might become “Glad-I-Can-Talk-With-Someone-About-My-Life You.” Get caught between two arguing co-workers and you might become either “I'm-Not-Taking-Sides-On-This-One You” or “I-Need-You-Two-To-Get-Along You.” Get a phone call from a family member, and you will need to become “Somebody's (Spouse, Mom, Dad, Sister, Brother, Son, Daughter, Cousin, Aunt, Uncle, Nephew, Niece, etc.) You.” Who are you when you get the house to yourself because family/roommates/friends are all occupied elsewhere? “I-Get-To-(Watch, Read, or Play)-Whatever-I-Want You.”
     How many is that so far? Furthermore, you are not just those people you become as a reaction to others or circumstance, you are also the “Person-Who-Used-To-(Drink, Smoke, Chew, Swear, Gamble, Overeat) You” and the “Person-Who-Needs-To-(Exercise More, Eat Right, Catch Up on the Bills, Mow the Grass, Finish Homework, or Feed the Cat) You.” You are also both the “I-Survived-My-Childhood You” and the “I-Fear-Getting-Older You.” You are both the “I'm-Tired-Of-The-Same-Routine You” and the “Change-Makes-Me-Nervous You.” You are both the “I-Need-To-Watch-What-I-Eat You” and the “I'm-Going-To-Regret-It-Later-But-Bring-Me-The-Cheesecake-Anyway You.” Of course, you understand why both the “I-Need-To-Diet” and “Bring-It-Anyway” Yous can sit side by side at the same table, right? It's because the “I-Need-To-Get-On-The-Scales You” doesn't have a doctor's appointment for another three months and won't manifest with it's conjoined twin “What's-My-Excuse-This-Time You” until they are trapped in the doctor's waiting room.
     Now, put all those people you are aside for moment, and imagine there's only two of you. Who are you now? Who is the other person? When Robert Louis Stevenson first published Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886, the book was an immediate and spectacular hit with its Victorian Age audience. A massive bestseller in both England and the US, the novel sold more than a quarter million copies by the turn of the 20th century, and within a year of its initial publication, the story had been adapted by more than a dozen theatrical groups for performance on the stage. Many early readers recognized the tale as a metaphor for their contemporary society's desire for the prurient struggling to emerge from a stifling sense of social propriety.
     In the decades since, the frightening story of a virtuous and respectable doctor who transforms himself into a vile and murderous misanthrope through the miracles of modern chemistry has become a perennial cultural icon. The story has resurfaced in more than 120 film versions so far; the first was released in 1908 while movie production was still in its infancy. In 1931, the version featuring Fredric March became the first horror film to receive an Academy Award. Over the years, cinematic adaptions have included versions featuring Tom and Jerry, Abbott and Costello, Jerry Lewis, and Eddie Murphy. The stylistic range of the filmed versions has stretched from the bright simplicity of Japanese Anime to the gritty shadows of B-grade American horror to the flamboyant extravagance of Indian Bollywood musicals.
     What is it about this story of one person who can become an entirely different person that resonates so deeply within the universal human psyche? Is it the fear of becoming someone we're not or the inevitable recognition that time holds the potential to do to us what Jekyll's potion does to him? If you imagine who you were ten years ago, how have you changed? When you imagine yourself ten years from now, who will you become? What, we may ask “ourselves” in the presence of inevitable change, can we keep essential and inert as we move from one age to the next or even, perhaps, as we move from one room to the next? Before trying to answer the question who we want to be ten years from now, we might want to decide who we want to be later this afternoon.
     What may be the most morally intriguing mystery of Stevenson's story is the question of why someone would make the conscious choice to become someone vile or sinister. If we could choose to be someone else, why wouldn't we choose to be someone better than who we are now? In the original story, this was precisely Jekyll's intention. At first, the experiments Jekyll makes with his personality-splitting potion are an attempt to expel the evil within him; unfortunately, after feeling the dark freedom of Hyde's inhibitions, the good doctor eventually loses his ability to return to the person he wants to be and finds the temptation to become a monster overwhelming. Eventually, Jekyll ends his transformations once and for all by killing them both.
     The implications of all of this, in regards to our ability to communicate with others and, perhaps, to negotiate with ourselves, is that time and place has great deal of influence on who we are and how we need to express ourselves. An awareness of who we need to be at any particular time can help guide us in how we talk to others; this awareness not only can be fruitful in helping others understanding us, but can also produce benefits in how we understand ourselves. Perhaps you can get “I'm-Trying-To-Fall-Asleep-Now You” to ruminate over this later tonight as you are drifting off to become all those other strange people in your dreams.
     Keep thinking rhetorically, and one of the cast of all the people I am will be back next week.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Alien Visitation: Smells Like Roswell

      Before we set out to answer the question, “Is there intelligent life in outer space?”, we should first try to determine if there's any legitimate supply here on earth. The vastness of space can overwhelm our human imagination with it's nearly infinite enormity, and yet, the dark reaches of outer space's staggering depth is nonetheless paralleled inch by inch with the nearly endless length of human gullibility.
     Although there's no documented evidence that Lincoln actually said, “You can fool all of the people some of the time,” the truth of the aphorism shoots through the human experience like a particle beam. I used to work with another schoolteacher who liked to say, “No Lower Limit,” any time other teachers shared their stories of astonishingly stupid student behavior. By this expression my fellow teacher meant that while human genius must certainly have its upper limits, the well of human stupidity is bottomless; as soon as you think you've scratched the bottom after hearing the dumbest response ever fallen from the lips of a student, you can only establish a personal benchmark because tomorrow (or as soon as five minutes from now) some other student is going to say something even more inane.
     Of course, you do not have to be a schoolteacher to know the truth of this axiom; anyone whose job requires them to deal with the general public witnesses the accuracy of “No Lower Limit” on a daily basis. I suspect if there is intelligent life in outer space, aliens with foreheads the size of dinner plates have designed advanced technology to harness the endless supply of human stupidity to power their spaceships. The energy from a single season of “The Jersey Shore” could propel an entire fleet of spacecraft more than twice the length of the Milky Way.
     Have “Beings from Other Planets” ever really visited our planet? An astrophysicist could perhaps offer a quantitative estimate of the odds of alien visitation based upon calculating the number of likely inhabitable planets divided by current approximations of the likelihood of surpassing the physical barriers to traveling faster than light speed. As a rhetorical theorist, however, I would rather offer my qualitative opinion based on the likelihood of ever getting a straight answer from anyone who might actually know anything definitive one way or the other. Thus, my rhetorical assessment of the E.T. visitation question is that the truth, at this point, is unknowable.
     In the more than six decades that have passed since July 8, 1947, – when Walter Haut, the public information officer for the 509th Atomic Bomb Group at Roswell Army Air Field, issued a press release claiming the army had recovered a crashed “flying saucer” from the desert – so much bad information has entered the public sphere that sorting out the ontological truth of alien visitation is no longer feasible. If we take the events of Roswell as a shining example of how much can go bad in building a historical record of a supposed paranormal event, then we can understand why both the adamant skeptic and die-hard true believer are both sinking in the mud of unreliable information.
     Here's what we do know: In the summer of 1947, something made a mess on a ranch about 30 north of Roswell, New Mexico. The foreman at the ranch had no idea what made the mess, and he collected some of the debris to show his family. The debris was strange enough to make him wonder what it was. Later, after the ranch foreman confided in the local sherif and then shared his story with the local newspaper, the army grew interested in the odd debris, and they sent some folks out to investigate. On the morning of July 8, Colonel William Blanchard, after examining fragments of the debris, directed his public information officer, 1st Lt. Walter Haut, to issue a press release stating that the United States Army Air Force had recovered a crashed "flying disc." Later, the very same day, after both national and international news agencies began reporting the story, the US army hastily issued a retraction claiming the debris did not come from a flying saucer but rather from a weather balloon. In the following few days, some newspapers ridiculed Haut for his initial press release, and by the end of July, 1947, the incident had pretty much left the public consciousness.
     For next 31 years, no one gave much thought about the story of “the flying saucer that turned out to be a weather balloon.” Then, in 1980, two writers by the name of Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore published a book about the wreckage found in the desert, and they claimed that one of the men sent to investigate the debris, Army Major Jesse Marcel, quckly recognized the material as extra-terrestrial and then conspired with his superior officers to construct an elaborate coverup of the incident. Berlitz and Moore, who claimed to having interviewed more than 90 witnesses in researching their book, alleged that more than mere spaceship rubble had been recovered, but actual alien corpses had been recovered as well.
     Since the first publication of Berlitz and Moore's book, The Roswell Incident, several other authors (notably Kevin D. Randle, Donald R. Schmit, Stanton Friedman, and Don Berliner) have written books reporting “what actually happened” at Roswell after interviewing hundreds of supposed eyewitnesses. In the decades that have followed the publication of Bertliz and Moore's first book on the subject, the awareness of the mythos of the downed alien ship collided with the public imagination, and the city of Roswell learned to both live with and capitalize upon this awareness by becoming the Mecca for tourists interested in UFOlogy. Travelers today to Roswell can discover street lights shaped like alien heads and a wide variety of t-shirt shops, knick-knack stores, and diners that cater to people who seemly cannot get enough kitschy, plastic souvenirs.
     Since the 1990's, the official account of the US government is that there actually was a cover-up of what happened at Roswell, but that the Army was not covering up the recovery of an alien spacecraft, but rather the wreckage of Project Mogul, a top-secret weather balloon device that was being developed to spy on Russian nuclear weapon development.
     Regardless of whether you choose to believe the government's latest version of what actually happened in the desert outside of Roswell or some hybrid story of the more than half dozen authors who have produced contradictory book-length explanations for what happened, the point I would like to make is this: with so many inconsistent and conflicting stories, how can we believe anyone's account of what happened? The first book that researched the incident came from interviews conducted nearly three decades after it happened. Out of the hundreds of people who subsequently have made claims to having some first-hand experience with the crash debris, how many of those people are either flat out lying or have mentally relived other people's stories so often in their minds that it became their own stories as well? Even if some people are sincere in their beliefs that they experienced something “not of this earth” in handling the debris, how many of those people could actually distinguish alien material from mundane human produced rubble?
     Before leaving Roswell behind this week, there are two additional points I would like to make. First, regardless of whatever credibility issues Walter Haut may have suffered later in life (years after Haut survived the national ridicule of his initial press release he went on to open a UFO museum for tourists in Roswell), Haut was a bona fide war hero who deserves our deepest respect for flying 35 missions as a bombardier during World War II. 
     And second, regardless of any evidence anyone might produce to show that the debris from the Roswell crash site was (or was not) extra-terrestrial, it seems extremely improbable to me that a sufficiently advanced alien race that has developed the technology capable of traversing the far regions of outer space would struggle with the concept of “brakes.” Imagine this, an alien spaceship is hurling in our direction at near light speed when a mechanical engineer announces to the ship's captain that somehow they have lost their ability to stop or slow down. “See that class-m planet over there?” the captain says to his navigator. “It's three fourths covered with water. Aim directly for one of its deserts.” Perhaps, on other planets, there is also “no lower limit.”
     Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll see you folks again next week.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Truth about Reading

     Before I jump into the topic of this week's blog, it gives me great pleasure to acknowledge a reader who pointed out a wonderfully comic blunder in my last week's post. A reader from Reddit (an online social discussion website that is divided into distinct communities dedicated to talking over practically every subject you can imagine) pointed out that the basic premise of last week's essay on The Wizard of Oz was centered around the meaning of something that never actually happened. In last week's essay, I humorously tried to explain the rhetorical motivations The Wicked Witch of The West may have had in asking Dorothy if she were a good witch or a bad witch; TheThinkologist (the Reddit reader's username) rightly observed that in the movie, The Wicked Witch never asked this question – it was Glinda (The Good) who asked this question. So thank you, TheThinkologist! I guess the next time I base a post on a single line from a film, I should take the time to rewatch the movie. And now, as they say in The Biz, on with the show . . .

     In 1941, a hunter by the name of Georges de Mestral came home from a good days hunting with his dog in the Swiss Alps. De Mestral, who happened to also be an engineer, wondered what caused those annoying and awful burrs to stick to his pants as he traipsed through the woods. After looking at the burrs under a microscope and seeing thousands of tiny hooks on the burrs, de Mestral had an epiphany. It then took the Swiss engineer ten years to perfect a manufacturing process that could replicate the way burrs stick to clothing. He called his invention “Velcro” as a combination of the two French words for “velvet” and “crochet hook.” His invention made De Mestral millions, and he died in 1990 leaving the world a little better off than he had found it. De Mestral once gave his executives at Velcro some good advice; he told them, “If any of your employees ask for a two-week holiday to go hunting, say yes.”
     Just as burrs stick to the pants of hunters, meanings stick to words. I like this metaphor because the impression I want to suggest is that meanings are not irrevocably cemented to words; they hang to words like velcro. They can easily be pulled apart, and other meanings can attach themselves as well. Because of this, reading is as much a creative act as writing. As a writer, I connect ideas in my head to words, and as a reader, you pull them loose and stick them to the ideas that are already floating around in your head. Meanings stick differently in the minds of different readers depending upon the ideas that are already there for the messages to attach themselves to. This is why two people can read the same text and derive entirely different meanings. The sentence “I never said she took my money,” for instance, can be interpreted in at least seven different ways depending on which word your internal narrator emphasizes as you read it.
     Unlike the random burrs that stick to our clothes when we wander through the weeds, however, there's a bit of Darwin in the way alternative meanings must compete with each other to find space in our consciousness. Whenever you are reading a text, competing notions of “the right” meaning vie for dominance in the mental space of your mind.   Imagine “good” interpretations of what you have read slugging it out with “bad” interpretations. For the philosopher and the rhetorician, competing ideas concerning the relationship between truth and meaning enter this psychic arena from two distinct and separate entrances. Of course, there are far more than two portals in to The Psychic Arena of Truth (theologians and politicians, for example, also manage their own doors), but for now, let us stick to observing the individual and interesting openings provided by philosophers and rhetoricians.
     For the philosopher's entrance (such as constructed by Plato who dedicated himself to peering beyond the illusions of this life to seeing into a higher, perfect, and eternal reality ), the concept of “Being” marks the way for meaning to move into consciousness and find its rightful place according to a preexisting Cosmic organization. Thus, from the philosopher's entranceway, the meanings we derive from readings are true only to the extent that they correspond to the place where Nature (with a capital N – which may or may not have a mind of its own) has reserved for them to go. This is to say, that from the philosopher's entrance, what is “right” connects with what is “true” at a location that exists in Being regardless of human interference. If the human race were collectively all to draw one final breath and die in some universal apocalypse, Truth in the ontological space of Being would continue to float unobserved (perhaps grateful to at last be left in peace from the voyeuristic gawking of mortals).
     Diametrically across from the philosopher’s doorway, “The Portal of Context” labels the rhetorician's entrance for Meaning in your mind's Area of Truth. For the rhetorician, this doorway for meaning was first constructed in Ancient Greece by a collective group of itinerant teachers of public speaking who were known collectively as “The Sophists.” A key insight of the sophists was that given the enormity of Truth and the finite capacity for human intelligence to comprehend it, every declaration of Truth should come with an asterisk that goes to a footnote that cautions readers that “since knowing everything is impossible, all understanding should be regarded as incomplete.” From the rhetorician's “Portal of Context”, whenever you read something, Meaning comes into the Arena of Truth, looks around to see who else is watching, takes note of what time it is and what day of the week it is, considers what it had for breakfast and if it needs a snack, and then proceeds to bump some other Competing Notions out of their chairs on its way to finding some place to sit down. For the rhetorician, Meaning is never entirely satisfied with its seat and is always hoping some other Idea will get up to go to the restroom in order to snag a chair that is better than the truth it is already sitting in.
     Reading, then, is a creative act of interpretation. Whether you believe that Meaning has a spot reserved for it through the philosopher's Door of Being or that Meaning has to elbow its way to find a place to stay in your understanding through the rhetorician's Portal of Context, it is important to recognize that the Psychic Arena of Truth in the mind of the writer is not an identical duplicate to the Arena in the mind of the reader. The best writers are those who remain well aware that the Meanings in their heads will never appear as indistinguishable clones in the minds of their readers and, thus, labor to create detailed explanations for the environments in which their Meanings exist so to give their Meanings the best chance of finding a good home in the headspace of others. The best readers are those who are well-practiced in imagining the circumstances the writer originally intended for her Meanings. There have been long and ongoing arguments among literary theorists regarding whether writers have a better claim to the Meanings in their texts or whether readers have a better claim for their own Meanings whenever interpreting a text. Some theorists would argue that once the text leaves its author, it is like a child leaving home to live on its own, and the author should give up telling a text how to live.
     For teachers, the ramifications of the understanding that readers do not find identical meanings to each other in texts (let alone their original “intended” meanings as sent forth by the writer) is huge. Ideally, students should be encouraged to pursue their own interpretation of texts and then challenged to explain the validity of their interpretations. Unfortunately, political policies are driving teachers to abandon this type of instruction. More and more, teachers are being judged by their students ability to perform on standardized tests; in Ohio, for example, state law now decrees that at least half of every teacher's evaluation be based on an interpretation of the data generated through their students' test scores. The standardized test industry in this country represents one of the most affluent and powerful lobbies, and money continues to hypnotize legislators into believing that testing companies have the wherewithal to create tests that can write questions that students can only legitimately answer one way. In other words, the ability to teach students to think critically is being sacrificed at the Alter of The One Right Answer. 
      For many teachers, then, offering instruction to students in the critical ability to read and interpret texts in alternative ways is both a subversive and dangerous act of rebellion that will ultimately get them fired. In our increasingly complex world in which we should be honoring a wide variety of diverse thinking, the cement of money is proving to be a stronger adhesive to the comprehension of legislators than the velcro of academic legitimacy. Let's not worry that in the meantime, literally millions of school children are having their financial futures destroyed because they are incapable of predicting how state-sanctioned testing companies want their questions interpreted.
     Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll be back next week.