Saturday, January 24, 2009

Language lessons

This is really narcissistic, but I am going to post on one of my own posts. The response to my piece on the quality of debate over Gaza at the Drink-soaked ones was really heartening (and special thanks are due to my pals on the Trots for their kind comments and links). I want to use this post to explain that it wasn't that difficult a task to write it. All I was doing was using a set of analytical tools I use in teaching students about clear thinking.

Language matters and the debate over the use of it is an old one in radical circles. Though Orwell's fine essay, Politics and the English Language, is probably the best known on the topic, he was, in fact, repeating old arguments. Much came from the 19th Century Freethought and rationalist movements, whose importance is often under emphasised as a source of radical ideas. I particularly like a deeply obscure pamphlet from the 1850's produced by the London Confederation of Rational Reformers that I unearthed in the Nettlau archive. Its theme was that "the bulk of mankind are, and have ever been, the egregious dupes of language."

Most of the tricks I described in the post and many others can be found in a splendid little book, first published in 1935, Straight and Crooked Thinking by Robert Thouless. It is out of print, and the examples are out of date, but there are loads of second hand copies around and it is still very useful. More recently Jamie Whyte produced Bad Thoughts, a Guide to Clear Thinking (evidently not that clear as he comes across as a bit of a Tory), which is a good, accessible read. There is a lot more out there too. So I wasn't being particularly original, it is just that we pay too little attention to the logical structure of argument in constructing and repeating our views (especially over a pint or several).

What I was trying to do with the Gaza post was to open out the debate by looking at the way it had been constructed rather than rehearsing tired and circular arguments and, with one possible exception, it seems to have worked. I am not that virtuous though. In this other post I was doing something else.

In attacking a spectacularly stupid assertion by the Labour MP Graham Stringer that dyslexia could not exist because Nicaragua had achieved 100% literacy in its schools, I quoted the UN World Development Report, which gave Nicaragua an adult literacy rate of under 77%. Naughty. Why? An adult literacy rate includes the whole population, not just the recently educated, and many of those would have been schooled before the literacy drives associated with the Sandinistas. I should have used the UNICEF figures for young people, which gives a rate of 84% for males and 89% for females. Still short of the claimed 100%, but not quite as spectacular.

So why did I do it? For impact? To exaggerate my case? No. It was because Stringer was Chair of the council that closed my beloved College of Adult Education in 1990 and I do bear a grudge. I wanted to make him look even more ridiculous. So the moral is, read with care and without total trust. And keep thinking, thinking clearly.

1 comment:

Ann oDyne said...

often I go to www.cia.gov
World Fact Book, and for Nicaragua they claim

Literacy:definition: age 15 and over can read and write -
Total population: 67.5%
Male: 67.2%
Female: 67.8% (2003 est.)

Education expenditures:
3.1% of GDP (2003).

... and maintain your rage over that closure.