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September 17, 2007

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Carolyn Ann

In math, you have to do the puzzles in order to understand them. As a apprentice, I was shown how to do something, and then I had to do it. Sometimes it took more than one crack at 'it', but eventually (hopefully not too eventually) the apprentice "got it".

People always learn better by doing. You can read all you want about dismantling a Chevrolet V8, or riding a motorcycle. But until you do it, you really don't understand it properly. Writing is no different: you can say "be clear", but until someone understands what that means - by doing - they'll never understand it. They'll understand the theory, read Strunk & White cover to cover, absorb the Chicago Manual of Style with alacrity and then go study Nietzsche or Derrida, and forget all about clarity and the English language.

I've always been a little unsure why philosophy was treated differently to the "do it to know it" principle. After all, it's as much about writing as it is about thinking. A clearly stated argument, even if it has significant flaws, is going to get a better reception than the obtuse, scattered and poorly written one. We always respond to presentation, and as a general sort of a rule, no one likes to work harder than they should. Especially when it comes to doing things like marking papers - which invariably ends up being done by the teacher when they'd rather be doing something else. Like having a nice dinner with their spouse. (Can you tell I have some experience with this? I'm the spouse.)

It's a practical concern, but for the most part, getting the students to understand how to write is probably as important as teaching them how to think. In philosophy (and theology), it's easy to be obscure. Well, easier than math, and there's no obscurity tolerated in wiring a huge 2,000 wires in a 1,000-pair telephone cable.

Being clear should be a requirement of all philosophy courses!
(If only so that the spouse gets to see their dearly beloved once in awhile...)

Carolyn Ann

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