Writing in 1949 in the wake of World War II, Lou LaBrant opens a consideration of cliche and abstractions by focusing on a student essay, in which the student discussed her assumptions instead of the text she was examining:
Only after inch-by-inch progress was she able to see that from “orphan,” for which the novelist was undoubtedly responsible, my student had jumped to the whole cliche “poor, defenseless orphan” and consequent accusations against at least three other characters in the story.
…But of serious account is her tendency or that of any reader to accept a cliche and so permit it to stand between himself and a fact or understanding. (p. 275)
1987 Poem: “Sow” (Sylvia Plath)
Prompt: Read the poem. Then write an essay in which you analyze the presentation of the sow. Consider particularly how the language of the poem reflects both the neighbor’s and the narrator’s perceptions of the sow and how the language determines the reader’s perceptions. Be certain to discuss how the portrayal of the sow is enhanced by such features as diction, devices of sound, images, and allusions.
Typical of A.P. literature prompts, the focus of the response is on three sets of perceptions. Scores for that written section in 1987 were notoriously low. Students, it seemed, experienced something very similar to what LaBrant identified in her students: “to accept a cliche and so permit it to stand between himself and a fact or understanding.”
I used that prompt for students to practice for the exam when I taught A.P. Lit, and we always discussed how students struggled against their own perceptions of “sow,” or pigs.
Let me offer, now, three further points in the context above.
First, consider our assumptions about language. When I teach ELA methods, I often raise the issue of how people respond to the so-called non-standard use of “aks” (instead of the standard “ask”)—highlighting that the non-standard “aks” is immediately and almost universally associated with African Americans, and then if not simultaneously, consequentially, with being uneducated or unintelligent.
However, when placed in historical and cultural context, those simplistic assumptions fall apart. And, “aks” is but one of many words in the English language that demonstrates “metathesis”:
Wasp used to be waps; bird used to be brid and horse used to be hros. Remember this when the next time you hear someone complaining about aks for ask or nucular for nuclear, or even perscription. It’s called metathesis, and it’s a very common, perfectly natural process.
And while “aks” carries both racial and intelligence baggage, President George W. Bush experienced the brunt of intelligence jokes because of “nucular.”
Second, consider the assumptions bound in not the words we hear or use, but what we see:
Asked to identify the age of a young boy that committed a felony, participants in a study routinely overestimated the age of black children far more than they did white kids. Worse: Cops did it, too.
The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, aimed at figuring out the extent to which black children were likely to be treated differently than their white peers solely based on race. More specifically, the authors wanted to figure out the extent to which black kids were dehumanized. “Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection,” author Phillip Atiba Goff of UCLA told the American Psychological Association. “Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”
Third, consider Glenn Ford:
A Louisiana man who has spent nearly three decades on death row walked free on Tuesday, after prosecutors asked a judge to set aside his first-degree murder conviction and death sentence, citing new evidence in the case that exonerated him.
Glenn Ford, 64, a black man, was convicted by an all-white jury in the 1983 robbery and murder of Isadore Rozeman, a 56-year-old Shreveport watchmaker, who was found shot to death behind the counter of his jewelry shop.
Acting on new information that exonerated Ford, a judge in Shreveport ordered him released from Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, where he has been held on death row since March 1985.
As LaBrant warns in her examination of cliches and abstractions, humans are predisposed to read texts and the world in ways that are shaded, and thus distorted, by their assumptions, the codes they have embraced uncritically.
The line between cliches and abstractions in careless student writing, and prejudices and bigotry in the way people live their lives is razor thin, and possibly the only things between a young person and crossing that line are the sorts of experiences in their formal schooling that ask students to reconsider assumptions, reconsider abstractions and generalizations.
Teaching English, teaching reading and writing, is about more than the 1987 prompt on the A.P. exam above—a prompt grounded in New Criticism and little different than what students will be bound to do under the new regime of “close reading” in the Common Core (a strategy designed to ask students not to consider context beyond the text itself).
How students read and re-read the world, how students write and re-write the world, then, must be framed differently. Students require context and they require some basis in their own realm of understanding in order to move beyond their provincialism:
It should be noted that such analysis is made much more easily when the writer is dealing with a problem in which he has some stake and for which he has assumed the initiative in writing. If the statement comes from a workbook or from the teacher’s assignment, it is impossible to hold the writer to an understanding of meaning. Sometimes we ourselves deliver definitions (generalizations) meaningless to children.
…We assign topics for writing, well knowing that they are beyond the real understanding of our pupils and that consequently these young writers must fall back on vague and meaningless generalizations. (p. 277)
It is not just about the words and people we see around us; it is about what we assume we see in the words and people around us—often despite evidence to the contrary.
That fact of the power of bias, assumption, prejudice, and bigotry has powerful consequences:
The less the black kids were seen as human, the less they were granted “the assumption that children are essentially innocent.” And those officers who were more likely to dehumanize black suspects overlapped with those who used more force against them.
What cliches-as-prejudice persist that keep political leaders, the media, and the public from reading that reality?