Writing Without Facts is Like Building a House without Nails

When my older son was in elementary school, our district was in the midst of creating a Gifted and Talented program. At the time, we had a person who had spent years working to create a program that was based on research, data, and best practices. Unfortunately, we also had a person working to create a program that was based on anecdotal evidence, feelings, and politics.

Despite our best intentions, my wife and I wound up involved in the discussion. As a new parent and a person who loved research, I gathered data, read articles, and wrote a mini research paper in preparation for a public “forum” to discuss the kind of program we should create.  After sitting politely and listening to the ramblings of various plans that rewarded kids for being rich or plans that focused on social skills, plans that relied on emotion, platitudes, and cliches, we presented facts. Data. Research that included longitudinal studies of children. Neuroscience. We interpreted the data and made an argument based on those facts. Throughout the research and the writing, there was no doubt someone might reach a different conclusion or create a different kind of plan. That’s critical thinking. That’s debate. That’s also okay.

“Well,” I was told, “we just have a different philosophy about education.”

“Thinking something is true and hoping you are right isn’t a philosophy. It’s a guess. This,” I announced holding up my information, “is a philosophy grounded in concrete particulars and factual evidence. I’ve shown you my proof, now you show me yours.”

Things got worse from there. I’m told tears were shed. 

What’s notable about that event from so long ago isn’t that our school district created a terrible GT program, but how readily a room full of power brokers willingly ignored factual evidence in favor of emotional appeals. There are, just so we’re clear, a variety of ways to create a GT program and there are even some really good arguments one could make against ever creating a GT program at all. None of them were made that day.

That shouldn’t be surprising, though, because we’ve been witnessing over the last few years a slow war on facts and knowledge.

We have, instead, fallen in love with analysis and commentary that exists independently of actual knowledge. We would rather listen to Bill O’Reilly or Sara Palin tell us what to think about evolution than listen to a scientist who has verifiable and reproducible data.

Admittedly, I’m no real fan of hierarchies or charts that simplify understanding and learning, but I think we can all agree that knowledge and recall is the easiest and “lowest” realm of any learning taxonomy. Things like analysis, synthesis, and creativity are on the opposite end of the spectrum. 

We also know, both cognitively and practically, that practice makes the master. In sports, repetition creates muscle memory and efficiency. In education, memorization creates muscle memory and efficiency. Want to get better at multiplication. Multiply. A lot. And then multiple some more. Does it mean you understand the complex relationship between numbers and multiples? No. Is it very much fun? No. But, bored or not, you can still multiply. 

The base knowledge matters because it allows us to have information at our finger tips both for our own arguments and to help us judge the arguments of others. 

We can’t, and this seems awfully important to me, offer analysis without the facts. Unfortunately, we are raising a generation of students who have bought into the idea that rote memorization and classes that employ the drill and kill teaching method are not engaging or interesting. Many of my colleagues argue we don’t need to lecture or teach facts because students can look information up. We should, they argue, focus on comprehension and context. Teachers should be facilitators, classroom managers who help students find information. 

Picture me gagging and rolling my eyes.

When my students ask why they have to know the authors of various works, memorize definitions of terms, or even know how to spell correctly, I tell them they are establishing a mental discipline that will help them later in life. Words, grammar, facts, I tell them, are like nails and screws. You can’t build a house without them. Your essays depend on concrete information that has some basis in fact. Without those things, you are just leaning sentences against each other hoping they stand up.

As educators, even at the college level, we have a duty to provide knowledge to our students. Doing so isn’t demeaning or childish. Providing terms, demanding that students learn particular historical dates, and requiring they read and recite information from stories, emphasizes the value we place on knowledge and we help students understand those are things that we find important. We give value to that information.

They also give students the base upon which to build critical thinking. Without the fact, we aren’t thinking critically, we are just mouthing off. 

The narrator of Teju Cole’s fine 2011 novel Open City tells us he has a “suspicion that there was a mood in the society that pushed people more toward snap judgments and unexamined opinions, an unscientific mood; to the old problem of mass innumeracy, it seemed to me, was being added a more general inability to assess evidence. This made brisk business for those whose specialty was in the promising of immediate solutions: politicians, or priests of the various religions.”

Our goal as educators, it seems to me, is to help our students move beyond snap judgments by demanding evidence so we can avoid those people lurking on the edges of truth, making promises that are too often disconnected from reality.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

One Response to Writing Without Facts is Like Building a House without Nails

  1. Suzanne says:

    Congratulations, this is a really excellent discussion!

    First, a quibble: I see you ascribing to the political right an anti-science (i.e., pro-creationism) stance. OK, fair enough, but that’s not the only anti-scientific movement going on right now; how about those people (on the left) who think ‘the science is settled’ about what they’re currently calling climate change? How anti-science can you get–declaring something ‘settled’? A horse-laugh to that idea!

    What I love, though, is how well you explain the necessity of ‘mere fact.’ The more ‘mere facts’ you know, and have mastered, the more rapidly you can bless the world with all those complex thoughts you may possibly come up with.

    Simply to be able to read requires mastery of a certain set of facts. I teach Latin, and to be able to read texts in Latin–first, in simple, made-up Latin at the easiest level, and of course progressing to more complex ones that are increasingly like the real thing, Latin literature, the ultimate goal–you need to keep learning and mastering more facts about the language. It reminds me a lot of learning to add, subtract, divide, and multiply–except as it happens, there doesn’t exist (and I doubt there ever could exist) a gadget, analogous to a calculator, that can ‘save time’ by doing the necessary analysis and figuring out for you which of the 10 different forms of a single noun (for example) you’re looking at.

    Recently, at our school, we were shown a video that the makers certainly were proud of; I think it was meant to illustrate a classroom out in California that was brilliantly using the inquiry method (or some such name) in a high-school social studies classroom. The teacher had prepared some documents relating to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that the students were going to ‘read critically.’ To start off the session, the teacher brightly began, “We’re in August of 1964. Now, let’s see, who was president?” And there was an embarrassing silence! Some wise kid quipped–these looked to be high-school juniors possibly, not little children–“Some white dude,” which got some laughs. To me, it was simply ridiculous, that one would set up an exercise to pretend with these students that their opinions and expertise (!) in analyzing documents could be solicited, when they were so far from knowing basic facts about 20th century (recent!) American history, as not even to be able to tell that LBJ would have succeeded JFK at that point.

    In your comments about the gifted and talented program debacle, at which emotion and feel-good analysis won out, I’m reminded of nothing so much as my school district’s declaration–maybe this goes on in lots of districts around the country, too–that the various academic achievement gaps seen in certain racial and ethnic minorities, those of low socio-economic status, and the special ed population, SHALL BE eliminated. Apparently, some of the most intractable problems of the age (or of the human condition, perhaps) are susceptible to being fixed, if we only want it hard enough, talk about it enough, commission enough studies, and (above all, I suppose) spend enough money “for the children.” Going for the Common Core curriculum will probably help here, since it looks as though alternatives to actually being able to read and write are definitely to be contemplated and promoted.

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