TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 19, 2023
Clarity can be hard: Clarity tends to be hard.
In fact, just as a matter of fact, clarity can be very hard. This lesson is learned from a review of the first four paragraphs of yesterday's lengthy report in the Washington Post.
The report concerns the latest dispute about what should and shouldn't get taught in the nation's public schools. Hannan Natanson wrote the report. Dual headlines included, her report starts like this:
Her students reported her for a lesson on race. Can she trust them again?
Mary Wood’s school reprimanded her for teaching a book by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Now she hopes her bond with students can survive South Carolina’s politics.
CHAPIN, S.C. — As gold sunlight filtered into her kitchen, English teacher Mary Wood shouldered a worn leather bag packed with first-day-of-school items: Three lesson-planning notebooks. Two peanut butter granola bars. An extra pair of socks, just in case.
Everything was ready, but Wood didn’t leave. For the first time since she started teaching 14 years ago, she was scared to go back to school.
Six months earlier, two of Wood’s Advanced Placement English Language and Composition students had reported her to the school board for teaching about race. Wood had assigned her all-White class readings from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me,” a book that dissects what it means to be Black in America.
The students wrote in emails that the book—and accompanying videos that Wood, 47, played about systemic racism—made them ashamed to be White, violating a South Carolina proviso that forbids teachers from making students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” on account of their race.
Obviously, a whole lot of "human interest" is driving this lengthy report:
Mary Wood's high school students had "reported her to the school board!" Six months later, on the first day of the next school year, Wood "was scared to go back to school!"
As the reader quickly learns, it was only two of Mary Wood's students who bellyached to the board. That said, this complaint led to the latest heated public dispute about what students should, and shouldn't, be taught in the nation's public schools—in this case, in the public schools of Chapin, South Carolina.
Based on Natanson's report, it seems clear that Mary Wood is a good, decent person. Obviously, that doesn't necessarily mean that she has perfect judgment—and by the way, clarity can be extremely hard.
Why do we say that clarity's hard? Consider the claim—the claim by Natanson, a Harvard grad—which we've highlighted above.
The claim in question goes like this—but is this account really accurate?
A South Carolina [law] forbids teachers from making students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” on account of their race.
Is that claim accurate? Is there really some such proviso in some South Carolina law? And by the way, can we even clearly say what Natanson is claiming in that somewhat muddy passage?
According to Natanson, it's against the law for a South Carolina teacher to make students feel distress on account of their race. But what exactly does that statement mean?
Can a teacher ever make her students feel some particular way? How could a teacher make a student do that? What would that even mean?
Clarity can be hard. That said, it seems to us that Natanson, a 2019 Harvard grad, has started her lengthy report on this high-profile topic by misstating what the South Carolina proviso actually says.
The quoted proviso can be found in the Palmetto State's 2022 Academic Integrity Act. For our money, the proviso in question makes fairly good sense. As you can see by clicking this link, the proviso in question says this:
Academic Integrity Act
A student...may not be required to participate in...a course that includes the following concepts...
(7) any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.
Even there, we'd complain about a certain lack of clarity—but the key word there seems to be "should."
What is that proviso saying? To our eye and ear, that proviso says that no student should ever be told that he or she should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.
To our eye and ear, that's what it seems to say. And we're sorry, but that isn't the way Natanson ended up paraphrasing what the proviso says.
To our eye and ear, it's a case of dueling paraphrase! To our eye and ear, the dueling parties are these:
Dueling examples of paraphrase:
Paraphrase 1: Teachers are forbidden from making students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” on account of their race.
Paraphrase 2: Teachers are forbidden from telling students that they should “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” on account of their race.
We're sorry, but no—those aren't equivalent accounts of what the proviso says. And at this point, the deathless Gene Brabender instantly comes to mind.
In the summer of 69, Brabender was a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher for the Seattle Pilots, the forerunner to today's Milwaukee Brewers.
According to the leading authority on Brabender's life and major league baseball career, Brabender "stood 6 feet 6 inches (1.98 m) tall and weighed 225 pounds (102 kg)." He'd been described by one teammate as "a hard-throwing country boy."
He was also a man with little respect for the finer distinctions of language. During that 1969 season, Brabender was a teammate of pitcher-author Jim Bouton, whose subsequent book, Ball Four, was later chosen as one of the 100 greatest books of the 20th century.
Bouton reported in his book that Brabender had little patience for nuanced discussion in the bullpen during long, boring major league game. He quoted Brabender making the angry statement shown below—a statement which identifies Brabender as one of the greatest students of human nature ever found on the planet:
"Where I come from, we just talk for a little white. After that, we start to hit."
Brabender wasn't in thrall to nuanced distinction. When the distinctions became too nuanced, he instinctively "started to hit."
Hannah Natanson went to Harvard; Gene Brabender didn't. That said, clarity can be very hard, even for Ivy League graduates.
By our lights, Natanson started her report about Mary Wood with a muddy piece of paraphrase. In the passage posted above, you can see what Natanson wrote. In reply, we would say this:
Under the proviso in question, Mary Wood, a high school teacher in South Carolina, was (inferentially) forbidden from telling her ("white") students that they should feel guilt about what other people had done in the past.
Did Wood ever tell her students any such thing? We'll guess that the answer is possibly no, but Natanson never attempts to figure that out.
Poor, poor pitiful us! We were only four grafs into this lengthy report, but we already had to stop and do a bit of googling! We googled up the South Carolina law which featured the proviso in question—and when we did, it seemed to us that it didn't say what Natanson said it said.
So it goes, again and again, in the affairs of our own human race! Clarity can be extremely hard—and given our deeply flawed human nature, all of us, red and blue alike, are strongly inclined to hit.
That's our first anthropology for the week. More anthropologies follow.
Tomorrow: The start of Coates' widely-praised book