writing about the news for students

Roger Bissell

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For many years, I have been concerned about how to communicate to school children Objectivist and Libertarian insights that are age-appropriate not only in their content, but also in their style. It's one thing to feel confident that you are writing about an issue that your young audience is ready to hear about. It's quite another to write on their reading level, so that it has the right amount of "chewiness."

Back in the 1980s, I read several books on writing style, including a couple by Rudolph Flesch and one by another fellow whose name I can't remember, but who had a lot of very helpful things to say. From this, I got some writing tips for readability, as well as formulas to assess the readability of what I had written in terms of "grade level."

To try it out, I wrote two versions of a piece about a Newsweek article, one version aimed at 12th graders, the second at 6th graders. It was a very fascinating challenge, and I think the results are worth sharing. (And discussing, if you are so inclined.) Just note the radical simplification that is necessary to add 6 grades of readability to the piece.

Lemme's and Gimme's -- Whose Rights are Right? (12th grade version)

In a Newsweek article, "The High Court's Grand Finale" (July 14, 1980), it was observed that the Burger Court takes a narrow, piecemeal, unphilosophical approach to its decisions. This is true, and it applies equally well to our country and its other leaders, too.

There are two fundamentally different notions of individual rights waging a crucial, but largely unacknowledged battle for supremacy in America today. The fact that these two radically opposed ideas are not recognized for what they are explains why so many people, and our Supreme Court justices in particular, can reach such contradictory conclusions about rights.

These two diametrically opposed concepts of rights can be referred to simply as the "lemme's" and the "gimme's." And they are both present and well accounted for in the Court decisions referred to in the Newsweek article.

The "gimme" theory--the modern welfare-state version of rights--says: "I'm poor, gimme a free abortion," or "I'm a minority, gimme preferential treatment." Led by Chief Justice Burger and Justice Marshall, the "gimme's" won on the racial quotas issue.

The "lemme" theory--the traditional American concept of rights--merely says to the government, "Lemme choose to seek an abortion, but to have it only if I can pay for it or get someone's voluntary assistance;" or, Lemme choose to apply for this job, but to get it only if the employer is willing to hire me." Led by Justice Stewart, the "lemme's" won on Medicaid abortion issue.

Time will tell which version of rights wins out, and whether America keeps lurching down the road to socialism with the "gimme's," or returns to freedom with the "lemme's." But one thing's for sure: neither the Burger Court, nor our country, will find its way until we all clearly distinguish between the two basic theories of individual rights and decide once and for all which one we will consistently recognize and uphold.

Lemme's and Gimme's -- Whose Rights are Right? (6th grade version)

About two years ago Newsweek did a feature on the Burger court. They observed that the highest court in the land "takes a narrow, piecemeal, unphilosophical approach to its decisions." ("The High Court's Grand Finale," July 14, 1980)

This is true. But the report failed to note one thing. Our country and its other leaders follow the same approach.

This is why so many people--Supreme Court judges among them--take such contradictory stands on basic rights. They fail to look beneath the surface to rock-bottom facts. They neglect philosophy.

People may suspect that a major battle is being fought in our country today. Few of them know what it's all about.

Two very different notions of individual rights--the "lemme's" and the "gimme's"--are slugging it out. Both are present and well accounted for in the cases mentioned in Newsweek.

The "gimme" theory is the modern welfare-state version. It says: "I'm poor, gimme a free abortion." "I'm a minority, gimme special treatment." Led by Chief Justice Burger and Justice Marshall, the "gimme's" won on racial quotas.

The "lemme" theory is the traditional American concept. It merely says, "Lemme seek an abortion, but have it only if I pay for it or someone else helps me out of his own free will." Lemme apply for this job, but get it only if the boss wants to hire me." Led by Justice Stewart, the "lemme's" won on Medicaid abortion.

What about the long run? Which version of rights will win out? Will our country keep lurching down the road to socialism with the "gimme's"? Or will we return to freedom with the "lemme's"? Only time will tell.

But one thing's for sure. Neither the Burger Court, nor our country will find its way until they clearly draw the line. Only then can they see that the "lemme's" and the "gimme's" do not mix. That they must choose one or the other.

Let's help them.

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This is a follow-up to the 12th grade vs. 6th grade "readability" examples. In an unpublished manuscript on aesthetics (back when it was still cool to spell it "esthetics" :-), I wrote a section on linguistic and esthetic symbols as human tools, and how to evaluate them. This is the first time this material has been shared publicly, so comments are welcome...REB


Like all human tools, linguistic and esthetic symbols can be evaluated in terms of their effectiveness in performing the function for which they are needed. The basic questions to ask are:

• Do they enable us to use them successfully for the fulfillment of the need we have of them?--and--

• How well?

The primary need served by language and art is a cognitive, integrative one. They implement our system of abstractions. Without language and art, we cannot retain the conceptual integrations we have achieved, nor can we gain and retain new ones.

To evaluate whether and to what extent a given symbol (or system of symbols, such as a language) enables us to grasp and retain abstractions, we must first identify the abstraction(s) being symbolized.

In the field of language, this is an easy matter. Language encompasses the full range of human knowledge. Various grammatical and syntactical forms, for instance, may be compared across languages--or even between speakers and writers in the same language--according to criteria such as clarity, consistency, economy, etc.

Naturally, one’s intended audience is a key factor in knowing how to evaluate, for instance, a given sentence’s effectiveness as a symbol. A sentence may be perfectly clear to a college graduate. If, however, its structure is sufficiently complex, it may be complete gibberish to a sixth grader--even if all of its concepts and words are part of the child’s knowledge and vocabulary. Obviously, we must always ask ourselves: “Clear--to whom?”

The principle behind this is known variously as information overload, exceeding cognitive channel capacity, failure to observe the principle of the “crow epistemology,” etc. This principle merely identifies the fact that all consciousness, animal and human alike, is limited in the amount of material that it can retain and focus on at a given moment.

Thus, the sixth grader, with a smaller context of knowledge of vocabulary, syntax, and factual information will be more limited in the complexity of what he or she can grasp than the college graduate. Things one says to or writes for the sixth grader must be scaled down accordingly. This requires not only smaller words and shorter phrases and sentences, but often much repetition, as well. Such repetition for the college graduate, however, would probably bore or irritate him, for the simple reason that he does not need the repetition.

This illustrates an important fact about the criterion of economy of means. And it must be emphasized that economy of means is not just a matter of how few times something is repeated or how few words are used to communicate a point.

The basic issues behind economy are instead: “Repeated--to whom? Communicated --to whom?” How many times is it necessary to repeat something for which person, reader, or audience? How many words are necessary to communicate something to which person, reader, or audience?

These issues--which are applicable by analogy to art, as well--may be summarized in the form of a sort of linguistic “razor”: linguistic communicative means should not be eliminated in disregard of necessity, nor should they be multiplied in disregard of necessity. In other words, true linguistic economy entails using all of the words, repetition, etc., one needs to communicate a point to one’s chosen audience--but only those words, repetition, etc., that are needed. (Present work not excepted!)

In addition to the linguistic evaluation of (for example) a sentence, there is also the factual evaluation of its content. In other words, one wants to know not only: is it (communicatively) good or excellent as a sentence?, but also: is it a true, factual sentence? Does the sentence represent a non-contradictory grasp of a fact of reality?

Even more basically, the sentence must be meaningful. Without meaningfulness, it has neither cognitive nor symbolic value. Such an utterance communicates no content and can thus be neither true nor false. And it communicates nothing and can thus be neither excellent nor poor. It’s totally worthless--except, perhaps, as an example of linguistic pathology.

Human beings need not just meaningful sentences--nor just graspable sentences--nor just factual sentences--but meaningful and graspable and factual (true) sentences. Nevertheless, these three aspects of sentences are clearly distinct and must be kept separate when evaluating them.

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