Semantic and poetic meaning: a heart cleft in twain

“Poetry is truer than history.” -Aristotle

In a couple classes I’m taking, I keep running into the same competition of concepts: it’s the duel between the scientific and the artistic. The quantitative and the quantitative. Or as Kenneth Burke would have it, the semantic and the poetic. The difference, which I’ll explain in a minute, is in itself so interesting to me. Long before I knew the word “epistemology” I was curious about a human’s ability (or maybe lack of ability) to understand or describe an objective reality. But this left brain/right brain battle is particularly interesting in light of another issue that puts me in a fettle: teacher evaluations. Without going into the politics of whether or not teachers ought to walk out on their students as they have done in Chicago in recent days, I think it’s important to make a couple philosophical observations about teacher evaluations and the standardized tests that feed them.

But first, a word on semantic and poetic meaning. Semantic meaning is what any scientist worth his (and yes, that pronoun is deliberate) salt is after. They aim at “making true statements about the world” (Eisner, 1981). Put more colorfully, the goal is to “evolve a vocabulary that gives the name and address of every event in the universe” (Burke, 1989). A noble pursuit to be sure! Such pursuit involves a process of universalizing, or essentializing.

Burke offers the example of a chair. According to an “ideal semantic definition” of a chair, “people knew what you wanted when you asked for one, a carpenter knew how to make it, a furniture dealer knew how to get it, etc.” All the actual chairs in the world are but examples of this ideal “chair-ness;” from the particular we move to the general (and here of course we are floating into Plato’s realm). On the other hand, a poetic definition of a chair might be the chair I’m looking at right now– a stuffed velvet chair of golden hue, which I inherited from my dad, and which will always remind me of him and its spot in the apartment where I spent my teenage years. Or it could be the lovely wooden dining room chairs behind me, which, incidentally, my mother gave me. As you can see, my furniture is filled with meaning beyond the simply material. I associate with these objects memories and meanings, and even aspects of my relationships to my family.

In sum: while a semantic definition of a chair tries to “cut away, to abstract, all emotional factors that complicate the objective clarity of meaning,” a poetic definition of my chairs is all for the “heaping up of all these emotional factors… and [for] seeking to make this active participation itself a major ingredient of the vision” (Burke).

Where does this leave us in the messy world of trying to just come to some conclusions for godsakes? And why won’t these teachers stop forsaking their pupils and just get back to work? Good questions, all. But we have to look at what the teachers are protesting. While teacher accountability is of course a good thing, as all accountability is in a social world, we must ask: what are the methods by which teachers are being held accountable? They are being judged by measures of a purely semantic nature (and I’m using the term in a Burkean sense here of course).

Value-added modeling and other similar kinds of teacher evals are based on student standardized test scores. These assessments (of both students and teachers) seek to capture some kind of objective measure– represented by a measly number!– of student learning and therefore, teacher success. While it would certainly be convenient and scientific (because numbers are so unclouded by emotion) to be able to place the attainment of knowledge on an interval/ratio scale, anyone who has ever learned something can testify that what they know is not quantifiable– try counting the things you learned last year!

Indeed, teachers (and for that matter, students) are being assessed semantically for their expertise in a poetic phenomenon. Where we seek fact we should be seeking meaning. Do our teachers help students create meaning? I’m all for assessing that, though I don’t think numbers will play a very big role in the instrument. As one researcher elegantly frames this relentless attempt at quantifying truth, “Truth implies singularity and monopoly. Meaning implies relativism and diversity. Truth is more closely wedded to consistency and logic, meaning to diverse interpretation and coherence” (Eisner, 1981). Certainly, consistency and logic have their place. But how can you compare the millions of contextual factors that make every single teacher, every single classroom, unique?

Works Cited here:

Burke, K. (1989). On Symbols and Society. J.R. Gusfield (ed.). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Eisner, E.W. (1981). On the differences between scientific and artistic approaches to qualitative research. Educational Researcher, 10(4), 5-9.


2 thoughts on “Semantic and poetic meaning: a heart cleft in twain

  1. Here’s a thought. Would it not be possible to apply any discipline’s own reigning epistemology to the evaluation of its educators? Take the sciences. Where the semantic, fact-based approach dominates, students and educators could be judged more on the basis of what scientific research is judged upon: how closely their conclusions ‘fit’ or ‘correspond’ or ‘approximate’ an observable reality. For the humanities, things are messier. Again though, evaluation can be based on the reigning criteria for success or competence within the discipline. For the social sciences/humanities it may mean rhetorical strength, critical analysis, comprehension, meaning: ie all the elements that go into defining the ‘poetic’.

    To some extent it is already done, and it’s is an obvious point. But I think it makes sense to highlight these different modes of human learning more often. and even assert it more often into the discussion about teacher evaluation?

  2. Interesting idea. So you are arguing for more empirical, formalistic kinds of assessments in math, science, etc., and more holistic, qualitative assessments in the humanities? In other words, problems in Algebra and essays in English? I’m not sure it addresses the problem of standardized testing as I have posed it. Namely, the problem is the standardization, not the form of the test. For example, people rail against multiple choice tests, but there are other formats. You can have a standardized essay question for example (as there is on the SAT), but students are still graded numerically and against each other. But surely a low-SES kid in Chicago does not come from a similar cultural context as an affluent kid in Florida. How can attempt to assess their learning using the same measure? The medium of the assessment is moot at that point– it’s that it’s used for millions of students across widely different contexts that’s key here.

    Also, don’t confuse the discourse of a discipline with a mode of learning. Students learn a subject– no matter what it is– when they are engaged, challenged, and empowerd. The circumstances that facilitate meaning-making are the same, whether you are analyzing a poem or doing a chemistry experiment.

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