By Lloyd E. Sheaffer
Tell me more. This short imperative usually raised long questions—as it should have.
Were I still in the classroom, this is about the time I would be returning my honors English students’ first formal writing assignment.
Quizzical teenage eyes would be shifting up and down the papers and back and forth to each other trying to make sense of the various blue letters and abbreviations filling the margins. Finally a brave soul would ask, “Mr. Sheaffer. What do these marks mean?” Then I would distribute a sheet with the legend to the markings and explain how to use them.
If a letter P was present in the left margin, it meant that somewhere in that line was a punctuation error; if Sp appeared, it meant somewhere in that line a word was misspelled; if S-V agr was noted in the margin, the corresponding line contained a mistake in agreement between the subject and the verb of a sentence or clause; and so on.
The writers’ task was to identify these mechanical or usage errors and correct them in their revisions. Eyes glowered at realizing the writers, not the teacher, were responsible for finding and rectifying the errors.
Eventually the discussion would move to the notes scratched in the right-hand margins, in particular to the pervasive, blue-inked directive: Tell me more.
Tell me more what? their now worried eyes wanted to know. Tell me more reasons so that I can understand your argument. Tell me more examples so that I know you comprehend a character’s motivation. Tell me more concrete details about your proposal. The students had to figure out what more they needed to tell me for the papers to be effective.
The ensuing discussion focused upon the need for the students as writers to provide appropriate, specific, concrete examples or illustrations or reasonings in their work if they were to be successful in accomplishing their aim: to explain or to convince or to refute or to whatever.
I formulated my approach to the students’ writing responsibilities to move them to become critical writers as well as critical readers. My intent was to provide a strategy, in both form and substance, to analyze, question, and criticize their own writing in ways similar to the skills they were developing in their reading; offering this two-sided approach was a method to hone broader critical thinking skills.
My last coterie of honors students is now in its thirties; I hope those critical skills have continued to help at least some of these past pupils as they face the choices and challenges of adulthood. Heaven knows we need such thinking, those skills that enable one “to think critically . . . include observation, analysis, interpretation, reflection, evaluation, inference, explanation, problem solving, and decision making.”
As I ponder the current state of political and social affairs, I suspect we have rejected such capabilities and have become a population typified by noncritical thinking, which “is accepting as true, things that are not evidentially supported. It usually amounts to assumptive leaps of faith. It is, in its purest form, not thinking before leaping. Most often a result of, deferring the thinking to others, and accepting their conclusions.”
Too many of our citizens make their decisions swayed by slick sound bites, clever slogans, and baseless proclamations rather than by careful, deep analysis and reflection upon pivotal issues and dangerous actions that threaten the fabrics of our neighborhoods, our states, and our nation.
At the very least we must insist that all our our leaders, current or potential, “tell us more.”
- Biden: On my first day in office, I’ll close $400 billion to $500 billion worth of tax loopholes that have no redeeming social value. Tell me more.
- Harris: I will repeal Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which benefits the 1%. Tell me more.
- Trump: Very soon we will have a beautiful trade agreement with China. Tell me more.
- Trump: The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end by restoring law and order. Tell me more.
- Trump: I’ll tackle the gun lobby to try to reduce the outrageous number of people who are dying from gun violence in our country. Tell me more.
Caps, slogans, banners, vapid promises, social media blasts — these should not be the determiners of who will lead our governments. We are suffering from the results of a presidential election won by a person who has, since Inauguration Day, uttered at least 10,796 falsehoods.
Because too many voters failed to question and challenge this candidate in 2016, our nation’s status among allies has fallen, our debilitating national debt will top a trillion dollars within months, our e pluribus unum homeland is splintering into angry factions. Had more voters dared the bloviating contender to tell me more, we might not be standing at the abyss of a failing democracy.
A century ago H. L. Mencken, writing during the 1920 Presidential election, cynically opined, “As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain [i.e. uninformed or unthinking] folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright fool and a narcissistic moron.”
Mencken’s prophecy has been realized.
A generation ago, students in my classroom learned to develop essential critical thinking skills by forcing themselves to respond to my injunction: Tell me more.
As I have remained in contact with several of my students over the decades, their critical approaches to their decisions have served them and their families and their communities well.
The time has come in our political process for all of us to exclaim, “Madame or Mister Candidate, before I consider voting for you, Tell me more.”
Insist that they move beyond buzzwords and taglines and instead provide clear, specific, well-reasoned and supportable information about their platforms and their strategies for achieving them. Otherwise, we will abdicate our vital role in determining the futures of our personal lives and of our nation.
Please, tell me more. Our futures depend upon it.
Capital-Star Opinion contributor Lloyd E. Sheaffer is a retired high school English teacher. He writes from North Middleton Township, Pa.