Tuesday, March 22, 2011


We English teachers are notoriously opposed to vagueness, whether in writing or interpreting literature, but today I’m speaking up for the usefulness of good vagueness. It’s gradually become strange to me that we teachers think truth can always be clear-cut and fixed, as though it’s little different from a sack of potatoes that can be precisely weighed. In the interest of avoiding vagueness, we insist that our students sculpt their statements and sentences into rigidly delineated meanings, as though truth can be shaped into strict and inflexible forms. It sometimes seems to me that we’re asking our students to be more like grocers than serious thinkers: Give me the exact pound of truth about this poem, no more and no less. I guess I’m now trying, in my fifth decade in the classroom, to do something a little different. What we’re after in the writing and reading we do in my high school English class is nothing less than the truth – and the truth is as imprecise, as amorphous, as vague, as the mist that stretches among the stars in the universe. Sincerely trying to avoid vagueness in writing about a chapter in A Tale of Two Cities is like asking the wind to take a specific shape, or attempting to take a breeze into the cup of your hands. The truth in a Dickinson poem can no more be pounded into a precise statement than the vastness of something like love can be locked up in the single word “love”. Of course I will continue to coerce my students into honing their thinking into reasonable accurate statements, but I will also keep in mind that genuine precision in thinking is about as realistically possible as catching sand in a sieve. The avoidance of vagueness is an interesting and useful academic game to play with students, but it’s just a game. The indefinable truth lies somewhere beyond this fanciful game of precision, out in the vague nebulae of infinite thoughts that surround us.

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