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Good writing doesn't just transmit information.
(Pedagogy) Philosophy and Nonsense      
Thoughts about writing, education, and experience                                  Presented by Forrest D. Poston

The first goal of teaching is to strengthen, deepen and refine our intrinsic love of learning. All other goals and all methods must stem from that idea. Any that do not support that goal must at least be questioned and adjusted, if not eliminated. Otherwise, we are not teaching but training.

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Good writing generates thought.

Writing and Education

Autobiography Challenge

Considering Conclusions

Considering Introductions

Four Meanings of Life

Godot and the Great Pumpkin

A Major is More Minor Than
You Think

The Poetry Process (A look at 4 versions of a poem.)

Thoughts About Picking a Major

Quick Points About Education

Quick Points About Writing

Reading Poetry and Cloud Watching

Revising Revision

Reviving Experience

Reviving Symbolism

Using an Audience

Videos

What Makes a Story True?

What's the Subject of This Class? (Being revised.)

Why Write?

Writing and Einstein (The Difference Between Information and Meaning)

Writing and the Goldilocks Dilemma

Links to Other Sites
Writing and Einstein:  The Difference Between Information and Meaning     
      by Forrest D. Poston

Writing wouldn't be nearly as much fun if words actually contained meaning, but the somewhat unstable interaction between meaning and information allows opportunities to generate writing in which the meaning is more than the sum of the parts.  There are, of course, difficulties and dangers that go along with that potential, and it may well be that the danger increases as the writing improves.  These quirks are what make communication both impossible and possible, while giving the writer power and the responsibilities that come with it.  In that respect, it's appropriate to consider this familiar equation:

      E=MC2

     We can agree on the general meaning of this well known equation, but there is also a variable in terms of mass.  The equation works, but the specifics vary depending upon how we fill in the variable, which means we have both certainty and flexibility.  There is a similar quality in the rest of language.  In general terms, we agree on the meaning of "dog".  A dog is not a cat.  Beyond that level, is the dog a collie, chihuahua, mutt or purebred?  Still, those flexible elements, the mass or the breed, can be filled in with significant precision, giving us a degree of communication on at least one level, but rather like an explosion, meaning can be difficult to control once released.

     Going back to the equation, in the most objective terms we can agree that E=MC2 is neither good nor evil, simply an observation of how the physical world operates.  That's quite true in theory, but we live in practice, unable to actually separate ourselves from that physical world we comment upon.  So the information contained in the formula is amoral, but in the social field, it takes on meaning in a different sense.  It means that we can blow up a city with a single bomb; potentially generate controlled energy to supply many cities; tend to build shoddy, lowest bidder plants with serious problems; coal companies are still blowing the tops off West Virginia hills to get small seams of coal.  As you might guess, the last bit of meaning has more personal aspects, but that's one tendency of meaning. It runs in chain reactions, adding connections as it goes, often working from the social to the personal, or the personal to the social, an oscillating chain.

     The links can be connected in enough ways to be potentially infinite, particularly if we think of the physical universe itself as a fully integrated system.  A writer cannot control all the links that a reader will make because many of the connections will be based on individual experience, even the mood of the reader.  What the writer should control are the general direction the chain takes, at least the initial direction, and the power of the reaction.  As with nuclear power, there is a critical mass that must be achieved before a significant reaction will take place.  If the writing is weak or foggy, the reader will remain an object at rest.  The precision and style of the writing can condense the effect, more power in a smaller space, which gets a result like increasing the mass in E=MC2.

     One of the apparent paradoxes is that there is no intrinsic meaning in words, but it's the meaning that really influences the chain reaction.  Information doesn't have that power because information is an essentially static form.  That static nature allows us to share information with precision:

    Robert Frost wrote the line "Good fences make good neighbors" in the poem "Mending Wall."

    I wrote exactly the information I intended to write, and the reader should be able to understand it precisely, even if they've never heard of the author, the line, or the poem.  Information is something that can be transmitted by machines as easily as by people.  I could record the earlier sentence, play it back, even send it over the internet, with no change.  I doubt that information is intrinsically discrete, but we have a tendency to treat it that way, making it possible to accumulate huge stores of information without ever combining them.  Even when pieces of information are combined, they tend to work in algebraic progressions at best, adding up very slowly on the rare occasions that we add them at all.  Information tends to work as if the equation were merely E=M.  No change, no growth, whole only equal to the sum of the parts.

     Meaning, on the other hand, tends to be highly interactive and kinetic, each contact acting as a catalyst, and the results are more like a geometric progression, with the potential for radical change.  Of course, that volatile nature also allows meaning to collapse upon itself in a way that information rarely manifests.  Meaning is a creation of the mind, an interpretation of symbols.  We can establish a range of accepted meaning, but there must always be some allowance for the influence of individual experience and individual choice in how the chain reaction of meaning upon meaning is manipulated.  To some degree, the difference between information and meaning can be quite frustrating for the writer, particularly for those writers who aren't aware of that difference.  

     However, there should also be liberation for writers who realize there isn't an absolute right for writing.  Writers should also be thankful for this difference because it's what makes it impossible for computers to completely take over the writing field.  Computers are allowed much too involved in the proofreading as it is, though even grammar is beyond the ability of any current program.  Politicians, administrators, and even teachers already treat writing (all of education) as if information and meaning were synonymous, one of the serious flaws in the foundation of our system.

    Obviously, we can't work with meaning without information, but it's a matter of where we put our focus.  The static tendency of information combined with our cultural tendency to look at things as separate parts creates a closed circle, so that once we start on the information level, we tend to stay on that level.  Meaning, on the other hand, is always hungry, searching for the questions, ideas, and information needed to continue growing.  Information tends to lead us only to more information, and that closed circle often leads to a closed mind.  Meaning leads us to information, but since meaning is a process, it also leads us beyond information, digests information, leading to an open mind and growth.  Information may appear to be the safer, more easily controlled, option, which is one reason it has become the basis of our education and testing systems, but a closed system can only lead to entropy, hardly a safe option.  Meaning and growth are risky, but they form the only route that give us real opportunity.




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Other Essays and Poetry

Something Somewhat Vaguely Like a Resume

Being Like Children

The Blessing and the Blues

The Cat With a Bucket List

David and the Revelation

The Dawn, the Dark, and the Horse I Didn't Ride In On (an odd, meandering, semi-romantic story)

Ghost Dancer in the Twilight Zone

The Hair Connection and the Nature of Choices

The Mug, the Magic, and the Mistake

Trumpet Player, USDA Approved

Videos

Poetry

Selected Poems

The Poetry Process

Writing by Current or Former Students

Ms. Write Meets Her Match in Jr. Ms. Write Now
by Heide Perry

I'll Just Have Cats
by Cara Hummel

Toys to Toys
by Allyson Bowlds

Scribbles and Bits

Links to Other Sites