Language in Symbolism

Many symbols exist as images.  Because the Maori people of New Zealand were fishermen, for example, the fishhook became a symbol of prosperity and good health often worn around the neck.  For many cultures the dove has been a symbol of peace.  Visual symbols have been prevalent for as far as known human history, from the cave paintings of the ancients, to castles, flowers, and animals common in medieval crests, to the stars, leaves, stripes, and moons so commonly found on flags today.

The imagery can often be profound and deeply meaningful, but the meanings always absolutely require one thing:  language.  This goes without exception, for a visual symbol without its accompanying description is just a picture.

snake png drawing.png
How this story wraps itself around a novel concept.
A snake.
A snake.

Only one of these pictures is a symbol, and the only thing that makes it a symbol is the description attached.  The other one is merely a picture with a label.  The thing is, though, that people often forget the language.

There are only two ways to understand the use of a symbol:  1)  having it explained to you, using language; or 2) luck.  Whenever one person understands the symbolism of something such as a painting or an album cover, and another person doesn’t, the non-understanding person sometimes receives the blame (often from him or herself) as if a more in-depth look, or the putting of more thought into it might be all that is in the way of understanding the creator’s intent.  This is never the case.  The first person has either gotten lucky, or has had the symbol explained.  Now luck can be intensified, sure, by such things as knowing what the symbol’s creator has previously meant with similar symbols, but one still needs the creator’s explanation for verification.

The problem lies not just in visual symbolism either.  Songs, religious texts, and literature are among other examples often bursting with symbolism.  The writers of many nineties grunge songs often attempted to stuff so many symbols in their songs that they forgot the explanations, resulting in basically nothing more than gibberish.  “Make your own meaning” is just not how symbolism works.  The fact that so many of the Bible’s symbols have had various interpretations, without really knowing the author’s actual intent, has led to centuries of schisms and divisions.  Again, symbols without explanations are not symbols – at least not ones with meaning, anyway.

I recently saw a travel show where after looking at a Polynesian drawing, the host asked, “What does it mean?”  The images appeared so powerful and mysteriously captivating.  His and my curiosities were piqued.  Mystery seems a large part of symbolism’s allure.  The answer came in a satisfying stream of words passed down from previous generations, demonstrating how symbols are like puzzles that can only be solved by answering their inherent questions – with language.


A Nice Summary of the Efficacy of Early Intervention

From one of the trending stories on the Atlantic Monthly’s website, the following paragraph in a story on the increasing importance our society is placing on intelligence is one of the best encapsulations I’ve seen on the influence – and common critical differences – in preschool education.  “…early education, which, when done right—and for poor children, it rarely is—seems to largely overcome whatever cognitive and emotional deficits poverty and other environmental circumstances impart in the first years of life. As instantiated most famously by the Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in the 1960s; more recently by the Educare program in Chicago; and by dozens of experimental programs in between, early education done right means beginning at the age of 3 or earlier, with teachers who are well trained in the particular demands of early education. These high-quality programs have been closely studied, some for decades. And while the results haven’t proved that students get a lasting IQ boost in the absence of enriched education in the years after preschool, measures of virtually every desirable outcome typically correlated with high IQ remain elevated for years and even decades—including better school grades, higher achievement-test scores, higher income, crime avoidance, and better health. Unfortunately, Head Start and other public early-education programs rarely come close to this level of quality, and are nowhere near universal.”

The link:  The War on Stupid People

The Straw Man Fallacy

The straw man is a logical fallacy that occurs when a person argues against a misrepresentation of an opponent’s argument rather than the actual argument itself. In effect, the person is building a false argument (the straw man) that is easier to knock down than the actual argument.


  • George supports a law reducing speed limits by 10 miles an hour. His opponent, Lucy, says, “This is part of your ultimate plan to get rid of all cars.”
  • A parent tells her daughter to eat her vegetables. The daughter replies, “You won’t be happy until I’m a vegetarian.”
  • Richie Rich says to one of his workers, “You just want a raise because you want more of our company’s money, and you’re jealous of all rich people.”
  • Stanley says: “I don’t think children should play on busy streets.” Livingston replies: “I don’t think we should be confining children inside all the time.”

scarecrow straw manStraw men fallacies are typically exaggerations or misrepresentations. The actual facts are critical toward determining if an argument is a straw man.

  • Straw man: Person A: “We need to do yard work today.” Person B: “I don’t understand why you want to work in the yard every single day.” Actual facts: person A has wanted to do yard work three (or some number not near ten) days out of the last ten.
  • Not a straw man: Person A: “We need to do yard work today.” Person B: “I don’t understand why you want to work in the yard every single day.” Actual facts: person A has wanted to do yard work ten out of the last ten days. Nine days may be close enough, although it would be less fallacious for person B to instead say, “I don’t understand why you want to work in the yard almost every single day.

Avoiding extreme language can often help prevent straw man fallacies.

  • A mother tells her son that he plays video games all of the time. He says, “Not true. Last week I mowed the lawn.” (The son took advantage of the fact that the mother actually did use a straw man fallacy with her exaggeration. She could have prevented this by instead saying something such as, “You play video games way too much.”)

The Fallacy of Cherry-picking

Cherry-picking is a logical fallacy that occurs when there is more than one important part to an argument, and a person intentionally omits the part or parts that do not support the person’s preferred conclusion – picking the parts that do support the preferred conclusion.

Cherry-picking is also called the fallacy of incomplete evidence. It can be informally called, “suppressing evidence.”

Sometimes we cherry-pick evidence to no one but ourselves. This is called confirmation bias, and it happens when we first form a conclusion, and then pay attention to arguments and evidence that support the conclusion we want to be true, while ignoring any evidence against.


The coach said, “Mary, you’ll be a great help to this team by staying at home.” Mary told her mother, “The coach said I’ll be a great help to this team!”

Joe’s puppy barks at all people except Joe. When Joe tries to sell his puppy, the possible buyer asks if the puppy likes people. Joe says, “He loves people. He licks me all the time.”

Calvin tried out a new diet. He lost ten pounds, and then gained nine. He tells everyone, “That diet was great, because I lost ten pounds!”

Mahatma said, “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” Stanley, his political opponent says, “See! Mahatma said that freedom is not even worth having.”

Often, when only one or two examples is given as evidence, the speaker is cherry-picking. An exception would be when there are only one or two possible examples.

Cherry-picking:  Mary’s new friend says that Mary eats ice cream all the time because she has seen Mary eat ice cream the past two days. (She doesn’t know what Mary’s ice cream eating habits were before that. Maybe Mary just bought some ice cream for the first time in a long time.)

Not cherry-picking:  Mary’s friend says that Mary must really like red cars because her last two cars have been red. (This would not be cherry-picking if Mary has only owned two cars, but it would be cherry-picking if Mary has owned many non-red cars in the past.)

More cherry-picking info can be found by following this linkthis link, or this link.

Let’s (Really) Teach Critical Thinking Skills

How incredible is it that half of the people in the U.S. think that the other half is brainwashed, with the other half convinced the exact same about the others?  Most of our population really believes that vast swathes of the people with whom they share a country are delusional about pretty much every important aspect of how they think that country should run.  How did we get to this point?  What can we, as educators, do?

Well, one thing is to get real about teaching critical thinking skills.

I can the imagine the immediate objections:  “Critical thinking is already everywhere in education lately.  From the benchmarks to the buzzwords, critical thinking is literally everywhere!”  This objection does have a strong element of truth.  But it’s missing so much of what critical thinking actually is.

Critical thinking skills are not just skills of Bloom-like discovery, analysis, and synthesis, as so eloquently described here or here.  And it doesn’t just involve jamming buzz words, such as inference, problem solve, assessment, etc. into benchmarks, as has often happened following the national standards movement that began gathering steam in the 1980s, before steamrolling into the brick wall of the anti-core curriculum movement of late.  And if you want to pay a lot of money to learn these segments of how to critically think, the professional development industry will certainly oblige.

So, with all of this critical thinking education out there, and now for so long, why does it seem as though so many of our citizens are still so delusional?  I believe that the answer lies in what our critical thinking teaching has been missing.  Critical thinking is logical thinking.  Logical thinking involves a primary importance on truth above all else, even if it involves admitting mistakes.  It also involves knowing logical argumentation, along with being able to identify mistakes, including bias and fallacies.  It involves things like cross referencing, and citing sources.  These things simply aren’t being taught today.

When somebody’s media source takes a quote out of context, everybody should be immediately pointing out that “That’s cherry picking!”  When a Democrat argues with a Republican about just about anything, neither side should care as much about winning as about getting to the truth.  There shouldn’t be a disdain for “statistics” or “numbers.”  Everybody should know as much about confirmation bias as they do about Beyonce.  They should know how to cross reference.

And so, my plan is to do my little part.  In the upcoming weeks I will post some information, with some examples of common fallacies, as well as some information on bias and evidence, geared toward teens and adults who are either unfamiliar with these, or just need a brush up.  My plan is also to post some accompanying worksheets on my Free Language Stuff website, and my Teachers Pay Teachers store that will be free or close to it.  When the buzzwords finally become words like facts, evidence, statistics, fallacies, and logic, then hopefully the delusions will start to fade.

The Head in the Sand Syndrome

Two young daughters hover nearby as their mother carries her newborn infant.  Precise handling techniques are used to ensure the baby’s head doesn’t fall.  One of the daughters watches, while the other doesn’t.  After suggesting each take their turns, the mother asks the watching daughter to hand the baby to the other.  What happens?  Well, hopefully in this scenario the second daughter does just fine.  Hopefully, she properly lifts the baby’s head because she’s at least watched her knowledgeable sister.  Hopefully she uses observational learning, a learning theory popularized by Albert Bandura and his bobo dolls.

That observational learning is critical in a wide variety of situations, from language, to morality, to eating with chopsticks, is widely accepted, yet as a way of actually learning it seems to often fly under the radar.  However, here I’m not talking about domains such as speech and language (where people are often advised to model the correct sounds), behavior (where experts frequently extol the virtues of modeling correct behavior), or sports or music (often taught by “watch this, then do this”), but now I’m talking about groups.

We seem to increasingly be a society of information proliferation outpacing our ability to effectively use information.  Daylight savings is just one case in point; an example of an idea that people love to criticize while ignoring how others do it.  I did find this one article examining some trials of daylight savings in other countries, which generally suggested that many (but not all) people elsewhere tend to dislike the practice.  Though I’m curious about the sentiment in other countries, with this topic as well as so many others, I don’t seem to share this curiosity with many others.

We do sometimes get bits and pieces filtered to us.  We know that some states and countries do health care well.  There have been many surveys of happiness comparing different cultures and countries.  In education, some school districts are acknowledged as being successful, although recent attempts to put numbers out there in order to enable easier comparisons, have far too often done nothing but muddle the situation, providing an excellent example of a case of information overload actually making things more difficult to understand.  How many people know how well their school is actually doing?  Why isn’t anybody talking about how hard it is to find out?

This then brings us to the opposite of observational learning – the “head in the sand” syndrome.  Observational learning works when both our curiosity and our desire to improve cause us to

ostrich head in sand
It’s a myth that ostriches hide their heads in the sand.  Don’t believe me?  You don’t have to.  You can look it up.

attend to what someone else is doing, hoping to emulate it.  The head in the sand phenomenon occurs when our fear causes us to ignore what others are doing because it might be uncomfortable.  The recent situation in Flint, Michigan, as well as the general ignoring of similar infrastructure needs throughout much of the rest of America are good examples.  And this happens as well in education.  And in health care, the environment, health and exercise, and a whole slew of subjects with potentially uncomfortable truths.

The good news is that increasingly, with so many subjects, the statistics are getting out there.  Sure, there is a distrust of the media, and of the internet, but it doesn’t take much to cross reference stats, and see who’s distorting what.  The first step often involves just the simple lifting of a head.

Using Plain Language at Work

An interesting story from CBC news outlines some recent research that strongly suggests the use of abstract words and buzzwords actually lessens trust with those we are attempting to communicate with.  It increases the perception that we may be lying as outlined in a 2010 study entitled “Truth from Language and Truth from Fit: The Impact of Linguistic Concreteness and Level of Construal on Subjective Truth.”

The title of the study on language clarity may be ironically obtuse, but it’s certainly possible to put it more clearly.  Plain inclusive language and some sensitivity when using technical terms, abbreviations or industry jargon just makes sense, especially when newcomers or those unacquainted with our workplace and its quirks of language are present.  Check it out here.