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· Handy-Dandy Rule 22½: Loose but not Lax ·

I've never been a teacher given much to rules, though should you think I'm loose, my students might counter that I'm at least not lax — though they do sometimes find me late.

I've taught philosophy in a science building at some distance from where my comp students have often sat waiting this term. So my arrivals have sometimes prompted smiles, smiles occasioning a few of us to grasp an important principle of indulgence: how one sometimes meets his limits on the long climb from science to art.

I begin this way because I have one happy rule to share today, what I call Handy-Dandy Rule 22½:

Be matter-of-fact and plain as a rule and clever only when you're feeling wicked, else you'll get in trouble.

I've of course tried to follow it myself because it aptly underlies so much of what I try to teach. Still, I've thought to offer another's more stylish discussion of it today, that of the fine English writer, F. L. Lucas:

In short, you may ironically overstate, or ironically understate; but I suggest that you should always flee from blind exaggeration as from a fiend.

Now among the various passions that tempt a writer to distort, one seems to me especially dangerous. And that is a passion for his own cleverness. Well for those who can be both wise, and good, and clever; but this third quality, thought the least valuable of the three, has a horrid habit of playing cuckoo in the nest to the two others.

Although seldom from my example have students ever begun to learn it, I'm pleased to say that, in student portfolios I'm grading now, I'm beginning to see the rule's steady application — which Lucas marks, indeed, much better than I:

But, be poetry as it may, my conclusion is this [he writes] — that a prose-writer should not overstate, except when he carries overstatement to such outrageous lengths that he is obviously jesting. . . . For the rest, a prose-writer should state exactly what he feels; or else — and this is often more effective — deliberately understate. But how difficult to persuade young writers of this! So often their impulse is to assume that talking big is the same as talking vigourously. As well suppose that the best way to sing well is to sing loud. I have been told that when the late Sir Edward March, composing his memoir of Rupert Brooke, wrote "Rupert left Rugby in a blaze of glory," the poet's mother, a lady of firm character, changed "a blaze of glory" to "July." I cannot guarantee that this is true; but it is worth remembering. F. L. Lucas, Style, New York: Collier Books, 1962, 155; 154.

And of course, so it is.


A good caution, Styles. I do have an impulse toward cleverness that often causes me more grief than pleasure. Nobody loves a smart ass, but I keep forgetting that.

Check out CCE — clc and Rosa G are doing portfolios and portfolio postings too. I finished all my reading — non-portfolio type — this evening.

Posted by
John on December 14, 2004 11:24 PM

Yes, we are and you have, too. Styles, would you like to write a blog entry for CCE about using portfolios in philosophy classes? Nudge, nudge.

Posted by joanna on December 16, 2004 09:47 AM

Thanks for your nudge, Joanna. You'll find my post here, though only English applies, philosophy requiring still other tools.

Posted by Styles on December 19, 2004 08:29 AM

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