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· The Volatile Truth of Our Words ·

"The volatile truth of our words," writes Thoreau in Walden; or, Life in the Woods, "should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement."

As a logger, charged recently with dodging the literal residue of certain Texas longhorns, I thought to clarify my stance. In his "Conclusion," Thoreau properly marks the problem with exquisite delicacy, in a very stylish passage my readers may well appreciate:

It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make [Thoreau writes] that you shall speak so that they can understand you. Neither men nor toadstools grow so. As if that were important, and there were not enough to understand you without them. As if Nature could support but one order of understandings, could not sustain birds as well as quadrupeds, flying as well as creeping things, and hush and whoa, which Bright [an Ox] can understand, were the best English.

You who've read Texas-Style Bovine Epistemology might now appreciate Thoreau's larger point. What with "cows" and "bulls" running about, it's only natural, I suppose, that the upshot of the matter is this:

As if there were safety in stupidity alone. I fear chiefly lest my expression [Thoreau continues] may not be extra-vagant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limits of my daily experience, so as to be adequate to the truth of which I have been convinced. Extra vagance! it depends on how you are yarded. The migrating buffalo, which seeks new pastures in another latitude, is not extravagant like the cow which kicks over the pail, leaps the cowyard fence, and runs after her calf, in milking time. Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Other Writings, New York: Bantam, 1962, 343-44.

So let us all repeat now, even Barbara Bush, extra-vagantly enough!

"The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement."

Is not Thoreau's "cow" at least an example of one "Mission Accomplished"?

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· Texas-Style Bovine Epistemology ·

I don't think I mentioned our trip to Texas. Stylish and I spent spring break in Bandera, "The Cowboy Capital of the World," taking in sights in Houston and San Antonio, Kerrville, Fredericksburg, and Austin, too. Returning two weeks ago last Saturday, we have been busy teaching since.

Ironically, Texas teaching framed our trip from first to last. Initially passing through some dairyland enroute to SEA-TAC, we got word of Barbara Bush's plans to donate — through her son Neil's IgniteLearning company in Austin — COWs (Curricula on Wheels) to Houston's Independent School District. You may have seen the story. Meant partly for Katrina victims, the family largesse looks suspiciously like a clever tax gimmick — and it may just smack of Bushism, too (corporate cronyism).

 · The Cow · We didn't reflect on it more till, visiting later in Texas's Bob Bullock State History Museum, we saw in Austin a COW being rolled in for public presentation. Well, you can imagine our surprise: that the thing (pictured at right) was being brazenly displayed in public suggested a better teaching tool I can show a bit more modestly in print — Bill Perry's famous 1963 essay, "Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts." I thought to define its two essentials.

Perry himself calls his piece a study in "Educational Epistemology," turning on the bovine concepts of "cow" and "bull." Here are Perry's definitions:

Cow (pure): data, however relevant, without relevancies.

Bull (pure): relevancies, however relevant, without data.

And again:

To cow (v. intrans.) or the act of cowing:
To list data (or perform operations) without awareness of, or comment upon, the contexts, frames of reference, or points of observation which determine the origin, nature, and meaning of the data (or procedures). To write on the assumption that "a fact is a fact." To present evidence of hard work as a substitute for understanding, without any intent to deceive.

To bull (v. intrans.) or the act of bulling:
To discourse upon the contexts, frames of reference and points of observation which would determine the origin, nature, and meaning of data if one had any. To present evidence of an understanding of form in the hope that the reader may be deceived into supposing a familiarity with content.

Today, reflecting on the clan's claims to leadership, I'm wondering if, in public as well as private, the Bushes have somehow got "cow" and "bull" together in a way better recognized, rather more neutrally, as "The Bum Steer."

In any event, to the Georges, Neil, Jeb, and, of course, Barbara, here's my slightly more literal, semi-pictorial version. · The Bum Steer ·




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