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Short-circuiting achievement and performance with elementalistic pseudo-bifurcation.

NOT LONG AGO, a student e-mailed my supervisor to complain that I had unfairly given a failing grade, although the student had attended every class and had repeated three of the tests. Effort alone, the student claimed, should earn a passing grade. "Which is more important, trying really hard and having a good attitude or passing the test?"

My colleagues and I have heard various complaints framed in a similar manner, in what I call questions of elementalistic pseudo-bifurcation. The complainer splits an issue into fictitious alternatives, and then asks which is better, or worse. The purpose is not constructive, and often involves excuses for failure to do something a student is supposed to do.

Over the past 37 years, I have witnessed an erosion of expectations and standards in the incoming freshmen classes. Much of this seems related to the calculated use of elementalistic pseudo-bifurcation--the creation of verbal divisions or dichotomies where dichotomies don't really exist. Increasingly, students attending open-enrollment schools have arrived with expectations that the bars of achievement should be lowered for 'special circumstances' or that they should be rewarded for partial or incomplete work.

In the above example, the student attempted an all too typical strategy to divide and conquer by creating a fictitious dilemma:

* Which is more important, trying really hard--or demonstrating competence?

* Which is more important, doing a mediocre job or not doing it at all?

Students attempt to rationalize one dysfunctional behavior by comparing it with a worse form of behavior:

* Which is better, coming late or not at all?

With clever divide-and-conquer pseudo-bifurcation, students can seem to justify either alternative:

* If I come late, it would show rudeness. It would be far better not to show up at all.

* If I come late, the instructor should not grouse at me. At least it is better if I show up late rather than not at all.

To justify not staying focused or on task, the student may pose the following dilemma:

* Which is better--not attending class or not paying attention?

* If I am sitting in this classroom, why should I be expected to pay attention?

* Which is better--attending class with a hostile or disrespectful attitude or not attending at all?

* If I make the effort to attend this class, why should I be expected to have a good attitude toward the course material or the instructor?

To excuse poor test performance or poor daily class performance, a student may pose the following false dilemma:

* Which is worse--not turning in homework or not passing the test?

* If I faithfully do the daily homework, why should I be penalized if I fail the test?

* If I pass the test, why should I be penalized for not doing the daily homework?

To justify poorly written essays, the student might use the following either-or pseudo-bifurcation:

* Which is more important, passing the grammar tests or writing a coherent essay?

* If I write a coherent essay, why should I be expected to pass the grammar tests?

Conversely, the skillful test-taker may with equal intensity argue the other side of the fictitious dilemma:

* If I pass my grammar tests with high scores, why should I be expected to do the written assignments as well?

Many teachers of English customarily award two grades to written essays--one for content, including ideas, examples, development with detail, etc., and one for mechanics, including spelling errors, comma splices, verb form, faulty agreement, etc. To help the students calculate their grades, the instructor may direct students to add the content and mechanics scores together and divide by two. Sometimes, students feel insulted that the structure of their own private dialects should come under scrutiny, and they may articulate their complaints in the form of pseudo-bifurcation questions:

* Which is more important--having ideas or expressing them well?

* If I provide enough examples, why should I be expected to express them in grammatically correct form?

In formal speaking situations, similar elementalistic either-or pseudo-bifurcations emerge:

* Which is more important--having something to say or saying it well?

* If I express myself with sincerity, why do I have to worry about polishing my usage?

* Which is more important, glibness or honesty?

* If I can express myself clearly and precisely, why do I need to show concern about the truthfulness or accuracy of my facts?

In assessing SAT scores, we identify separate verbal and mathematical scores. Students who do well on one portion but not the other, may respond with pseudo-bifurcation thinking.

* If I do well in mathematical operations, why should I concern myself with learning to write well?

* If I express myself well in speaking and writing, why should I concern myself with learning mathematical formulas?

Similarly, the traditional demarcation between the sciences and arts has created endless pseudo-bifurcations about the desirability, usefulness, or practicality of one discipline over another.

Separating learning styles for the sake of certain tailor-made pedagogical procedures has also led to some non-productive bifurcations. Dividing learning ability into visual/verbal, visual/nonverbal, tactile/kinesthetic, and auditory/verbal styles can unwittingly create the impression that these are mutually exclusive categories; we overlook that they are actually tendencies along a continuum. Consequently, a student who discovers he/she is a tactile/kinesthetic learner may wrongly feel unable to profit from a pedagogy designed for a visual/verbal learner. The tyranny of this assumption leads to another elementalistic pseudo-bifurcation:

* If I am primarily a visual learner, the professor should not subject me to lectures.

* If I am primarily a hands-on tactile/kinesthetic learner, I should not be subjected to 'passively' reading a lesson or listening to a lecture.

Thus, we unwittingly create many of our dilemmas by verbally dividing interconnected and indivisible parts of a process.

Joseph De Vito reminds us in his General Semantics: Guide and Workbook that, "in most situations we're dealing with characteristics and elements which vary in degree, and we can't easily group these items in two classes. People simply aren't stupid or bright, but vary in degrees in intelligence."

Susan and Bruce Kodish discuss the process of verbal bifurcation in their book Drive Yourself Sane: Using the Uncommon Sense of General Semantics:
 In general semantics, we use the word elementalism to label this
 process of unconsciously dividing up with our words what we don't
 find so divided in the process world ... we can talk about stomachs,
 intestines, etc., apart from digestion; ... we can talk about
 'thinking' apart from feeling.'

 We can speak of 'minds' and 'bodies,'
 'structure' and 'function,' 'physical' and 'mental,' 'space' and
 'time,' 'organism' and 'environment.'

 When we identify elementalistically, we then may look for 'minds'
 as if we can find 'them' as easily as we can find apples. We may
 look for 'the unconscious' rather than considering out-of-awareness

 In sum, we can say that with our language structure we
 elementalistically create static isolated elements out of the dynamic
 related processes found on the non-verbal levels. We then project
 upon the world around as if they exist out there. (pp. 135-136)

To remedy the false-to-fact segmentation of process, the Kodishes recommend a re-orientation to non-elementalism, which involves "developing a similarity of structure between our words and the processes we're talking about. We seek to get as much of a sense of process as possible into our language." (p. 136)

Educator and writer Dr. Sanford Berman, in his audio tape series How to Think, Communicate, and Behave Intelligently: An Introduction to General Semantics, also stresses the importance of non-elementalism. He points out that artificially compartmentalized subjects such as chemistry and physics should not be approached as disjointed studies, but as interrelated parts of a larger process.

To encourage a non-elementalistic orientation, general semantics practitioners often use the extensional devices. The hyphen, as used in "mind-body" or "thinking-feeling" for example, repairs the breach between thinking and feeling; it removes the false dichotomies between such things as content and mechanics, visual and tactile, means and end, or trying hard and achieving competence.

We as educators must also emphasize the journey metaphor as we evaluate the progress of our students. Completing the homework should never be pseudo-bifurcated from the larger outcome. Gerald Prescott, former band director at the University of Minnesota, used to counsel his students, "Practice for results--not for hours."

Students often fail to see each assignment as a step in a larger process. The first assignment constitutes but a micro-step in a longer sequence. Let us suppose we were asked to do the following sequence of steps:
 Add 2+5
 Multiply sum by 4
 Divide by two

If we completed the first step, we can assume we would arrive at 7. We could congratulate ourselves that we made it to the first leg of our journey, but we would not expect to receive accolades for completing the journey. Likewise, if we buy an airline ticket from Dallas to Los Angeles, we would feel cheated if the airline terminates our flight in Albuquerque or Las Vegas, even though, for other purposes, any of these locations would make delightful destinations.

The many way-stations on the educational journey include attending class, having a positive attitude, paying attention, doing homework, completing exercises, writing essays rich in ideas and correct in form, mastering skills by taking tests, exercising verbal and mathematical skills, developing and strengthening verbal, visual, auditory, and tactile capabilities, and demonstrating honesty and integrity. Even though for the sake of analysis we may segment these interrelated components, we must not allow ourselves or our students to short circuit the interrelated process through elementalistic pseudo-bifurcation.


Berman, Sanford Ph.D. How to Think, Communicate, and Behave Intelligently: An Introduction to General Semantics. San Diego: Educational Cassettes, 1974.

De Vito, Joseph. Ph.D. General Semantics: Guide and Workbook. DeLand, FL: Everett, Edwards, 1971.

Felder, Richard M., and Barbara A. Soloman. Learning Styles and Strategies. North Carolina State University.

Kodish, Susan Presby and Bruce Kodish. Drive Yourself Sane: Using the Uncommon Sense of General Semantics, Revised Second Edition. Pasadena, CA: Extensional Publishing, 2001.


* Dr. David Maas, Education Editor of ETC, is a Professor of English at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and the author of many ETC articles.
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Author:Mass, David F.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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