Wednesday, December 24, 2008

With a Different Meaning

I noted that much could be done in an introductory logic course to dissect "We Can Work It Out" by the Beatles. Likewise, this wonderfully soulful track can be used to illustrate numerous points of critical thinking.

Martin Heidegger once noted that "Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man." There is a great deal of wisdom here.

In "It's the Same Old Song," students can explore:

1. Analogies.

The opening lines say "You're sweet as a honeybee, but like a honey bee stings, you've gone and left my heart in pain." Analogical reasoning is the drawing of contrasts and comparisons between two concepts in order to explain one (especially if it is entirely unknown) or make predictions based on common traits.

Students can explore why the analogy is fitting both ways for romance. They can discuss and debate whether the double-edged metaphor strengthens or weakens the analogy, given that it can have very contrary applications.

Making their own analogies, especially for heartbreak (teenagers think they've cornered the market!), can allow them to try to craft metaphors and similes from a very logical perspective: a good analogy does not merely have one trait in common, but several.

They can then as a group read each other's analogies (perhaps anonymously) and pick the one they think draws the most points of connection.

2. Diagramming sentences.

Egad! Diagramming sentences! Well, yes - the ability to understand the make-up of a sentence is inherently logical. In grade school, they dissected simple sentences. Now, they can dissect lyrics and poetry. Take the following verse from the Four Tops:

Precious memories keep lingering on,
Everytime I hear our favorite song.
Now you're gone,
Left this emptiness,
I only reminisce
The happiness we spent.
We used to dance to the music
Make romance to the music

Students could be challenged to diagram the first two lines, the middle four, and the last two. Given that the song uses implied conjunctions for sake of meter and rhyme, a student can build the complete sentence.

3. Parsing sentences.

Which of these sentences are ongoing? Which are ongoing in the present and which are ongoing in the past?

Challenge the students to lay out the lines that have finality in their verbs, and the ones that are incomplete (ongoing present tense, imperfect tense). Where are they placed in the song? How does this contribute to the meaning?

Notice that unlike other love songs (such as John Waite's "Missing You" or the Police's "Every Breath You Take"), the beloved (or former beloved) is not addressed in present or future tense. When she appears alone in "It's the Same Old Song," it is in perfect tense, or present perfect tense. This highlights the separation - the singer is reminded of her by an incidental element of their relationship. This is not a song where the forlorn boy sees the girl with another guy, or sees her walking down the street, or what have you. It's just the song reminds him of her, not her passing appearance.

The song uses varying tenses to communicate the separation, and students can see how understanding the main rules of English grammar allows both concise and subtle communication.

4. The idea of static vs. dynamic symbolism.

Languages change. Why? How does a song gain a connotation? How does a word gain a connotation? Where do idioms (such as "same old," or "same old song") gain common usage?

How are we constantly the contextual influence on neutral symbols such as words, gestures, etc.?

Eventually, students can build up to bigger ideas of symbolisms gaining and losing meaning. For instance, pointing with the middle finger is not offensive in some cultures; in mine it is. The swastika continues to be a symbol of good luck in many parts of the world, and is part of both the Indo-European heritage and some Native American traditions. Long before Hitler, it was a decoration found in Buddhist temples, on American good luck charms - it's even been found in an ancient synagogue! Yet, to the Western mind especially, it has been irrevocably damaged due to its association with Nazism. It still is used extensively in the East, however. What do you imagine would be the average person's reaction to these images?

All of these predated Nazism by at least a decade. The first is of a charitable organization akin to the Red Cross, founded in China. The second is an American basketball team at the start of the 20th century. The last is an American aviator wearing it for good luck!

Yet before presenting the Holocaust as part of an explanation of how context and connotation are gained by symbolism, one can use this classic song.

5. Etymology

Pick some specific words from the song. For instance, "sentimental," "reminding," "memory," "fool," and "romance." Have the students in deep - what are the Latin or Greek roots? What are any prefixes being used? Have them use each word in an original sentence.

One way to guide students toward creative, critical thinking that understands the web of belief and culture that surrounds each person is to have them understand the roots of word - and how words have changed over time.

What you're crafting using logic and grammar is indeed creative, critical thinking. The student is learning to make connections. The entirety of their education is not an explosion spiraling off in a thousand directions. Instead, it's a house being built, strengthening by posts, rods, and pillars connecting ceiling and floor, strengthening walls, buttressing each section of the house.

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