The KISS Grammar Workbooks Back to September Menu

Notes for
"Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts"
by William G. Perry

     Perry's essay is, without doubt, the most important thing that my students read. As Perry notes, too many students come to college believing that education is a matter of studying and collecting "facts." But a fact is a fact only in a frame of reference. Different disciplines order facts differently -- what suffices as "knowledge" in a history class is not the same as what is required in a psychology course. Every discipline asks different questions and evaluates the answers to those questions in different ways. Thus it is the questions asked, and the manner of ordering data to validly support answers to those questions, that are important. Once students shift their attention from the "facts" to the questions and methods of ordering data, they find college not only easier, but usually also more interesting. For one, as Perry notes, it is much easier to remember and understand facts if one understands the frame of reference in which those facts are meaningful.
     Perry's essay is on the web at two different sites:
Both versions were apparently OCR scanned, and both could have been better edited, but one can't complain when one gets something for free.
     I use this essay in all my courses, but it is a very difficult text for students to understand. In revising the syntax materials for my Freshman composition course for the Fall of 2004, I decided to use some of the passages from the essay as exercises. The effect of this should be more than a doubling of exposure. In effect, it breaks the essay into numerous pieces that the students can briefly explore (and discuss in class on different days) as they do the syntax exercises. (See the "Discussion Questions" below.)
     I might note that this essay also explains the major problem in the teaching of grammar. Although most people think that grammar is grammar (a fact is a fact), there are many different grammars of English, the most well-known of which are "traditional," "structural," and "transformational-generative." Each of these grammars has its own frame of reference, or, more precisely, frames of reference. There is, for example, no real, clearly defined "traditional grammar."  In some grammars, for example, infinitives are called "clauses." Some grammars distinguish "independent" and "dependent" clauses, whereas others refer to basically the same phenomenon as "main" and "subordinate." In some grammars, subordinate clauses are, as they are in KISS, parts of main clauses; but in other grammars they are not. Putting pieces from all these different frames of reference into one "grammar" confuses the heck out of students.
     Linguists (and most writers of grammar textbooks) know this, but they are more concerned with their own hobby-horses (or with selling textbooks) than they are about students. Adapting a single frame of reference (such as KISS) would make grammar much easier for students to understand, but that would mean that the professors who want to teach transformational grammar (etc.) to their students (student teachers) would not be able to do so. And, of course, a single frame of reference would be the end of those big, expensive, repetitive textbooks. As many critics of education have noted, students are at the bottom of the educational totem pole.

Ex # 1 AK

Discussion Question: In light of the rest of the essay, why does Perry ask for a suspension of judgment here?

Ex # 2 AK

Discussion Question: In light of the rest of the essay, why does Perry say that bull in pure form is rare?

Ex # 3 AK

Discussion Question: In your own words, characterize Metzger's thought process. (In general terms, what did he do?)

Ex # 4 AK

Discussion Question: Metzer apparently suggested that an anthropologist cannot simply be objective. Explain what that means and give your own example of a teacher, preacher, politician, etc. whose objectivity might be questioned.

Ex # 5 AK

Discussion Questions: What is a "continuum?" Why does Perry say that cow and bull are not poles of a single dimension? If the relationship between generalities and details is not a question of quantitative balance, then, in light of the entire essay, what is the relationship?

Ex # 6 AK

Discussion Question: In your own words, what is the difference between cowing and bulling? (Give an example of each.)

Ex # 7 AK

Discussion Question: Give an example of your own of how a fact is a fact only within a frame of reference.

Ex # 8 AK

Discussion Question: Why does Perry consider "these questions and their answers" to be "devastation"? 

Ex # 9 AK

Discussion Question: Agree or disagree with Perry's ideas in this selection and give at least one example to support your reasons.

Ex # 10 AK

Discussion Questions: Who is, in Perry's mind, his "reader"? What does he mean by bull and cow getting together? (Give at least one example of your own.)