The ‘F’ word: curse or blessing?

Table of Content

Cooperative learning, classroom technology, enhanced preschool funding, No Child Left Behind:  for decades, educators and researchers have sought answers to the nation’s deepening educational questions.  Are schools failing?  If so, what are the causes?  Most crucial, what can we do to end this worsening problem?  Author Mary Sherry proposes an old-fashioned, simple solution in her article “In Praise of the F Word.”  In fact, the writer suggests that society’s golden educational rule should be Leave the Child Behind.  Branding it “a positive teaching tool,” Sherry argues that “the trump card of failure” and “flunking….has just as much merit today as it did two generations ago.”  While her case does present a few problems, Sherry overall offers a compelling argument for flunking through credibility, memorable evidence, and a relatable writing style.

            The author possesses a firm technical and hands-on background in education.  While her biography cites a vague “love of writing and interest in education,” Sherry has supported these proclamations.  An English degree from an accredited university and a freelance career in advertising and article writing speaks to not only a passion for—but a proficiency in— the craft of writing.  While this skill (along with ownership of a research firm) indicates a learning- and education-oriented mind, Sherry’s strongest qualification rests in her teaching experience with adults.  One might argue that the author’s limited experience with teaching children and teenagers (the subject of her article) is a detriment, but perhaps the hindsight of adulthood that Sherry’s actual students provide is the more helpful long-term perspective.

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This criticism aside, Sherry’s standing as a teacher will automatically establish her as an authority in the eyes of a great portion of the audience.

            Sherry relies on two major types of evidence in her assessment:  anecdote and opinion. The article is devoid of any statistics or general supporting facts relating to the author’s two main contentions:  the failure of the school system and the positive influence of flunking.

However, Sherry does provide the reader with ample anecdotes taken from her years of teaching and from her own experiences as a parent.  For example, as a highlight of the current system’s problems, Sherry quotes many of her current students discussing their past educational problems: “I wish someone would have made me stop doing drugs and made me study”; “they just passed me along even though I didn’t read well and couldn’t write.”  Such musings from actual troubled “kids” could have more potential for impact than any number or statistic ever could.  Sherry offers another strong piece of anecdotal evidence for the reader in the form of her own son.  She discusses in detail how one teacher flunked the boy.  While the mother was initially resistant to the idea, she relented, and the result was a son armed with an A grade and a newfound appreciation of English as “a priority in his life.”

            Sherry’s second form of evidence is opinion derived from her cumulative experiences. Many sentences begin with “I”:  “I learn,” “I blamed,” “I see,” I will never forget”—reminding the reader that this article is indeed an intimate opinion piece.  In a frank third paragraph, Sherry even admits the faultiness of her own previous opinions.  She cites the many issues she blamed for poor education, and discusses how her views changed through the interaction with her students and with her own son.  By admitting she is a fair-minded critic capable of assessing and altering her own viewpoints, Sherry’s credibility grows stronger when she later elaborates an impassioned opinion about the cons of “passing students who have not mastered the work” and the inherent pros of flunking students.  She utilizes a clear appeal to character and ethical values such as honesty (with adjectives such as “cheats” and “dishonest”) and hard work and compassion:  “a dedicated, caring conspiracy between teachers and parents.”

Through linking her opinion with core values, Sherry has managed to subconsciously give her musings more validity.  But does the author’s evidence of opinion and anecdote stand the test? Is it relevant to the issue of education?  One would find little dispute in that claim.  Is the evidence specific enough?  One might say that Sherry generalizes too frequently with “my students,” but the two primary anecdotes she provides—the writing task given to students and the flunking experience with her son—gives Sherry’s argument the meat of specific details.

As for the question of adequacy, the absence of any official statistics or scientific studies could diminish the impact of the article for certain segments of the audience. However, one must consider if concerned parents and educators would relate more to test tubes and ratios or to actual “war stories” from a fellow parent and a long-established teacher. If one considers the target audience to be parents and educators, then Sherry’s article more than meets the three criteria for effective evidence.

            How can one know the author’s intended audience?  Sherry’s distinct mixture of laid-back and urgent underlies a writing style perfectly suited for its target audience.

The writer develops her argument in a typical inverted pyramid style, beginning with a general statement about graduation and employment and working down to specific examples. In fact, the cornerstone of the article—failure—is not even mentioned until the third paragraph, and it is not fully fleshed out until the general conclusion of the article.  This developmentallows Sherry to ease a general audience into the topic while hooking their attention with an eye-catching opener:  “Tens of thousands….will….be handed meaningless diplomas.”  Sherry further shows that she is writing for the average American through her first-person point of view, which establishes a more intimate link between author and audience.  Point-of-view and informal word choice (“flashed before my eyes,” “feeling pretty good,” “hang on to the one they’ve got, ” “they’d rather be sailing”) give the piece a conversational tone, as if the writer is speaking to a close friend over coffee.  Yet just like a close friend, Sherry is not afraid to let her tone get harsh when need be.

She pulls no punches when she chastises the educational systemand the public for condoning sub par performance:  “”We excuse this dishonest behavior”; “No more passing Jodi because she is such a nice kid.”  The occasional harsher tones give the piece an undercurrent of urgency which the author effectively ties together in the conclusion:  “It’stime we return this choice to all students.”  Since she appeals as both an educator and a parent,

Sherry’s audience is clear.    Friendly yet helpful—these two characteristics define the author’s tone, and they also define the ideal approach for the audience.  Mission accomplished.

            Author Mary Sherry possesses a credible teaching background, a clear abundance of anecdotal evidence, and an audience-targeted writing style.  Does she use these tools to full effect?  Consider two points.  First, who will be influencing the policy of today’s youth?…. parents and teachers hold the key.  Sherry establishes her proficiency in reaching that audience.

Second, what type of persuasion holds the most sway?  Studies suggest that fictional and biographical accounts leave the strongest emotional impact on a reader.  Could this be because with these two accounts, the audience is visualizing a warm face, not a cold number?  Audiences, like writers, are people.  They relate to what they know.  Sherry speaks to her audience as more than a teacher, as more than a mother, but as a basic human being.  The result:  she leaves the reader doing something he or she never though possible—praising the ‘F’ word loud and strong.


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