Fixed on broken connections

1st February 2008 at 00:00
One definition of intelligence is the ability to see connections. Important discoveries have depended on scientists who work in one discipline identifying and exploring links with another. In literature, the ability of writers to create powerful images that connect the literal and the metaphorical has often been a vital element in their appeal to readers.

There are some features of the way we now use language which tend to reduce our capacity to see connections. Texting involves using abbreviated snippets of language which, in its pursuit of brevity and speed of response, cuts out anything that might be construed as unnecessary: it is left to the reader to make sense of the message.

Similarly, lists of bullet points omit any explanation of what items have in common or what the connection between them might be. PowerPoint displays often betray similar tendencies: the audience is simply presented with a series of fragmented words and phrases, which may or may not be adequately connected by the speaker.

In assessing students' work, I pay particular attention to issues of linkage and cohesion - between sentences, paragraphs and sections - because I believe they are a good indicator of the quality of thinking of the writer. They show whether the essay consists of more than a series of discrete observations and possesses overall structure and unity. I also look for periodic "signposting", explicit statements which review the direction of the discussion and explain what will follow. These indicate that the writer is in control of the material.

In my own writing, I am mindful of the importance of "connectives" - words and phrases such as "thus", "however", "moreover", "in addition". These terms serve as building blocks between sentences and, hopefully, strengthen the argument that is being advanced.

This is a skill that can be taught, and its benefits are not purely grammatical or linguistic. It is related to the capacity for logical thinking and the ability to present a case in a way that makes sense - qualities that have value far beyond the English class.

The tendency to construct curriculum content as "units" or "modules" often militates against the promotion of this skill. Knowledge is treated in a reductionist fashion, consisting of separate components, and there is limited opportunity to develop understanding of the bigger picture. This is a classic case of bureaucratic convenience overriding intellectual integrity.

In government, we hear repeatedly of the importance of "joined-up thinking", whereby policy initiatives in one area should not be pursued in isolation but co-ordinated and integrated with strategies in other departments. This rarely rises above well-intentioned rhetoric. Separate parts of the political and administrative machine continue to operate largely within their own fiefdoms, despite occasional gestures towards inter-departmental and inter-professional co-operation.

This bunker mentality might be construed as showing a lack of intelligence, a failure to engage with the complexity of the challenges facing advanced democratic societies.

To tease out the connections between intelligence, language, logic and public policy would be a major task. But it might be an important part of understanding the fragmented nature of modern culture. It might even help to improve the quality of thinking of those who exercise power.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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