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Analysis: definition: a·nal·y·sis əˈnaləsəs/ noun: detailed examination of the elements or structure of something, typically as a basis for discussion or interpretation. (source: Google)

Epistemology: definition: e·pis·te·mol·o·gy iˌpistəˈmäləjē/ noun: the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. (source: Google)

Information and Experience

We’ll talked a lot in Composition II about how to find and evaluate sources, to write accurate summaries, to synthesize ideas, and to come at claims or arguments with reasonable skepticism. But let’s do even more with one way of thinking about analysis, which I consider a certain type of attitude about the ideas, objects, and issues people encounter in their lives: that we can know their parts and understand how they’re put together.

We typically learn a lot over the course of twenty or so years, but how much of that “stuff” is reliable? Consider this scenario. You meet a friend about whom you don’t have a lot of history. The friend says, “My father’s green and seven feet tall. He has horns sticking out of his forehead, like some crazy rhino. He doesn’t like fruitcake. Oh, and he only has one eyeball.” What would your response be to this information? Just the fact that the description has been offered is enough to put an image in your head about the subject of your friend’s discourse. You know some things about the father: He’s green, seven feet tall, is horned, one-eyed, and doesn’t like fruitcake. Does it really matter whether any of this is true, given that you are “imagining” what your friend’s father is like? Note that in my previous sentence I wrote “true” as having some sort of importance to its meaning.

When offered information, we often want to judge whether something is true or untrue, valid or invalid by considering how it’s constructed or put together. We have to do this to make sense of the world and to make our own judgements (for example, your credit card company might claim that your payment is due on the 10th; should you take this as true or not true?). We do this in religion, mathematics, science, and other areas of daily life. We know that cars start via their ignitions (but we may not know the deeper process), and that they break down; we know that people stop at red lights. We know that people can and do get colds and flu. But we have limited experience.

Another way of thinking about the friend/father relationship is that you might not be able to confirm or affirm the information directly. The father could exist as described. One means of judging your friend’s words would come via your own experience with fathers and with some general physiological understanding of what people look like. For example, have you ever met anyone with horns in their forehead (do they have these parts)? If not, then you might, after you receive the information about your father’s friend, ask whether she’s having some fun with you.


Which line is taller?

You might think that the scenario above is all fun and games (and that the above image is a trick). Consider, however, how much about the world you know adapts to the scenario, coming from immediate experience (the grill is hot because you touched the hot grate), external information (Barack Obama is the president because you saw this on television), from relationships you can build from prior relationships or things (2 -2 = 0 because the cat stole 2 grapes from your plate and now you’re wishing you “haz cheese”), or from received traditional contexts (family history/stories). All this you judge as reliable information in that it can be used for some purpose or applied to a problem. These are just four pretty simple examples, but your days are made up of thousands of influencing factors that shape reflection.

There are, however, instances when your experience might come into question. For example: the professor says read “this” and you go “okay” and the information that comes is a mystery to you, and you don’t know what to do with it because it comes outside your “to this day” knowledge or even language.

Another scenario then. When we read or encounter information, we always filter it through our experience as we have it. In my way of thinking, we have to relearn skepticism because our need to make the world a safe place to live is a powerful impulse: we like to know where things fit. Maybe true, maybe not true. Because it might be true that we don’t question the limits of our experience (see paragraph 1). We might have such limited experience that it may entirely be possible that people could have horns growing out of their foreheads. We don’t pause to say, “Hey, that’s not likely.” Instead, we say, “Wow, your dad’s cool.” And our friend looks at us in a funny way and says, “Do you haz cheese?”

Breaking Limits

Thus far I’ve written about what the limits to understanding may be. But we don’t as readers necessarily need to “limit” the discussion of analysis to the circle of what we know and, instead, go to the idea of testing what we know. We can consider that some of the elements we use to support conclusions make understanding “justifiable,” like evidence and appeals to needs and values. Take for example, the essay on charter schools by Joshua Cowen, professor of Educational Policy at MSU, titled Charter Schools: fabulous or failures. In this essay, Cohen asks a question most people won’t know the answer to: are charter schools successful or unsuccessful for certain students? People could take a number of positions on the issue: charter schools are successful; they are unsuccessful; they are a mix of both (this last one I don’t like, as I’d like to take the position that “factual” evidence should be able to tell us the answer. But I might be wrong about this).

Cowen does provide an answer. He writes: “The answer then to the question of whether charter schools provide opportunities for students in struggling public schools appears to be “yes, but…” For readers, a question of analysis (examining the parts) goes like this: how does and what does he know, and what method does he use to determine the answer, and, furthermore, is his analysis effective? Cowen begins the essay by briefly summarizing the debate. He then provides a criteria for comparing charter schools to public schools, and it’s pretty simple: performance. He writes:

Part [a word made for analysis] of the difficulty in characterizing what experts know about charter schools is that it depends on the question we are asking. For supporters and opponents alike, the first question concerns performance: are the academic outcomes of students attending charter schools higher or lower than those in the traditional public sector?

Since Cowen is writing a claim of value (is one thing more valuable than something else) we know, as critical readers, that he is going to be comparing two things based on criteria (the things we use to judge two similar things). Okay, so what’s the answer? Cowen doesn’t just make things up. He also doesn’t just make a guess based on his own experience. The answer depends on a kind of evidence. In this case, Cowen uses “studies.” I’ll quote the entire paragraph in which he provides links to the evidence (which is a general weakness in composition method, but not so critical as to totally destroy him [because of the type of article he’s writing]):

One very recent study, using sophisticated statistical techniques to summarize dozens of analyses across many states and cities, found that charter schools generally outperform traditional public schools in math, with little difference between the two sectors in reading. Studies that account for student background by assigning charter seats on the basis of applicant lotteries–research generally considered the gold standard for social science–have provided some of the strongest evidence for positive charter effects.

This paragraph uses “partial” evidence (links to studies but these links don’t provide details) to make a conclusion that there are gains in math performance but “little difference . . . in reading” according to “research.” Given that Cowen is an expert at “Educational Policy” we might give him the benefit of the doubt about his reading of the research. The reason I claim that his method is “compositionally flawed” is because the critical reader will want a more detailed “reading” of the study to which Cowen makes a link. Otherwise, the reader has to click the link and the read the study to verify Cowen’s conclusion. In this case, we have to trust that Cowen has done the homework and has concluded correctly or accurately. The first study he links to is called A Meta-Analysis of the Literature on the Effect of Charter Schools on Student Achievement. The second study he links to is a report on New York city schools. He has used these references to sustain the notion that, yes, charters have made some gains. Fine.

He begins the next paragraph, however, by asserting that “studies” can be inconsistent. He writes, “But if the bulk of the evidence available suggests modest, positive charter advantages for student achievement, this kind of bird’s eye view can mask important variation in the way charters operate nationwide.” Some states, he writes, according to additional research, have better performing public schools. Some states saw no advantage. It’s even hard, according Cowen, to define what constitutes a charter school. This problem with definition makes judging performance difficult. 

Conclusion then: are charters better than publics? Even when we consult the experts, its still hard to figure. An even better answer: it’s complicated.

Sometimes, in analysis, breaking the limits means that something we thought might be simple isn’t that simple. This is why we have to understand the “parts” of the subject, topic, or problem.

Cowen continues his analysis by transitioning to other criteria–what he calls “impacts”–beyond “performance” with which we can compare charter and public schools. Do charters or publics benefit students of different economic backgrounds; do they benefit or harm students with different needs; and how does one system of schooling affect the other in terms of finances? There are simply lots of questions to ask, and so, Cowen’s conclusion–“The answer then to the question of whether charter schools provide opportunities for students in struggling public schools appears to be ‘yes, but…’–no longer seems all that farfetched. And, thus, I would have to conclude that I was wrong to claim that there should be a yes or no answer. 

In all this, our own analysis doesn’t tell us that Cowen is right about anything. It does tell us that he is using evidence “external” to his own experience to make a conclusion because he, himself, via his own personal experience, doesn’t know. Charter schools work, it would seem, against one criteria but not against others. He’s using research to determine this, not his personal opinion. This style of thinking often makes for generating doubt. That doubt is necessary when we test our own assumptions or beliefs, such as Charter schools are better than public schools. It leads to more or better questions.