De-Mythifying Meaning:

Proposal for the NCTE Annual Convention, November 18-21, 2004, Indianapolis Convention Center

Title: De-Mythifying ‘Meaning’

50-word Annotation:

Four educators apply principles of general semantics to debunk common myths regarding ‘meaning.’ Such ‘meaning myths’ inevitably lead to communication breakdowns, media manipulation, unrealistic expectations and slow self-development. Participants will takeaway practical methods to guide students toward more mature, responsible and self-aware attitudes about their own ‘meanings.’

500-word Description:

The American pragmatist philosopher C.S. Peirce is credited with the observation that, “You don’t get meaning, you respond with meaning.” Nobel physicist P.W. Bridgman expressed the notion in more operational terms when he stated, “The true meaning of a term is to be found by observing what a man does with it, not by what he says about it.”

Nevertheless, in our popular culture, in our mass media, in our personal communications, and even in our classrooms, we continue to perpetuate unproductive and potentially harmful myths about ‘meaning’ such as:

  • the “single meaning myth” – that there is a single meaning, the meaning, rather than possible multiple meanings depending on context, circumstances, and the backgrounds of those involved.
  • the “impersonal myth” – that ‘meanings’ occur or exist apart from the individuals who generate ‘meanings,’ that “things mean” or “words mean” rather than “people mean.”
  • the “meaning = definition myth” – that a dictionary definition dictates how a term must be used and what it ought to ‘mean’ in the future, rather than noting how that term has been used in the past and how its current usage may be changing.
  • the “meaning is spoken myth” – that the significant ‘meanings’ we experience in life can be verbalized, that we can actually describe “how it feels.”

General Semantics, a system for evaluating our language and behaviors, provides practical methods to aid teachers and students debunk, or ‘de-mythify,’ these and other commonly held but unproductive and potentially harmful notions about ‘meaning.’ This panel offers presentations from four professionals representing the fields of journalism, theater arts, communications, and management. Each presenter has applied the principles of general semantics in his/her own classroom environments.

Each presentation will offer practical demonstrations and exercises that can be immediately applied in the classroom to help students learn:

  • They should expect to misunderstand others, and expect to be misunderstood by others; this “communicator beware” attitude will help avoid problems of presumed understanding due to an over-reliance on what the words ‘mean.’
  •  What words, or events, or other symbols ‘mean’ is a function of how each individual interacts with and responds to the word or event; each ‘meaning’ carries with it an aspect of “to-me-ness” determined by the individual.
  • How to become an informed consumer of mass media, to discern the ‘facts’ of a news report vs. the reporter’s own interpretation of what the story ‘means.’
  • How to avoid leaping to conclusions, or rushing to judgment, as to what another person ‘means’ by his/her statements, actions, attitudes, etc.
  • That we ought to temper the meanings that we generate or the judgments we make with some degree of tentativeness and uncertainty. We cannot know ‘all’ about another’s motivation or intent, just as reporters cannot convey ‘all’ the details of a story in a limited amount of space.

By learning these and other critical distinctions, students can develop their individual abilities to respond with ‘meaning’ in their daily lives, and respect the ‘meaningful’ responses of others.