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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Misinterpretation and What We Can Learn from Mr. Romney

This is not a political blog. This is a blog about books, reading, and critical thinking. However, being a widely read individual and a responsible citizen who keeps up on current affairs, I often make connections between what I observe in the world and what I find in books. This intersects with the realm of politics, but my motivation for writing it is purely academic. First a disclaimer: I am neither a Republican nor a Democrat. I am not impressed with either of our presidential candidates this year. If President Obama had made the error I’m about to discuss, I would be writing the same post.
As it happens, the error was Mr. Romney’s. This letter, posted in the New York Times, and written by the brilliant scholar Jared Diamond (professor at the University of California, and author of Collapse, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and other insightful, thought-provoking books) details how Mr. Romney either read Diamond’s Gun, Germs, and Steel and completely misunderstood it, or referenced said text as supporting a piece of his foreign policy position, when, in fact, the text does not say what Mr. Romney claims it said.
So one of three things is true: 1) Mr. Romney did not understand Diamond’s work; 2) Mr. Romney understood it and deliberately twisted Diamond’s meaning to suit his own purposes; or 3) Mr. Romney has never read this book, but someone on his staff pulled quotes and references that seemed to give some support to Mr. Romney’s position and Mr. Romney blindly repeated the references without looking into it himself (and, dare I suggest, learning something!).
Whichever of the three options above happen to be true, I am pointing this out for young scholars everywhere, because this is a problem that I see among my students regularly: the failure to carefully read and consider what an author is saying before attempting to deputize her or him into one’s argument as supporting evidence. I teach high school, and one of the most common mistakes I see is the mistake of a student not carefully reading a text and fully understanding it before trying to make use of it in supporting, defending, or attacking a position.
For all young scholars, let this be an object lesson: we have a duty to authors and to ourselves to carefully and thoughtfully read any material we might want to examine or explore as we try to form an argument around a topic. Adler discusses this duty that reads have toward authors in a book I’ve already discussed on this blog How to Read a Book. His discussion of analytical reading and its importance is highlighted by this example. One of the reasons we read analytically is so that we can intelligently and accurately talk about an author’s ideas.
I once heard it said that a wise man learns from the mistakes of others. Mr. Romney’s failure, can be a lesson to us all.

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