Peter Elbow: “believe everything, particularly what seems strange or unpleasant”

The doubting muscle’s sensitivity to dissonance is not so trustworthy till you work out the rules of logic, transform assertions logically into as many forms as possible, extricate the self, doubt particularly those assertions that seem reasonable, and get opposing propositions to fight each other. Similarly, the believing muscle’s ability to project isn’t so trustworthy till you build its use into an orderly game and follow the rules: never argue; believe everything, particularly what seems strange or unpleasant; try to put yourself into the skin of people with other perceptions; make metaphorical transformations of assertions to help you enter into them. Most important of all, you must get other people to do it with you, and do it for a long time.

— Peter Elbow, from “Believing and Doubting as Dialectics” (Writing Without Teachers, pp. 169-170)

I am a little bit in awe of how simply-stated but true to reality these sentences are. I especially like the parts about the need to practice believing “what seems strange or unpleasant” and making “metaphorical transformations of assertions to help you enter them.” It’s almost as if I could take these sentences and expand them into steps for my students to follow while researching or thinking about something.

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2 thoughts on “Peter Elbow: “believe everything, particularly what seems strange or unpleasant”

  1. I wonder if this is like Anne Wysocki’s “reading generously” that Travis and I were talking about. Certainly it is about being open minded, something that our younger students struggle with. If some topic or perspective differs radically from what they are used to – like a new exotic food put on their plate – they hesitate (or refuse) to taste it. When Elbow says “believe” – I think this throws young readers off. They associate “believe” with religion (religiare – tying oneself with phylacteries?) – not the willing suspension of disbelief, for a moment, in the “once upon a time” storyland of “this might be true”. Are you working with this “believing” and the religion in the classroom?

  2. Hey, Sara. Very long time, no reply, huh? (Sorry about that.)

    I think you’ve got a great point — the point about how students associate “believe” with religion, and religion implies a long-term belief, something that you attach your life to, so to speak. So yeah — it’d be better if we said it more along the lines of “read generously” (though I haven’t read Wysocki on this, so I don’t know if her concept is the same as Elbow’s) or “suspend your disbelief.” Or I guess we could say “temporarily believe!” :)

    And to answer your last question, nope, I wasn’t working with this “believing” specifically in relation to the religion theme I was using (back in ’09). I probably was thinking of it though in the general sense of how we need to apply this skill to everything we read (not just religion). But it’s certainly very-true of religious texts as well.

    Again, sorry for the three-year-late reply, Sara. I was off blogging for a while.

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