Two Assignments Introducing Students to Mapping Problems

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Maps: Information and Structure

Though people who have worked extensively with Korzybski's map-territory analogy may understand at a glance how to apply it to written arguments, students often have difficulty seeing it as anything other than one more concept to stash away in their notebooks, there to move in darkness from class to class and quadrangle to quadrangle as part of the long endurance test we refer to as "schooling." Even those students who sincerely attempt to grasp the analogy may have difficulty seeing how to apply it in the so-called "real world." Because of this difficulty and in order to give my freshman students some critical tools relevant to the arguments presented to them in public life, I use two refutation assignments that encourage them to put the map-territory analogy to practical use as they grapple with arguments about current affairs.1

Before presenting the assignments, I suggest to them that maps prove faulty for one of two reasons and often both at once: a map may lack pieces of information that the map user requires in order to put the map to use and/or the map may have a structure different from that of the territory.2 Most students can see quite readily how to apply these principles to a map of a physical territory. On a map of Colorado, they can see that if it doesn't have sufficient relevant information, the map user will not get much use from it: if someone wants to drive from Boulder to Fort Collins, a map containing only bike trails and hiking paths will not serve very well. When dealing with standard area maps, students can also see quite clearly that the map must have the same structure as the territory, that the different items on the map must have the same relationship there as they do in the territory: if the map has Fort Collins east of Denver instead of north-northwest, the user will end up as lost as a rhetoric instructor at a rodeo.

I do not, at this point, suggest the following tentative conclusion, though it seems warranted by the available evidence: if one uses a map lacking necessary information, the map will often do no harm (though one could surely find exceptions) because though it will not tell the map user many things she would like to know, it will not usually present her with a false-to-facts picture; if, on the other hand, the map user uses a map that doesn't have the same structure as the territory, the map may actually prove harmful. The prospective user of the map with only bike trails and hiking trails might simply stay home and watch Rockies baseball (or, I suppose, find another map), whereas someone using the map with Fort Collins east of Denver may well find herself wandering the wintry and windswept high plains of eastern Colorado instead of sitting securely ensconced in a Fort Collins coffee shop talking pleasantly about the misdeeds of government.

What happens when students turn to verbal maps? They encounter such maps every day, as do we all, but they don't often stop to ask questions about either information or structure. They seldom ask why they should see some information as relevant, important, or crucial to the question at issue, and questions about structure seem as alien to them as the language of birds. However, because many (probably most) of the arguments that affect students' lives most profoundly come in verbal form, teachers should probably give their students some training in thinking critically about them.

Korzybski said that everything depends on structure (or something to that effect), and we can see quite easily how to look for the structure of a map of Colorado. But how do we find structure in a verbal map? What does that structure consist of? I suggest to my students that we can discern structure by looking at the relationships among various parts of the intensional or extensional item under consideration - and that though we have many types of relationships, we can describe any of them by referring to operations because once we move down from the airy heights of "relationship-in-general" to the more grounded territory of relationships in particular (i. …