Rebecca Ripperton

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On President’s Day: Washington’s Farewell Address

by Rebecca Ripperton
February 18th, 2019

To commemorate President’s Day, as well as the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, we will feature two speeches delivered by these two former presidents on the blog this week. The first speech is Washington’s “Farewell Address,” first published on September 19th, 1796, and the second is “On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” (often referred to as the “Lyceum Address”) delivered by Abraham Lincoln on January 27th, 1838 in Springfield, Illinois.

Why study Washington's Farewell Address?

A little over 222 years ago, George Washington made the decision not to seek a 3rd term in office and his famous Farewell Address was published in a Philadelphia newspaper. It was a letter of valediction to the American people at that time, and one that remains a rich and forceful document, filled with counsel that is as relevant today as it was in the 18th century; in his own words, President Washington offers “the disinterested warnings of a parting friend.” As a founding father and the unanimously elected president of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, George Washington was well acquainted with the perils facing the American nation, and many scholars have noted how eerily accurate his predictions have turned out to be.

Perhaps some of you have read his Address in your History classes, and maybe even with your own children or students. If your children have not yet read this Address, however, I encourage you to share it with them once they are of a suitable age (depending on the individual, 13+). George Washington’s circumspection here is an example of statesmanship at its finest. His civic duty was one he regarded with the utmost seriousness, and throughout each and every line of this letter, Washington’s love for his country rings out.

Reading the writings and speeches of early American statesmen is without doubt one of the most effective ways to acquaint any young person with traditional American values and both the content and the import of our constitution, not to mention an excellent way to expose them to exemplary rhetoric. Any serious study of our founding documents is also likely to inspire in the reader a deepened love of country, an appreciation for the care and introspection with which the constitution was crafted, and an aspiration to be a better, more thoughtful citizen. In Federalist 51, Madison asks, “what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature”? Through studying our government, we learn about ourselves; we are forced to admit our flaws – individual and collective – and work to correct them. Being an engaged citizen is a continual challenge, but it is also an endlessly rewarding and noble one.

In recommending this speech, I am reminded of an admonition a former professor of mine once gave to a hall of college freshman. He said (and I am paraphrasing), “The Great Books – the U.S. Constitution, the Bible, Plato’s dialogues, etc. – do not bend to human desires. They were not designed to please us, and we do not get to decide whether or not they are good enough for us and for our opinions. Instead, we must work to be good enough for them; we must rise to meet the standard they set.” In this Address, President Washington offers insight into how we may continue the work of rising to meet the standard of our constitution, how we may better strive as a people to be good enough for it.

Discussion questions and essay prompts

Lastly, if you have the desire and opportunity to discuss the Farewell Address either in a classroom or at home, the following are some questions that you might use to guide your conversation. (You could have students write about one or more of these questions, as well.)

  • Why does Washington oppose political parties? What does he perceive their danger(s) to be?
  • Why might Washington favor parties under a monarchy but not in the setting of a ‘popular’ government?
  • How do friendships differ from factions? How may citizens under a government sustain strong friendships without succumbing to the temptation of political party?
  • What does Washington mean when he says “The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit, which the use can at any time yield”? Why is it so important to exercise judiciousness in this regard?
  • What kind of relationship does Washington believe exists between morality and religion? Given his assertions, what role should religion play in a government that “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”?
  • What is the relationship between Washington’s stance on foreign policy and his opinion of political parties? In what ways are they similar? How might they differ?
  • Why does Washington believe that a national union is “the palladium of […] political safety and prosperity”? How does he justify the importance of national unity?
  • If “to preserve [reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power] must be as necessary as to institute them,” is the work of the modern statesman any different from that of the founding fathers? Does this assertion in any way alter your understanding of what the current work of the government should be?
  • What does it mean to be a good citizen in George Washington’s eyes? What is the work of a good citizen?

Writing a Retrospective Outline

by Rebecca Ripperton
​February 11, 2019

What is a retrospective outline?

Our third recommendation for helping students incorporate more structure into their writing is to have them create a rather unconventional form of outline. Instead of composing an outline before writing their essay, we suggest that they try creating one after a full draft has been completed instead. The main reason for this is because it is often far more fruitful to think about structure once most of your ideas have already been set down on the page, instead of in advance.

This can also be an especially helpful exercise for anyone struggling with sequencing of their paragraphs or ideas. While an essay is absolutely dependent on logic and the ideas presented must logically follow one another, part of the reason we write is to order our thoughts for ourselves. Often when we write a first draft, most of the material set down on the page is related to our main idea or thesis in some way, but the thoughts aren’t always perfectly ordered. Hence, outlining retrospectively.

When to use the retrospective outline

The first time I ever tried this exercise was when I was working on my senior thesis for my undergraduate degree. I found myself struggling to rearrange paragraphs within a 3-page subsection of a 30-page word document so out of frustration I decided to print the 3 pages at issue and cut out each of the paragraphs. I then began to arrange and rearrange the paragraphs, shuffling them about until the order was perfect. After that, it took virtually no time at all to go back into the word document and copy and paste appropriately, and voila – problem solved.

I’ve also used the retrospective outline with high school students and I find it works well for this age group because when a student is asked to write an outline before all of their ideas are fleshed out, the entire writing process can sometimes come to a screeching halt and they may lose whatever momentum they had previously gathered. A student may also wonder how they can possibly write an entire essay if they couldn’t even write a coherent outline, and become paralyzed.

In such a scenario, I would ask the student to ditch the outline for the time being and first write their essay, as some students have an easier time sorting out their ideas in actual prose than in skeletal form. Then later we would go back to the outline and map out their argument in outline form to ensure that their argument is sound and that they are actually saying what they had wanted to in their writing.

How do I incorporate this sort of project into my lessons?

To begin this exercise, a student should write on a blank sheet of paper what the function is for each paragraph of their draft and what that paragraph contributes to the overall argument. They can ask: if this paragraph were missing, what would be lost from the argument? Why might its omission compromise the validity of my conclusion? What is the main point I’m trying to make here? Then, if a reordering of ideas is necessary – they can cut apart the summaries of each paragraph and see what can and should reasonably be rearranged. Likely, not every single paragraph will need to be repositioned, so target more problematic areas. If you have an especially thorny section, you could even do this with sentences in a paragraph.

The retrospective outline then helps to illuminate where the gaps and redundancies in an argument may be. When the “meat” of each paragraph has been written out, the argument should read like a proposition and each item should follow stepwise from the one before. (One way to test this is to show the retrospective outline to a friend or teacher and have them work through it to ensure that the reasoning is both sound and complete.) It’s easy to think that you’ve stated something explicitly when you haven’t, and it’s also easy to become attached to sentences that are more or less irrelevant to your final argument. These sorts of errors can become much more readily apparent with an ex post facto outline!

Share your experience

Have you ever struggled with outlining? We'd love to hear about your solutions in a comment below!

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If you'd like to learn more, read our earlier posts about writing: Writing as a Complement to Reading: Why Write?, The Importance of Freeform Writing, and Writing Beyond the Essay.