Three great authors on writing to make a difference

For fresh, inspiring outlooks on the uses of writing and scholarship to make a difference, I often listen to voices outside of mainstream academe. Here I happily gather together three individuals, Ronald Gross, Mary Pipher, and John Ohliger, whose names I have invoked previously on this blog.

Ronald Gross

Ronald Gross is a leading adult educator who helped to popularize the term “lifelong learning” during the 1970s. Ron’s The Independent Scholar’s Handbook (1982 and 1993 eds., either will do), is the most inspirational and instructive work about scholarship that I have ever read. Ron wears the hats of encouraging coach, intellectual cheerleader, and brainstormer, and I use these terms with respect and affection. If The Independent Scholar’s Handbook does not inspire or restore a sense of joie de vivre towards scholarship, then nothing will:

This is a book about taking risks of an unusual kind: risks in the realm of the mind. It invites you to indulge your impulse (without which you would not have picked up this book) to make the joys of the intellect a significant part of your life.

Gross wrote the book for those who are pursuing scholarly work outside of traditional academic settings, but it is equally invigorating for those within academe as well. It is infused with stories of individuals who have engaged in independent scholarship and found ways to share that work with the world, often becoming change agents in the process. Feminist writer and activist Betty Friedan, historian Barbara Tuchman, and futurist Alvin Toffler are among the independent scholars profiled in it. Though obviously dated in terms of research methodologies, its immense value is in its ability to visualize how our scholarly work can engage the real world.

Mary Pipher

In the introduction to her instructive and heartfelt book, Writing to Change the World (2006), author and therapist Mary Pipher reflects upon the uses of writing:

When you take pen to paper with the goal of making a difference, you join a community of people for whom words and issues matter. . . . As a writer, your life goal may involve a worthy cause I cannot even imagine. Whatever it is, you are fortunate.

Pipher describes writing for change in therapeutic terms. In a chapter on “The Psychology of Change,” she sets out her “Rules of Engagement for Change Agents.” These include respect, accurate empathy, connection, clarity, perspective, tone, and timing. In “Dealing with Darkness,” writers must understand their readers’ resistance and need for hope, while looking out for “orchestrating situations that allow for aha experiences.”

In other words, she urges us to comprehend the ties between therapy for individual change and writing for social change. Good writing for this purpose, she suggests, must connect with the reader intellectually and emotionally. It understands and respects the prospective audience. These are vital reminders for intellectual activists, who oftentimes will be dealing with different stakeholders, ranging from legislators, judges, and business people, to individuals who have suffered loss, injury, and trauma.

John Ohliger

Finally, I bow to the work of a late dear friend, John Ohliger (1926-2004), an iconoclastic adult educator, writer, and activist who enjoyed a rich life as a non-conformist public intellectual. After voluntarily resigning a tenured position as a professor of adult education at Ohio State University, he engaged in many activities related to adult learning. This included co-founding, in 1976, Basic Choices, a small, self-styled, non-profit center based in Madison, Wisconsin devoted to “Clarifying Political and Social Options.” He also co-founded a community radio station and hosted his own program, “The Madison Review of Books,” inviting neighbors to join him as guest reviewers on the air. During the pre-Internet era that covered most of his years, he maintained a voluminous correspondence with people from all walks of life.

John never wrote a magnum opus book. Rather, through Basic Choices, he produced a large collection of unique bibliographic essays, diverse in subject matter and often linked to adult learning themes. He did not hesitate to take on hard social and political issues, such as critiquing the adult education industry for supporting visions of a more affluent, technocratic society. However, he also had a fanciful side, as exemplified by bibliographic essays on singer Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and on adult education themes in mystery and crime fiction. Several years ago, in a chapter contribution to a multi-author book examining John’s work and influence (David Yamada, “The Adult Educator as Public Intellectual,” in Andre P. Grace & Tonette S. Rocco, et al., Challenging the Professionalization of Adult Education: John Ohliger and Contradictions in Modern Practice (2009)), I characterized his body of work this way:

For much of his life, he was an independent scholar and intellectual activist, working through various media to encourage public dialogue and raise important questions about society, learning, and current events. His approach was personal, interactive, and engaging, not hierarchical, directive, and detached. By his example, he taught us that adult education should be voluntary, life affirming, and even fun.

Yeah, fun!

It may seem odd that I am touting a reference to having fun. However, I often find myself searching beyond academe for qualities of authenticity, empathy, and humor that, all too often, are absent within it. Gross’s unabashed enthusiasm for independent scholarship, Mary Pipher’s therapeutic perspectives on writing, and John Ohliger’s creative explorations of adult learning provide these good energies.

2 responses

  1. David, thanks for this post. I am completing a book, “Stop Bullying,” and advocating for legislation, so I am deeply involved with writing to persuade. I am challenged when it comes to persuading stakeholders who may be hostile to change. So your short reviews here are helpful, and as a long-time fan of Pipher, am now going to seek out her book. I will also take a look at Gross’ book, since I am working as an “independent scholar.” Bullying exists in an emotional, social and cultural context. And we need every tool we can get to understand and perhaps enable change.

    • Jerry, thanks for the note. I think you’ll find the Pipher book especially useful for thinking through how we can communicate effectively and persuade others on these difficult subjects.

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