Classification (sorting items into categories) is an exceptionally useful way to develop an idea. Classification is a great tool for challenging the oversimplifications of either/or thinking – the habit of reducing a problem to two choices. You can use classification to show that there’s a third (and sometimes a fourth, a fifth, and so on) possibility.
My favorite example of classification is educator John Holt’s essay “Three Types of Discipline.” It’s a perfect example of how classification can challenge reductive either-or thinking.
What Holt does is to challenge the widespread assumption that there are only two ways to discipline children: Force or permissiveness. Holt’s essay instead discusses three methods: “the Discipline of Nature,” “the Discipline of Society,” and “the Discipline of Superior Force.” It’s a non-preachy and very effective answer to the old argument that you can either hit misbehaving children or sit back and do nothing.
Everyday life is full of experiences that teach us to look beyond obvious either/or thinking to a third possibility. How many of us, for example, had friends in high school who decided to get married right after graduation because they hated living with their parents? It never occurred to our unhappy friends that there might be other escape routes – finding a roommate, joining the military, or becoming a live-in nanny or au pair.
Spend a few minutes thinking about classification, and you’ll probably come up with many examples of simplistic thinking that can be critiqued through classification. This ability to break through our narrow thinking patterns is one of the great gifts of language. Maybe we should also make a resolution to appreciate that gift more often.