English and Education
Jan 28, 2009 Learning Methodology 2970 Views
H. L. Mencken was stunned. As his train puffed through the Pennsylvania countryside, he stared in shock at the horror that was architecture in Westmoreland County, east of Pittsburgh. He recoiled before “the appalling desolation . . . a scene so dreadfully hideous, so intolerably bleak. . . . What I allude to is the unbroken agonizing ugliness, the sheer revolting monstrousness of every house in sight.” And he shuddered to this portentous conclusion: “Here is something the psychologists have so far neglected: the love of ugliness for its own sake, the lust to make the world intolerable. Its habitat is the United States. Out of the melting pot emerges a race which hates beauty as it hates truth.”
Mencken was especially chilled, and puzzled, when he noted that the benighted Pennsylvanians could so readily have built beautiful dwellings. But they chose ugly ones. He was baffled by this perversity.
Many people have a quite parallel experience when examining the state of the American language. Just what are we to make of the jargon and gibberish beloved by so many of our bureaucrats and middle managers—and, more crucially, our academics and educators? Mencken’s harsh prophesy may well be true, and there is now among us a race that “hates beauty.” How else do you explain this?
The functional methodology shall be based on an inter-disciplinary process model, which employs a lateral feedback syndrome across a sanction-constituency interface, coupled with a circular-spiral recapitulatory function for variable-flux accommodation and policy modification.
Mario Pei insists this example is “authentic” and that it emanated from a “great university,” a prima facie impossibility. I call this sort of egregious English “Ph.D. illiteracy.” Only those with lots of education can synthesize the stuff. I say synthesize. Please, no alibis based on the much-abused notion of “natural evolution” of language. Ph.D. illiteracy is neither natural nor evolutionary, except in the sense that formica “evolved” from marble.
Besides being ugly and artificial, Ph.D. illiteracy is also dishonest. The intent is to deceive, to make the simple seem complex, to make the obvious seem brilliantly and even arduously discovered, to make the tautological seem like a giant leap forward for mankind. The writer’s first priority is to impress or trick you. Conveying information rates only second priority. The more that tricking outweighs telling, the more language is deformed—that is the essential dynamic of Ph.D. illiteracy.
Jacques Barzun has stated our predicament best: “Today it is the educated who lead the way in destruction”—the destruction of what we fondly call American civilization. The crime is (if you'll indulge the coinage) culturecide. The murder weapon is debased language. The murderer, as we’ll see, is debased education.
To be fair, I’d like to take a moment to put our professors in perspective. Even professors of English can be Ph.D. illiterates, though they rarely are. Biologists likewise are seldom Ph.D. illiterates—unless they happen to be working for the Pentagon or seeking a grant from the National Science Foundation. As for anthropologists and accountants, however, they are plummeting to new depths. And when you come to social scientists and educators, you find that Ph.D. illiteracy is practically the norm. Here is an educator describing what he is going to teach to anyone silly enough to show up:
Learning System Design I: Introduction to development learning system design concepts is provided with practical applications of the systems approach in human learning. Concepts in topics such as needs assessment, task analysis, goal formulation, and process and product evaluation are explored emphasizing relevance in the learning process.
Perhaps you don’t object to high-toned dissimulation, and you’re now asking yourself, “So what’s the big deal if social scientists play their little games?” The problem, to quote Barzun again, is that “the condition is progressive; loose language first makes analysis difficult, then absence of thought is hidden by technical discourse.” In short: no Beauty, no Truth.
Furthermore, our Ph.D. illiterates are vastly influential. They are, of course, often nomadic, foraging about from academia to business to government. With their advanced degrees and presumed learning, they have clout. In consequence, they have been able to sabotage American English. Their deceitful language has washed like a dark tide through all the groves of academia, even muddying the once-lucid physical sciences, and then flooding out into the larger society. Here’s a marketing executive making the obvious opaque:
Target emphasis based on speciality productivity is presently being applied almost universally in the journal selection process. The concept is a simple one: the more productive the doctor on a per-man basis, the greater his potential return per ad dollar spent. Therefore, the promotion spend is apportioned according to the relative productivity of each target physician.
An important aspect of the problem is that Ph.D. illiterates tend to be shameless. These are the “barbarian” specialists that Ortega y Gasset warned us about. Too many will defend their imagined right to speak in private codes—and to hell with the rest of us. In sum, Ph.D. illiterates have exerted a pervasive and near-irresistible influence in favor of wordiness, murkiness, and pseudo-scientific language in even the most commonplace circumstances.
A NEW CLASS WITHOUT CLASS:
Much is being made of a so-called New Class, which is just about everybody below 35 with a college degree. In a book on this hot new topic, a political scientist named Alvin Gouldner notes that the members of the New Class talk in a new way. He says their language tends to be impersonal, precise sounding, and abstract. It is detached and critical. It is alienated from ordinary life. The New Class thinks this is just fine—their professors have encouraged precisely those tendencies. Impersonality, abstraction, and detachment are, of course, excellent prescriptions for engendering ugly prose and a surfeit of unreality (i.e., truthlessness).
Articles I’ve read speak of the New Class as a coming master race—well-groomed, full of self-importance, ready to run the world. I say it’s just as useful to regard these people as a race of carriers, spreading the verbal and intellectual corruption that is Ph.D. illiteracy throughout public life. Could this New Class be the full flowering of the race that Mencken saw rising out of the melting pot, lacking culture and depth, more deeply moved every time by pretension than by poetry or feelings or the majesty of ordinary facts? The moribund language of the New Class will, I predict, make its members inefficient and, finally, destructive. They lack poetry, and so they lack truth.
Keats said that beauty and truth were one. Mencken similarly perceived that the people who turn against either will turn against the other—“a race that hates beauty as it hates truth.” To me this conjunction is an exquisite subtlety, not at all obvious. Orwell neatly explained the correlation’s linguistic aspects: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. . . .When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aim, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.” In short, the instant that writers turn from truthfulness, they turn from beauty.
The “declared aim” of every memo, report, and scholarly article is, of course, a pursuit or presentation of facts. The “real aims” are often more cynical, more insincere—dazzling colleagues, impressing superiors, publishing at any cost. The real aim is to make sure that people applaud the fit and cut of clothes the Emperor is not wearing.
Some might say that my laments are merely esthetic, like objecting to a surfeit of garish signs along a highway. My answer is that these phenomena are not esthetic at all, but are signs of pathology. Ph.D. illiteracy diminishes the nation’s intellect and vitality. Signs along the highway may well be an indication of vitality, as may many other eyesores. But Ph.D. illiteracy and the detached language of the New Class are decay made visible.
The inestimable George Steiner has written a pertinent analysis of the relationship between the decline of the German language and the decline of the German nation. He contends that German, starting before 1870, was debased by a combined assault from the academic community, the government, and the military. He feels that two things happened as a result: the nation’s literary output in the years since has been less than it was before; and more dramatically, the debasement of the German language made Naziism possible. German’s fall helped Hitler to rise. The language became chunky and imprecise and fat with emotionalism. Literature wasn’t possible. Truth wasn’t possible. The Third Reich was possible. Orwell explains the synergistic, downward spiral in this way:
An effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language.
Extending this analysis, I believe that a decline in any field or group is signaled by a decline in the language used by the group. One decline causes the other, and so on around.
EDUCATORS WANDERING IN THE VOID:
In education you find that Orwell’s and Steiner’s insights are particularly apropos. This field produces some of the worst imaginable gibberish. Frighteningly, it has often stopped producing much else. As we’ve all heard, Johnny cannot read so well, and Mary cannot spell, and neither can count. SAT scores slide. According to Lewis Lapham, formerly an editor at Saturday Evening Post and Life before becoming editor of Harper’s: “In this country, there is a definite decrease in the number of people who can express themselves clearly.” All, I say, because educators spend too much time discussing important-sounding but irrelevant theories and inventing important-sounding but useless terminology and devising important-sounding but unnecessary tests. What educators are not doing sufficiently is concerning themselves with Truth and Beauty.
All of which, I submit (with thanks to Orwell and Steiner), can be deduced from three words: “motorized attendance module.” That a field spawned such language, that members of the field used these words in a discussion on TV—well, you just know that the field has lost its way and may well be defunct. (A “motorized attendance module” is a school bus.)
The simultaneous decline of American education and the language used by America’s educators is a historical fact. I believe that they have spiraled downward in tandem, causally connected, twin helices in a huge conspiracy, albeit a mindless one for the most part. Educators may even believe that they are doing good in the world. But the fact is, the educators’ product—that is, both education itself and the educated themselves—deteriorate yearly. The result, ten years hence, will be yet another generation of educators who are less well equipped intellectually to handle their job, less able to see a way out of the mess. These newer teachers (these New Classmen), in turn, create still dumber students and more ignorant future teachers.
This next quote is particularly illuminating. All the downward-spiraling elements of our predicament come together here. For the speaker is an educator, and he is speaking to educators, and his overall subject is the education of future educators, and his specific subject is language:
Nor is sentence combining always an option, even if we assume a plenitude of ideational contents in the writer’s intention, since semantic constraints governing the grammatically hierarchical arrangement of that content require that much of it occur as subordinate inclusions within the boundaries of orthographic sentences.
This foolishness comes from a director of “writing programs” at a large university.
Here is one more little atrocity. The writer is an educator, and he is writing about educating. In fact, his is the Party Line. But see how he puts his case:
Rigid course structures in which predominantly content-oriented approaches are taken with predetermined and fragmented subject matter, and which require little more of students than monotonous memorization and regurgitation of often useless bits of information, must be superseded by instructional strategies and programs that both motivate students and challenge them toward increased levels of cognitive growth and self-discovery in relation to the world and others.
HAND IN HAND:
English and education are normally thought to be little more connected than, say, botany and politics, or algebra and Latin. But more and more I’ve come to think that these two words are virtually synonymous, as odd as that may seem at first. The mind will have words, as surely as an organism will have food. The question is, which words? Always there is the element of choice—of selection and rejection. From the first word a child learns to the last book read by a senior in college, there is choice. The question—and it recurs at a million separate junctures in each life—is, what words? What books? And this question, and the answers to it, are the gist of any education.
It’s more obvious that food and diet are synonymous. Every cell takes in food. Diet introduces the concept of taking in certain foods, not others. In the same way, language and education are two aspects of the same interplay of intake and choice. Obviously, whole societies can settle on a bad diet and suffer bad health. Education-wise and language-wise, we have done just that.
The American language is in decline; American education is in decline. To discover that one of these is true is to be sure that the other is also true. Conversely, to improve either, we will necessarily have to improve both.
For thousands of years, educators were chiefly concerned with filling heads with facts. That is, Truth. There was one guiding principle: students should learn from the best, most splendid examples and achievements supplied by the culture. There is Beauty. The triumph of modern American education is that Truth and Beauty are in eclipse. The emphasis has fled from fact and the exemplary to affirmative nurturing and positive reinforcement, which sounds fine but in practice seems to mean gentling the delicate darlings into mute and stupid adulthood.
My own suspicion is that education is too important to leave to educators. Any dozen adults picked off the street, by reflecting on their own schooling and what worked and what did not, could probably make more sensible recommendations than we have been receiving from our experts. Alas, these people are now a vast special-interest group, with a towering glacier of pretension and foolishness to guard.
Allan Tate has said just about everything we need to know about education, and I think that the sooner we get back to this wisdom, the better off we’ll be:
The purpose of education is not happiness; it is not social integration, or political system. Its purpose is . . . the discipline of the mind for its own sake; these ends are to be achieved through the mastery of fundamental subjects which cluster around language and number, the two chief instruments by which man knows himself and understands his relation to the world.
So what do we do? With regard to our language, now is the time for all good people to come to its aid. We must not take seriously the pretensions of Ph.D. illiterates and their clones in the New Class. We can laugh, for one thing. We can also ignore or correct. We must all say again and again, “What exactly do you mean? Express yourself clearly. Why do you choose such ugly and complex ways to communicate? Isn’t what you’re saying really quite simple, something on the order of . . . ?” We can quote Thomas Jefferson: “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”
Immersed in language, we must not forget that it is a precious cultural institution, like democratic government or the Bill of Rights. Unprotected, it will fade; it will mutate into a tired or grotesque parody.
In his book The Miracle of Language, Charlton Laird states what should be our perennial philosophy:
The use of language is the use of the mind. Learning to use language carefully would seem to be training in using the mind carefully, and it has long been considered so. The Greeks and Romans were careful students of rhetoric and grammar; during most of the history of Europe, the study of classical writers was the basis of all education. Egyptian education was based upon composition; Chinese education was based upon study of the Chinese classics. In fact most of the great cultures of the world seem to have been developed by civilizations which attached the greatest importance to the study of language and choice pieces of writing.
With regard to education, we can extend to all subjects the sensible ideals now confined to sports and music—namely, that excellence is expected, respected, and rewarded. Every student should be pushed as far as possible in every subject, no matter whether the subject is Latin, typing, biology, carpentry, volleyball, or algebra. We needn’t waste time pitting subject against subject, career against career. That children are not equally talented is no matter. What does matter is that all children be exposed to the full range of possibilities and then cunningly and creatively encouraged to pursue each subject to the limit of each one’s talent.
What I plainly see is that teenagers in this country who are gifted at sports are virtually catapulted upward toward excellence—whereas the teenagers who show a gift for biology or history or Latin are herded toward mediocrity. Try to grasp this: a tenth grade teacher in Rockville, Maryland, was suspended for encouraging interested students to read books (Aristotle, Machiavelli) not in the official curriculum. Now hear the official explanation: the principal and the county superintendent insisted that teaching must be uniform. Oh, sure, and in the Maryland schools every kid plays varsity football!? Well, modern education piffle has evidently run amok in Maryland, with these two clear results: some students will be less than they could be, and the country will have less brain power than it should have.
A reformation needs leaders, and clearly they must be the country’s editors, publishers, writers, journalists, columnists, business people, and all those beleaguered administrators, professors, scholars, and teachers who have always known in their bones that it’s clarity that is next to Godliness. I’ve been emphatic that Ph.D. illiteracy is an artificial thing, an intellectual aberration that little-minded people cook up for our mutual indigestion. The converse is crucial to us now: large-minded people can clear the table, start afresh. If the intellectual climate turns against the hideous in language and the silly in educational “strategies,” we will see a remarkable vanishing act. Why not today?
Dag Hamarskjold has provided our credo: “Respect for the word—to employ it with scrupulous care and incorruptible heartfelt love of truth—is essential if there is to be any growth in a society or in the human race.”