A colleague sent me a questionnaire. It was about my goals in teaching, and it asked me to assign values to a number of beautiful and inspiring goals. I was told that the goals were pretty widely shared by professors all around the country.
Many years earlier I had returned a similar questionnaire, because the man who sent it had promised, in writing, to “analize” my “input.” That seemed appropriate, so I put it in. But he didn’t do as he had promised, and I had lost all interest in questionnaires.
This one intrigued me, however, because it was lofty. It spoke of a basic appreciation of the liberal arts, a critical evaluation of society, emotional development, creative capacities, students’ self-understanding, moral character, interpersonal relations and group participation, and general insight into the knowledge of a discipline. Unexceptionable goals, every one. Yet it seemed to me, on reflection, that they were none of my damned business. It seemed possible, even likely, that some of those things might flow from the study of language and literature, which is my damned business, but they also might not. Some very well-read people lack moral character and show no creative capacities at all, to say nothing of self-understanding or a basic appreciation of the liberal arts. So, instead of answering the questionnaire, I paid attention to its language; and I began by asking myself how “interpersonal relations” were different from “relations.” Surely, I thought, our relations with domestic animals and edible plants were not at issue here; why specify them as “interpersonal”? And how else can we “participate” but in groups? I couldn’t answer.
I asked further how a “basic” appreciation was to be distinguished from some other kind of appreciation. I recalled that some of my colleagues were in the business of teaching appreciation. It seemed all too possible that they would have specialized their labors, some of them teaching elementary appreciation and others intermediate appreciation, leaving to the most exalted members of the department the senior seminars in advanced appreciation, but even that didn’t help with basic appreciation. It made about as much sense as blue appreciation.
As I mulled this over, my eye fell on the same word in the covering letter, which said, “We would appreciate having you respond to these items.” Would they, could they, “basically appreciate” having me respond to these items? Yes, I think they could. And what is the appropriate response to an item? Would it be a basic response?
Suddenly I couldn’t understand anything. I noticed, as though for the first time, that the covering letter promised “to complete the goals and objectives aspect of the report.” What is a goals aspect? An objectives aspect? How do you complete an aspect? How seriously could I take a mere aspect, when my mind was beguiled by the possibility of a basic aspect? Even of a basic goals and basic objectives basic aspect?
After years of fussing about the pathetic, baffled language of students, I realized that it was not in their labored writings that bad language dwelt. This, this inane gabble, this was bad language. Evil language. Here was a man taking the public money for the work of his mind and darkening counsel by words without understanding.
Words never fail. We hear them, we read them; they enter into the mind and become part of us for as long as we shall live. Who speaks reason to his fellow men bestows it upon them. Who mouths inanity disorders thought for all who listen. There must be some minimum allowable dose of inanity beyond which the mind cannot remain reasonable. Irrationality, like buried chemical waste, sooner or later must seep into all the tissues of thought.
This man had offered me inanity. I had almost seized it. If I told you that this little book would provide you with general insight into the knowledge of a discipline, would you read on? If so, then you had better read on, for you are in danger. People all around you are offering inanity, and you are ready to seize it, like any well-behaved American consumer dutifully swallowing the best advertised pill. You are, in a certain sense, unconscious.
Language is the medium in which we are conscious. The speechless beasts are aware, but they are not conscious. To be conscious is to “know with” something, and a language of some sort is the device with which we know. More precisely, it is the device with which we can know. We don’t have to. We can, if we please, speak of general insight into the knowledge of a discipline and forgo knowing.
Consciousness has degrees. We can be wide awake or sound asleep. We can be anesthetized. He is not fully conscious who can speak lightly of such things as basic appreciations and general insights into the knowledge of a discipline. He wanders in the twilight sleep of knowing where insubstantial words, hazy and disembodied, have fled utterly from things and ideas. His is an attractive world, dreamy and undemanding, a Lotus-land of dozing addicts. They blow a little smoke our way. It smells good. Suddenly and happily we realize that our creative capacities and self-understanding yearn after basic appreciations and general insights. We nod, we drowse, we fall asleep.
I am trying to stay awake.