THE LEANING TOWER OF BABEL
by Richard Mitchell
PITY the Porseffors of Eglinsh, bearing through throngs of foes, of labourers and shop-boys, the chalice of sweet speech, language pure and undefiled. Dumb as old medallions, but not mute, they hear, in a place of disaffection, a grating roar of new men, other minds, hailing the only emperor, the emperor of ice cream. Ambiguities of seven sorts they understand, but from inservice aspects of remediation, shrink. Objective their correlative may be, and their fallacy pathetic, but parameters of inputs, outcomes, data-based transpersonal perceptions, they eschew. By rabble ringed, they stand and wait, bravely singing as they shine, but with so dull a cheer, their glittering thoughts struck out at ev’ry line. You should have it so good.
So here’s how they sing: “The latter poet, in his own final phase, already burdened by an imaginative solitude that is almost a solipsism, holds his own poem so open again to the precursor’s work that at first we might believe the wheel has come full circle, and that we are back in the latter poet’s flooded apprenticeship, before his strength began to assert itself in the revisionary ratios. But the poem is now held open to the precursor, where once it was open, and the uncanny effect is that the new poem’s achievement makes it seem to us, not as though the precursor were writing it, but as though the latter poet himself had written the precursor’s characteristic work.”
Of course. “And,” out of the revisionary ratios of a bailed-out apprenticeship, another self-precursing poet explains, “everyone will say, as you walk your mystic way, ‘If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me, why what a very singularly deep young man this deep young man must be!'”
That turgid, pretentious prose, however, is not the work of a deep young man. It is the work of a mentor of deep young men. He is a distinguished scholar and Porseffor of Eglinsh at Yale University, a school in Connecticut. (We’d tell you his name if we could, of course, but the reader who sent in this example did not provide it. We have no way to discover it, either, since all members of our staff are forbidden to read PMLA, to say nothing of the insightful, trenchant, and seminal volumes of literary ruminations produced with no base thoughts of profit by the university presses. Let’m publish and perish, is what we say around here.)
Imagine, if you can, the contempt such a Porseffor must feel for a misplaced modifier. Conjure up his long exhalation as he averts his gaze, but delicately, from failure of agreement between subject and verb. Hear him pronounce, so subtly, the quotation marks by virtue of which he can say “feedback” with impunity.
We have said of the Professionals of Education that their language is inhuman and so all the more reprehensible in those who boast of their “humanistic” values. The inhuman language of the Porseffors of Eglinsh, loftily proud of their selfless devotion to the “humanities,” is no less reprehensible. From the least intellectual inmates of Academe, we hear about catalytical non-disciplines facilitating us to move through a meta-transition. From the campus aristocrats we hear about imaginative solitude, probably to be distinguished from some imaginable imaginary solitude or perhaps from an imagined solitude–or both. Where the Professional twists our minds by centering his studies around, the Porseffor assaults our reason with an almost solipsism, no more understandable than an almost pregnancy. (Sure sounds neat, though, don’t it?) He further asks us to accept–by faith alone, obviously, for nothing else would suffice–his oh-so-sensitive distinction between the poem now held open and the same poem when it merely was open. And, in the center of this pretentious mess, we find a shabby banality in that wheel coming full circle, just the kind of cheap cliché we might expect of the erstwhile wrestling coach who has taken a few courses at the local teacher academy and worked his way up to the rank of guidance counsellor.
Most of the barbarians who trouble these times can be easily identified by their native costumes–white belts, polyester double-knit leisure suits, sometimes even love beads. But the subtlest barbarian of all generally wears pure wool, a refined form of sheep’s clothing. For pulling over eyes, wool has that polyester stuff beat all hollow.
The Reformulation of Conceptualization
THE proposal from which the excerpt below is reprinted was submitted in March of 1980 to a certain Society for Research in Child Development, as to which we can tell you nothing more than its ominous name. To speak of children as “developing” is to reveal a nasty insensitivity both to language and to children. Complications develop, and images, but children learn. Or they would, if we gave as much time and effort to teaching them as we do to the profitable business of establishing societies and soliciting grants for the study of their development.
There are surely no Americans who are just now in greater need of good teaching than those “minority status children” to the study of whose development this proposal claims to address itself. Must that teaching–and must their learning–wait upon the “findings,” probably the “definitive findings,” of some people who are unable to make their verbs and subjects agree? Will the stupefying disadvantages against which such hapless children must struggle daily be somehow mitigated by the discoveries of self-appointed savants who seem to suppose that “multiple” is a classy synonym for “many”? What can they understand or help others to understand who cannot see the absurdity of “a comprehensive perspective,” the logical equivalent of an extensive point? When the formulators of conceptualizations go on to reformulate their conceptualizations, what, exactly, will they have done?
The cited passage is not anomalous. It is typical of the entire proposal, which is characterized not only by frequent errors in grammar and punctuation but, much worse, by mind-twisting absurdities born of tormented syntax, and what can only be a ritual recitation of unexamined jargon. The proposal, which awards itself the distinction of being “new and exciting,” and offers to “do . . . developmental and ecological views,” promises to do them “while concurrently focusing (although indirectly) on historical influences which impact differentially the contextual experiences of minority group children who live in a majority group culture.”
(Those children are called, apparently in hope not of precise distinction but only of stylish variation, sometimes “minority group children,” or sometimes “minority status children,” and occasionally mere “minority children.” Fortunately for the sanity of us all, the proposers seem not to have noticed the possibility of naming those other children, whose curious and unaccountable existence they must have had in mind in that last part: the minority group children who don’t live in a majority group culture.)
If you were a ninth-grade composition teacher charged with the education of a student who had written that passage, what would you do? Where would you begin? Would it seem at all to the point simply to tell him that differentially does not mean in different ways, or that while and concurrently add up to redundancy? Do you think he would take much profit from a discussion of the contradiction in his intention to “focus indirectly”? And could you hope to convince him that impact, especially as a transitive verb, has lost its force through too much use in the trendy jargon of grant proposals? What could you do to make clear to such a mind what is wrong with “contextual experiences,” of which he is very, very proud?
Forget it. What that writer needs is not a lesson in this and that, not a handbook of helpful hints, but an education, a mind raised up in the habit of literacy and the skill (it is one and the same thing) of language and thought.
What happened to this proposal, we don’t know. It was probably funded by that Society for Research in Child Development, or by some similar outfit, which will now point with pride to its mighty good works. Furthermore, the givers of such grants can rarely be distinguished from the takers, and they are ordinarily quite impressed by things like contextual experiences and the reformulation of conceptualizations. And anyway, it’s not their money. It’s yours.
Spencer and Brookins teach psychology, Allen, sociology. They may be “minority status” grown-ups themselves. (Do you suppose that they will be pleased to be so designated?) And, if they are, they are the only “minority status” citizens in the land who will take any profit from the funding of this proposal, which will impact differentially on their contextual experiences, but won’t be what they need.
An excerpt from:
The Social and Affective Development of
A Proposal submitted by: Margaret Beale Spencer, Ph. D., Emory University; Geraldine Kearse Brookins, Ph. D., Jackson State University; and Walter Recharde Allen, Ph. D., University of Michigan.
The multiple issues raised suggests that a particular type of structure and composition for the study group is required. Thus, the accomplishment of the aforementioned aims require that the meeting be from a more comprehensive perspective. It is viewed as appropriate, in fact imperative, to conduct the study group conference in a “stepwise” fashion by holding two sessions over the extended period of time thus allowing adequate time between meetings to distill ideas and reformulate conceptualizations.
Strangers in Paradigms,
WE are not guilty of omitting capital letters in the title of the passage reprinted below. Nor is that omission to be accounted, strictly speaking, an “error,” except, of course, in taste. It is merely an example of what is known to printers as “cockroach typography,” an affectation once thought more appropriate in ads for emporia devoted to the swift removal of unsightly hair than to the announcement of scholarly colloquia on the “richness–past, present, and future–of our collective humanistic treasury.”
Cockroach typography is named after archy, that courageous cummings of cockroaches, who had to write his poetry by diving headfirst onto the typewriter keys, but could not manage the shift. And had the describer of “the paradigm exchange” been required to compose his piece in the same way, Earth would be more fair.
The paradigm exchange took place not, as you might well imagine, at Checkpoint Charlie in a murky fog, but at the University of Minnesota in a murky fog. It might not have been, however, quite the innocent romp it seems. Indeed, our staff cryptanalyst has concluded that the colloquium was nothing less than a “cover” for a covert operation laid on by a band of royalty-rich humanities professors in collusion with the international banking and fund-laundering cartel. In support of his hypothesis, he contends that the cited passage is obviously in code, which he unravels thus: “Taking stock. Capitalize currency exchanges [and/or] brokerages. Coin bank deposits richness treasury.”
Well, while we do admit that an international conspiracy of professors and bankers is certainly more plausible than a brokerage characterized by exchanges of tools and explorations of modes, and than the examination of forms (and the paradigms themselves) through the’ application of modes; and while it is true that the supposedly decoded message makes a bit more sense than the original text, we’re just not buying’ it. Those folk are intellectuals, dammit! They aren’t even a pack of educationists, never mind international conspirators. We’re going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assure you that there is probably nothing more sinister in that passage than a muddled and inappropriate metaphor, some vainglorious but routine jargon, and perhaps a pervasive malaise compounded of pretentiousness and the perfectly justifiable fear of academicians that no one out in the world is taking them seriously.
But the cryptanalyst remains unconvinced. He smugly points out that this so-called paradigm exchange provides a morning session called “Accounting for the Disciplines” (his italics), and then an afternoon session, “More Accounting for the Disciplines” (ditto). We reply that disciplines do indeed seem to require lots of accounting for, especially those that might be brokered through papers about “Modes of Space and Interiority: Ontology or Sociology,” “Proust’s Paradigm: A Production, a Figure, an Object of Reading,” to say nothing of “‘Sociality’ and ‘Historicity’ as Categories in Literary Reception” and the “Hegemony of Interpretation.”
That was the point that convinced our stubborn decoder. He finally had to admit that no self-respecting gang of hard-eyed money manipulators and bagmen would take the risk of doing business with bozos who run so easily off at the mouth. Only a public institution of higher learning can take a chance like that.
So, thank goodness, the paradigm exchange was probably just a harmless frolic of porseffors. And why not? If the poets are to be the unacknowledged legislators of the world, they will surely need some help, some bureaucrats and appliers of analytical models, some paperpushers and methodologists of analysis and interpretation. Those artist types are clever enough in their own little specialties, but you can’t expect them to handle the hard stuff. For that you need porseffors.
It happened once that archy’s boss, Don Marquis, invited the insect to visit him at home, provided only that he come without any friends or kinfolk. To that, the Villon of vermin replied:
So where is that cockroach, now that we need him?
the paradigm exchange
Taking stock of the state of critical inquiry in the humanities and arts, this colloquium capitalizes on the diversity among the disciplines, and the currency of creative theories and methodologies of textual analysis and interpretation that bring changing perspectives to scholars and students. Exchanges of texts and tools and explorations of new modes of humanistic thinking characterize the brokerage of the colloquium. Through application of numerous analytical models, a variety of art forms will be examined. This will be followed by an examination of the paradigms themselves, coined in the realms that bank deposits from anthropology, physics, history, and linguistics, to literature, philosophy, sociology, and psychology. The Colloquium aims to inventory the richness–past, present, and future–of our collective humanistic treasury.
Respeak In Monmouth
I am pleased to inform you that the Basic Skills Center is henceforth, to be known as the Center for Developmental Education. Dr. Andreach, Coordinator of the Basic Skill Center will be known as Coordinator of Developmental Education. Increasingly, colleges are dropping the basic skills connotation that goes with the kind of center we have established and are looking to the developmental aspects since they have more of a positive connotation than do basic skills.
WE keep watching for harbingers of 1984. The job is a cinch. Our maps bristle with pins, and we have often discovered readings as high as 9.7 on the logograph recorder. All the outlying stations report the same thing, and all the instruments agree. Just before the end, we will try to send out one last signal; but, should something go wrong, you may have to do that for us. We suggest: “The lights in the sky are stars.”
We once brought you the news that literacy had become “a feeling of self worth and importance, and respect for an appreciation and understanding of other people and cultures.” Just a few days ago, we heard from a mole at the Department of Education, soon to be retreaded as the Ministry of Truth. The DOE, we were told, no longer harbors any of those “change-agents,” who had come to be looked on, by uninformed but noisy critics who proved impervious to re-education, as intrusive social manipulators. The change-agents, having passed through a larval stage as facilitators, have now emerged as linkers. Linkers, along with programs for linker-training and linkage enhancement will soon hatch out in every teacher academy in America.
Now we have the announcement quoted above. It is the work, the deed, one might better say, of one Samuel H. Magill, who is currently known as the president of Monmouth College in West Long Branch, New Jersey. We would like to admire his brass, for he says right out a shabby truth that most educationists would rather not tell. We suspect, however, that it was not out of brass but simply out of thoughtlessness that he gave away such an important trade secret. His use of commas is not characteristic of a cunning contriver, and his notion that connotations can be “dropped” at will is more likely a result of ignorance than of arrogance.
Nevertheless, he achieves the intended goal. Respeak takes its power from the fact that most people are not inclined to discriminate between what something does or is and what it is known as. Any educationistic enterprise can instantly win favor and support by giving its centers and coordinators, or anything else, fresh new outfits of the latest designer fashions in sheep’s clothing. And the educationistic establishment takes from its own Respeak a double advantage. It can go on forever inculcating whatever combination of meager skills and pop notions it chooses to call “literacy,” and it can thus assure itself an endless supply of those very people who are not inclined to discriminate between what something does or is and what it is known as.
It’s a neat racket, and it would be horrible enough if it were operated by a pack of hard-eyed villains who knew exactly what they were doing. The truth, however, is even more horrible.
There are, of course, some villains. There are agency spawned educrats and grant-hustlers who really do profit from “increased spending.” There are book and gadget boosters who make big bucks from innovative thrusts. And there are even some supreme villains, ideological rather than venal, who want to fashion society to suit their ideologies. But those are just a few of the big kids playing hardball. Samuel H. Magill is not in that game.
The Magills of educationism, in all their thousands, are not villains. They are just modules, plugged into openings here and there. Any one will do. It’s the function of a component that is needed, not the judgment of a mind. It doesn’t matter whether Magill understands what he says. It matters only that he who is currently known as the president says it. It is the greatest triumph of our schools that they fit their victims to become their agents.
“All machines,” wrote Thoreau, “have their friction. But when the friction comes to have its machine, let us not have such a machine any longer.”
They Also Serve
THIS isn’t going to be easy, so try to pay attention. We are about to quote from a poopsheet (what a splendid term!) called Bulletin on Public Relations and Development for Colleges and Universities. The Bulletin is quoting, with approbation, Ivan E. Frick, president of Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois. Frick will be quoting, also with approbation, Cohen and March, who must be members of the educationistic-administrative mutual approbation complex. Here we go:
Presidential leadership is always needed to get a college of any size to move and that task is seldom easy. Cohen and March did a study of leadership among college presidents and developed a theory . . . they called “organized anarchy.” They said:
An organization is a collection of choices looking for problems, issues and feelings looking for decision situations in which they might be aired, solutions looking for issues to which there might be answers, and decision makers looking for work.
There is considerable truth in this. An example is when one prepares a case statement for a capital drive. Establishing the case is not a simple process; its path is not linear, that is a straight line from one agreement to the next one. The process is always filled with a tremendous amount of ambiguity.
It is kind of Frick to explain the meaning of “linear,” although his explanation does leave us to wonder whether that path from one agreement to the next might perhaps be a crooked line. But a crooked line is still a line, and so Frick must be saying that there is no line of any kind that leads from one agreement to the next. That would certainly make sense, allowing for a tremendous amount of ambiguity, of course, to anyone who has ever noticed the doings of educationistic administrators, but it’s unusual for a college president to put it in writing.
And it’s kind of Frick–ah, what a teacher he must have been before he was dragged from the classroom into the thankless prominence of presidency–to provide us an honest-to-goodness example to help us understand that “considerable truth” in Cohen and March. We do have to confess that the really heavy thinkers, like Heidegger and Cohen and Hegel and March, are way over our heads. If it weren’t for Frick’s illuminating example, we would probably never have been able to understand why solutions would want to go looking for issues that might already have perfectly good answers of their own, unless they (the solutions) wanted, most uncharitably, and, one might well say in this context, quite contrary to accepted principles of academic collegiality, to replace them (the answers) with themselves (the solutions), thus leaving them (the answers) nothing more than disembodied shades flitting through the gloomy nether world of decision situations, looking for whatever issues the solutions might have spurned, because they (the issues) were not the kind to which there might be answers, the very kind for which they (the solutions) are looking. We wouldn’t even have been able to figure out whether those issues for which solutions are looking are the very issues that are themselves looking, along with feelings, for decision situations. But now, thanks to Frick, everything is perfectly clear. Only a bona fide college president, by gosh, could have detected and revealed that much considerable truth.
Ivan Frick is not the only college president quoted by the Bulletin on etc. etc. (You can get your own copy, if you like, from Gonser Gerber Tinker Stuhr [whatever that, or they, may be], 105 W. Madison, Chicago 60602.) We also get to hear from Dan C. Johnson, of Mount St. Clare College in Clinton, Iowa. He tells us that “there are few, if any, institutional activities which cannot be enhanced by presidential presence.”
Yeah, sure. The enhancing presidential presence. Let us be thankful that classroom teaching is at the bottom of any administrator’s list of “Institutional activities” and thus the least likely to be enhanced by the presidential presence.
SPEAKING of decision makers looking for work, we suspect that we have discovered a genuine linker, one of those erstwhile change-agents turned ex-facilitators about whom we warned you. He is Terry McHenry, whose title would make a Byzantine emperor’s favorite eunuch sob with envy. McHenry is Assistant Superintendent for Business Services for the County Office of Education in Santa Clara County, California.
Right at the top of its front page, the “Superintendent’s Bulletin” admits that McHenry has completed “the extensive nine-month Sloan Program offered by the Stanford School of Business.” (For educationists, anything that can be knocked off with a little inservicing is intensive; if it takes a little more time, and a lot more money, they call it extensive.) Now, McHenry “has taken on the added responsibility of coordinating all planning,” and “he will be using the techniques learned at Stanford and applying it [sic] to marketing and managing the various services districts require.”
Well. Of course. We do have some grasp of planning coordination, which involves not mere planning, but the far subtler arts of planning to plan, and planning whether to plan. That might be what Cohen and March should have meant by “issues and feelings looking for decision situations in which they might be aired.” But the rest of it is murky. What does one do when he manages a “service districts require”? Does he order paper towels according to those techniques learned at Stanford? Is it appropriate for the employee who manages services, whatever that might mean, to market them as well? And to what, exactly, is this mysterious responsibility added? In short, what does this man do for a living?
Fortunately, we need not speculate. McHenry describes his labors in the cause of the life of the mind:
Districts are our clients. Under the new planning program, we will hopefully do a better job of determining what the needs are in the field and, given, how we can meet those district needs.
This will be a lot more than just asking a simple question of do you want a certain kind of service, which is what they (the districts) have been asked before. It is a matter of what is the potential, and, what is the possibility of getting resources for it–either from the County Office or from some other source. We will be looking at the whole scenario.
We are going to start doing an overall look. The first year is not going to be extensive, but we have to find out what the attitudes are out there for the need and provision of services. It will be much more than a needs assessment.
Aha! The whole scenario. The potential. The resources for the potential. More, much more, than a mere needs assessment. But gently! Nothing extensive. The needs in the field will keep. First you have to start to find out those attitudes out there, the attitudes for need and provision. (Could there be any against?) Not an easy job. Might take years. None of them extensive.
So what did we tell you? The man must be a linker!
Please don’t laugh at a linker. Without linkers there couldn’t be any county superintendents, who can hardly be expected to superintend the district superintendents all by themselves. And those superintendents need linkers, both to link with the county linkers and to look at the whole scenario in superintending the attitudes for need and provision among the principals and their linkers. And all of those people need offices, and secretaries, and Mr. Coffee machines. Quality education doesn’t come cheap, y’know.
My photographs establish the iconic, dramatic and psychological roles of contemporary high fashion photography. In other words, my intent is to identify the signifier, while eliminating the signified, simultaneously creating an independent “work.”
Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.
WITTGENSTEIN probably had something much subtler in mind when he came up with that famous line, but the only translation we can manage just now is: If you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, maybe you ought to keep your trap shut.
Not bad for a logical positivist, eh? But there is another and far zippier school of, well, not exactly “thought,” but of something, surely, in which the counterpart of W’s Proposition Seven reads: You got to I-DEN–tify the Signifier, E-LIM–inate the Signified, don’t mess with Mr. Inbetween.
In schools, this persuasion has provided us Intrapersonal Appreciation through Holistic Writing, a form of Primal Screed Therapy in which the student lets it all hang out and the teacher pronounces it all peachy. In art, it has brought us what is so insignificantly expressed (which is the way to do it) in the passage above: that nouvelle vague of Gaga, Son of Dada.
That utterance is the “work” (and we joyfully endorse the iconic role of her quotation marks) of one Vikky Alexander, a photographer, some of whose “works” were among those to be seen last May at Johnson State College in Johnson, Vermont. One of our agents was there, of course, and sent in copies of the artists’ statements of–well, of something, no doubt, but of what, it’s hard to say. Mostly they identified the signifiers as practiced eliminators of the signified.
The most practiced is probably a certain James Welling. He is serious. He doesn’t even put quotation marks around “work.” He doesn’t do works anyway. He seeks productions. Here is part of a production he found:
My work challenges the photographic ethos wherein the camera witnesses mundane details of appearance. I seek a photographic production which evokes as much as it reveals, and which resists the intelligence as long as possible. To shear the photograph of representational references produces an image of multivalent significances.
That, at least, settles an old controversy in one special case. One picture that resists the intelligence is worth forty-eight words that do likewise. So art does instruct and delight after all!
Politics and the Eglinsh Language
“Our civilization is decadent and our language–so the argument runs–must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.”
The bottom line objection against industry-sponsored educational materials is how many more products the company will sell as a result.
The multiplicity of commodities, as Ivan Illich criticizes, induces a new kind of poverty . . .
Though corporate-sponsored teaching materials in many subject areas are responding to the needs of a relevant curriculum, they might also be viewed as expedient and defensive public relations in vested ideologies.
WE have decided to begin memorial observances of 1984 a little bit early, since such subversive activities may not be permitted when 1984 rolls around. The epigraph above, however, is not from 1984 but from a celebrated essay, “Politics and the English Language,” in which Orwell considers mendacious and mindless language far more common and insidious than the dramatic and perhaps too obviously perverted Newspeak of 1984. The other passages, written in the Eglinsh language, are all from Hucksterism in the Classroom: A Review of Industry Propaganda in Schools, by one Sheila Harty. Fortunately for Sheila Harty, Orwell did not live to read this book. He would have found even “industry propaganda” less reprehensible than school Eglinsh, for industrialists, unlike “educators,” have never promised to devote themselves to the life and work of the mind.
Whether Sheila Harty will ever read “Politics and the English Language” we cannot say, but it seems unlikely. She doesn’t really have to, you see, for her book has already been awarded, by some other people who seem never to have read that essay, what the National Council of Teachers of Eglinsh, out of the serene presumptuousness that ignorance alone can bestow, the George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contributions to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language.
We have so far, as many readers will remember, done nothing more about the NCTE than to demonstrate its culpability in the mishap at Three Mile Island, the aborted raid into Iran, and one trifling collision of a Metroliner and a work train that didn’t even kill anyone, but now it’s obvious that we have to stop coddling those people. And we also notice that this weird award comes, to be precise, from the NCTE’s Committee on Public Doublespeak, an especially shifty bunch. They’re the ones who smugly hand out brickbats for the silly and devious language of businessmen, bureaucrats, politicos, and Pentagon spokespersons (which term the NCTE approves), but never seem to notice the inane cant of the educationists or even the trendy jargon of Eglinsh teachering. They wax mighty wroth at “enhanced radiation devices,” but they’ll not drum out of the corps those experts “thoroughly trained in grammar, usage, and linguistics,” who tell us, in their report on the Third National Writing Assessment:
While there may be a sense of sections within the piece of writing, the sheer number and variety of cohesion strategies bind the details and sections into a wholeness.
In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell cites and discusses examples of the “slovenly . . . language that makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Grim as Orwell’s vision for the future was, he never dreamed that we would one day actually have to worry about gross and obvious solecisms in the public language of supposedly educated people. The faults in his examples do not include such grammatical gaucheries as “bottom line is how” or the pathetic baffled-freshman-trying-to-sound-fancy “as Ivan Illich criticizes.”* But even without such crudities, Harty’s prose displays all the perversions of language that Orwell named: avoidable ugliness, staleness of imagery, and lack of precision.
Orwell was more specific. He discussed the routine use of the dying metaphor, that involuntary verbal twitch that tells us “that the writer is not interested in what he is saying.” That seems at first an unlikely charge, especially in polemic writing, but having an interest in a cause is not the same thing as being interested in what you are saying. It is exactly the former that does lead to the thoughtless recitation of cant and stock phrases; it is the latter that demands thoughtful attention. Was it out of thoughtful attention that Harty chose to characterize an otherwise unspecified attribute as “responding to needs,” or was it out of her own habitual responding to the stimulus of conventional educationistic jargon? Was it after a judicious consideration of alternatives or after a jerk of the knee that she decided to distinguish one certain objection from all others by describing it as “the bottom line objection”?†
It was not out of skillful attentiveness but out of its opposite, routine thoughtlessness, that Harty ended up with “bottom line” at all, placidly content, apparently, with a particularly inappropriate jargon term borrowed from the enemy. It is out of that same thoughtlessness that the authors of Orwell’s bad examples litter their prose with terms almost completely lacking in meaning [and that] do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader.” Harty would know, if she bothered to think about it at all, that her readers would accept “relevant curriculum” and even “vested ideologies” just as uncritically as she does.
Enough. You can do the rest of this yourself. Reread Orwell’s essay. Even in those tiny fragments of Sheila Harty’s prose, you will easily find all the items listed in Orwell’s “catalogue of swindles and perversions.” We have to get on with frying the big fish, the one who gives out prizes in Orwell’s name for such rubbish.
Before it was catapulted into national prominence by being mentioned in The Underground Grammarian, the National Council of Teachers of Eglinsh was an obscure special interest lobbying club (a vested ideology, if you prefer). Its one little claim to fame arose, strange to say, from what had to be either ignorance or a deliberate rejection of Orwell’s most important assertion about language. Where Orwell thought language not “a natural growth” but “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes,” the NCTE, in a time of troubles, made political points for itself (coincidentally taking its members off a hook and reducing their workloads at the same time) by announcing that every student had a right to a language of his own. Thus, to require of students the spelling, punctuation, grammar, and syntax of the “ruling class” was to deprive them of their rights.
Such logic would not have delighted Orwell. It finds the language of the student a “natural growth,” like acne, and then proposes to protect him from the oppressive demands of conventional English because language is an instrument shaped for some purpose.
But that doesn’t trouble the NCTE. What, after all, is logic? Just another tricky instrument contrived out of language. They don’t care about Sheila Harty’s prose, which reveals nothing more than the state of her mind; they love her sentiments, which show that her heart is in the right (which is to say “left”) place.
Well, they may be sorry. Those greedy merchants may just this once put principle before profit and cut off the free supply of charts and filmstrips and brochures, and millions of teachers all over America will find themselves desperately trying to figure out what a teacher deprived of teaching materials is supposed to do in a classroom.
* Poor Orwell assumed, naturally, that that sort of language was not the problem and would never get past editors anyway. He could never have guessed that whole generations of editors (and countless other innocents) would be taught, by the NCTE and allied forces, that a persnickety preoccupation with accuracy is an elitist device for the repression of democratic virtues like self-esteem and creativity.
† Does she mean to say, as her garbled syntax suggests–“the bottom line objection . . . is how many more products the company will sell”–that increased sales are the worst possible result of “industry propaganda” in the schools? You would think that a pack of Eglinsh teachers, most of whom live on money taken from taxpayers, would favor flourishing industries and a vigorous economy. You might even think that the same people, who are devoted, of course, to the intellectual life and the freedom of the mind, might fear some even graver (or bottomer line) consequences of propaganda–any propaganda–in the classroom.