RERUN–The Age of Blather

(Originally posted in May 2009. A recent post by Captain Capitalism reminded me of my post about Mindless Verbal Taylorism…while searching for it, I came across this post, which indeed seems due for a rerun.)

Diana Senechal, guest-blogging at Joanne Jacobs, tells the following story:

I run two lunchtime literature clubs at my school. The fourth graders just finished reading A Little Princess. During our discussions, I encourage delving into the text and discussing it on its own terms. I am not a big fan of “accountable talk,” “making predictions,” “making connections,” and so forth when they assume precedence over the subject matter itself.

One student brought up the part where Sara spends her money on hot buns for a beggar girl. “She made a self-to-self connection,” the student said. I felt sorry that students are learning such ghastly terminology, however well meant. Why are students not encouraged to say, “She understood how the girl felt” or “She felt compassion for the girl”?

Why, indeed? It’s bad enough to impose verbiage like “self-to-self connection” on college students: to do it to a 4th grader is really unforgiveable. It adds nothing to understanding–indeed, it very likely interferes with the true understanding and appreciation of the story by creating an emotional distance.

Strange, awkward, and unnatural verbal formulations, used ritualistically and without contributing to understanding, are becoming increasingly common in our society: although this phenomenon is arguably at its worst in education, it is by no means limited to that field. These word and phrases are not similar to the traditional jargon of a profession or trade. “Self-to-self connections” is not the same kind of thing as “amp” or even “kanban.”

Mark Helprin, in an essay about art, writes about people who are so obsessed with their tools and techniques that they lose sight of the substance of the work:

Modernism is by necessity obsessed with form, much like a craftsman obsessed with his tools and materials. In my climbing days we used to call people like that “equipment weenies.” These days you can see it in fly-fishing, where not a few people go out once a year with $5,000-worth of equipment to catch (maybe) $5-worth of fish. What should have been the story of the man, the stream, and the fish becomes instead a romance between the man and his tools. In this century the same thing happened in art.

Athough Helprin is talking here about art, the same excessive focus on methodology is visible in other areas as well.

Who are the people who perpetrate and cling to these fake-erudite verbal formulations? I suspect that they are generally those who have an education which is extensive–in terms of total years spent in the classroom–but not deep.

Bruce Fleming, who teaches English at the U.S. Naval Academy, has some interesting thoughts on the teaching/misteaching of literature, which are highly relevant to this topic. Excerpt:

Literary study in the classroom nowadays offers views of the work of literature rather like the views of Mt. Fuji in Hokusai’s celebrated spring series on “100 Views of Mt. Fuji.” In each view, the mountain, while present, is frequently tiny and in a corner, viewed (in the most famous print) beyond the crest of a wave whose foam seems to make fingers at the edges, or (in another) through a hoop that a barrel-maker is shaping.

Those are not the front-and-center shots on a postcard. They foreground the angle of the mountain, its treatment, much the way a literature professor does with a funky viewpoint that got him or her tenure. Of course the postcard shot has its own point, but in a real sense it’s more neutral than the angled treatment. It doesn’t push our noses in its approach: It defers to the object it is depicting. We’re far more conscious of the treatment of Mt. Fuji in an artsy Hokusai print than we are in a postcard shot. And that means, we’re all but compelled to see the mountain the way it’s presented, rather than being able to work on our own presentation. That’s why literary studies is intrinsically coercive.

I think the blatherification of America is an important issue. It inhibits clear thought. It is harmful to the enjoyment of art and of literature. It is destructive of intelligent policy-making in both business and government.

What say you? Do you agree that blatherification is happening and that it matters? Thoughts on causes and possible countermeasures?

Original CB discussion thread here.

21 thoughts on “RERUN–The Age of Blather”

  1. We will see this in healthcare in a big way soon. Faculty meetings are getting more and more about feelings and blather. I teach kids how to organize a history and to present the patient at the bedside plus, of course, how to examine them. Feelings come a long way after the mechanics. This may have been my last year teaching. The kids seem to like my approach a lot but I’m a minority and won’t be around much longer.

    I spent a year learning how to objectively measure those things that are measurable. Not all medicine is measurable but we ought to measure those things that are. I was quickly disabused of my idea that people running healthcare organizations wanted to do this. They want to measure COST. Nothing else. They are now in charge. Feelings are cheap and will compensate for incompetence.

  2. I remember my English 101 text, which was a surprisingly well written book for a teaching text, hammered away at clarity and conciseness in writing. Bad examples were constantly contrasted against good examples, and the bad examples were consistently opaque in meaning and had you constantly looking up words for their meaning. The constant refrain was that writing is meant to communicate, not to impress. You impress with ideas, not obscure and convoluted wordage.

    As for feelings, I think they have a place. Regarding Michael’s reference above, how a doctor communicates with a patient can an effect on how they respond. The feelings of coworkers and family members matter since we have to interact with them. They matter in the development of children in how they approach life. In close relationships, feelings are often the primary thing. Feelings aren’t the only thing, but they matter. The fate of nations can turn on how people collectively feel.

    Feeling can have a dramatic effect on writing, some being famous for how well the author communicates their feelings about a subject, even one as math and science based as astronomy or spaceflight. Robert Burnham’s Jr.’s classic Celestial Handbook is filled with poetic passages describing the beauty of star clusters and the things he imagines in nebulae.

    Not just artists, but accomplished mathematicians and physicists took up their subjects because they found beauty or magic in them. Stirring the soul is often a good thing, when it happens for the right reasons.

  3. Literature, blather, and “framing”. Well; it’s all about the narrative with today’s professors. Politics in tweedy guise. Make the “text” fit the political conclusion required, and torture language until it submits.

    It’s almost an old saw now to observe that the lingo used by English & Comparative Lit types reads like an envious attempt to recreate the precise or meaningfully analytic technical jargon used by engineers and scientists. They’re just writing their own works of pure fiction using impoverished language to disguise the poverty of imagination.

  4. It was one of the constant themes in my tech-school at DINFOS (Broadcaster course at the Defense Information School) “The aim is to communcate to the wider audience – anything that gets in the way or hampers communication is counter-productive. Stop doing that at once!” I can only assume that the DINFOS course and the subsequent experience as a military broadcaster counteracted any tendency that I had to write in ‘educanese’… although I still have a tendency to go all Victorian and complicated compound run-on sentance … Personal inclination, I guess. Comes of reading too much 19th century lit.

  5. “As for feelings, I think they have a place. Regarding Michael’s reference above, how a doctor communicates with a patient can an effect on how they respond.”

    I don’t disagree. What is important, though, is that the doctor look objectively at the patient’s situation. The patient’s feelings are important. The doctor’s not so much. You, the doctor, can be paralyzed by feelings. First year students have a big barrier to cross to understand that they must keep their calm when the patient is in trouble. They must reach out but not react to the patient’s anger, for example.

    In the first year program we had a scenario called “the angry patient.” USC has a lot of would-be actors around Los Angeles. Since I was a first year student, we have used them to teach students. Now, it is so common in medical schools to do this that the national board exams use actors.

    “The angry patient” scenario was used to teach students how to deal with the real thing. The first year we did it, the actor was so good that the kids applauded him at the end. They later saw him in some TV commercials. A couple of weeks after that workshop, I took the students to Rancho Los Amigos rehab hospital. One student was assigned to a patient who had been trying to be the next Evil Knieval. He didn’t make it across the barrels and was partially paralyzed. He was really angry at the world and kicked the student out of his room. The student told me he was so glad we had had that workshop.

    I have had family members stand six inches from my face and scream at the top of their lungs when I had to tell them a family member had died. Trauma centers are like that. I probably got hardened to it but I can remember a lot of those cases even 50 years later.

    I remember the Marine helicopter pilot who fell 1500 feet and was still alive when we got him. He was alert and cooperative as we tried frantically to find out why he was in shock. He started to go bad in x-ray so we took him to the OR and looked for something we could fix. He died on the table. I learned that at autopsy the root of his aorta had been wrenched out of his heart. No chance. Why he was still alive and conscious when we got him I don’t know. I had to go out and tell his wife. She screamed right in my face for five minutes. They had just adopted a child.

  6. Do you agree that blatherification is happening and that it matters? Thoughts on causes and possible countermeasures?

    In reading this the thought came to me of how one distinguishes a true expert from the pretenders: How they can distill and explain what they do to the laymen.

    The pretenders load up their explanations with blather and babble. I’ll bet Einstein could explain his theory of relativity in such a way the average person could understand it.

    Your typical NASA bureaucrat would blather.

    So some of this IMO is how well the speaker understands the subject. The less they have mastered it the more they try to impress the listener with blather.

    I believe the cause is the speaker trying to appear more “intellectual” than he is.

    Of course the most brilliant ideas – writers – all have come from a simple premise or idea. And even if the implementation of an idea may be complex its explanation to the layman is usually simple. Or can be simple.

    Hemingway – was one of the masters and portraying ideas with simple – and powerful – words.

    Perhaps it all does come down to tools – whether the tools are words or ideas – and how well the speaker – or craftsman – knows them.

  7. Reading Michael’s thoughtful post I would have to add to my last – the desire by people to not show feelings and thus appear more “objective”

    “She made a self-to-self connection,” instead of simply saying “She felt sorry for the girl” – well, coming from a 4th grader the student heard a teacher or someone saying that and is imitating it –

  8. The phrase “Self to self connection” is totally shorn of any transcendence – it is a completely horizontal expression of what might have been happening. The person who taught this child that phrase is working hard to deny the vertical connection to the Divine. One might say “she responded compassionately”, but that would have been… Christian.
    Susan Lee

  9. I think “self to self connection” is mainly part of an effort to create a professional jargon, thereby posting a warning sign “Experts on the job–parents and other nonprofessionals KEEP OUT.”

    It definitely does strip emotion and transcendence from what was actually a story about human empathy and warmth.

    I have to disagree that compassion is specifically Christian…Christianity is not the only religion or ethical system that requires compassion of its adherents

  10. I don’t buy hungry little girls hot buns or anything else. If I did I am sure I would be arrested.

    There is a government agency that exists to feed hungry little girls.

    We may care about the plight of hungry little girls (or even hungry little boys) but the rules require that we walk away quickly – unless we are reporters in which cae we must take a picture as we walk away.

    Later we may blather.

  11. Sorry, David Foster – I didn’t intend to imply Christianity has a lock on compassion – just speaking from my own perspective!
    Susan Lee

  12. }}} –indeed, it very likely interferes with the true understanding

    You could have stopped right there and the why/how it was done to a 4th grader is self-evident: To interfere with the development of the critical thinking process. By teaching such overblown verbiage, you learn to misuse and abuse the language at every turn.

    As Monty Python once so succinctly put it:
    “I hate people who give vent to their loquacity by extraneous bombastic circumlocution.”

    Never use 3 words when 35 will suffice to muddle the whole thing.

  13. }}} Who are the people who perpetrate and cling to these fake-erudite verbal formulations? I suspect that they are generally those who have an education which is extensive–in terms of total years spent in the classroom–but not deep.

    If that’s the same thing as “postmodernist liberal twits”, then you’re spot on. If it’s something else, nope, not even close.

    The object is not clarity — NEVER clarity. The idea is to destroy all vestige of the things that made Western Civ the predominant force in human development, and the underlying heritage of Greek Thought which provides the foundation.

    With “proper” deconstruction you can remove all meaning and reason from thought and deed and action.

    And THAT, sirrah, is what PostModern Liberalism is all about.

  14. }}} Your typical NASA bureaucrat would blather.

    Ah, but the true artists among them would trot out the papers they’d published and hand them to you for reading…

  15. }}} I see a meaningful opportunity for an aggressive blather outreach program.

    Ideally, one involving high-velocity bullets. :-D

  16. I didn’t like that movie very much. I’ve forgotten why. Probably has something to do with being an English major in the 50s. I loved it even though I was actually doing pre-med.

    A “self to self connection” could theoretically be a bullet.

  17. “These word and phrases are not similar to the traditional jargon of a profession or trade.”

    Indeed. They are examples of argot, not jargon.

  18. Regarding the ripping scene from Dead Poets Society: I did something rather like that when I was given an edition of Lord of the Rings with a preface by some idiot named Peter Beagle.

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