(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.