Academic Prose

As a scientist and teacher, I was often confronted with the task of communicating very complex ideas to people who, while intelligent, did not have all of the relevant information necessary at the forefront of their consciousness to understand the concepts I was trying to convey. For that reason, scientific writing strives (not always successfully) to be as clear, simple and concise as possible. I was fortunate to have good teachers – that article was required reading in our lab.

One of the (many) problems with scientific English is that so many non-native speakers publish in it, and they bring a lot of baggage to it from their native languages. But the main barrier to understanding is that scientific prose is that it is dense with new ideas. If you do not know the precise definitions of the terms the author is using, you will be lost, no matter what your level of skill. If you have not worked out the math before, you will need to do that when you encounter an equation, or the words that follow will make little to no sense. For this reason, simple, declarative grammar is the byword for a scientist – the ideas make things hard enough as it is.

This is not true in the Academic Humanities, by and large. One of the greatest crimes against scholarship perpetrated by the Boomers is their popularization of Post-Modernism, which tends to take ideas that range from the sophomoric to the idiotic and wrap them in impenetrable prose. Recently, I ran across an excellent article skewering that tendency:

For those ideas, in the main, are quite simple, and often anything but revolutionary in essence. What is genuinely remarkable about them is not their novelty, or their complexity, nor even the fact that a professor should harbor them; it is the astoundingly grandiose and rococo manner of their statement, the almost unbelievable tediousness and flatulence of the gifted headmaster’s prose, his unprecedented talent for saying nothing in an august and heroic manner.

I’m not so sure Derrida or Foucault ever said anything “heroic”, even in French, but I do think that Post-Modernist prose is typically an example of a mental tic, possibly a full-blown disorder:

It is as if the practice of that incredibly obscure and malodorous style were a relentless disease, a sort of progressive intellectual diabetes, a leprosy of the horse sense. Words are flung upon words until all recollection that there must be a meaning in them, a ground and excuse for them, is lost. One wanders in a labyrinth of nouns, adjectives, verbs, pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions and participles, most of them swollen and nearly all of them unable to walk. It is difficult to imagine worse English, within the limits of intelligible grammar. It is clumsy, affected, opaque, bombastic, windy, empty. It is without grace or distinction and it is often without the most elementary order.

But wait – when I check the copyright on the book I just excerpted, it says 1919 – were there Post-Modernists in 1919?

Apparently so. The above tests are taken from H.L. Mencken’s “Prejudices”, which can be found here. They are from an essay blasting the Norwegian-American Professor Thorstein Veblen, the man who invented the term “conspicuous consumption”. A man who, like the Post-Modernists, had an extremely simplistic ideological axe to grind. I had to laugh when Mencken went for the heart of Verblen’s ideological idiocy, as revealed in the good Professor’s treatment of the question of why lawns are kept around country estates, and why poor immigrants, rather than cows, are used to keep those lawns trimmed:

But why don’t we keep flocks? Why do we renounce cows and hire Jugo-Slavs? Because “to the average popular apprehension a herd of cattle so pointedly suggests thrift and usefulness that their presence…would be intolerably cheap.” With the highest veneration, Bosh! Plowing through a bad book from end to end, I can find nothing sillier than this. Here, indeed, the whole “theory of conspicuous waste” is exposed for precisely what it is: one per cent. platitude and ninety-nine per cent. nonsense. Has the genial professor, pondering his great problems, ever taken a walk in the country? And has he, in the course of that walk, ever crossed a pasture inhabited by a cow (Bos taurus)? And has he, making that crossing, ever passed astern of the cow herself? And has he, thus passing astern, ever stepped carelessly, and –

But this is not a medical work, and so I had better haul up. The cow, to me, symbolizes the whole speculation of this laborious and humorless pedagogue. From end to end you will find the same tedious torturing of plain facts, the same relentless piling up of thin and over-labored theory, the same flatulent bombast, the same intellectual strabismus. And always with an air of vast importance, always in vexed and formidable sentences, always in the longest words possible, always in the most cacophonous English that even a professor ever wrote.

I’m not surprised that such a grandiose socialist as Veblen was involved with the Technocrats, but I’d say he was rather a poster child for why technocratic and socialist systems, indeed all top-down systems, do not work in the long run. He was part of the same segment in his generation that we associate with the Boomers today, but (in part due to people such as Mencken) his segment was held a lot further from the reigns of power than the leftist Boomer segment was.

Thanks to the untiring efforts of people such as Prof. Veblen, their intellectual progeny have over-populated in the Academic swamp: Chomsky and Stanley Fish did not spring fully-formed onto the academic scene like Venus from the Halfshell. They are part of a long line of academic obfuscators dressing small ideas in grand clothes. Mencken blames this on the dearth of intellectual tradition in America:

The thing to blame, of course, is our lack of an intellectual aristocracy – sound in its information, skeptical in its habit of mind, and, above all, secure in its position and authority. Every other civilized country has such an aristocracy. It is the natural corrective of enthusiasms from below. It is hospitable to ideas, but as adamant against crazes. It stands against the pollution of logic by emotion, the sophistication of evidence to the glory of God.

I think Mencken got it wrong, but only because of a lack of access to our current historical vantage point. The intellectual aristocracy of Old Europe was not able to stem the tide of this kind of intellectual flatulence in the Post-Modernist era – in fact an awful lot of the Post-Modernist wind blowing in our general direction comes to us from France. What was still present in Mencken’s day was a pretty strict control of the activities of the learned by the rich and powerful, which was not exercised in the US. Once that control was lifted in the wake of the First and Second World Wars, (and perhaps then re-instituted by a new, socialist political aristocracy?) the Europeans such as Foucault and Derrida seem to have been beating us at the academic Kool-Aid drinking contest.

I’m not intending with this post to defend an educational elitism that affords higher learning only to the upper class and its sycophants, I am merely pointing out the functions of the barriers that the class system afforded pre-war Europe. I rather think that the American system of open access is better – but every system has its flaws, and by facing them, one can then combat them honestly and effectively. And I am pretty sure that the current climate that requires a college degree for almost any kind of well-paying job, while simultaneously populating the professoriat with Veblens, has thrust us beyond the point of diminishing returns on our investment in education. In previous generations many more people were able to develop Mencken’s horse sense in the absence of having their young minds filled with garbage from the Ivory Tower – they got their training on the job, and so were able to spot when the argument was ignoring the southbound end of the northbound cow.

*When I crossed the aisle every week in grad school for my lit classes, I felt as if I were under assault. Until I realized that the difficulty in deciphering a passage in either discipline was pretty much equal – in science the ideas were complex and the prose simple, and in Lit Crit, the ideas were obvious once I had waded through the prose – but the time required to read and understand a passage from each discipline was pretty much the same. Upon thinking a little harder I realized that science had a natural barrier against overpopulation in its math and data acquisition requirements. The years of study required to do research to keep the club exclusive. The Humanities have really no such barrier against the autodidact. Hence the need to make things more complicated than minimally required to convey ideas.

1 thought on “Academic Prose”

  1. The big puzzle is why capitalist business does not do more to police the academy. What do I mean? Graduates of trendy humanities programs from well known schools are paid at least as much (or as little) as those from a smaller program with a rigorous, old-style liberal arts curriculum. Some of this is signalling. Getting into the Ivies is hard. So brains may be more important than skills.

    But it is still a puzzle. If learning to write and think clearly is valuable, then companies should value students of schools that buck the trend. But the evidence is that they don’t. Either something is wrong or the market is showing that the liberal arts are genuinely useless except as prep for an MBA or law degree. In which case profs everywhere may as well take their cue from Paris or Cambridge, Mass. and teach whatever crap strikes their fancies.

Comments are closed.