An Emily Litella Moment

I believe (not for the first time) that I didn’t express myself very well in my post below – and certainly I didn’t think for a moment that people who write as well and read as much as my fellow bloggers don’t appreciate words.

I move between 2 worlds – one in which almost every one teaches history, literature, philosophy and one in which almost every one is critical of how those disciplines are practiced, especially in today’s academia. I generally agree with both. That is because my friends and fellow bloggers, for a variety of reasons, value facts, value their own experiences, value talking and writing about these and other’s interpretations of facts, experiences, etc. Of course, my fellow bloggers often appear to read more and certainly write more than even the more research-oriented academics I know.

The problem is when words are not anchored by meaning then meaning becomes amorphous. For people who move back and forth among these realms, words are important: they provide the transitions that link. Imprecision is an important failing, one always to be fought. But when words become playthings, tattered and torn from being used in inappropriate ways (in the place of facts & experience), they lose that power.

My point was that people who have developed a world with words and untested by experience, history, facts seem to not trust words to make their case. Indeed, they fear and want to control:  words on radio, viewpoints on a college campuses, indeed, thoughts they don’t want thought. They are more likely to prefer a judge’s or a bureaucrat’s decision to a public vote. Perhaps that is because they don’t trust people – I’m pretty sure that’s true. But I also suspect they don’t trust words to make their arguments for them in a public debate – they want laws & coercion to do it instead. This lack of trust is ironic but not surprising. They betray by this the fact that they understand their words do not represent facts nor experience.

And of course my supporting argument for this conclusion was phrased better by veryretired – obviously indoctrination is not working. Unfortunately, however, it has worked in turning students from literature and history. A nation of autodidacts may produce analysts willing to think outside the box. However, a broad sense is lost without education during the early years as well as the assimilation of tradition and historical connections that an education based on a canon of great literary works and a solid chronological sense of history.  And I suspect it also leads to the rather unproductive if generative tendency to rediscover the wheel.

And thank you: My students came in to conference all last week. I suspect the idea of people who changed the world in the twentieth century was too much for them – they don’t have enough context yet and won’t for several years more of schooling. But the spirit of those ideas and the student’s sense of what one person could do, how important a variety of factors were in leading to the lives they lead today, and the general optimism that came from the project were really heartening. In several years of teaching comp, I don’t think I’ve seen as many inspired (and even happy) students. So thank you for all for all your suggestions. It has certainly stretched me. The move toward enlarging and empowering the middle class comes through as one of the great gifts of so many of these “great wo/men.”

Related posts:
Legal Theory & Its Children
Ranting on a Rant

3 thoughts on “An Emily Litella Moment”

  1. “I suspect the idea of people who changed the world in the twentieth century was too much for them – they don’t have enough context yet and won’t for several years more of schooling.”

    That is a sad, sad indictment of the way History is taught in American High schools. Not just for the Martin Luther King type people who changed the world, but for the Salks and the Borlaugs. “Cosmos” and “Connections” ought to be required viewing in History class. The history of communicable disease and its treatments ought to also be required, if only to avoid a generation of ingrates.

  2. Your last point resonates – this has been rather successful in shaking them out of their sense that the world began with them and this has cheered rather than discouraged them. I actually do see gratitude. They are beginning to realize cars, computers, cameras aren’t just material possessions, they are the means of a remarkable freedom. Two children my brother and I played with died within 24 hours of one another; their mother’s third child was my younger brother’s best friend in grade school – the family got through it, but it is a great thing that it my students don’t have memories like that.
    Reading about Salk, they realize that. One wants to build water wells for the first ten years after he graduates – reading about Borlaug inspired him; he wants to meet him (I don’t know what his chances are).

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