Summer Rerun: The Age of Blather

Diana Senechal, guest-blogging at Joanne Jacobs, told 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, but 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?

(links for the Helprin and Fleming quotes removed–no longer working)

6 thoughts on “Summer Rerun: The Age of Blather”

  1. Some of this is going on in Medicine. Medical students, at least where I taught the last 20 years, no longer dissect cadavers. Gross Anatomy is much less significant and what dissections that are done are done by instructors and students watch, usually only the completed dissection.

    They no longer use microscopes. The slides are all photos on lap tops. No making sides of your own blood or bone marrow.

    I don’t believe there is any microbiology and certainly no students do cultures on Petri dishes.

    We had a class on Laboratory Medicine and there is no such thing.

    The curriculum is pretty much a mishmash. Vague descriptions of such things as :

    Foundations of Medical Sciences (FMS), a 19-week introductory system which provides students with the fundamental knowledge necessary for the integrated study of the basic and clinical sciences. FMS is divided into three sections: FMS I, II, and III providing a transition from an understanding of normal cellular structures and processes, to the organization of the human body and the general principles of disease.

    This may very well be a good program but it is pretty vague as to what is actually taught.

    Our curriculum was Gross Anatomy, Biochemistry, Histology (cellular anatomy) and Physiology in the first year; the Normals

    The second year was the abnormals, Pathology, Pharmacology, Beginnings of Medicine in lectures. Laboratory Diagnosis.

    Now, I was shocked to learn that most of my students did not attend class. The lectures were all posted on the intra-web.

    Of course, 60% of medical students are now female and there was a lot of what I would call “touchy feely” stuff.

    New topics, like molecular biology and genetics, of course, take up time from other topics, less significant now.

    It will be interesting to see how this all turns out now that I am patient.

  2. I absolutely HATED the way that high school English classes – and also my college freshman English class-tried to turn us into Junior Literary Critics. It seemed that we were forced into making conjectures we really didn’t know anything about. The symbolism of this, the schimbolism of that…My favorite classes in high school English were when we were given an in-class writing assignment that had nothing to do with literary criticism. That is, the Junior Literary Critic mode turned me from someone who very much liked to write into someone who hated writing.
    It turns out that a substitute teacher who has written several books is an agreement with me. Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids.

    “Jared, you really need to watch the language,” said Mrs. Meese, but since there were plenty of bad words in Tim O’Brien’s book, which was assigned reading, she couldn’t muster much outrage. What was interesting, though, was that Jared had a complete mastery of the Morgan Freeman movie. He could give a succinct off-the-cuff plot summary, and yet he’d done practically nothing on the analysis forms.
    Mrs. Kennett wasn’t to blame, though—she taught what the Language Arts Department at Lasswell High School told her to teach. And the Language Arts Department wasn’t to blame either—filling out analysis sheets about The Things They Carried was standard operating procedure at American high schools. The people to blame were educational theorists who thought that it was necessary for all students to do literary criticism. If you want unskilled readers to read, I thought, make them copy out an interesting sentence every day, and make them read aloud an interesting paragraph a day. Twenty minutes, tops. If you want them to take pleasure in longer works, fiction or nonfiction, let them read along with an audiobook. Don’t fiddle with deadly lit-crit words like tone and mood. And don’t force them to read war books about shaking hands with corpses.

    Instead of shooting the lawyers, shoot the English teachers. :)

  3. Mike, does this also apply to those who are going to be surgeons?

    I think they have electives in the fourth year that allow them to spend time on anatomy.

    I spent my fourth year in Boston at the Mass General. In those days, we ere already doing “clerkships” so I was assisting in Surgery. Too late for anatomy.

    When I was an English major, when I went back to do premed there was no student loan so I was an English major, we memorized poems and plays.

    Then, on an exam, we would be asked what a line meant and what it’s significance was.

    I once flunked a quiz on Wordsworth’s Lucy Poems.

    The last stanza is

    No motion has she now, no force;
    She neither hears nor sees;
    Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course,
    With rocks, and stones, and trees.

    I had to explain what that meant and I had not read the poems.

  4. She is dead and decomposing? Or as someone to the north might in good faith assume, be turning into a tree or rock based on karma ;-) !


  5. It’s going on in Engineering now.

    [RELATED: Engineers baffled by ‘microaggression’ workshop at conference]

    Citing the Purdue University School of Education Engineering as a case study, Wichman claims that “engineering education” schools increasingly focus on concepts that are incompatible with the actual discipline, such as “empowering” students and “reimagining” engineering as a more “socially connected” field of study.

    “For the record, engineers ‘empower’ themselves and, most important, other people, by inventing things,” he points out. “Those things are our agents of change.”

    Wichman goes on to highlight the “ambitious agenda” of Dr. Donna Riley, the recently appointed dean of Purdue’s engineering school, as an example of the extent of social justice “infiltration” at the school.

    According to her faculty page, Riley aims to “revise engineering curricula to be relevant to a fuller range of student experiences and career destination” by incorporating “concerns related to…social responsibility,” focusing on “de-centering Western civilization,” and “uncovering contributions of women and other underrepresented groups.”

    This is how you get collapsing bridges that are “Beautiful” but not competent.

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