The Age of Blather

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, 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?

25 thoughts on “The Age of Blather”

  1. I love this post. I love, love, love this post.

    Hope *that* language is clear enough! :)

    Seriously, the mumbo-jumbo speak of modern life is mind-numbing. It is petty Orwellianish, petty Orwellianisms! Know what I mean? Chicagoboyz should totally run a contest where people submit the most ridiculous examples of said speech.

  2. One area in which blather is common is the excessively-Taylorized approach to “customer service” implemented by many businesses.

    I needed to speak to the local branch manager of a large national bank. When I called, the person answering the phone said something like:

    “This is too-big-to-fail bank, my name is Linda, how may I exceed your expectations today?”

    When I got the branch manager, I suggested to her that customers really weren’t interested in hearing blather like “exceed your expectations today.” She agreed, but said she was given no discretion on how the phones in “her” branch should be answered.

    A little research showed that the policy was not a national one, but had been edicted by some region executive. I’m guessing that the career path of this individual did not involve coming up from the ranks of the branch network.

  3. “One student brought up the part where Sara spends her money on hot buns for a beggar girl.”

    Excuse me but I have never seen a beggar girl in my entire life either in the US or South America, Africa, Asia or the Middle East. I have seen beggar boys but never a beggar girl. I don’t think little girls are allowed to beg probably because they are more valuable in some other way for raising money.

    I have seen people give dollar bills to girls in gentlemen’s clubs but the girls are not dressed as beggars (except Bag Lady Sue).

    What are “Hot Buns”? Is this a hot dog without the dog? Sounds like a really cheap gift. “Here little beggar girl, I’ll eat the hamburger but you can have the bun”.

    Are these kids reading some sort of swords and sorcery fantasy in which beggar girls are either dragons, demons or princesses in disguise. I guess in this case Sara made a “self to self” connection because we do not know what Sara really is and what the beggar girl really is.

  4. This is not a “literature club”, it’s a “socialist-realism criticism club”! From Sara spends her money on hot buns for a beggar girl. “She made a self-to-self connection,” is a very short step to a plague of my school years, lessons in Russian Literature with home assignment essays sounding like this:
    “Describe how Pechorin’s personal speech in Lermontov’s A hero of Our Time characterizes him as a member of reactionary military aristocracy class”
    ” Comparative analysis of the images of Olga and Tatiana in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and their significance as typical representatives of high- societal expectation for female morals in first third of the 19th century Sankt Petersburg.


    As to your contest…I think I can supply an instant winner: a whole book I’m attempting [not very successfully] to study at the moment, Reference Guide for Commercial Interiors for the LEED accreditation exam by US Green Building Council.

  5. I’d love to read the Bruce Fleming thing. Sadly, the link leads to Photon Courier, which leads back here.

    Worst of all, I followed the links five times before I figure something was wrong…

  6. “A Little Princess is a 1905 children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett.” I assume this is the book?

    A Little Princess, the one I loved as child, is quite a charming book. As I said, I loved it as a girl, and it would never have occurred to me to read it in the way depicted in the link above. It’s actually a bit old-fashioned, I thought, but I read it in the seventies/eighties and it’s from a serialization from the 1880s, I believe.

  7. Oops, I meant to link the the wikipedia page in the quotes above

    from the wiki: “The novella appears to have been inspired in part by Charlotte Brontë’s unfinished novel, Emma, the first two chapters of which were published in Cornhill Magazine in 1860, featuring a rich heiress with a mysterious past who is apparently abandoned at a boarding school.[1]

    The thread of the book is evident in the novella, in which Sara Crewe is left at Miss Minchin’s, loses her father, is worked as a drudge, and is surprised with the kindness of an Indian gentleman who turns out to be Captain Crewe’s friend. However, at just over one-third the length of the later book, the novella is much less detailed.”

  8. I am 40 now, and have never heard the term “self to self connection”. How does a 4th grader know this? And what the hell does it even mean? I suppose that is the point of your post.

    My career in HVAC wholesale distribution is tough, but I have to admit I like it. The equipment quoted will either work, or it will not. It costs “x”. If the equipment fails, you get sued, or have to do the job over at zero cost to the customer. Things are pretty black and white.

    I am from Rockford, IL originally, a place where people say exactly what they mean for the most part. When I moved to Madison, WI, I couldn’t figure out what the hell people were saying for the msot part. Still can’t. At work though, people still spoke, and speak, “my language”.

  9. Dan: memorizing what Pitot tubes, Venturi meters and rotating vane anemometers are, as well as ASHRAE standards that LEED-cert’d project is supposed to exceed by 30%, and advantages of DCV-systems is actually the doable part of understanding EQ credit compared to Credit Interpretation rulings…

  10. I think “self-to-self connections” are great, but they make my palms hairy. And I’m not sure fourth grade kids are mature enough for the practice.

  11. During my first week at college, an exclusive institution, my new-found friends and I were shopping the various English compositions classes. Three of us attended one such session together. We were a kid from Iowa City, a kid from the Bronx and a kid from rural NW Missouri. We left that particular session in stitches because of the word ‘random.’

    The assignment had been to read a selective short piece and discuss it. At this time, the word ‘random’ was just coming into favor to relate something being odd or weird or unexpected. However, for this particular session we must of heard the word used 30 times for a multitude of uses. It was if the other students entire vocabulary of adjectives and adverbs had been replaced by the word random and each time someone else uttered the word, it would send my friends and I into new fits of giggling we attempted to hide.

    The Teaching Assistant never asked any of the students to better elaborate or to stop using the word, but we all received dirty looks for our giggling. We chose another comp class.

    Perhaps it’s unconnected to the discussion above, but the memory always stuck with me. Most of the students likely went to much better high schools than mine, but they were trapped by their desire to avoid speaking plainly.

  12. Sol Vason, Tatyana, Onparkstreet,

    Just to clarify: the book is indeed A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I, too, loved it as a child and love it still, and no, I was not teaching it in a “socialist realist” way.

    The girl made an observation about the beggar girl. It was one of her favorite passages. I am not one to pound social justice themes. And I never encourage the use of terms like “text-to-self connection,” much less “self-to-self connection.”

    When discussing the book I have pointed to various beautiful passages, and students often come in with their own observations and concerns.

    The club meets once a week, over lunch. It’s the best we can do.

    It is an opportunity for them to discuss literature for its own sake (as opposed to “reading strategies”).

    Diana Senechal

  13. Glad you finally got out of the infinite loop.

    Luckily, I shave my head, so I don’t have to deal with the instructions on shampoo bottles.

  14. “Please read ‘Moby Dick’ and report on the seven levels of interpretation.”

    Nope. It is a book about a whale.

    Coercive ‘edjumacaters’ inculcating their viewpoint whether you like it or not. They all thought they were so ‘creative’ in their interpretations.
    Bah humbug.

  15. And one more clarification: my whole point in the linked post was to criticize this “self-to-self connection” nonsense.

    Students in New York City (and other cities) are subjected to Balanced Literacy. Balanced Literacy is all about “strategies” (including these various “connections”). Any study of literature occurs on the periphery.

    Hence the lunchtime club.

  16. Tatyana, I didn’t take it personally. I just wanted to clarify where I stood on all of this.

    And I am enjoying the comments. ElamBend’s “random” story is very funny.

  17. Great post, David,

    You gave a pass to the term ‘kanban’ but I think it, along with “sensei”, “kaizen”, “hoshi kanri”, “kaikaku” and a bunch of others, is quite often used by lean ‘authorities for the same reason the left is bombarding us with their newspeak – that is to cover up ignorance, or to mask a lousy idea. If your point is valid, and you know what you are talking about, you should be able to explain it is plain English. If you are on shaky ground, however, techspeak, tossing in a few foreign words, or convoluted newspeak can give you an aura of wisdom you don’t deserve. The old “If you can’t dazzle ’em with brilliance, then baffle ’em with …”

  18. Bill,

    ’tis true, terms like “kanban” can be used to mystify and impress…but used properly, can be useful shorthands…easier to say “kanban” than “the card that means gimme some more of this stuff.”

    Whereas for much educational jargon, it’s hard to imagine any purpose other than obfuscation.

  19. okay, sorry to be delayed in my example, but it is this:

    “cultural competence” from educational, and medical education, literature. Not necessarily a bad concept, just such a jargony term

  20. You are a good reader and writer and I’ll bet you were good at these literacy skills as a fourth grader. I am a college composition teacher who can’t wait for that savvy 4th grade student to come to my class because – yes, we do have to teach college students to engage with literature as active readers because most of them do not know how to ‘get into’ a text. Many college freshmen I teach admit to not having read a challenging novel in high school and most of them are seriously underprepared to write basic academic essays in any subject. The student you worked with is receiving the current ‘best practices’ of teaching students to engage with books in the age where the print culture is dying. Any 4th grader lucky enough to possess the vocabulary of good readers – the words of the field of literacy – is being taught well.

    As all 4th grade teachers today know – because they are the experts in the classroom working with kids – reading skills are on a dramatic decline. We reading and writing teachers have tried to come up with a way to get young readers actively engaged in reading books to develop critical thinking and writing skills, not necessarily to merely ‘read for pleasure’. Reading for pleasure is definitely important – but today’s students generally do this when reading on the internet, gaming instructions, or favorite websites that follow their interests (sports). While this is great –they simply do NOT read books. Their parents do not read books or newspapers or magazines. Books are not valued anymore. The culture our children grow up in is an electronic one with a lot of reading, a lot of visual representations and a lot of instant information readily available. The near future will give them broad access to electronic books –that’s for sure a good thing because at least literature has a chance for an electronic renaissance. The paper print culture is over. Take a look at the publishing industry data to confirm the fact that a very small, elite audience exists for printed books, especially literature. It will seem bizarre to our grandchildren that the news was actually printed on paper and delivered to our homes everyday.

    Yet schools are still bound to printed textbooks across the curriculum – even the fourth grade curriculum will have many printed texts to be covered. How do we teach students to read for a purpose – a coming test, a report to write, or an analysis of any text assigned? We teach them the ways that the good readers know how to read for a purpose. Literature remains a great vehicle for teaching students to learn the language of good, critical reading. This is what the wonderful 4th grade student was doing so well – she was showing the way she can connect to the text. Good for her.

    What was missed in your commentary here is the knowledge that very few students read actively. Very few students know what to say (ergo think – write) about a text other than “It made me sad”, “It was funny”, “She was sad”, “He was angry”. This should be the ‘ghastly terminology’ we need to worry about. It is a disservice to allow students to go through the curriculum responding emotionally to texts because this is the opposite of disciplined, critical thinking. I would say that this “feel good” approach to teaching students how to engage in printed texts is akin to the “feel good” politics that got us in the political mess we are now in. The days of the ‘touch feely” and ‘whole language acquisition of literature’ are over because they failed, the students failed and the world found out students were graduating elementary, middle and high school without the reading and writing skills needed for even modest success in college or the workplace.

    This is why NCLB came to be and still exists. Phonics and direct instruction are back and in a big way, especially in urban schools. Balanced literacy is the approach you ran into with your 4th grader – a belief that we can teach students to learn the language of what good readers and writers just know how to do instinctively. Yes, it sounds awkward to you, a good reader. Yes, it’s different. But it is a genuine effort to give students a chance to get into printed texts in a culture that does not provide them with any other models. Text to self, text to others, text to world. This is the formula for teaching students what to WRITE about in the body paragraphs that follow a thesis statement. What you call ‘ghastly terminology’ is really a way to give non-reading students topic sentences for the paragraphs they will write in essays or book reports. Why should we continue to let only good readers and writers know how to do this well without the script? Why can’t we let all children have a chance to learn these skills?

    You must take my word for this – other than making emotional connections to texts in endless ways, students are entering college in droves (even the BEST colleges, I assure you – look up MIT and Harvard: remedial writing) without the knowledge that they have to make more analytical, critical connections to texts beyond retelling the plot and talking about how it made them feel. Unless they plan on becoming speech writers for the powers that be right now – or unless they plan on being herded around like sheeple into supporting politicians they vote for to just ‘feel good’ – they will do poorly as workers or citizens in a world that cries out for good critical thinkers, now more than ever. It is certain that they will not be able to persuade others with good critical arguments because they never learned how to do anything in school but react emotionally to the texts they encountered there.

  21. I have to agree about kids not reading. It isn’t necessarily the parents, though. I read several books a week and have been buying books for my youngest daughter since she was small. She is a very weak reader for all my efforts. She is my fifth child and I have seen the decline over the past 40 years. I read to my three oldest from the time they were very small. I read the Lord of the Rings and Watership Down, for example. I even took them to see Watership Down on a trip to England when they were teenagers. My oldest, now a lawyer at age 44, was a pretty active reader and never had any trouble with reading comprehension (Even though he voted for Obama-another story). My oldest daughter was also a reader if not as active as her brother. She is also a lawyer. My second son was never that interested in reading and we finally had to declare a truce in my attempts to make him study. He is a fireman. My next daughter has always been a reader and is a librarian in a research library. There is a ten year gap between the last two and I think TV and the internet have been terrible influences on these kids. They all have ADHD.

    I should add that the fireman now reads for pleasure so at least some of my efforts were not wasted. If I were doing it again, I would not have a TV in the house. I don’t watch it myself and might have had trouble getting my wife to agree but that would be the best suggestion I could come up with.

    I have also looked at my youngest daughter’s curriculum at U of Arizona and am appalled but that is another story.

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