Regrettably, for the contemporary student, writing remains almost indissolubly linked to speech, itself weakened, as we have seen, by the anachronistic persistence of the tonal duplicating function associated with early play-mimicry. As Benveniste says, “Varieties of intonation…remain a matter of subjective evaluation,” but the sentence, as a proposition, demands systematic and consecutive thinking, a putting of one’s thoughts in intelligible order, which begins in clear “verbal assertion” and finds its consummation in writing.
It’s distressing to note, however, that even writing now tends to take on the mimicry function, replete with iconic symbols, neatly severed hands with pointing index finger, boxes within boxes, smiley faces to suggest a happy thought, etc. Nearly half the student papers I’ve graded come embellished with icons, drawings, colored ink, arrows, marginal exclamation (a point followed by three exclamation marks), laugh parentheses (‘heh, heh”), extraneous indicators (“nudge, nudge”), emoticons, glued-in photos, small taped objects presumably to enliven a description, and other such childish superfluities —even flower scents and petals in essays dealing with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. And the phrasing, as to be expected, is often copied from speech cadence — run-on sentences, absence of punctuation (there is no punctuation in speech), current patois (“cool,” “like”), butchered syntax, and desperate grammar.
In this context, writing recuperates not the world but current speech, which in turn represents the world in large measure via the imitative or replicative mode correlative with play or infant theater. Such is the nature of the dilemma we are facing, which goes some way to accounting for the miserable failure of high school remediation programs we continue fruitlessly to devise and support. Our obliviousness to what is going on at the level of contemporary speech renders our attempts at remediation improbable, to put it gently.
The problem can be tersely and accurately described as the ongoing infantilization of the culture, a pathology that needs to be attacked at the root, if it is ever to be resolved. In the famine of books, conversation, directed studies, and even “literate strangers” at the supper table (to quote E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy), can we be surprised at the anorexic lack of verbal stamina, limpid thinking, and intellectual substance that cripples the development of our children? Starvation does not generally produce robust vitality. It is a great error on the part of teachers to downplay the element of labor and rigor in learning to speak, read, and write with purpose and clarity, as if these accomplishments were easy, effortless, natural, pure play. “Either follow this long itinerary or renounce everything,” St. Augustine correctly advised in On Order from Against the Academics—Aut ordine illo eruditionis, aut nullo modo. The venerable ancient knew a lot more than our modern pedants.
In Writing and Difference, Jacques Derrida introduces the metaphor of the “two handed machine.” He is discussing Freud’s theory of memory as a mystic writing pad, one hand to write, one to erase. Language in itself may also be considered as a “two handed machine.” One handle represents spoken language, with which we must come to grips if we are to rescue it from the realm of chromatic mimicry where we have allowed it to fall; the other handle betokens written language, which must be perceived and taught as an independent, first-order signifying system. In the light of these considerations, just to proceed with business as usual, i.e., to teach writing as a second-order system that reflects the instrumentalities of spoken language, which in turn reproduces in its tonal substance the gestural codes collateral with the early stages of the play matrix, is not only to invite disaster but to spread the table.
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The impairment of literate thought has been slowly and inexorably tunneling through the culture since the John Dewey-inspired, child-centered, “progressivist” movement in education of the 1920s. Dewey’s Democracy and Education (1916) was a manual for the precocious subversion of the mind. Western education then received a resonating shock from the intellectual anarchy that erupted in the 1960s and it has been atrophying ever since, as is glaringly obvious not only in the performance of our students but in the mental emaciation of our politicians, journalists, academics, and public intellectuals. These are people many of whom, with only a few welcome exceptions, can no longer think straight, some of whom cannot formulate a coherent sentence, and others of whom are reduced to relative helplessness without external devices to shepherd them through a political speech.
Even those who are capable of a certain rhetorical flow tend to trade in the most rudimentary concepts or indulge in binges of fantasy thinking, as if they were still children, though occupying seats of authority or influence. (The malady is not only native to segments of America; as noted author Bruce Bawer writes of his “illiberal, menacing, infantilizing” expatriate residence, “I’ve lived in Norway so long that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to live as an adult.”) It is the graduates of the Sixties and their epigones who are now “in charge.” Their condition of arrested development explains their failure to understand the underlying complexities of world affairs. It accounts for their inability to disinter the historical substratum on which momentous events are predicated, the puerility of their analytical assessments, and the catastrophic political decisions they regularly make. We have truly fallen on dark times.
What we are witnessing in our homes and schools and public squares is more of a pedagogical Requiem than an Ode to Joy as we proceed to “amuse ourselves to death.” The plague of political correctness which “progressively” devitalizes us is only another index of mental decay, as if, let’s say, retitling the famous fairy tale as “Snow White and the Seven Vertically Challenged Persons” would change the fact that there are dwarves and midgets in the world. Indeed, PC is merely an extension of the pervasive inability to parse the world accurately, to think clearly, and to accept descriptive aptness as a legitimate and necessary modality of adequacy to experience. It is part of the same syndrome of retardation, the degrading of the grammar of thought, in short, the imping of the mind that afflicts the culture at large.
Perhaps there is little we can do to reverse such cognitive collapse. If anything, the intellectual glissade seems to be accelerating. Samuel Blumenfeld is surely right when he argues in Is Public Education Necessary? that it is high time for parents to re-assert their responsibility in educating their children rather than rely on government-sponsored, unionized mediocrity. Perhaps Roger Scruton is also right when he suggests in Modern Culture that ours “is a catacomb culture, a flame kept alive by undaunted monks.” Scruton is referring, of course, to the grown-ups among us who struggle to preserve the vestiges of the intellect in the modern age.
This is not a new idea. It goes back to political economist Max Weber’s notion in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism of frail enclaves of enlightenment as the last resort of a civilization sinking into darkness, and later taken up in George Steiner’s In Bluebeard’s Castle with its tableau of small, monastic flares of intellectual light dotted here and there across a penumbral cultural landscape. Is this a viable idea? What are the chances of recovery? Admittedly, slim. But maybe not unrelievedly hopeless. “And what the monks of Europe achieved in a former dark age,” says Scruton, “they might achieve again.” We are now trying to salvage what we can from the rubble of intellectual debasement that surrounds us.
Forget about the first lady’s ludicrous campaign to distribute breast pumps. Like give us a break. Such frivolous simple-mindedness is precisely what we are talking about here. On the contrary, what is required is to wean a new generation away from the breast of the crèche, the playpen, and the kindergarten mentality. It is imperative that we delve to the core of the literacy predicament if we hope to liberate ourselves from the dreary repetition of educational techniques and “strategies” — whether politically motivated, as Grabar believes, or a symptom of general cultural decline — that abet rather than avert the crisis in which we are both domestically and professionally embroiled.
It may well be too late to turn things around but the fact nevertheless remains. We do not need more money, more theories, more remedial programs, more writing classes, more conferences, more reforms, more administrative diktats, more computers, or more ancillary resources. None of these things are even remotely helpful. What we need are real mothers, real fathers, and real teachers.