In a fascinating article for the Winter, 2011 edition of City Journal magazine, recently reprinted in Canada’s National Post, former speech writer for Rudy Giuliani, Clark Whelton, bemoans the current speech habits and state of literacy that are infantilizing the culture. The heading of the article at the National Post says it all: “So, I’m Like: Whoa, That Is So Wow.” Whelton takes issue with “the linguistic virus that infected the language in the late 20th century” and the “reversion to the idioms of childhood” resulting in a semiotic plague he calls Vagueness. This new argot is characterized by such features as self-citation, air quotes, double-clutching (“What I said was, I said…”), playbacks (“So I’m like…and he goes”) sound effects, facial tics, lateral eye shifts, phatic utterances (“like,” “whatever,” “and stuff”), quack talking, and all manner of vocabulary substitutes. Vagueness, he muses, may “offer an undereducated generation a technique for camouflaging a lack of knowledge.” This is a generation, he strongly implies, that really doesn’t have much to say, and are without the means to express what little they have left to work with.
Poet Billy Collins has a hilarious send-up of this peculiar expressive debility, taking the usage “like” literally. In “What She Said,” we read:
When he told me he expected me to pay for dinner,
I was like give me a break.
I was not the exact equivalent of give me a break.
I was just similar to give me a break.
The problem we are dealing with plainly has more than a single origin. The home environment appears to have markedly deteriorated over the last thirty or forty years, with the explosion of single parent families, or families in which both parents are employed leading to a generation of “latch-key” children. Parental instruction in manners, good conversation, the value of hard work, disciplined study habits, and early reading are at a low ebb.
Immersion in the digital world of the Web has also had a devastating effect on literacy, stunting the “capacity to evaluate, analyze, prioritize and probe what lies beneath any form of information,” as Maryanne Wolf warns in Proust and the Squid. Similarly, though with perhaps more urgency, Mark Bauerlein writes in The Dumbest Generation, citing a multitude of studies and reports, that “[i]n an average young person’s online experience, the senses may be stimulated and the ego touched, but the vocabulary doesn’t expand, memory doesn’t improve, analytic talents don’t develop, and erudition doesn’t ensue.” These studies and reports fill in “a portrait of vigorous, indiscriminate ignorance.” Web 2.0, for example, which makes users participants, has no discernible effect on the enhancement of general intelligence, but it does have a massively deleterious effect on knowledge of history, civics, science, and the arts. As Bauerlein laments, these are minds that know far too little, largely unable “to concentrate upon a single, recondite text, to manage ambiguities and ironies, to track an inductive proof…”
These students can be pretty crafty, though, when it comes to scarfing materials off the Net and incorporating them into their assignments or palming them off wholesale as their own work. And they are all too often winked at by their teachers. It may be hard for my readers to believe, but some of my colleagues have actually passed these students on the grounds of naiveté — “they’re too young to realize that plagiarism is theft” — or of inventiveness — “you have to admit they’re clever.” And when they do fail, they are permitted to plead their case to the Grievance Committee where, as I can personally attest, they are frequently successful and their instructors reprimanded for excessive severity.
Almost certainly, the chief culprit in the gradual stupefaction of the citizenry is the public school — “thrown up like barricades in the way of young minds,” mourns John Gardner — abetted by scholarly lassitude and the gutting of the canon which have become prominent aspects of what is ironically dubbed “higher education.” (I recall a former director general of my college recommending that Shakespeare be expunged from the curriculum as “irrelevant.”) As Thomas Sowell writes, “Too many people coming out of even our most prestigious academic institutions graduate with neither the skills to be economically productive nor the intellectual development to make them discerning citizens and voters.” Howbeit, we need to start with primary and secondary education, where stagnation and decline seem to be the general order of the day, if we are to get a handle on the predicament we are trying to come to terms with.
Attending a meeting of 3000 writing instructors in Atlanta in April 2011, Mary Grabar observes that teachers are “not really interested in teaching students to write and communicate clearly.” Communication is now “redefined as ‘performance’ ” involving the body, images, song, hip-hop, visual rhetorics, clothes, “everything but the written word as traditionally understood.” For Grabar, there is a political agenda at work in what we might call Operation Dumbing Down. The group’s program “is devoted to disparaging grammar, logic, reason, evidence and fairness as instruments of white oppression.” Liberal education has become political indoctrination. “The shift to the sub-literate or anti-literate,” she writes, “has evolved from the 1960s revolutionary project to dismantle Western civilization though the institutions, primarily educational.”
But whatever motives or assumptions or forces are behind the erosion of standards of traditional literacy, it should be evident by this time that we have re-fetalized the educational transaction, teaching down to the level of our pupils and reinforcing the habits and handicaps they bring to the classroom. It’s clear that the vast majority of high school and college graduates can’t write for beans and may now be typified as periphery students. Hiring interns for his speech writing staff, Whelton was initially puzzled by the “drop in the quality of their writing samples [which] were terrible.”
Apart from this, many of our students can’t speak — that is, they can talk alright, but they are unable to formulate and transmit ideas and are, quite frankly, intellectually enfeebled. My years as a teacher have forced me to grapple with this quandary and to analyze the elements, sources, and dimensions that qualify it, as I tried to do in such books as Education Lost, Lying about the Wolf, and The Turtle Hypodermic of Sickenpods. (Full disclosure: I filched the title for this last book from a passage in a student paper. When I questioned the writer about the meaning of this mysterious phrase, I discovered after some initial confusion that he had meant to write “the total epidemic of psychopaths.” True story.) Put metaphorically, this is not a skin blemish we are attempting to treat, but a malignancy in the marrow.
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These were my findings. (I ask my reader to bear with me as the discussion will get a little technical.) Spoken language obviously starts with onomatopoeic babble in the crib, which gradually evolves as symbolic representation in play or mimicry. In The Language and Thought of the Child, Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget remarks, “the language used in the fundamental activity of the child — play — is one of gestures, movement, and mimicry as much as of words.” Speech separates out of the play rotary to predominate usually by the age of six, as the Russian education scholar Lev Vygotsky showed in his influential Thought and Language. In the ordinary course of events, mimicry and gesture recede in importance, although they persist as illustrative accompaniment to speech and are absorbed into its very rhythms as a form of replicative tonality.
Thus, pointing becomes pointing out via stress and pitch. Jumping with delight or exasperation manifests as degrees of tonal inflection. Caressing or stroking appears as lilt or melody, as every mother and lover knows. Signals of perplexity modelled on the physical plane as knitting or scratching the brows, sudden stasis, etc. re-emerge as pure vocality, pausing, slowly emitting breath, low humming, and so on. This is an entirely normal process, but in the current matrix of vocal transference it has come to assume an excessive and inappropriate place in normal conversation. Thus the spatial and gestural modes of approach, such as reaching out or touching to ensure that the other is fully present, attentive, and answerable, have begun to resurface as a question where none is properly required. Today, the question often functions as what its grammatical marker looks like, a hook.
An instance of what I’m getting at — to focus on this latter facet of address — is familiar to everyone: the interrogative voice rise injected into normal declarative speech. Young people — and not only young people — have become increasingly prone to complete their statements as if they were asking a question rather than reporting or describing a state of affairs. Here is a typical conversation I overheard in the hallways of my college:
–My teacher in Social Studies? (rise). He have me a 92? (rise). I didn’t really study very hard? (rise).
–Well, what were you doing? (genuine question).
–Well, I was so nervous? (rise). I just kinda did nothing? (rise).
What is even more disturbing, this kinda thing has become common among adults as well.
What has happened since the indulgent and efflorescent Sixties, with the enormous expansion of the media and the decay of what Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death calls the Second Curriculum (the discipline of mind founded on order, precedence, delay of gratification), is that our young people tend to remain for ever longer periods confined to the linguistic nursery. When they eventually do emerge, they are barely able to toddle through a written sentence or to utter verbal sequences with even minimal lucidity.
In other words, our kids have not managed to outgrow the system of tonal mimicry, the analogue in speech of gestural simulation in play, which permeates their verbalizing. The ratio between tonal facsimile and verbal symbol, mimesis and representation, has altered dramatically in favor of the former over the latter. Speech among the young has come to resemble vocal gesture binding a society of defective communicators, who continue to replicate the effigies of the play function instead of scaling the plane of the sign function.
If we would only listen carefully to what passes as conversation among our kids and students, we would quickly discover the extent to which forms of play-mimicry, body language, and tonal duplication of gesture have come to dominate ordinary speech. Speaking increasingly simulates acting, with movement, inflexion, and impersonation rather than competent articulation carrying a major share of the meaning. Notice the hand, with thumb and little finger extended, raised to the ear when one expresses the intent to make, or the wish to receive, a phone call. A verbal statement appears to be inadequate or unconvincing. Not that there is all that much to say, which may explain why truncated spelling and 140 characters would appear to suffice and Twitterdom looks like the future. Naturally, every generation develops its own speech codes, slanguage, “twenty-three skiddoo” palaver and verbal fashions, but what we are now observing is a perceptible regression in both thought and verbalization.
In his Problems of General Linguistics, the French semiotician Emile Benveniste argues: “It is in discourse, realized in sentences, that language is formed and takes shape.” The trouble is that we no longer begin, neither in the home nor in the school, to teach the conventions of good conversation and the protocols of writing, that is, the elocution of the mind. Moreover, once the student embarks upon formal education, we do not teach writing as an ordering of thought and expression with its own laws of development, differing in essence from the usages of casual, unreconstructed, and reactive speech. Writing is not a cloning device for reproducing spoken language. Writing is a more stringent and rule-governed way for processing experience. If not taught as such, written language struggles into existence as a negligible and pathetic thing, a troubling grotesquery unable to escape the fetal dependence on its source. No less than the spoken word must leave behind the play-and-gesture incubator, so the written word needs to transcend its origin in the spoken word.
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.