Infantilizing the Culture

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.