I am… sadly… the victim of public school. Most (nearly all) of what I learned in my youth was despite their best attempts. Given sufficient resources, a public school can and will turn everything it touches into a shambling mound of stupidity.
However, a few good teachers got through the system. That minuscule tortured minority actually taught. One, while dragging my teenage brain through Sophocles when I was more attuned to REO Speedwagon, said something I’ll never forget. This not my Curmudgeonly Gem of insight; it is hers. Even now it rings as true as it is cruel:
“You will find that there are people who can write and there are ones who can’t. In general the ones who can’t write don’t matter.”
Ouch! It was enough to motivate me to finish Oedipus and write a bang up report to redeem myself. (It wasn’t so bad, there was sex and violence and what more does a story need?) Incidentally you can read Oedipus for free.
“Writing is language in its Sunday best, and in a world where writing was is as central to communication as it used to be, as even a modestly educated person you could barely escape high language.
Those days are over for good. What Kardashian’s tweet reveals is not someone strangely neglectful. She didn’t go to college, and her high school education, as a modern one in today’s increasingly oral society (see below) unsurprisingly did not teach her the finer points of how to write a sentence.”
So, Ms. Kardashian can’t write. So what? I suspect she can’t change a tire or fit a non-linear model either. On the other hand, I look like a sack of shit and she has ta ta’s that pay the rent. To each his or her own.
The author can’t stop there. One doesn’t sell ad space by writing “the hot chick is semi literate and I’m cool with that”. Instead he posits that we, the human race writ large, should shift into a post literate world. Where have I heard this before? Oh yeah, everywhere all the time. It was wrong then and it’s wrong now.
To bolster his argument he refers to some fellow named Cornel West:
“a revered public intellectual who has not written academic books in a quarter-century now, does not write published refereed academic articles, and overall does not like writing and does as little of it as possible.”
I’d never heard of Cornel West. I checked everyone’s favorite unverified (but written) information source (Wikipedia). Apparently he’s a public intellectual and also a Democratic Socialist. (The photo on wikipedia also indicates the guy can rock an afro. It seems a shame to leave that out because it’s epic.)
Frankly I have my doubts about “public intellectual” being synonymous with “wicked smart”. In my personal experience many of the smartest people out there are “privately intellectual”. Is it not smart (or perhaps wise) to display sufficient mental acuity to get through the day while keeping plenty in reserve for cleaning me out at the poker table? I’m convinced there are a lot more brain cells at work quietly doing mental jobs (brain surgeon, transmission repair, etc…) than are loudly and publicly churning out “journalism”.
I’m nothing if not charitable. If he couldn’t find an example of a turbocharged mind that doesn’t like to write but yet still impresses me, I’m going to assume one exists. Again, so what? There’s a genius out there that doesn’t spin verbiage like Mark Twain. Who cares.
“the reception of West is also a symptom of an increasingly oral society.”
Really? Again? This is where it always goes. Premise, example, then a conclusion which always comes out as “toss many years of historical precedent and go with the hip new thing”.
“I submit that a public intellectual’s main work could, with all dignity, consist of a series of 15-minute podcasts released every month or so—kind of like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats…”
No. No they can’t. Podcasts are ephemeral. Once they’re done, nobody cares. I looked up Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats (they are on the internet) but I had no desire to actually listen to them. Why would I? In another hundred years nobody but academics and dweebs will even consider listening to someone mouthing words into a microphone from the distant past.
If only there was some sort of written versus podcast comparison. Maybe another Roosevelt that, unlike FDR, wrote. What’s this? Theodore Roosevelt, who left office in 1909 (some 106 years ago and 36 years before FDR) has an Author’s Page On Amazon? Color me shocked! He’s got 19 titles. I’ve purchased and subsequently read a few of them myself. Meanwhile the semi-literate Roosevelt has a smattering of books of what other people thought of him.
So there you have it. The Roosevelt who could write is selling books right friggin now and the Roosevelt who couldn’t left behind some “podcasts” that nobody cares about. This, mind you, is the example I’m supposed to emulate in our “increasingly oral society”. Nope!
Words last; at least the very good and very lucky ones. As a literate person I’ve read about slaying beasts 1,040 years ago, creepy Greek sex 2,456 years ago, and an elk hunt 130 years ago. How long do you think a podcast will maintain an audience? Just to tie what’s hanging around right now on my bookshelves (or Kindle) you’d have to expect a podcast will still be relevant in the year 3,056 (Beowulf), or 4,471 (Sophocles), or even merely last to 2,145 (Roosevelt).
I’ll stick to the little scribbled code we call letters. Of course the author isn’t done yet:
“might we stop pretending that ordinary people need to be able to write on a level higher than functional?”
Why? Because it’s a good and noble thing to be a dumbass? Perhaps folks don’t need to be able to write on a high level, but we might aspire to it (excepting of course Social Democrats, Fireside Chatters, and the chick with the ta tas). It is wrong to set the bar low because jumping over is hard.
“What I wonder is whether everyone needs to be taught how to write an essay.”
Yes. Yes they do. You can stop wondering now.
“It may be time to understand that the writing culture of an earlier era was a matter of fashion…”
Indeed. A fashion that started around the time of the Greeks (or if you wish pick your favored precursor civilization) and continues to this day.
“Nor is it true that one can only make a serious point with big words and long sentences, a view that implies that most humans on earth are incapable of higher reasoning.”
The shit is getting deep now. Who among us thinks serious points require big words and long sentences? Mark Twain wrote “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Clever eh? If verbosity meant excellent writing, people wouldn’t make fun of Dilbert’s boss and his bureaucratic gibberish.
Want an example that hits harder? Hemingway wrote “[t]he world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places”. Serious point, words so small I can worm them into a Scrabble game.
Nor am I convinced that most humans on earth are capable of higher reasoning. Have you been to a WalMart lately? Or perhaps they’re capable but they’re busy reading Ms. Kardashian’s Tweets?
“Note that an oral approach to composition lends itself to precisely the qualities so fashionable in today’s education schools.”
I’m not sure it’s wise to appeal to me by referring to what’s fashionable in today’s education schools. As far as I can tell, “what’s fashionable” involves churning out great herds of drooling Marxists wingnuts (and an occasional good teacher that somehow slips through the mesh). They, in turn create another generation of people who can barely think but have impressive student loans. Some of them go on to suggest that I should lower myself to Ms. Kardashian’s level.
“Meanwhile, what are the chances that teaching of composition is going to improve?”
Based on what is fashionable in education schools? None!
“One approach to that is to gnash one’s teeth. Another, however, is to accept that the prevalence of high-level writing in the old days was a temporary condition. Humans have existed for 150,000 years while writing only came along about 6,500 years ago.”
Well there’s that. There’s no doubt that civilization is very hard. Then again civilization is a pretty excellent idea. Humans lived in mud huts and shit in the weeds for 150,000 years too. Shall we advocate for that as well? “Due to Ms. Kardashian’s literacy levels I think it only natural we all bash a rabbit with a stick for dinner and then crap on the lawn”.
“Kim Kardashian and Cornel West, of all people, are symptoms of the same thing—and not necessarily a bad one.”
Wrong! They’re merely people. One who is said to be a brainiac who dislikes writing and the other who… Well I’m not really sure what Ms. Kardashian does (other than sport a decent rack).
The symptom is the idea that they are somehow beacons in the darkness and we, like trusting sub-literate sheep, should follow and that is a very bad thing. There’s no cure for this particular stupid idea. Every generation comes up with it and they always think it’s a great and original concept: “Some 6,500 years of literacy led from planting wheat with a stick to a 78 year life expectancy. However literacy is hard and cool people get by without it. We should all be like the cool people.”
My old teacher (one of the few who taught) once said; “read the damn book and for God’s sake try to think.” I read the damn books and tried to think. It worked. You won’t find me doing podcasts about Ms. Kardashian and how we should all emulate her.