LESS THAN WORDS CAN SAY

by Richard Mitchell

Chapter Nine
A Handout of Material

Jargon is a handout of material designed to prevent the need for thought. Consider the infamous "input." For certain technicians, this word has a concrete meaning and points to something that can be pointed to with no other word. For sales managers, deans, politicians, and most of the rest of us, "input" provides an ornamental cover for a hole in the brain. When a vice president for administration asks for your input, what exactly does he want? Does he want your opinion? Your advice? Your hypothesis? Your knowledge? Your hunch? Your money? What? Does he know? If he wants to know how many long distance calls you've made this month, why does that get called "input," the same term he would use in asking for your height, weight, and blood type? Does "input" describe adequately anything you might send someone?

Again, a word that means almost anything means almost nothing. The man who asks for your "input" is not put to the trouble of understanding what he wants. Furthermore, sometimes even bureaucrats and administrators seem to be able to tell you what it is they actually do want. You get a letter from the district manager asking for your hat size. He is making a study that will discover whether skull capacity is related to monthly sales figures. Simple enough. But suddenly your hat size becomes input. This isn't so bad; that number may in fact become part of what might technically be called "input." In his next letter, however, the same district manager asks if you think it's worth the trouble to keep the company bowling league going for another year. And that becomes input. The word no longer makes any useful distinction.

Every craft has its technical lexicon, and the terms often make useful and necessary distinctions between one thing and all other things, sometimes exceedingly fine distinctions. The more technically demanding the craft, the more it needs an extensive and precise, technical lexicon. Contrariwise, crafts that make only small demands on the technical skills of their practitioners require only a small list of technical words and might even get by with none at all. The practice of some crafts, and schoolteaching seems to be one such, requires very little that could be called an organized technology. Such crafts ought not, therefore, to require much of a technical lexicon at all, but, strangely enough, it is often in just such crafts that we find the most elaborate jargon.

In our culture, technology commands admiration and respect. We love the nuclear physicists and the brain surgeons. We want to be like them when we grow up. Failing that, we'd like to be at least as technological as possible. One might imaginably draw a chart to rank our various callings in terms of their technological demands so that we could know whether to grant more respect to the systems analyst than to the forensic pathologist, but it isn't really necessary. We can always tell which of two crafts outranks the other by looking at its lexicon. Jargon runs only downhill. You will notice that although the educators have borrowed "input' from the computer people, the computer people have felt no need to borrow "behavioral objectives," or "preassessment" from the educators. It is a general principle that when A apes B it is because A thinks that B is better than A, although in the case of teenagers the opposite is true. Accordingly, we can conclude that educators and businessmen look up to military strategists, from whom they have borrowed "thrust," and to physicists and mathematicians, from whom they have borrowed "interface."

We like to think, or at least we like others to think, that what we do is important and difficult and that we achieve it only out of skill and intelligence. Since very few of our callings actually require much more skill and intelligence than the banging of trees with stones, we seize gratefully any opportunity to sound as though we were skillful and intelligent. Fortunately, such opportunities are frequent. All we have to do is listen to the people who really are, we think, skillful and intelligent. Consider the following remarks taken from an address to a faculty senate. The remarker is, or was, a provost, whatever that is. The title itself, of course, is another admission that academic administrators wish they had the skill and intelligence, to say nothing of the power, of high-ranking military officers.

This provost says: ". . . we are currently in a holding pattern as far as long-range planning is concerned." Now this shows us that provosts know in their hearts that air traffic controllers are more valuable and effective than provosts. It's true, of course, but the provost probably wouldn't want to assert it publicly. He speaks also of "a number of unanswered, unresolved issues which... provide a prelude to the onset of the process itself." This is more subtle. A prelude to the onset. Neither of these words is specifically the jargon of a craft although "prelude" is vaguely musical and "onset" vaguely medical. Both sound quite concrete and specific, the words, as it were, of a man who knows what he's talking about. But the two of them together add up to an absurdity similar to "preassessment." The flavor is good, though; there's the whiff of aesthetic sensitivity in "prelude" and the hint of keen diagnostic power in "onset." Musicians and physicians clearly outrank provosts.

So do mathematicians. The provost gives them their homage in terms like "planning matrices" and "planning parameters." Hardly anyone who uses these words has any idea what they mean. It doesn't matter. "Parameters," except when used by those who do know what they are, is a useful omnibus word like "aspect," except that it's usually intended to point vaguely in the direction of some of the more remote aspects of something or other. "Matrix" is very popular these days. Polysyllables that end in x have hypnotic power over the English-speaking mind. Strangely, that power is actually increased when the exotic x disappears into an unlikely plural. People who can utter tricky plurals like "matrices" and "indices" (even trickier because of the disappearing e) must be very learned indeed.

So far, we can see from the provost's jargon that he feels inferior to air traffic controllers, musicians, physicians, mathematicians, and, perhaps, type founders and other craftsmen for whom a matrix is in simple fact a matrix. It is hardly surprising, since all those crafts are indeed more demanding than the craft of the provost. What is surprising, though, is that the provost also speaks of "variables which must be cranked into the decision model" and recognizes the need "to crank this kind of adjustment factor into the decision model" and even "to crank in some quality measures which speak to the level of teaching excellence." Whether out of inordinate modesty or ardent republicanism, the provost makes it clear that he stands in awe even of the technology of sausage manufacture. A handsome admission.

When there is no idea in the mind, a word rushes into the vacuum. This provost, for instance, speaks of the "need to recognize that there are a number of components in the process." "Components" is good, because it raises the provost, momentarily, to the rank of highly skilled professionals like the people who assemble Bearcat scanners, but the utterance is nevertheless disappointing. For one thing, almost anyone could have said it of almost anything. It's not likely to show up in future editions of Bartletts Quotations. It reveals neither thought nor knowledge.

Imagine that you are chatting with Marco Polo, just back from Cathay, and you're burning to hear all about those strange people in a distant land. You ask what wonderful things he saw there; he tells you "marvels." You ask what the people wear; he tells you "attire." What do they grow; "crops." And their processes; what are they made of? "Components." Now you know all about Cathay.

When you divide a "process" into its parts, do you get "components"? Those who speak of components in a technical sense would probably say no. Components are generally discrete parts related to one another by the way they work in a system. The "parts" of a process might well have less distinct boundaries, and they are related to one another in a temporal or sequential fashion. A process takes place (sometimes) in a transmission, but the machinery is not the process. Well, couldn't we understand the "components of a process" as a metaphor? After all, we know what he means. We probably could, except that just a few sentences later he speaks of the same things as the "elements" of a process. While we're still trying to figure that out, he goes on to tell us about the "factors" of the same process.

Little wonder we're in a holding pattern circling above the prelude to the onset of this process. This is one hell of a process! Some of its constituents are components, some elements, and some factors. However, we know that that is not the case. Those are not designations of the different kinds of constituents; they are simply jargon terms that point to nothing in particular, and, therefore, to just about anything you please to imagine. So, come to think of it, do we know what he means? If he calls the constituents of this process, apparently at whim, components, elements, and factors, mightn't he just as well call them aspects, facets, and phases? Are all those words interchangeable for him? Probably. That means that he doesn't know what he means. If the process in question is at all complicated, this is probably not the man we want to set it going. He doesn't understand it, and he doesn't know how to go about understanding it. His jargon conceals, from him, but not from us, the deep, empty hole in his mind. He uses technological language as a substitute for technique.

The propensity for borrowed jargon is always a mark of limited ability in the technique of discursive thought. It comes from a poor education. A poor education is not simply a matter of thinking that components and elements might just as well be called factors; it is the inability to manipulate that elaborate symbol system that permits us to make fine distinctions among such things. It is through making just such distinctions that we understand the world, insofar as we do understand it. It is, furthermore, through the ability to make such distinctions that we devise the world after having evoked its possibilities in language. The man who cannot make such distinctions is not merely a fool, he is a dangerous fool. Should we put him in charge of any of our processes, or even in charge of the preludes to their onsets, he will botch the work. If we're lucky his botch won't kill us or cause World War III, but then again we may not be that lucky.

That provost has been given not an education but a handout of material. His rudimentary language evokes, as language always does, an unseen world, but it is a cloudy and uncertain one. If he were running a hot-dog stand on the corner, that wouldn't be so bad, but he is a high-ranking officer of what we call an educational institution. In that position, he pretends to have knowledge and technique. If we don't listen to him carefully, he may well fool us into believing that he does have those things, and we will suffer him to devise for others the same kind of education that has made him what he is. Succeeding generations will see the geometrical multiplication of people whose thinking ability is such that they will nod wisely at the mention of a prelude to the onset of a process consisting of components, elements, and factors. When we have enough of these people, the lunatics will take over the management of the asylum.

They may have already done so. Do you suppose that that provost is the only high-ranking academic official in America whose thinking is clouded by bad language? Anyone who snoops around in the academic world can assure you that he is typical of the people who make important policy in all our schools. It is perfectly true that many of the worst of the jargon-mongers seem to be remote from the schools--sociologists and psychologists and bureaucrats and businessmen of all kinds, for instance. Nevertheless, they all come from the schools. In every measurable way, education is the largest of our social institutions; hardly a single citizen escapes its influence. The propensity for jargon and bad language is a sickness not of this or that calling but of thought itself. The main business of education is to teach the process of thought and the operation of the symbol systems in which we think--language and number. When education fails to teach thinking, it fails in everything, and everybody talks nonsense. Since the schools infect everybody, it is not possible to discover a calling whose effectiveness has not been diminished by the sickness of thought and language that are spread in the schools.

Here, for instance, are the words of a forester, a healthy, red-blooded American who loves, no doubt, the woods and streams and the brisk smell of the balsam. He is describing a part of his work, the selection of attractive campsites:

The method is based evaluating two basic groupings the authors [he's working with an accomplice] feel are vital in considering where campgrounds might best be located. Those groupings, physical and socioeconomic, are broken down into sub-headings which in turn are expanded into lists of sub-variables. The idea was to have trained observers visit pre-determined potential campsites and rate them according to a set numerical rating system, supposedly reflecting degree of campground excellence. Priorities in campsite development were the product of the socioeconomic data. When the two ratings were combined a list of prioritized campgrounds and their existing physical status would result, and hopefully provide the planner with a feeling of confidence as the next step was taken.

Try to ignore the small errors in grammar and spelling and the awkwardness of the prose. Remember Natty Bumppo, who spoke wisdom even though his subjects and verbs didn't always agree. We have to allow woodsmen a little latitude. Ask yourself rather just what, exactly, is this woodsman up to when he breaks physical and socioeconomic groupings down into subheadings and then expands those subheadings into lists of subvariables. Ask also what it means to call the groupings "vital" and how we could possibly expect anyone to visit some unpredetermined potential campsite. Forget your uneasiness about "hopefully"--it doesn't matter--but ask what is meant by the "existing physical status" of a campground and how it could possibly "result." Then ask where and how this doughty woodsman came to suffer such brain damage. It didn't happen in the woods; it happened in school.

The jargon that is handed out in the schools harmonizes all too happily with their moral and metaphysical pretensions, which are best expressed in the vaguest possible terms. While vague, however, the terms must sound important and must leave the impression that if you and I don't understand them clearly, it is because we are laymen to whom these mysteries have not been opened. The language of jargon arises from ignorance, but, once constituted, establishes itself not as knowledge, of course, since that would invite verification, but as wisdom, a matter presumably of the heart and not the reason. Our schools have become the temples of a mystery religion, and their graduates, from provosts to foresters, have at least learned the lingo of the rituals.


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