The Sin of Clumsiness
J. Mitchell Morse
AYENBITE OF INWIT [Remorse of Conscience], a popular fourteenth-century handbook of virtues and vices, says we don't sin unless we first consent to sin. It refers specifically to sexual sin, and to conscious decision. But the sins of the mind are more subtle, and the decision is not necessarily conscious. Our inner labyrinths are in so devious that often when we sin intellectually we think we are making a decision for virtue.
This delusion is particularly easy to fall into when it coincides with the widespread popular delusion that intellect is evil. That the myth of the evil intellectual is widespread and popular there can be no doubt, in view of the frequent blatant expressions of it by people like Spiro Agnew, Clay Whitehead, George Wallace, and Roman Hruska; even we who consciously reject it are often influenced by it in our unconscious habits. Just as the citizens of a paper-mill town don't smell the sulfur fumes that thicken their yellow air, so we tend to be unaware of the pervasive fear of mental clarity, and to share it unconsciously. We turn off our minds for the same reason that we turn off our lights: we want to sleep in darkness.
Every ruling group wants the masses to be docile, uncritical, unquestioning, unthinking. Virtue, therefore, has always been associated with ignorance and inarticulacy. In view of the exacerbated official anti-intellectualism of the last quarter-century, bad grammar is now a badge of safety, an assurance that we are real folks, not pointy-headed innaleckshals or elitist snobs. The basic cause of bad writing is not lack of brain power but lack of courage.
That is why many of those who are drawn to administration write poorly. Not all but many administrators--although they don't know it--don't dare to write well. They have subconsciously surrendered the power to think with literate clarity, lest they be unacceptable in the way that Adlai Stevenson and Morris Udall were unacceptable.
So have many of us teachers. We are afraid of the pseudo-populists. The most unconsciously reactionary of us all are those who--in the name of radical populism--want our students to remain complacently ignorant of the English in which books are written.
Is it any wonder that our students think and write confusedly?
The first step toward curing this disease, I have found, is to make the patient aware that he has it. Once our students realize that they have the bad habit of intellectual timidity, they begin to have the possibility of writing clearly. For many administrators, however, I fear there is no cure. They have chosen the life of clumsy obfuscation. They have long since consented to sin. They love it.
J. Mitchell Morse, Professor of English at Temple University, noted author and teacher, has contributed to this journal, and to the cause of good English, not only this fine essay, but a constant supply of encouragement and strength.
A Narrow View
WE have a letter from a person here at Glassboro. He applauds our decision to publish essays by grammarians out in the rest of the world, saying: "You have made your point here--now on to bigger things."
He rejoices too soon. We have made a point, perhaps, but little more, and we will not cease from troubling until we see changes.
We are looking to the day when Glassboro State College is known afar as a school where there is no abdication of intellectual or scholarly integrity and where students in all disciplines learn to read and write and think clearly. This may take a while.
It would take less time if only certain persons of influence--and our congratulator is one of them--would forbear to applaud until they have taken the point we've made and put it to use, perhaps by puncturing something. Over-inflated pseudo-academic pretensions, for instance, generate lots of bad English and go off, when punctured, with splendid bangs.
In the last few weeks thousands of people have heard of Glassboro State College as a school where literacy is, at least, a public concern. Should some of those people choose to send their children here because we seem to prize reading and writing as the heart and soul of learning, it had better be true. We know of no "bigger" things.
THE DEPARTMENT of Foundations of Education* has proposed a workshop in "intercultural education" to tack three more hours onto a course in the same thing, if that is a thing. From reading the proposal, we guess that both course and workshop call for lots of relating and interacting, and, naturally, problem-solving,† with "foci on direct field experience" and "working on real school or/and‡ community problems." (That sure beats indirect field experience and fake problems, but these folk are into professional matters,• not amateur dabbling like math or history.) As far as we can tell, there will be no study of any identifiable body of knowledge, just rapping, preferably with someone who says Mama mia! now and then.
This workshop is not expected to have results; it anticipates "outcomes," outcomes of some "nature." One anticipated outcome is:
of the nature of . . . development of ability to anticipate factors likely to influence proposals for changes in human relations . . .
What this means, of course, is that they hope the student will be informed, rational, and prudent. So hope we all; but to suggest that there are forms of rationality and prudence specifically germane to "intercultural relations" is fatuous. To suggest further that some one knows how to instill those virtues is patently absurd, if not mendacious. Who is rational and prudent needs no workshop to teach him how to be rational and prudent about Bulgarians any more than a man who can find the diameter of a circle needs to be schooled in the methodology of finding the diameter of a pizza; and who is neither prudent nor rational will scarcely be helped through chatting with Bulgarians. Furthermore, who would become knowledgeable about Bulgarians will do better to study their history or language or literature than to pursue
Development of ability to apply selected tools or procedures for analyzing, assessing, and surveying school and/or community provisions for intercultural education.
And how will students show that they have (get? interact with? what?) these outcomes? The proposal looks for "taped evidence of interaction with other cultures" (they probably mean a person from another culture), "oral presentations that exemplify good intercultural education practices," "peer performance assessments," "records of participation," (in what, would you guess?), and even "practical written tools" (try to figure that one out).
We must put aside small questions (How, for instance, is a good intercultural education practice different from other good education practices?) to explore the central question: What, exactly, is the subject matter here? Is it information about diverse cultures? That is available--inescapable, in fact--in the study of anthropology, art, economics, geography, history, language, literature, philosophy, religion, and many other traditional disciplines. Is this the study of the collisions of cultures and their effects upon one another? Ditto. Is this a study of tolerance and love?
The proposers cannot intend either of the first two, for if they do, there is no need to propose anything. Let's hope they don't mean that third possibility. There must be some limits to what they can teach.
If intercultural education is in truth some new subject matter not yet widely known, it must have been described somewhere in clear English and with concrete reference to things in the real world. We deserve to hear such a description, since the language of the proposal tells us little (that's often the aim of this kind of jargon) and makes us suspect much.
We must in fairness say that the proposal has been given comprehensive, penetrating scrutiny and analysis by the very Dean of Professional Studies, so it seems only honest to print her commentary--in full:
A good idea--long overdue.
WE have heard careless talk on campus suggesting that The Underground Grammarian has inhibited the production of prose at Glassboro and may even have blighted the careers of some of our so-called victims. Poppycock and au contraire, dear friends. Prose pours plenteously forth as ever, and the "victims" have flourished like the green bay tree. One of our earliest "victims" shortly became a chairman, and another was recently granted tenure by an unusual process totally independent of our ordinary procedures. So there! We can't wait for the next promotion list for further evidence of the good things that happen to those fortunate enough to be cited in these pages.
Furthermore, not one authenticated case of writer's block can be proved against us. Even Stanley B. Yeldell writes on, undaunted.
You may remember Yeldell, the first writer to be quoted and discussed in this journal. Not having heard from him in about a year, we did have some misgivings, but here he is again, obviously undamaged, offering an Intersession** course which he describes thus:
The course will examine the major symptoms that influence the presence of organized crime and the role of the legal system in organized crime control. Moreover, said course will identify the political, sociological, and economical characteristics that have an impact emphasize such vice crimes of an organized nature; Gambling, Prostitution, Drug Traffic, Pornography, etc.
We were baffled at first by "major symptoms that influence the presence," but a few minutes with a dictionary suggested:
. . . the more important of various signs or tokens tending to modify or determine the nature of the discernible existence in a certain location or set of circumstances . . .
Well of course! If only he had said that in the first place. And "said course" is prudently intended for the typical undergraduate reader who will probably forget from one sentence to the next just which course the writer has in mind. The difference between economical characteristics and economic characteristics is harder to grasp, but maybe those attributes that make things cheaper to operate could be so named--cleanliness in a carburetor, for instance, or infertility in a mistress. There may be some omission in the neighborhood of "impact emphasize," but who can be sure?
We ask you--have we had an inhibiting effect, or any effect whatsoever, on the prose of Stanley B. Yeldell? Apologies may be sent to the address given below.
(well, sort of)
Mary Anne Palladino has written a booklet that will help any teacher to judge and improve student writing. It is good. It cost the taxpayers lots of money. There is no reason to expect that anyone will use it.
Because of recent publicity, THE UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN has become more widely known. Many well-wishers have written; ill-wishers, so far, remain silent. A man in San Francisco applied for a job, and a man in Texas put in his order by telephone. This is good, of course, but it brings us to the problem of subscriptions. Here is the solution:
Please note that these options are not related, and neither is offered to Glassborovians.
This issue marks the completion of our first year of publication. We began expecting that there would be nothing left for us to do after a few months, since our mere existence would straightway put an end to bad English at Glassboro. That has not happened. Reluctant but resigned, we trudge on to Vol. II.
Post Office Box 203 Glassboro, NJ 08028
We turn off our minds for the same reason
that we turn off our lights:
* Glassboro has many different teacher-training departments and countless courses. This department deals with foundations. Foundations are-well-oh for heaven's sake-you know what foundations are! back
† A phrase made popular by John Dewey and now de rigueur in educationistic proposals. Proposing new workshops is a favorite form of problem-solving. back
‡ The familiar "and/or" is just part of the jargon of intellectual laziness; "or/and" is new and exciting. back
• At Glassboro all the teacher-training departments consort together as the Division of Professional Studies, a name which suggests that while the incipient science teacher may have smatterings of chemistry and physics, his professionalism is something else. back
** This year's Intersession catalog offers many opportunities to earn kollege kredit without any nonsense about reading and writing. If cooking and sewing seem too demanding, try the skiing in Vermont, or four weeks of poppy-rock music, although that one is probably too juvenile for college students. Or how about promoting some self-awareness, or sensitizing yourself to social stigma? We recommend How to Make It in the Outside World, although we can't imagine why anyone who could actually do that would have to teach it. After a course like that, you might not have to become a teacher. back