THE UNDERGROUND
GRAMMARIAN

Volume Five, Number Four............April 1981

The Interest and the Principle

FROM time to time we find ourselves wondering why our traditional victims, almost always people with jobs in the school business and therefore at least mindful of the importance of education, write such terrible English. The obvious explanation just doesn't go far enough. While it is easy to see that they are poorly educated and often not very bright to begin with, that still leaves us to wonder why such people went into the school business at all, why the school business so readily accepted and nourished them, and why so little of the presumable influence of the intellectual life seems to have rubbed off on them. Now, thanks to George Orwell, we have a better explanation.

Consider first a few words from one William Paton, Superintendent of Schools in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, in Forward, a fat pamphlet of education blather about "gifted/talented education" put out by the Wisconsin Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Paton, who laments "a dirth" of suitable teachers and hopes that someone will "give voice on a statewide basis," writes like this:

It is readily apparent that the major issue facing those of us concerned in this area deals with the question of how we shall provide equal and quality programming opportunities which respond to the needs of all children.

So. The merely apparent seems to be invisible to educationists, perhaps because they are always concerned in an area; they have to wait for the readily apparent. And the issue (major, naturally) deals with the question, the question of how. And what, exactly, are programming opportunities? Programs? Courses? Field trips? Or are they some improbable opportunities for the children to program some quality into an educational system run by grown-ups who can't make sense?

Well, who cares? Wait. Here's a better question. Who doesn't care? That we can answer. William Paton doesn't care. He's written his piece and probably listed it on his vita as a "scholarly publication," so why should he care that it makes no sense to say that the issue deals with the question? Big deal. And, while it is hard to believe that anyone except a penniless old mother would read an educationist's "scholarly publication," those others of Paton's ilk for whom the piece was intended won't care either. How can they? They are themselves quite concerned in areas where issues deal with questions.

In the essay "Politics and the English Language," his fullest exploration of the inevitable influences of thought and language upon one another, Orwell shows us how to understand why the Patons of Academe do what they do.* He speaks of the writer who is unable to say what he means, the writer who inadvertently says what he does not mean, and the writer who, improbable as it seems, is not interested in what he is saying and who is therefore indifferent as to what he might mean. The first two suffer merely from incapacity, but it is that very incapacity that is engendered and sustained by the indifference of the third. The babblers of educationism write and think badly because they are not interested in education.

Can you detect in Paton's prose some impassioned concern for the intellectual nurture of those "gifted/talented" students, who are probably far more attentive and thoughtful than the bureaucrat who presumes to superintend them? Was it out of deep commitment to the value of clarity and precision in the work of the mind that Paton found the issue that deals with the question of how quite good enough for his purposes? What practiced discipline of the intellect, what love of learning, can we suppose in a man who will not even lift his pen a moment to consider what he means by "quality programming opportunities"? And if these are "little" things, shall we conclude from them that this busy superintendent will nevertheless give his powers of attentive thoughtfulness and meticulous workmanship to his superintendence of the big things--like education?

How can it be that people choose to spend their lives in a calling that interests them so little that they won't trouble themselves to make sense when thinking about it? Adam Smith answered that question long ago:

It is the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can; and if his emoluments are to be precisely the same, whether he does, or does not perform some very laborious duty, it is certainly his interest, at least as interest is vulgarly understood, either to neglect it altogether, or, if he is subject to some authority which will not suffer him to do this, to perform it in as careless and slovenly a manner as that authority will permit.

Where there is an inward commitment to the worth of knowledge and reason--not only because they are useful, but because they are good--the authority of principle is enough to ensure both the interest and the good workmanship that lead to clarity and precision, and even to grace, in statement. But the typical training of an educationist, which often begins with a skimpy C minus undergraduate major and peters out with a "doctorate" in education, the highest rung on the ladder of social promotion, seems neither to require nor to foster such a commitment. If it did, they would not, they could not, write their habitual, inane gibberish.

And, as they lack the inward authority of principle, they lack also the supervision of outward authority. They have jobs in agencies of government, where people may sometimes be held accountable for some things, tardiness, perhaps, but never, never, for the quality of the work of their minds. In the entire, tremendous apparatus of public education, there is no one who will say, "Look here, Paton. This just won't do! Surely, the high calling that you have chosen, and which has, by the way, rewarded you rather handsomely, especially considering that with the devotion and ability that this stuff suggests you'd never be superintendent of anything in an outfit that had to show a profit, deserves more thoughtful attention and--yes, dammit!--respect than you have given it!"

But they have principals, not principles, in the public schools. So the legions of Patons will go on forever, securely enjobbed among the like-unminded, impervious to intellectual discipline, which isn't in their job descriptions, serving what does not interest them but is much in their interest, at least as interest is vulgarly understood.

 

Politics and the Eglinsh Language

"Our civilization is decadent and our language--so the argument runs--must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes."

The bottom line objection against industry-sponsored educational materials is how many more products the company will sell as a result.

The multiplicity of commodities, as Ivan Illich criticizes, induces a new kind of poverty . . .

Though corporate-sponsored teaching materials in many subject areas are responding to the needs of a relevant curriculum, they might also be viewed as expedient and defensive public relations in vested ideologies.

WE have decided to begin memorial observances of 1984 a little bit early, since such subversive activities may not be permitted when 1984 rolls around. The epigraph above, however, is not from 1984 but from a celebrated essay, "Politics and the English Language," in which Orwell considers mendacious and mindless language far more common and insidious than the dramatic and perhaps too obviously perverted Newspeak of 1984. The other passages, written in the Eglinsh language, are all from Hucksterism in the Classroom: A Review of Industry Propaganda in Schools, by one Sheila Harty. Fortunately for Sheila Harty, Orwell did not live to read this book. He would have found even "industry propaganda" less reprehensible than school Eglinsh, for industrialists, unlike "educators," have never promised to devote themselves to the life and work of the mind.

Whether Sheila Harty will ever read "Politics and the English Language" we cannot say, but it seems unlikely. She doesn't really have to, you see, for her book has already been awarded, by some other people who seem never to have read that essay, what the National Council of Teachers of Eglinsh, out of the serene presumptuousness that ignorance alone can bestow, the George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contributions to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language.

We have so far, as many readers will remember, done nothing more about the NCTE than to demonstrate its culpability in the mishap at Three Mile Island, the aborted raid into Iran, and one trifling collision of a Metroliner and a work train that didn't even kill anyone, but now it's obvious that we have to stop coddling those people. And we also notice that this weird award comes, to be precise, from the NCTE's Committee on Public Doublespeak, an especially shifty bunch. They're the ones who smugly hand out brickbats for the silly and devious language of businessmen, bureaucrats, politicos, and Pentagon spokespersons (which term the NCTE approves), but never seem to notice the inane cant of the educationists or even the trendy jargon of Eglinsh teachering. They wax mighty wroth at "enhanced radiation devices," but they'll not drum out of the corps those experts "thoroughly trained in grammar, usage, and linguistics," who tell us, in their report on the Third National Writing Assessment:

While there may be a sense of sections within the piece of writing, the sheer number and variety of cohesion strategies bind the details and sections into a wholeness.

In "Politics and the English Language," Orwell cites and discusses examples of the "slovenly . . . language that makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." Grim as Orwell's vision for the future was, he never dreamed that we would one day actually have to worry about gross and obvious solecisms in the public language of supposedly educated people. The faults in his examples do not include such grammatical gaucheries as "bottom line is how" or the pathetic baffled-freshman-trying-to-sound-fancy "as Ivan Illich criticizes." But even without such crudities, Harty's prose displays all the perversions of language that Orwell named: avoidable ugliness, staleness of imagery, and lack of precision.

Orwell was more specific. He discussed the routine use of the dying metaphor, that involuntary verbal twitch that tells us "that the writer is not interested in what he is saying." That seems at first an unlikely charge, especially in polemic writing, but having an interest in a cause is not the same thing as being interested in what you are saying. It is exactly the former that does lead to the thoughtless recitation of cant and stock phrases; it is the latter that demands thoughtful attention. Was it out of thoughtful attention that Harty chose to characterize an otherwise unspecified attribute as "responding to needs," or was it out of her own habitual responding to the stimulus of conventional educationistic jargon? Was it after a judicious consideration of alternatives or after a jerk of the knee that she decided to distinguish one certain objection from all others by describing it as "the bottom line objection"?

It was not out of skillful attentiveness but out of its opposite, routine thoughtlessness, that Harty ended up with "bottom line" at all, placidly content, apparently, with a particularly inappropriate jargon term borrowed from the enemy. It is out of that same thoughtlessness that the authors of Orwell's bad examples litter their prose with terms almost completely lacking in meaning [and that] do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader." Harty would know, if she bothered to think about it at all, that her readers would accept "relevant curriculum" and even "vested ideologies" just as uncritically as she does.

Enough. You can do the rest of this yourself. Reread Orwell's essay. Even in those tiny fragments of Sheila Harty's prose, you will easily find all the items listed in Orwell's "catalogue of swindles and perversions." We have to get on with frying the big fish, the one who gives out prizes in Orwell's name for such rubbish.

Before it was catapulted into national prominence by being mentioned in The Underground Grammarian, the National Council of Teachers of Eglinsh was an obscure special interest lobbying club (a vested ideology, if you prefer). Its one little claim to fame arose, strange to say, from what had to be either ignorance or a deliberate rejection of Orwell's most important assertion about language. Where Orwell thought language not "a natural growth" but "an instrument which we shape for our own purposes," the NCTE, in a time of troubles, made political points for itself (coincidentally taking its members off a hook and reducing their workloads at the same time) by announcing that every student had a right to a language of his own. Thus, to require of students the spelling, punctuation, grammar, and syntax of the "ruling class" was to deprive them of their rights.

Such logic would not have delighted Orwell. It finds the language of the student a "natural growth," like acne, and then proposes to protect him from the oppressive demands of conventional English because language is an instrument shaped for some purpose.

But that doesn't trouble the NCTE. What, after all, is logic? Just another tricky instrument contrived out of language. They don't care about Sheila Harty's prose, which reveals nothing more than the state of her mind; they love her sentiments, which show that her heart is in the right (which is to say "left") place.

Well, they may be sorry. Those greedy merchants may just this once put principle before profit and cut off the free supply of charts and filmstrips and brochures, and millions of teachers all over America will find themselves desperately trying to figure out what a teacher deprived of teaching materials is supposed to do in a classroom.

 

...And furthermore

HERE's another superintendent of schools, Richard C. Hamilton, Ed. D., who superintends the love of learning and the growth of intellectual power among the youth of North Hampton, New Hampshire. He is a man, as the educationists say, very giving of self, and perfectly willing to lighten the darkness of grown-ups too, as he does in his latest annual report:

A new phrase has caught my ear and I would like to use it in discussing you, your children, and the ensuing relationship. The phrase is "centering down." "Centering down" to me means a placing of one's interest in a central focus, a separating of the important and the not so important, mentally reducing things to a discernible entity.

Well, the darndest things will catch the ear in a cold climate, but this one sounds really neat. Come on now, haven't you always wanted to reduce things to a discernible entity and all that other good stuff? And how about the meaning and purpose of life? That interest you any?

To "center down" in regard to our children is to me a putting into focus what we are here for.

Well, sure you want to learn to center down, and of course it's hard. It's positively philosophical. But don't you worry, bless your heart. You're going to have the unmitigated help of Richard C. Hamilton, Ed. D., and he's a professional educator who knows how to explain very complicated things even to the likes of you so that you can understand them right in the comfort of your own home! Ready? He-e-e-e-re he goes!

Have you "centered down" by climbing into a tent formed by the kitchen chairs and a blanket? Have you "centered down" by agreeing to put up with what goes with a puppy?

Now you get out there and center down and BOOGIE!

The Underground
Grammarian

Published monthly, September to May
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Neither can his mind be thought to be in tune,
whose words do jarre,
nor his reason In frame,

whose sentence is preposterous.

* This is an Orwell Memorial Issue. You will find more about this much neglected essay in the next article. back

† Poor Orwell assumed, naturally, that that sort of language was not the problem and would never get past editors anyway. He could never have guessed that whole generations of editors (and countless other innocents) would be taught, by the NCTE and allied forces, that a persnickety preoccupation with accuracy is an elitist device for the repression of democratic virtues like self-esteem and creativity. back

‡ Does she mean to say, as her garbled syntax suggests--"the bottom line objection . . . is how many more products the company will sell"--that increased sales are the worst possible result of "industry propaganda" in the schools? You would think that a pack of Eglinsh teachers, most of whom live on money taken from taxpayers, would favor flourishing industries and a vigorous economy. You might even think that the same people, who are devoted, of course, to the intellectual life and the freedom of the mind, might fear some even graver (or bottomer line) consequences of propaganda-any propaganda-in the classroom. back


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