The Governor's Mouth
THE typographical monstrosity that you see below is a pretty accurate replica of a placard that can be seen in hundreds of "designated areas" where the official business of the great state of New Jersey is presumed to be done. The governor who sends before his face that ill-printed pronouncement of his inscrutable policy is a politician named Kean (not pronounced keen).
The placard is as ugly as it is pretentious and absurd, and therefore in no way unusual. Nor did the reader who sent it to us suppose it a special case worthy of our keenest critical efforts. He saw it for what it is--the routine inanity of regular civic discourse, in which no person in particular speaks to any person in general. It is that mode of discourse in which STOP signs are written, and which is most likely to make sense when restricted to objective statements that can be expressed in one word. MEN, for example, or TOILET.
The moral significance of language derives from the fact that only a person can speak it, and from the possibility that a person can also choose what to say. Infants and maniacs can not be held accountable for their words, but the rest of us can, and should. Some of us, most especially those who put themselves forth as competent to govern others, must be held absolutely accountable for what they say. When a governor of others speaks inanely, or at random, or out of sentiments, beliefs, or appetites by which he himself is governed, he at once proves himself unfit to govern others. The ability to govern others can not exist except as a special case of the ability to govern, and that ability can hardly be attributed to him who can not govern his own mouth. Teachers and parents, along with politicians and clerics, are passionately reluctant to receive the truth of that principle, which is why they do more harm than any other classes of our society.
But the makers of our republic were fully aware of that truth. Obedient to it, they built into our constitution the idea of government by law, not by men, lest the health of the republic be left to depend on the very unlikely appearance among us of great hosts of men wise enough to govern both themselves and others.
They knew the difference between ruling, whose devices are power and persuasion, and whose license is the efficacy of power and persuasion, and governing, whose device is principle, and whose license is the rational consent of the governed. For us, much to our credit but much to our peril, they chose governing.
That choice, however, left us the obligation of providing for, and in, ourselves the moral force that makes rule seem much better than government. When an ox-cart driver in old Babylon came to a stop sign, he was in no doubt as to whose word had come unto him. Of any placard in any government office, the citizens of Nineveh could truly have said that the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. They could also have drawn useful conclusions from those words. If the words were orderly and thoughtful, so too the ruler whose words they were. If the words were garbled and inane, then the unfortunate subjects of the mouth that spoke them would at least be able to identify the imbecile into whose clutches they had fallen.
Since we, unlike the Babylonians, might actually be able to do some thing about him, it is an especially unfortunate consequence of our polity that we can not identify the imbecile who speaks inanity to us from the seat of government. He has no name of his own, no face, no mind, only a mouth.
Imagine that some True King, wise and just, a very Arthur, should come to reign over us. Imagine also that he asks, of that silly sign:
Whose words are these? Who of my stewards thinks so little of my people that he sets their minds at naught and speaks as though there were no need to make sense when addressing them? Is there some councilor of mine who lightly tolerates Unreason, in whose disorderly encampment Wisdom and Justice will not rest? Is there an officer of this realm who supposes this public display of absurdity a trivial matter, unworthy of his lofty (and costly) attention, supposing himself able to be faithful in the large without having been faithful in the small?
To the first question, everyone from the governor to the printer will be able to say, Those are not my words. Our revision of the Founding Fathers' government not by men has brought us into a polity in which millions have power to rule, and none the obligation to govern. As to what the Governor of New Jersey would have to say for himself in reply to the King's other questions, it is instructive to wonder.
He sits in a crooked chair, and not in a posture out of which to repudiate official displays of absurdity. He is at once, for example, the "governor" of a tremendous "educational" system and of a tremendous gambling game. If he were to lead the former in an assault upon absurdity and unreason, he would eventually, but surely, visit upon the latter a devastating shortage of superstitious suckers.
He is also the chief executive officer of an impersonal, powerful entity that puts itself forth as fit and able to in form and direct the inner life of the mind in all our children, but that either can't or won't make sense in so simple a thing as a No Smoking sign. If you can not see the relation between those things, you show how effective, and convenient, government "education" can be. Even blind mouths eat.
It is true that when we say "ammendment," what we mean is "amendment." But when we say "reglious," we mean "reglious." Who supposes otherwise should read again the small print below the title.
On Account of Because
Because of the way readability formulas operate, you won't find the word ‘because' in standard K to 8 text series,
THOSE are the words, presumably accurate, and certainly official, of one Harriet Bernstein, who works for the Council of Chief State School Officers. We found them in a New York Times article about the forthcoming textbook revolution, in which those miscreants who committed the old abominations will be given the power to commit the new ones.
Consider, for a mild and (at first) amusing example, the fact that elementary school textbooks in California are prohibited from making any reference to birthday parties. If you have to ask why, you are negligently ignorant of the fact that government schools are the primary agents of government propaganda. At least for now, government is touchingly attentive to our health. Children's birthday parties are hazardous to the health of children. They foster the eating of cake and ice cream. Cake and ice cream are junk foods. Wise and kindly government could hardly be a party to that sort of party, now could it?
Nor could it, obviously, be a party to that vexation of heart and mind which might befall any child under the age of thirteen or so who happens to encounter, and in an officially approved publication, no less, the arcane and difficult word, "because."
Now if you are a typical citizen of our republic, utterly ignorant of how its schools came to be what they are, and at least mildly bemused by the unlikely exclusion of "because," you may well murmur to yourself:
Goodness gracious me oh my. What a curious arrangement. It must make it extraordinarily difficult to describe or explain anything in those textbooks. And pretty hard to read them, come to think of it. How could such a silly thing have happened in the first place? Surely no one in his right mind, and especially not an educator, would have wanted the children's textbooks so distorted and disabled. There must have been a slip-up somewhere. An oversight. Bureaucracies are like that. Maybe a little error, and one thing leads to another. Well, not to worry. Thank goodness we have that Harriet Bernstein and all those other educators quoted right here in the Times. How smart they were to discover all that textbook nonsense, and how lucky we are to have them. They'll soon have everything put to rights.
And if such were your ruminations, you would be led further astray by the weird and unsettling conclusion of the Times article. It ends, on what some editor probably thought an optimistic note, by quoting Richard B Anderson, who does not deny that he is the director of the Center for the Study of Reading at a branch of the University of Illinois:
"You can't really even say that there is a debate going on, because a debate implies that there are two sides. I dare you to find a coherent defender of the status quo."
Life in the Democratic Peoples' Republic of Educationism. On Monday, the loudspeaker awakens you with an announcement from The Administrators that, under their wise and kindly guidance, the production of bubble gum has reached the highest level in all our glorious history. And on Tuesday, the loudspeaker trumpets the joyful news that The Wise and Kindly Administrators have given ear to the piteous pleas of the People, that they are as one in understanding and resolve, that they will straightway put in order the chaos created by thousands of enemy agents, who seem to have slipped away over the border just last night, and that the Great Bubble Gum Famine will soon, very soon, be gone. And forgotten. Forgotten. Yes. Indeed, we must all do our duty as citizens, and serve the Common Good, by forgetting the whole business. Right now.
Between the devotees of Mnemosyne and the drinkers of Lethe, there is perpetual but very unusual warfare. Only the former fight, and only the latter win. Memory struggles uphill. The water of forgetfulness flows easily and naturally by the shortest path to the lowest place. If the rememberers overcome the forgetters today with the keen edge of the past, it is nothing. Tomorrow the forgetters will forget, and their wounds will be healed.
Harriet Bernstein and Richard B. Anderson were not actually born yesterday. They just talk that way. They do not remember yesterday. They do not remember that where there is today "no debate" about taking nonsense out of the textbooks, there was yesterday "no debate" about putting that same nonsense into the textbooks.
They do not remember that it was they, in humanistic solidarity with the whole tribe of junk educationism, in which there is always "no debate," who panted to program the sentiments and attitudes of children, and even to protect them against the insidious allure of ice cream and cake. They do not remember that it was they, not agents of the enemy, not the long-departed Old Ones, not even the angry gods, but they, and they alone, who sat on committees, and implemented parameters, and finalized positions, and thereupon decided to take the because out of the books.
We doubt they'll put it back. They need a whole generation of Americans who will never even think of because.
All the Glib Examinees
As I imagine you have found, the more educated people are, the worse they write, flagrantly violating the basic rules of clarity, conciseness, and simplicity.
His education had been neither scientific nor classical-- merely "Modern." The severities both of abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by; and he had neither peasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honor to help him. He was a man of straw, a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge.
THE first epigraph is from what we call "one of those letters." They come from all sorts of folk, infinitive fanatics, plain English preachers, and more and more often, as in this case, from paid practitioners of "communications consulting," a waxing tribe.
Their letters are always laudatory, saluting us as noble defenders of the purity of the tongue, and implacable enemies of such startling opponents as "the insipid infidel of incorrect English." Always, they remind us of our Founder's last words. "When the wise disapprove," he said, "that's bad; when fools applaud, that's worse."
Our inevitable chagrin is mitigated, however, by the obvious fact that most of these correspondents have no knowledge of what we have "found," and serenely presume, like the one quoted above, to "imagine" that we must have found exactly what they imagine that they have found. Vain imaginings. We have found no truth or worth at all in the pat and popular formula put forth by our correspondent as though it were--well, of course!--the one and simple secret of "good" writing.* We have rather found that such formulas depend on--and promulgate--misunderstandings about both writing and education, misunderstandings so gross and corrosive that they are best called what they truly are: corruptions.
Those supposed "basic rules of clarity, conciseness, and simplicity" must lead us to conclude that the best writing possible is what we find inscribed on faucets and on the doors of public toilets. Those are suitable not for the art of writing, but for the knack of communicating, which is the least and simplest of the uses of writing, and which is often best accomplished without any writing at all, and frequently without any language at all.
He who would learn to "write" for the sake of communication needs to master a technology no different in principle from that of the carpenter or the die-maker. Its techniques do not have to be discovered and tested by logic and thoughtful reflection. They are known. They can be listed, learned, and practiced. And in that way, it can be mastered, like any other knack, through the diligent accumulation of experience. It isn't a cinch, any more than good carpentry, and in some it may be precluded by temperament, sloth, or stupidity, which will equally preclude good carpentry, but it can be achieved. By millions.
In exactly the same way, millions could learn to keep at bay "the insipid infidel of incorrect English." That too is a knack, whose techniques can be listed, learned, and practiced.
Nevertheless, the land sags under the weight of communication consultants who make livings because the school people, whether out of temperament, sloth, or stupidity, have not mastered or learned to teach even the rudiments of those readily accessible knacks. And then, insult heaped on injury, the consultants have the brass to say that the worst writers are those who are too educated.
Too educated. What an interesting idea. And what a popular one, too.
We hear it everywhere, and most regularly from the educationists, among whom it is an article of belief that "education," which they do approve, of course, has the unhappy side-effect of inhibiting the inculcation of certain "human" attributes that they approve a whole lot more.
What understanding of "education" must he have, who can suppose that it disables the mind, making it less capable than an uneducated mind of distinguishing between the clear and the obscure, the concise and the approximate, the simple and the complicated? Is education some distortion of the mind's propensity to put itself in order? Who are those strange people cited by our correspondent, and why would anyone suppose such disorderly minds ‘educated' at all?
The answer, of course, is not far to seek. It is given in the second epigraph, which is from That Hideous Strength, a strange novel by C. S. Lewis.
We all suffer from a debilitating delusion. It is the belief, fostered by the schools, that schooling and education are essentially related. That is false. They are accidentally related, which is to say that education is a result of schooling just as certainly as it is the result of skiing. In the course of either diversion, someone may, of course, be led into the rational ordering of knowledge and the thoughtful consideration of meaning, but it is not on the list of planned activities.
In the tradition out of which C. S. Lewis wrote, academics not only admitted the accidental relationship of schooling to education; they affirmed it. They put themselves forth not as educating their students, for educating is not something that one person can do to another, but only as preparing their minds for the educating that they might someday accomplish by and in themselves. That the man described above is uneducated is barely worth mentioning. He is, in fact, and all his diplomas notwithstanding, not even prepared for education. And so it is with our correspondent's clients, "the more educated people" who just can't learn to make sense.
We know them well. They are all the glib examinees. They flourish diplomas in all the trendy undisciplines, unsubjects like education, marketing, urban studies, recreation counseling, personnel administration, and all the pullulating offspring of the two great mothers of armed inexactitude sociology and psychology.
In such "fields," (also known--and why not?--as "areas," or "spheres," or "arenas"), the glib practitioner can natter endlessly, freely adducing the unfalsifiable in support of the unverifiable. His "science" empowers him confidently to predict that what will happen will happen, unless, for one reason or another, it doesn't, in which case something else may or may not happen, just as he predicted. His "knowledge" is of such an unusual nature that the next practitioner down the hall, who just happens to be testifying for the other side, can ‘know' exactly the opposite. His language is clouded by dark jargon and undefinable terms, lest he, and his colleague down the hall be exposed as charlatans, pretending to knowledge where none can be had, in the vagaries of the human heart, and to measurement where there are no units, in the mysteries of man's estate. Clarity, simplicity, and precision would destroy his racket utterly and drive him into the streets, to seek, in vain, the honest labor of which his empty and pretentious schooling has made him absolutely incapable.
And then some silly twit of a communications consultant writes, loftily to inform us that the worst writers are the "more educated," which is just what all the glib examinees are trained to say to show proficiency in the high calling of communication consulting.
Eight issues a year. Yearly subscription:
Persons in USA & Canada, $15US;
Neither can his mind be thought to
be in tune, whose words do jarre;
* At nearby Glassboro State College, a government training institution, there is a cer-tain Frank Grazian, a communicator. He, too, has discovered a one and simple secret of good writing. Punchy verbs. According to a news flash from Communication Briefing, Grazian has definitively answered an ancient and vexing question, and, in the same blow, made needless all future literary criticism. "Good writers, he found, use from two to four punchy verbs per 100 words." As examples of punchy verbs, he provides "pry," "snare," and "banish." On page 2, when he needs more examples, he comes up with "pry," "snare," "strike," and "banish." back