Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Politics and Teaching: Writing the English Language

Once upon a time, in the last third or so of the 20th c., I had a conference with a student who had started an informal essay, "Since the beginning of time, Man ...." Now, a line like that had been used in TV deodorant commercials a bit earlier, so I found the line funny — but the student wouldn't know that.

I asked the student "Do you count 'the beginning of time' from the Big Bang, or the Biblical Creation, or, locally, for the rise of human consciousness? And does 'Man' include Woman and our entire species?"

A couple questions later, the student clarified that what his topic involved was, "Me and my friends back in high school." So I asked, "Then why not begin, 'Me and my friends back in high school,' if that would be decorous — appropriate for Speaker, target audience, and subject matter — or, 'Back when we were in high school, my friends and I ...'?" He asked, "You mean it's okay to write about *that*?" And I responded, "Well, if that's what you want to write about, and you can fulfill the assignment, and you can make it interesting and maybe useful to a likely audience — yeah."
And then I put more delicately than this, "'Cause otherwise you're just bullshitting. (When I said it can be a good idea to start with a general introduction and get more specific, I didn't mean *cosmic*, and in a short essay, skip the Intro. and just spit out your thesis or its equivalent. Anyway, skip the pretentious horse-pucky)."

He had been trained to write like that.
He had been invited to bullshit.

And such training, along with huckster hyperbole, misplaced tolerance for b.s., fashionable relativism on — let's call it — the nakedness of emperors, and failure to listen closely not just to others but to ourselves: *that* is part of the reason English in 2018 is contributing to bad politics as much as it did in 1946, when George Orwell complained about "Politics and the English Language."

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