Saturday, July 02, 2011

What Are You Going to Do With That?

As somebody who has spent quite a bit of time over the last 15 years in universities, having received undergraduate and graduate degrees in English, I had thought I had heard every last argument for and defense of a liberal arts education and the practice of getting an "impractical" degree. But a Stanford student with an English major and a classics minor makes a point that I hadn't heard before, one that is simultaneously humorous, disturbing, and thought-provoking. Miles Osgood tells The Chronicle of Higher Education:

The stories are true: The closer I get to graduation—to an honors B.A. in English—the more I'm asked, "What are you going to do with that?" What bothers me about the question is not its wry concern for my working future, or even its implied dismissal of my academic past. What bothers me (honestly) is that it's always the same question, word for word.

The language of our world—where the Internet provides our reading, television our theater, and advertising our art—has grown increasingly dependent on stock phrases. I read, write, and study literature in large part because its more careful language can order this world of chance events into scenes and narratives of heightened form and significance. Our trite, repeated lines order the world too, but only by flattening it.

I thought of this yesterday while reading a standardized test essay submitted by an anonymous student somewhere in the USA. In response to a prompt about the value of extracurricular activities, literally almost every other sentence was a cliche (e.g. "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger" and "There is no 'I' in team."). I wanted to give the writer the benefit of the doubt and assume that they were satirizing the concept of writing a standardized test essay, but I fear that would be too generous of an assumption.

I'm always suspicious of arguments that blame technology and/or popular culture for some kind of mass societal decline. And yet...evidence would seem to indicate that the "flattening" of language that has resulted in stock phrases and cliche-ridden essays is a product of mass media. I recently saw an interview with Civil War scholar Adam Goodheart. He discussed the pleasures of doing primary research with documents of that era, particularly letters written by soldiers. He commented on the richness of language used by people of modest education and the depth and vividness with which they conveyed their circumstances. And he contrasted that richness of language with the relative paucity of later eras (including our own), noting that the most obvious explanation for the shift was the emergence of mass media.

If the result of this shift is simply a loss of aesthetic quality, some would argue that this would be enough of a reason to bemoan our loss. But ironically, Osgood suggests that there are practical considerations. If language is how we order our world, the "flattening" of language would also lead to a more simplistic view of reality, implications of which may be on display in the political and economic problems confronting our nation today. And more in line with the traditional defenses of liberal arts education, the individual who can sidestep the use of reductive phraseology may also succeed in living a more fulfilling experience.

So although the common stock phrase used in defense of liberal arts education is that it makes people "well rounded," perhaps the phrase could be amended so that it is said to allow people to be exposed to and then express themselves in "rounded language." Is it necessary to major in English and minor in classics in order to have a more rounded perception? Of course not--but it might help in allowing people to realize that such a perception is needed in the first place.


Anonymous Becky Kelley said...

Wonderful Azor! As an English instructor, I realize what draws me to tell students they should consider free-lance writing and/or creative writing; it's there phrasing of language that is so different from everyone else's. Had a student who used the phrase, "time sort of slurred" recently. Excellent!!

10:08 AM  

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