Language and Porky Pig


Less Than Words Can Say, by Richard Mitchell, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1979, 224 pp., $8.95.

The relationship between clear writing and sound thinking seems elementary to most people who traffic in words, but it requires great talent to argue the matter convincingly. In a very important and funny book, Richard Mitchell does it superbly. At the same time, he delivers a devastating indictment of American education.

An English professor at Glassboro State College in New Jersey, Mitchell has already gained some celebrity as publisher of the Underground Grammarian. Nine times a year in this broadsheet, he joyously savages specimens of fraudulent or inept English, particularly the pronouncements of those who, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, continue to be perceived as educators.

In Less Than Words Can Say, he broadens his attack, showing how the vacuous language of pedagogues is consistent with their professional ineptness. He also suggests that it reflects a conscious devotion to failure, pleasing to the "great masters of social manipulation."

Since people not skilled in language have no means for thinking to any serious purpose, they will generally think and do as they are told. Should the masses forsake the unexamined life, large numbers of well-established jobholders would find themselves out of work. Severely critical of black English, basic English, and minimum "competency" testing, Mitchell sees them as devices for keeping the slaves on the plantation.

Consider, he asks, what would happen if next spring there should debouch from American high schools a million black graduates fluent in English: "You think they're going to buy those lottery tickets and lamps in the shape of Porky Pig? You think they're going to hang out on the corners and provide employment for everybody from the local social worker to the justices of the Supreme Court?"

Mitchell is aware of the limits of education. There will always be a market for lottery tickets, and Porky Pig lamps will fetch householders yet unborn. But the schools are shortchanging everyone, regardless of intellectual potential—or color: "Next June won't even saddle us with a million white high school graduates who are fluent in English."

It is school administrators and teachers who guard against such a contingency. Mitchell describes most of them as people who "drifted into teaching because of a disquieting and usually well-founded suspicion that their talents would not permit them to find much success as accountants and insurance adjusters."

He, therefore, doesn't revel in optimism. How can a system overstocked with bad teachers produce more than a pittance of good ones? And when the good ones awaken to the situation, why should they remain in a world circumscribed by illogic and animated by jargon? If they do, they must live as "strangers in a strange land where the natives speak no rational language at all."

Readers convinced of the bankruptcy of public education may wonder why Less Than Words Can Say doesn't call for an end to compulsory schooling or at least the implementation of something like a voucher system. But if Mitchell favors a radical solution, he is wise not to recommend it here. His tone throughout is that of a man both angry and amused at educational imbecility, and his implied conclusion could be interpreted as something like this: "I dislike this nonsense immensely. On the other hand, I can have a lot of fun ridiculing it and even make money writing books about it. You other taxpayers have no compensation whatever."

Such an attitude on the part of so powerful a critic leaves the reader holding a very undesirable bag and may do more to undermine the present educational apparatus than the most trenchant prescription for change. By maintaining his sense of humor, and refusing to become an advocate, Mitchell may become a highly effective scourge.

William Uzzle is a former college English teacher who has turned to journalism.