The chief vices of education have arisen from the one great fallacy of supposing that noble language is a communicable trick of grammar and accent, instead of simply the careful expression of right thought. All the virtues of language are, in their roots, moral; it becomes accurate if the speaker desires to be true; clear, if he speaks with sympathy and a desire to be intelligible; powerful, if he has earnestness; pleasant, if he has a sense of rhythm and order.
John Ruskin, now dead and irrelevant, and an intransigent elitist in any case, is not much consulted by practitioners of modern educationism, who consult only each other. A mind like Ruskin's offers no enhancement of self-esteem to our self-appointed bestowers of "humanistic" values.
Let's consider, keeping Ruskin in mind, a brief passage from one of those innumerable task-force reports that serve to justify, at educational institutions, the salaries of swarms of administrators and professors of imaginary subjects:
This study supported the conclusions that practicing academic deans could benefit by possessing an expectancy of being able to control their work environment in order to successfully implement role responsibilities.
First, let's try to be fair. Even generous. We suspect that Ruskin would suspend his stern standards where the writing at issue is simply the work of an utter ignoramus. And who are we, to forbear less than Ruskin? So, if the author of our example is not a villain, but only a victim who couldn't possibly have known better, we'll take it all back. All he has to do is ask.
In the meantime, we do have to declare that the passage lacks those virtues that Ruskin finds moral.
It is not accurate. To speak of "practicing deans" is to invite entertaining but irrelevant speculation. Are there, in fact, some nonpracticing deans, disconsolate and dispossessed, lurking in the dark turnings of the corridors of power? Are deans supposed to practice on our time? And if they should actually manage to implement their responsibilities, would they have fulfilled them, or established them, or devised them? All are possible in this lingo, where programmatic thrusts and nontraditional aspects are just as implementable as responsibilities.
The passage is not clear. That first phrase suggests that "conclusions" already drawn (could the writer have meant hypotheses?) were thereafter "supported" (could he have meant drawn?) by the same conclusions. Furthermore, following the word conclusions we find only one candidate for conclusionship, and a weird one at that. Is it enough for a dean (practicing) merely to possess an expectancy (expectation?) of being able? Wouldn't it be better if he were simply able? And what does he do if he is able to control the "work environment"? Turn up the thermostat? And how are a dean's "role responsibilities" to be distinguished from a dean's responsibilities?
Since this language is neither accurate nor clear, and unless the writer can adduce evidence of his ignorance and incapacity, we have to conclude that he desired not to be true and intelligible. Since his language, garbled, verbose, and pretentious, is neither powerful nor pleasant, we must conclude that he wrote not in earnestness but out of deceitfulness or affectation and that he has no sense of rhythm and order.
But wait. Surely this poor chap is just a cipher, just another bland and mediocre functionary conscientiously doing his job and performing a piddling task, a task of little importance, in which he has no interest, and which will almost certainly have no consequences. Thousands of other decent twits, plug-in modules so like each other that only their mothers can tell them apart, are doing exactly the same kind of meaningless work in exactly the same thoughtless fashion in every "educational" institution in the land. Can we, or even Ruskin, indict all those decent folk for nothing less than turpitude?
Consider, first, those empty but perennial tasks that bring forth the kind of language we see in our sample, which is perfectly typical of the lingo used by school people. Those tasks are not entirely without consequences; nor are those who perform them without a special kind of interest in them.
It is fairly safe to say of any elaborate "study" like the one that provided our example that not one student will grow in knowledge or understanding because of it. But it does serve to justify places on the payroll for lots of people who might otherwise be driven into a calling less lofty, and more demanding, than that of "educator." Now that is a consequence dear to somebody's interest.
It is also dear in another sense. It is largely because of such people doing such work that it now costs more than $4,000 a year to keep a child in the public schools of Boston, where—and this is the usual pattern in government schools—administrators multiply as students disappear. You could educate each child for a small fraction of that cost, but you would thus destroy a tremendous government jobs program.
Anyone who knowingly takes money for performing trivial tasks in such a cause must be venal. What, though, of those who know not what they do? Might they not be accounted no more than innocent dupes?
Dupes they are, but guilty dupes. They acquiesce in their own dupery, profit from that acquiescence, and help to visit that dupery on others.
Dupery is accomplished through language. There is no other way. It is entirely through the language that they promulgate that our educationists have "taught" countless thousands that trick of automatic thoughtlessness without which no one—no one—would ever speak of possessing an expectancy of being able.
Educationists reject, as authoritarian and oppressive, such ways of teaching and learning as "rote and recitation." Those two terrible R's can only lead to a most terrible third: regurgitation. Regurgitation does not enhance self-esteem. It is not creative. That sounds so lofty and humane.
With their usual logic, however, the educationists deem rote learning oppressive where it serves best and, where it is an impediment to thoughtfulness, cherish it. How, after all, did our author come to speak of the cloudy work environment and the preposterous possession of an expectancy of being able? What led him to call deans, practicing deans, and responsibilities, role responsibilities? Rote and recitation. They all write like that, all our pedagogical preachers of creativity and self-expression.
And where the work of thinking is done by rote and recitation, we do get regurgitation. How could we better describe our sample and educationistic writing in general than as an involuntary ejection of that which is noxious and intolerable?
Even against the dupes we must bring the charge of uncleanness. They vomit industriously where others gather to find nourishment.
Richard Mitchell is the author of Less Than Words Can Say and the publisher of the Underground Grammarian, from which this column is adapted.