An American Editor

July 7, 2010

Worth Noting: Words by Tony Judt

As I have mentioned several times over the life of this blog, I am a subscriber to The New York Review of Books. In a recent issue of the NYRB, Tony Judt, an historian, wrote a column titled “Words.” This is a column well-worth reading.

Judt discusses inarticulacy and how the education of the 1950s and early 1960s taught students to speak and write with precision, to be articulate so that others could comprehend what was being communicated. He goes on to lament the “revolution” of the 1970s and subsequent years that lessened the emphasis on articulation and heightened the emphasis on the idea being more important than its expression, and thus a rise in inarticulacy. As Judt, put it:

All the same, inarticulacy surely suggests a shortcoming of thought. This idea will sound odd to a generation praised for what they are trying to say rather than the thing said. Articulacy itself became an object of suspicion in the 1970s: the retreat from “form” favored uncritical approbation of mere “self-expression,” above all in the classroom.

Perhaps more alarming is Judt’s analysis of academic writing:

The “professionalization” of academic writing—and the self-conscious grasping of humanists for the security of “theory” and “methodology”—favors obscurantism.

The obscurantism of which Judt complains, I see daily in my work as an editor. How much trouble are we in when our best-educated people are unable to express themselves with clarity — or are unwilling to do so? Leadership is usually top-down, not bottom-up. More importantly, if the best educated are unable to recognize their own obscurantism, how can we expect them to correct (or even identify) obscurantism in others? Or if they can identify it, correct it?

As Judt notes, when words become Humpty Dumptyish (i.e., they have multiple meanings but mean only what I say they mean), the ideas the words express also become Humpty Dumptyish, that is, meaningless, because there is no foundation by which they can be understood globally. When the ideas become Humpty Dumptyish, they become anarchic and chaotic. Perhaps this is the problem in today’s partisan politics — political ideas have no meaning because they have so many meanings. The pomp becomes more important than the circumstance (perhaps a diplomatic-world failing) and the standard becomes that of text fragments.

I recall how unhappy I was when I discovered that my daughter’s high school English teacher (and this was in the early 1990s) had no idea that a sentence was composed of words that undertook important parts of speech, such as noun, verb, adverb, each designed to contribute to a universal understanding of the message. Yet this teacher was responsible for grading my daughter’s grasp of English, as well as teaching my daughter how to grasp English. Sadly, it appears that the situation continues to deteriorate, if some of the books I edit are an indication of the articulateness of the current generation of academic authors.

I have often thought about what it is that can be done to reverse course. I sure would hate to discover that but for inarticulacy war could have been avoided. I also wonder how many mishaps that we are now paying for occurred as a result of President George W. Bush’s inarticulacy. Alas, I do not see an easy road to resolution; rather, I see the problem getting worse. I see it getting worse because of the difficulty in focusing.

I think the problem of inarticulacy is exacerbated by the “need” to multifunction. Few of us use a laser-like focus in our daily lives; we need to handle multiple things simultaneously and so we take a shotgun approach, hoping the “effective” zone of the spread is sufficient. We also reward the ability to multifunction, regardless of how effective the multifunctioning is. The old saying was to handle one problem at a time; today’s saying might better be handle all problems simultaneously and hope for the best.

Reversing the inarticulacy trend is probably impossible because too few people are knowledgable about how to be articulate — and because too many people would resist the necessary steps as being an infringement of their freedoms. Imagine if suddenly every parent was told that for their child to graduate from elementary school to middle school the child had to show proficiency in debating skills. (Of course, the first objection, and rightfully so, would be the teachers can’t show that proficiency so why should my Susan show it?) Part of the problem is the texting mindset. How do you overcome the fragmentary expression culture that it creates?

As articulation decreases and inarticulacy increases, I wonder what will become of our society 50 years from now. Would those of us educated in the 1950s and 1960s be able to communicate effectively in that future? Will the United States become a third-rate country because of dysfunctional communication skills? Will editors have a role in such an anything-goes-writing-milieu?

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