Holding back the tide: English education here and now

One of my high school English teachers posted this article describing the struggle on the job, including ever-falling expectations and aspirations for students regarding the English language. My comment was as such:

English class is a battle between one person attempting to uphold a linguistic tradition and a couple dozen attempting to normalize their errors.

One of the examples given in the article is the abuse of “literally” in non-literal statements. Despite that being a gross misuse of vocabulary, I pointed out that Google in the past year has amended its definition of the word to acknowledge misuse.

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 7.29.09 PM

 

Such is the ongoing journey of English, which is reminiscent of the Geocities-era Internet- unregulated (unlike many other languages which have some sort of academy overseeing things), fragmented across space, and full of contradicting opinions. At some future point I’d imagine a post facto classification change, where what is spoken now is called Later English or something, and its rules and idiosyncrasies frozen in time along with Middle and Old English. What English instruction boils down to is a defense of a particular hill- what grammar, usage, spelling, and pronunciation were in a particular place at a particular point in time. Those students who don’t want to learn or don’t take lessons to heart will over time dictate what is current and what becomes archaic.

I once played a game of pool in a Portland bar, teams of two. One member of the opposing duo was from the Continent. He had grown up playing a very strict, organized rule set. My friend Gavin and I learned pool incorrectly from other kids (during summer camp, in my case) and had never figured out a set way to play the game. Thus dubbed “American Rules”, technical questions were not answered with “yes” or “no”, but rather “sure go ahead” or “maybe not”. English is a great example of the American Rules mindset. And I have immense respect for those that attempt to corral all the that chaos and teach an interpretation of English that promotes clarity and precision. In my not-that-long life, slang and vocabulary has undergone a radical change in the digital age, that increasingly departs from a English curriculum that hasn’t changed nearly as much. Every teacher has to drag students out of that universe and make them write something totally different.

Tough work, because the English language marches on, in a different direction in each place and with each community.

 

Learning Opportunity: teaching death using technology

Opportunity takes a shadow portrait, March 27, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Recently the Opportunity rover on Mars made the news- after more than a decade on the surface, it has developed serious memory problems. As a project engineer said:

“The problems started off fairly benign, but now they’ve become more serious — much like an illness, the symptoms were mild, but now with the progression of time things have become more serious,”

We use spacecraft like Opportunity, Voyagers 1 and 2, and newer projects like Curiosity to teach kids about space, geology, and physics. Even though they are machines, they can teach us about one of the most important human journeys- death.

Space missions have a life expectancy. Probes we send to the Moon, Mars, and beyond the Solar System talk to us. Then over time their components fail, their signal grows weaker, and eventually we lose them. Voyager 2 was launched 13 years before I was born, and is still transmitting faintly from billions of miles away. Opportunity still roams, but its sister rover Spirit got stuck and went offline a few years ago. It lost a sibling, but soldiers on.

Death is a scary idea to everyone, and it’s difficult to bring the subject to youth. But what Opportunity is going through is an impersonal way to talk about a process that will affect their grandparents, parents, and eventually themselves. The probes have less energy. Their joints and arms don’t work the same as they used to. Their memory is spotty and they require more medical attention than before.

And like humans, these machines have life experience and leave a legacy. Opportunity has traveled almost 26 miles in the past decade, making several groundbreaking discoveries about the surface of Mars and its history. When it one day powers down, we will have a familiar debate about what to do with its body- will it stay there for eternity, or will we one day put it in a museum? How can we honor what has passed?

There is wisdom to be gained with the fact that even artificial things have a life cycle, and that machines and humans can have a great deal in common with their journeys. One day, like Voyager, I will stop talking. And how will the world remember me?

Colossus walks

Wood bison in profile. Northern British Columbia. Taken by Steven Mackay
Wood bison in profile. Northern British Columbia.
Taken by Steven Mackay

The Wood Bison is enormous. It’s a subspecies of the American bison, which gringos from Europe called buffalo. They are rather widespread in Alberta and the Northwest Territories, but not so much in British Columbia. Unfortunately, a large portion of the population are killed each year in collisions with cars. Not surprised, as this guy was spotted walking down the road- the white at the bottom is the partition between the road and the gravel side.

What you learn from several days in rural B.C. is that driving at night is a horrible idea. Besides the windy roads and frequent rain, there is also forest fire smoke reducing visibility, and several huge animals wandering about that you do not want to get in an accident with. Besides bison, there are stone sheep, caribou, moose, and both black and Grizzly bears. For various reasons, they all tend to congregate on or near roads.

As a tourist you often have the luxury of traveling in the day and hunkering in for the night. Those that by necessity travel during the night have much danger to consider.

An adult male moose grazes in a pond, west of Muncho Lake, British Columbia. Photo by Steven Mackay
An adult male moose grazes in a pond, west of Muncho Lake, British Columbia.
Photo by Steven Mackay

Moose are big dudes. This male was full-size and very intimidating when he wanted to be. This was taken with a very long lens- he is in the rear of a lake next to the Alaska Highway. The travelers next to us said he had been in the same place the day before. With a look like that, he was clearly too powerful to worry about humans with cameras.

Compared to most modern freeways, the Alaska Highway is still very much in wild country. If not purely wild, it is wild-adjacent. Even though now it is a modern, fully-paved artery for business and tourism, no effort is needed to see vast wilderness and very little to see iconic animals of the Canadian West.

There is no abortion debate.

Sometimes a good habit can become suffocating. The reason I don’t post more often is I feel a need to add lots of sources and backing to what I say. This is healthy- the world could use a bit more empiricism- but it also brushes the smaller topics and random thoughts under the rug. This is an attempt to overcome that. Let’s roll. 

It seems that media commentary and opinion could gain much by starting every piece with “Let us define our terms”. People, organizations, ideologies. When someone supports or attacks a liberal politician, what do you they mean? Liberal, and liberalism, have many disparate meanings. Collectivist, libertarian- promoting freedom or constraining it. Arguments often become heated because the sides are talking past one another. If there is no agreement on what the founding parts of an issue are, how can you talk about it? In some sense you can’t. Two people are facing each other and talking to an imaginary opponent.

In some cases, the issue ceases to have any discourse. With honesty, the abortion “debate” is not a debate. Definitions of debate state that it is an exchange between opposing views. Almost all of the time in regards to abortion there are no opposing views. There are two main views that are not logical opposites. The “pro-life” camp talks about the sanctity of life and whether it is murder. The “pro-choice” camp emphasizes the inherent right of women to decide if they want children. A clue should be that both commonly-accepted terms don’t oppose each other- one is talking about what life is, the other is talking about what choice is. There is some debate- pro-choice individuals often debate what a “person” really is- but the primary arguments don’t intersect. There is nothing to stop someone from acknowledging abortion as murder and still thinking women have a right to choose. It’s not a matter of the two being mutually exclusive, it’s just an order of priorities. No wonder the issue is just as contentious as it was in 1973. No progress has been made in discussing the merits or evils of abortion.

Other issues involve two sides that pit a civil rights argument versus an absolute moral or religious principle. Often they are not in direct dialogue. Perhaps that is why same-sex marriage, abortion, affirmative action etc. often have caricatures. Waxing philosophical, a caricature is not always used to exaggerate an opponent. It can in fact become a substitute for an opponent that doesn’t exist. Pro-choice people want to talk about civil rights. They create a side that is also talking about civil rights. Pro-life people want to talk about life, so they form an opponent who is talking about murdering babies. That’s their plank.

When an opinion column is published, one can become quite angry reading it. Some of that is that the person has defined their terms in a very different way. I read a vintage Limbaugh column a few months ago and found my irritation originated from his original point, which influenced all the consequences he described. I still know we’re not in agreement on the issue, but part of that is that the gulf begins early- before most of the substance. And you can’t tell a nationally-syndicated columnist all your reservations. They’re not right in front of you- there’s no luxury of response.

I’m not calling for a return to the “good old days” of discourse- any survey of history shows that such a period never existed- only that the nicer parts tend to stick around. Just that there seem to be very concrete issues. And it seems that the pointlessness of argument is in part rooted in this disagreement of terms and priorities. Of course there’s no way to change that person’s mind. None of what was said challenged what they find important about an issue.

It’s as if there were a war and both sides showed up on different continents. Lots of anger and destruction, but the confrontation is non-existent.

Someone amidst everyone

Humankind escalates.
It sees the past as
at best, a quaint reminder –
perhaps one to keep in a model town
for the schoolchildren to shuffle through
on a dreary Tuesday morning.

Each day – more intense.
Grown turgid; more people
with more expectations-
dreams, fears, grim realizations
all draped with a chatter as seven
billion and counting try to find
someone amidst everyone

Frost-haired men in high-buckled trousers
sitting at a well-worn diner booth, while the Earth hums
in a note they’ve long since ceased to hear.
The planned obsolescence complete,
they have become living fossils of a time
one can’t be bothered to remember.

Follow-up: Sawant campaign issues rebuke of Berezow’s article

So the day after my article criticizing Alex Berezow’s shallow, smug opinion piece against a woman with far more expertise on economics than he has, the Kshama Sawant campaign has issued their own rebuttal. It is similar but more a rallying point than my own beef with Berezow’s overly simplified view of economics, and his contempt for academia.