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.

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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.


The many lies of national mythology

Presently I’m reading How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman. Originally I bought it as a present for my dad, chosen from Barnes & Noble because our symbolic ethnicity is Scottish, and it seemed like an interesting read. He finished it, so I stole it to read on my second trip north towards Canada.

Elaborate traditional opening of the Scottish Parliament.

One interesting aspect of the book is on the dirty, depressing method by which England and Scotland became united in 1707. Scotland, which was mostly out of the colonial game and among the poorest European countries, scraped together a bunch of money for what was called the Darien Scheme. In retrospect it was a terrible idea- it was already well-established that Europeans couldn’t survive in the tropics, the land was unpopulated but claimed by the Spanish, even though it was decades after Jamestown it still had the issues with colonists and cargo not being particularly useful. Scotland tapped out and joined the English rather than attempt to create their own international commerce system.

That’s interesting, particularly in light of the (not terribly likely to pass) independence referendum in six weeks. The origins of modern states are often messy and unpleasant; it’s why the modern concept of the nation was created. Leaders could rewrite history and craft a new, artificial culture. It helps to distract from how many countries, European and former colonies alike, exist due to treaty negotiations. The glorious struggle is often more like the tedious administrative wrangling.

What fascinates me about nationalism is how the recent can become the arcane and sacred in the minds of millions. Almost everyone probably thinks that French has been the dominant language in France for a very long time. After all, it’s called France. But until the last 150 years or so, a vast majority of citizens spoke little to no French.

At the time, French, although an official language, was still little used, even in France. It was the language of the court, the aristocracy and middle class, literature, and academia, but was spoken by fewer than one million out of the 20 million inhabitants of France, or 5% of the population. Given that nobles numbered only about 4,000 at the court, it was the middle class and merchants who, in absolute numbers, spoke French the most. (source)


The various languages in France and their extent, 1550 CE.

European history, as taught to me in the main high school textbook, was about how Latin was a language of the church and elite, and the big shift was to vernacular languages. This did happen, but the truth of the matter is that the big modern tongues we think of were far less influential than they are today. In fact, the rise of unified, centralized education was needed to demote languages like Occitan to secondary importance.

Just like how you could say that man made god, man made the nation. Traditionally both religion and nationhood have a sort of holy feeling, and a sense of destiny. In America, there is often a blurring between the Founding Fathers and the Framers as men, or as deities.

If the independence referendum fails, the reasons will go beyond pragmatic economic and political concerns. Part of it will be how a British identity has been fashioned. The marvel of the modern world is not how violent and destructive it is, but how countries that spent most of the last millennium trying to kill each other don’t anymore. For every Yugoslavia, where one identity became many, there are others were a disunited region became one.

What I’m trying to say in the end is that there are many histories. We tend to believe the dominant explanation of the past. That doesn’t mean it’s a good picture. For all its flaws, A People’s History of the United States was an attempt to disrupt the American mythology. Such work may be a sort of inconvenient truth- what ends up in textbooks and classroom lectures usually works, for some group of people.

The controversy with calling everything a controversy

I generally don’t like the phrase ‘controversial’ as its used to describe conduct by politicians or celebrities.

A controversy involves a fundamental disagreement that two or more parties have for an extended period of time. In the context of politics, controversial is often used to describe remarks that are either:

a) clearly racist or prejudiced, which is almost always followed by some manner of apology (or dedicated non-apology), or
b) factually incorrect. It’s not ‘controversial’ to claim that the Earth is about 6,000 years old, it’s wrong.

The word seems to end up everywhere. Jonah Hill saying some bigoted shit a couple days ago is controversial. So is abortion policy. And the status of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey. If most celebrities apologize for their behavior when confronted, there really isn’t some protracted disagreement. Perhaps the grave Alec Baldwin has been digging for a while might qualify, but that’s a rare instance. It’s not controversial, it’s cringe-worthy. Or just simply dumb.

How should society talk about groups and people?

Another piece that’s mostly opinion. 

An acquaintance of mine posted a statement on social media about how people tend to be insensitive towards people living with disabilities, and that society should go towards using certain phrases that are “less offensive” than the ones commonly used now.

Language and terminology is an ongoing skirmish in discourse- especially American discourse. It pits community against individual rights. The community, generally speaking, moves forward with language regarding certain groups- to the point where the politically correct terms of the past are now being replaced with new ones, since what was one tasteful is now tasteless. The march of time. While present attention is given towards the term “retard” or “retarded”, terms introduced to replace “idiot” some time ago, it happens with all labels. Using “Negro” in almost any setting is anachronistic in 2014, it being replaced by black and African-American, which in some circles is being replaced by person of color. Some assert their right to use any term- and that no words should be banned just because they are offensive.

This is well-known and much has been written about the progression and its implications. Having now spent several months in the community of people with disabilities, their families, and those that seek to help them, I have a stronger grasp of what the conflict is all about.

My friend stated that people should start using the term “handy-capable” or “differently-abled”. As neither he nor I have a physical disability, our logic is no substitute for those who the terms are referring to. There is a certain feeling about appropriate versus inappropriate language just by thinking about it, but you can’t be sure in isolation. You can’t be sure that you’re not racist until you’ve spent some time interacting with people of a different race. Theory and practice are not the same.

Ultimately I think both suggested terms are viable, though I haven’t heard anyone ever use them in nine months of attending meetings and events about disability issues. What seems to be the most important thing is where the person is in your language. The person should come first, before whatever characteristics they have.

The comparison between:

Over there is a disabled person.
Over there is a person with a disability.

seems vital to me. Besides the fact that the person comes before the descriptor in the sentence, the term “disabled” versus “disability” sound and feel different. Disabled sounds severe, fatalistic. Disability seems normal, just a part of someone’s life. Thus perhaps it’s not the words used but where they are placed.

With time almost everything is overturned. The science, religion, politics, and of course language of all societies has changed in the past century, often dramatically. With language and talking about people, the question must be asked- what is the goal of language in this case? Brevity? Accuracy? Positivity? Inclusiveness? If there isn’t a goal, then all the changing terms and “political correctness” is just circling the drain.

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.