Monday, April 11, 2011

Destroying Education

A pretty solid rant on the corporate program for destroying education by Chris Hedges:

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Vernacular language in the Classroom

I'm intrigued by the conversation about professorial language on Dave Johnson's blog. Here are a few more thoughts:

1) Since college students are adults, the good paternalistic reason for a teacher not to use certain words in a classroom (that children require protection from certain of the world's harshnesses) is absent. In fact, continuing to protect them from legitimate, if harsh, modes of expression might itself constitute a sort of misplaced and invidious paternalism.

2) The item above of course begs the question of legitimacy. When might it be legitimate to use words like "damn" or "fuck" in a college classroom? I reject the idea that it could never be, since these are not only common words in the language, they are particularly expressive ones (if they were not, what would all the fuss be about?). Like all words, there will be better and worse moments to choose them; it seems unlikely that they would never be the best choice in a college classroom. To claim so would at least require a compelling argument that I have not yet seen.

3) I reject the popular idea that use of such words displays a lack of imagination or inarticulateness. Sometimes it does, presumably (unimaginative, ignorant people, and television, sometimes rely too heavily on such language), but ignorant people use lots of words. The flaw here is not use as such, but overuse, to the exclusion of variety and nuance.

4) The sort of class anxiety that motivates the "unimaginative" criticism seems to accept, uncritically, that there is something wrong with these words. But what? The prohibition on cursing, in particular, is rooted in the religious superstition that the invocation of certain words has magical power -- the biblical injunction against taking the Lord's name in vain is in fact an explicit prohibition of witchcraft. But when a modern, secular person says "God damn it!" she is not necessarily invoking either a supreme being or occult powers. More likely, she is just reaching for the strongest language culturally available after nailing her thumb with a hammer.

5) Taboos on certain words about bodily function and sexuality are similarly rooted in religious superstition. This may well have been functional in another era -- attaching ideological ickiness to icky things like manure by making "shit" a bad word might have helped remind people not to mess about with them in a crowded and unsanitary medieval urban world -- but with germ theory, sewage systems, and soap we have more effective tools, and no longer need to scare people off. In fact, these antisomatic (body-rejecting) ideologies, infecting early Christianity through Greco-Roman Stoicism, have done enormous damage.

6) Any prohibition on the use of harsh language in a college classroom will confront boundary problems. Which words, precisely, do we exclude (would "crap" be better than "shit"? Why or why not?)? Are euphemisms really better, or would resorting to them model for the students a kind of expressive disingenuity? No simple rule is likely to resolve such complexities.

7) The best reason I can think of for limiting use of profanity in any context is that certain words and expressions, for historical and cultural reasons, happen to be exceptionally forceful. As it is likely that too-frequent use will erode that force, it seems wise to save such terms so that we will have the resources to speak very harshly when we really feel the need to. It seems that we must be moderate with profanity to keep it profane.