Sunday, October 02, 2005

Words, Words, Words

Genesis 11:1-9 (New Living Translation)

The Tower of Babel
1At one time the whole world spoke a single language and used the same words. 2As the people migrated eastward, they found a plain in the land of Babylonia and settled there. 3They began to talk about construction projects. “Come,” they said, “let's make great piles of burnt brick and collect natural asphalt to use as mortar. 4Let's build a great city with a tower that reaches to the skies--a monument to our greatness! This will bring us together and keep us from scattering all over the world.”
5But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6”Look!” he said. “If they can accomplish this when they have just begun to take advantage of their common language and political unity, just think of what they will do later. Nothing will be impossible for them! 7Come, let's go down and give them different languages. Then they won't be able to understand each other.” 8In that way, the LORD scattered them all over the earth; and that ended the building of the city. 9That is why the city was called Babel, because it was there that the LORD confused the people by giving them many languages, thus scattering them across the earth.”

Nancy and I began a series of conversations on the written word a couple of days ago. I’m sure we’ll explore this theme more in the days to come, to test our ideas and theories against the reality all around us, but for right now we’re both lamenting the loss of creative power in America these days.

The problem seems to be especially acute among the young. In the year or so I’ve been blogging I’ve read samples from many bloggers, fresh from high school or college, who have little to say and even fewer literary gifts with which to express what they see or feel.

I don’t believe we’re alone in our lament. Clive Allen expressed some of the same feelings yesterday in an essay titled “
Mr. Salinger and the Haiku,” in which he gently dissected the false depth that many bloggers seem to think they’ve found by using haiku:

“But haikus seem to be spreading through the blogosphere like a contagious disease. Fortunately, I seem to have been inoculated against this particular infection for I find nothing attractive or special about this particular poetic form.”

“Maybe in Japanese the haiku is a wondrous thing but I wouldn't know since I have only about three words of the language (all culled from that Richard Chamberlain TV series, Shogun). It appears to me that, in English, the haiku is not poetry at all but merely a statement of the obvious pretending to be deep and significant.”

Along with this pretense of depth comes a new blogging language, developed in expediency. If you read a lot of blogs you’ll know what I mean. For those with short attention spans phrases like “lots of luck” or “lots of love” have become “LOL.” “Oh my God” has been replaced by “OMG.” “By the way” has been supplanted by “BTW.” Accompanying the acronyms are the catch phrases of the new millennium’s young. One day it might be “We be bitchin.” The next it will probably be “He rocks.”

Beyond the linguistic shortcuts, though, there is what seems to me to be a shallowness of soul that’s been exposed in these would be authors and poets. Again, if you read many blogs you know what I mean. There’s a fascination with gutter language, especially the word “fuck.” I think its exponential growth in use stems from the emptiness of mind that accompanies the moral vacuum in their souls.

In our conversations Nancy and I have wondered out loud how this has all come about. One of the clear sources we’ve seen is the poor quality of education in the disciplines of language young people are getting in America. And, that poor quality isn’t only the domain of our high schools. Colleges are also becoming havens for subsidized stupidity.

I probably expressed it a bit more directly than some readers would like, so I’ll let someone from inside the belly of America’s educational beast say it in more muted tones. This is how
Mark Edmundsun views what was happening in higher education. His language is more genteel than mine, but it is also right to the point:

“The freshman–to-be sees photographs of well-appointed dorm rooms; of elaborate phys-ed facilities, of expertly maintained sports fields, of orchestras and drama troupes, of students working joyously, off by themselves. It’s a retirement spread for the young. “Colleges don’t have admissions offices anymore, they have marketing departments,” a school financial officer said to me once. Is it surprising that someone who has been approached with photos and tapes, bells and whistles, might come to college thinking Shakespeare and Freud courses were also going to be agreeable treats?”

“How did we reach this point? In part, the answer is a matter of demographics and also of money. Aided by the GI Bill, the college-going population increased dramatically after the Second World War. Then came the baby boomers, and to accommodate them colleges continued to grow. Universities expand readily enough, but with tenure locking in faculty for lifetime jobs, and with the general reluctance of administrators to eliminate their own slots, it’s not easy for a university to contract. So after the baby boomers had passed through – like a tasty lump sliding down the length of a boa constrictor – the colleges turned to promotional strategies – to advertising – to fill the empty chairs. Suddenly college, except for a few highly selective establishments, became a buyers’ market. What students and their parents wanted had to be taken potently into account. That often meant creating more comfortable, less challenging environments, places where almost no one failed, everything was enjoyable, and everyone was nice.”

The good professor was right to say what he did. I spent my first year of undergraduate work at Ohio State University. My grade cards were incredible during that time, all A’s, but I knew I wasn’t learning anything. In order to escape the state sponsored learning factory in Ohio, I enrolled in a small college west of Chicago. Once I was accepted I decided to repeat my freshman year, foregoing the credits I could have had transferred from Ohio State. I felt that if I was going to really learn it would be best to start with a clean slate. It’s a decision I’ll never regret. While my education took more time and cost more money it was far more rewarding, far more complete, than any education I would ever have gotten had I continued at Ohio State.

A good education doesn’t necessarily make a man elite material, but it will do something that a learning factory very rarely does. Of all the lessons I learned at Judson, the most valuable was to treat language, literature, and the written word with respect. I learned to value language as a window on the world, a tool I could use to describe my world, my feelings, and my experience. That’s what’s missing in so many colleges and universities today.

The literary environment today, particularly in the blogosphere, is all too crowded with people, especially young people, who have little more than contempt for words and language.

While I was attending Judson a friend and I conducted a little experiment. He was attending Elgin Community College, taking a class in composition. One night at work he came to me with the college’s newspaper, which was dedicated to the poetry written by one of its students. “Phil, you’ve got to read this,” he said. “Tell me what you think.” I read the poems, then hesitated for a minute. “Did you write these?” I asked.
“No,” he replied.
I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that if he had written them and I’d have told the truth he would have been very hurt. “Well, I can’t imagine poetry getting any worse than that,” I said.
My friend nodded in agreement. Then he shook his head. “The problem is,” he said. “The guy is getting straight A’s and he’s being called a genius.”

We gave it some thought during the night and came up with a little experiment. I would write really bad poetry, give it to him under a pen name (Pamela Cartwright Smith), and he would in turn submit it to the university newspaper. A few days later I wrote the first of “Pamela’s” three poems. It was titled “How ‘Bout ‘Dem” and went like this:

“How ‘bout ‘dem four doors,
And how ‘bout ‘dem cuspidors
And how ‘bout ‘dem toreadors
Raz mataz, raz mataz, and all that jazz
Raz mataz, raz mataz, and all that jazz
How ‘bout ‘dem.”

To our utter amazement we got word back that students were clamoring for the work of Pamela Cartwright Smith. The reviews were coming in and everyone, it seemed, believed she was a real genius. Words like “profound” and “incredible” were sprinkled into the faculty reviews. Thinking that something worse would end things, I submitted another piece of grotesque poetry a week later. It went like this:

“fjeiejruiejrkfejeieriue, ijrkienjre-hjnfkjiejrkemn:rhienj,
And that’s the way it is America.”

Another two days passed and another set of glowing reviews made their way back to Pamela.

The best was reserved for last. It was what Pamela described as a piece of “Americana:”

“Hey Crystal, make with the java.
Crystal obeyed
What’s with them blue eyes, doll?
Crystal flared
Bring the bounty, little wench
Crystal dumped the java on Rocco
Get your own damned Bounty.”

A few days later my friend came to me with bad news. “They loved it, called it introspection into the soul of America,” he said. I couldn’t believe it. “They’re putting us on, right?” “No,” he replied. “They’re serious. In fact they’re so serious they want to arrange an interview with Ms.Smith.”
I sat in stunned silence for a minute or two, then gathered my thoughts. “Tell them that Pamela is too busy right now. She’s working on a big Random House deal that can’t wait.”

That’s where it all ended. Pamela Cartwright Smith never won the Pulitzer Prize, but she did, before she went on to bigger and better things, win the undying admiration of a faculty of fools.

I think that’s where we’re headed now. Slick marketing and youth have been tossed together into some sort of mixing bowl, thrown into an oven, then under-cooked. The end result of the recipe is that we are creating something that can best be described as the illiterate illuminati.

I started this essay with a photograph of Koko the gorilla. Koko, if you aren’t aware, is the gorilla who has been “taught” to read. While I take no position on whether or not this is true, I will take a position on Koko vis a vis the folks who have embraced the “OMG’s and the BTW’s. I don’t know whether he’s catching up with them or if they’re falling further and further behind, but I do know that the gap is narrowing in Koko’s favor. Pretty soon he’ll be graduating from
McGuffey’s Readers to “doing” haiku. And what will America’s young students and bloggers be doing? They’ll be on a quest, searching for Pamela Cartwright Smith and her America.

It’s strange, isn’t it? The time may be coming when we’ll have to pin civilization’s hopes on a gorilla. How the mighty have fallen!


Gone Away said...

Profound! Incredible! ;)

All true, Phil, but let me speak up just for the LOLs and the BTWs. These come from the early days of internet chat (LOL is short for Laughing Out Loud, BTW) and were invented almost from necessity in those narrow bandwidth days. I agree that their transfer into blogging is unnecessary but, being a chatter from way back and occasionally using them myself in comments (note also the smiley which comes from the same source), I regard them as minor irritations only. Such is my bias.

The imports from cellphone texting ("ur" for "you are", "b4" for "before", "l8" for "late" and so on) I detest, however, I see as a part of the general decline you're talking about, mainly because they encourage us to forget spelling.

In truth, these are minor matters, The real cause for alarm is the growing inability to construct sentences that make sense. I suspect that the facility of reason and logic is being eroded. Look around the blogosphere and try to find blogs written with the step-by-step logic of your own articles. They are rare indeed. Most political blogs consist of a series of name-calling rants and repetitions of slogans, personal journals amount to poorly-written accounts of vacuous lives and even literature blogs are filled with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. And these are the ones actually attempting to set something down in print! The vast majority never attempt such a thing.

Maybe we are dinosaurs and tomorrow's world will have no use for literacy, everything being delivered in visual and tactile form. And maybe I complain because I am a dinosaur and the contemplation of a world without literacy is inconceivable to me.

But I doubt it.

Orikinla Osinachi. said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Orikinla Osinachi. said...

Dear Sir,
Something horrible and terrible happened to the younger generation who were born from the 70s to date.
Their awesome intellectual ignorance make them hyperactive and make us hypertensive. Because, their childishness, foolishness, carelessness, recklessness, greediness, selfishness and wickedness are the evils of these days as shown in the media, academia and workplace.

The blogosphere is the theater of the absurd for these characters of the lunatic fringe.

They are like the bats flying all over the place.
They are neither birds nor rats.

Everyone of them like a lost child
Wandering in the wild.

I try my best to give them some space in the realm of my soul. Because to ignore them would be worse.

They are garbage in, garbage out.

But as Jesus Christ said, they are the reason why the Son of God was made manifest, to destroy all the works of the devil.

Kris said...

The entire generation is not lost, as I pointed out in my previous comment. God is raising up leaders within this very generation: Check out this site--

And no... they aren't related to me in any way. I don't even know them. But they seem to be articulate and intelligent, with no haiku in sight.

Don't despair for the entire generation. If you look, you will see hope.

Student Leadership University is committed to raising up godly young leaders with a Christian worldview and training them on how to personally impact the world:

This will be the 4th year my son has attended and I can testify that God is working mightily through this group.

And there are others--other young people, other leaders, other committed adults-- who are providing salt and light to this generation.

Please, please, don't lose hope in this young generation. God is bigger and brighter than the darkness.


Broken Messenger said...

Beyond the linguistic shortcuts, though, there is what seems to me to be a shallowness of soul that’s been exposed in these would be authors and poets. Again, if you read many blogs you know what I mean. There’s a fascination with gutter language, especially the word “fuck.” I think its exponential growth in use stems from the emptiness of mind that accompanies the moral vacuum in their souls.

In our conversations Nancy and I have wondered out loud how this has all come about. One of the clear sources we’ve seen is the poor quality of education in the disciplines of language young people are getting in America. And, that poor quality isn’t only the domain of our high schools. Colleges are also becoming havens for subsidized stupidity.

Phil, this begs the question: Who's fault is it? Is it the society who is darkened by default who should shoulder the blame here, or the dimming light of a church who is to be the conduit for the light of Christ to shine in a dark world?

I think we as a church need to look inward before just pointing a finger at a dark world and calling it dark, while the light within church continues to fade while no one is watching.


Phil Dillon, Prairie Apologist said...

I think there's some truth in the comments I've received.

There is hope to be sure. But there is real reason to be concerned. Language is a great gift and if it's lost to the coarseness of the times we'll have lost something very precious.

I also believe previous generations have to accept some of the responsibility for what's happening. Given that, I think we need to find ways out of the dilemma, if they're possible.

And, the acronyms are only minor irritants that point to the root problem, which Clive ponited out so well.

We have a lot of work to do.

Choicemaker said...



...AN DIS HERE STUFF...YEAH? an then?...more!...


...naw?...know what I mean?



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