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Tuesday, January 25, 2005

This is NOT a rant

No, really. But don't you sometimes want to tell stupid people to stand up so you can give their brains a kick start? Me too. Anyone who knows me knows I rail every now and then against the rampant subliteracy evident in society today. What do I mean by "sub-literacy"? I recently had a conversation with a "special education" teacher in which the teacher—not once, but twice!—used the construction "ain't nothing" to mean "isn't anything." And, of course, this was not the only nonsensical English this person spoke (in fact, much of the conversation itself often reflected a disjunction from reason ). I wondered briefly if this person's "special education" work was the result of type-casting. (Maybe I ought to voice that in the subjunctive mood... ) Oh. Well. So-called journalists. Teachers. Businessmen. Politicians. Copy writers for entertainment shows and advertisements. All of them seem to show a growing lack of understanding that much of what they say or write is nonsense full of logic-contradicting grammar, misused words and nonsensical neologisms. It's enough to bring tears (sometimes of rage) to any semi-literate person's eyes. And do not mistake me. I do not make claim to any sort of competent literacy but only a sort of functional semi-literacy. No, the truly literate people I have known are those whose grasp of language, literature, history, etc., are far, far broader and deeper than mine. But at least I know the bounds of my semi-literacy, to some extent. The doofuses who (all too often) are the teachers of our children, our political leaders, our employers, or provide us with art or entertainment are often sub-literate and don't even know it. Too many sub-literates rest assured of their "literacy" in their (stubborn?) ignorance of the low level of their so-called education. Time to crack open an old anecdote (arrgggghhh! I just heard echoes of all the sub-literates I have heard say "antidote" when they meant "anecdote"). Eleven or twelve years ago, I was involved in an email discussion group that was primarily a theologically oriented group. Not all of the discussion was theological, but that was the thrust of most conversations. I responded to one non causa pro causa* argument, in colsing, with the statement that the person's contribution was all "sound and fury, signifying nothing." I got a private response from the head of a rhetoric department in a major university, a gentleman with a Ph.D. in English literature. He wanted to know if the source of that comment was Faulkner. He asked since I had placed it in quotes, but not given an attribution, thinking that none was required, since everyone on that list was surely literate enough to know the source! Catch the relevant facts here: Ph.D. in Engliish literature. Head of a "rhetoric department" (sub-specialty of english studies) in a major university. And he did not know one of the most famous Shakespearean soliloquies—not even that it was Shakespearean! In subsequent private emails, he revealed that on the road to "earning" a doctorate in English literature, he had simply not read the author who is arguably the single most influential individual author in the English language, let alone one of the two most-cited works by that author. He was the very definition of sub-literate. (And no, I'm not going to identify the play the phrase comes from. If you do not know it, look it up. Read the play and then come on back.) [Insert Madeline Kahn singing "I'm Tired" here.] Sometimes I just want to pinch their noses. Hard. We live in a society where access to the wisdom (and flooies) of the ages is ridiculously easy. A truly literate man of the 19th century could be truly literate and still own or have ready access to only a very few books. Today, millions of Americans could have access—without even getting up off their fat, lazy behinds—to literally thousands of the best books ever written, hour after hour of brilliant and enobling music and graphic art. Instead, we have an ever more sub-literate population. Petitio principii? Not really... And I have a nebulous hypothesis about that. I haven't designed a model to test a clear hypothesis, but the idea is intriguing: Civilization—at some point—begins to select for stupidity. Think about it. If there is anything sensible about the idea of natural selection (and I think it's fairly obvious that more competent individuals are likely to survive when the environment is hostile—at any rate, let's go with that assumption for now, OK?), then the ease of survival in a liberal society will select for stupidity and incompetence. (I use the word "liberal" here in its classic sense.) If it is easier to obtain food, clothing, shelter and reproductive partners, then it's obvious that there are lower barriers to stupid people surviving and reproducing. And maybe that's part of the problem with modern education: too many stupid people have survived to produce offspring to feed into the system, and too few stupid people have survuved the completely NON-rigorous "education" required to become teachers of that increasingly stupid pool of students. Those students then go on to become yet more teachers, politicians, businessmen, etc., in a population whose proportions of stupid people to competent people are becoming increasingly skewed toward stupidity. And that is one of two possible reasons why stupid people seem to be ever more and more with us. The other possible reason that occurs to me—that they simply stand out because they offend the order of the universe—has its own appeal. But that's for another time. Another brief clarification or two: sub-literacy is probably the result of two things that may operate independently but, in my observations, usually operate together. One is stupidity. The other is laziness. Indeed, most of the sub-literates I know are self-made idiots. Self-made out of their own intellectual laziness. ============ *non causa pro causa—I expect you to know these things. If you don't, consider this a wake up call. A semi-literate person, such as I, would probably look it up. Ditto for petitio principii. :-) N.B. Yes, I know that my "me too" in the subtitle above is ungrammatical. The verb "want"" is understood, and so proper grammar would insist on "I, too.. [want to kick start...]" The difference is that you and I know that it flies in the face of agreement with proper English forms and can speak and write more grammatically. Self-made sub-literates can't.