Too many members of my generation (postwar birth, 1960’s student) have a nasty way of ridiculing their juniors for their ignorance of history and their native tongue. Outrage at the students’ ignorance of U.S. history was expressed recently in the newspapers, but most of the test questions published were requests for an ideological opinion on the causes of World War I or the Civil War, not questions of fact. To most of them, my answer would have been “none of the above.” Quis examinatores examinabit? (dog-Latin for the obvious).
Middle-aged professors are fond of drawing up lists of student howlers—as if it is entirely the students’ fault if no one our age has chosen to teach them anything. A Professor Anders Erikkson has even pulled together snippets he had published in the Wilson Quarterly into a book that includes such gems as: “The Reformnation happened when German nobles resented the idea that tithes were going to Papal France or the Pope thus enriching Catholic coiffures.” Sure, the student cannot spell Reformation and confuses coffer with coiffure, but the professor probably has no problem with his own purely ideological (Swedish, perhaps?) take on the Reformation, which the student was imperfectly regurgitating.
Hendrikkson explains his title Non Campus Mentis as “a typical student mishearing of non compis mentis.” That’s right. The professor is ignorant of one of the most common Latin phrases in English, right up there with “habeas corpsuckle” and Bill O’Reilly’s recent call for Congress to try Osama bin Laden “in abstentia,” adding that most congressmen will not know what that means. In addition to his superciliousness and ignorance of Latin, Professor Hendrikkson is a master of the cliché-ridden, simplified prose we have come to expect from USA Today editorials:
History is a work in progress. Every generation has to make sense of the past for itself. The facts may stay the same, but the work of interpretation goes on and on. This brief text glimpses at the cutting edge of this process.
The last sentence is particularly instructive. Process is rather too passive a word to be endowed with a “cutting edge,” and no text, even metaphorically, is likely to “glimpse,” much less “glimpse at.” (In standard English, glimpse is a transitive verb, and, as a noun, it is usually followed by of.)
Although the professor does use a few dependent clauses, he seems more at home in the simple and compound sentences that make human experience seem so, well, simple. The “dumbing down” of English was one of those cutting-edge historical processes that the last century glimpsed. Kipling and Hemingway were masterful in setting vivid words into rather basic sentence structures, but their imitators, generation after generation, only took from them the lesson that stupid people will not tolerate any prose more complex than a soundbite. It’s the economy, stupid. Read my lips. Axis of evil.
The problem is not restricted to learning-disabled politicians. Most writers can only write in simple sentences or short phrases. Even good writers. Like P.J. O’Rourke.
The Education of Henry Adams is not so much a criticism of politics as a catalogue of political feelings. Adams had a lot of them. Adams shared his feelings. He honored his feelings. He cared. Pertinent today, indeed, Adams’s politics were as deeply felt as those of the deepest and most feeling of contemporary persons who feel things deeply. (Phil Donahue comes to mind.)
If you know what this means, apart from Mr. O’Rourke’s dislike of liberals and resentment of reactionary patricians, then you are one up on me. The self-consciously arch style reminds me of a speech I once heard the humorist give, laughing in advance to let you know the punchline was coming. “Ain’t I cute?” he seemed to be saying to the audience. “Isn’t it fun to be me?” And, in case you do not get the point, he will repeat it (like Conan O’Brien when one of his monologue jokes inevitably misfires), and not only in his platform routines but in his essays.
I did not mean to pick on P.J. O’Rourke. I used to enjoy his writings in the American Spectator, and I share his contempt for collectivist economics. How-ever, his piece, picked almost at random from the December issue of the Atlantic Monthly, illustrates the deeper problem. Superficial prose is a symptom of superficial thinking. O’Rourke seems to know nothing of Henry Adams that could not be picked up from a desk encyclopedia; he has read little more than the Education; he does not appreciate Adams’ importance as a political journalist or an historian (he calls him “the Andrew Cuomo of his clan”); and he cannot get Adams’ joke at the expense of Ulysses S. Grant’s vulgarity, because he knows nothing about Grant and does not know what vulgarity is, except as a stick with which to beat Bill Clinton.
Being a bright man, O’Rourke cannot fail to sense something great in Henry Adams, but the compliments are encapsulated in separate sentences. Since, like most of us today, he is incapable of writing a balanced complex sentence, he cannot think a balanced complex thought and has to offer his opinions as so many different-colored blocks scattered across the playroom floor. To assemble them into a house would require the sort of civilized mind that Henry Adams possessed, but most moderns do not.
When our contemporary (typically academic) writers do attempt a more com-plicated syntax, the result is a hodgepodge of mixed metaphors, dangling modifiers, and technical jargon. Worst of all, the structure itself is not the balanced periodic style of Dryden and Johnson but resembles a Rube Goldberg construction of disjointed parts, flying off at odd angles and connected only by a warped imagination.
Balance, order, and restraint are the hallmarks of the classical style and the classical mind. If teachers and writers would give up ridiculing their victims in the next generation, they might learn how to adopt a stylistic pose of maturity. Who knows if, as time goes by, the style might not become the man.