Friday, December 13, 2013

This Is That

Years ago I had the opportunity of taking Douglas Hofstadter to dinner before he gave the inaugural lecture in an annual series a colleague and I had developed at our high school.  This Pulitzer-winning author who works in cognitive science, philosophy, computer science, and seemingly everything else, spoke on what may have seemed a strange topic for him.  His talk was titled "Is Modern Poetry Complete Rubbish?," and in it he took issue with poets who write in such confused ways and on such esoteric topics that no one reads their work.  In fact, he found the poetry of "Surrey With a Fringe on Top" to be of more value than much contemporary work, which he considered little more than prose with a ragged right margin.  Even in discussing other more heady topics, he had a particular abhorrence for jargon.  In that he reminded me of the character Margrethe Bohr, who in Daniel Frayn's play Copenhagen persistently asked her husband, Niels, and Werner Heisenberg to put their theories in plain language.

Samuel Rocha knows that plain-language explanations are at the heart of good education and good philosophy.  He writes, "Description is on grand display in the art of kindergarten teaching.  A great kindergarten teacher can describe things to young children in simple, vivid, lively, and clear -- but perfectly ordinary -- ways.  If philosophers could be half as descriptive as an excellent kindergarten teacher, they would become far better philosophers.  At the very least, people might understand them better."  (A Primer for Philosophy & Education, p. 20)

To be sure, there are times when a fifty-cent word is simply the best word for the job, and no dime store variant will do.  Wordsmiths also like tossing around certain words because they are fun to say or we just like the ring of them.  I remember getting quite excited about the words "anfractuous" and "penthemimeral caesura," and it is likely I included them just now because I still take a nerdy glee in them.  The bottom line, though, is that we like jargon because it makes us sound intelligent, which is perfectly understandable, but not really well suited to education.  Unfortunately, because the profession of education has always been held in little esteem, and the situation is only more grave today, those involved in it look to anything to raise the esteem of their profession and themselves.  This often leads us to the embrace of jargon, and even in our attempts to be clear, we more often than not end up trying to eschew obfuscation.

Yet we must remember what we are about, and Rocha points the way.  "This is what philosophy and education set out to do:  to show things as they are, as best they can.  No more and no less."  (p. 20)  Put another way, ours is the business of saying, "This is that."

Such work forms the core of what I do as a Latin teacher.  We 21st century English speakers are studying in the United States an inflected language and its literature from a culture over two millennia and half a world away.  When we try to understand why different noun declensions produce different forms for the same cases, I bring out the analogy of auto manufacturers.  Chevy, Ford, and Dodge all make cars, trucks, and minivans.  All cars do the same basic things, all trucks have the same basic features, and all minivans are essentially the same, but they look different depending on the company that made them.  In the same way, a direct object from one Latin declension ends with -am, but one from another declension ends with -um.  They are both direct objects, but they look different.  This is that.  The same kind of explanation goes on through all our years of study, whether I am comparing a scene from Caesar's war exploits with the movie Boyz 'n' the Hood or the rights of the Catilinarian conspirators with Americans caught in acts of treason.  This is that.

I still enjoy the good, nerdy, fifty-cent word, but I tend to enjoy it more by myself or with certain colleagues and friends.  When it comes to teaching, I am always looking for the simpler and clearer way of saying something.  This is not dumbing anything down.  It is just communicating.  As students and their culture change, this can be an ever-shifting endeavor.  Indeed, Rocha observes, "This restless philosophical and educational project is always a work of art, striving for harmony, attunement, and balance."  (p. 20)  Then again, such striving is part of the great enjoyment of it all.  As poet and professor Timothy Steele titled one of his books, "All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing."

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