“Why must an ‘ability’ be recast as a ‘core competency?’ Why must we all face the future armed with ‘strategic plans’ and ‘key leverage points?'”
Expert heard on public radio: “We’ll be conducting statistically relevant attitude studies.”
College billboard: “Achieve math empowerment!”
Conference brochure: “…we’ll show you how to identify people with the abilities or competencies necessary to help you develop an effective mentoring relationship. Plus we’ll show how mentors and mentees alike achieve satisfaction and career growth by creating unique alliances through mentoring relationships.”
Politician: “We’re trying to achieve buy-in with the stakeholders.”
Person in meeting: “We are all change agents.”
The workplace, the boardroom, and the public meeting are awash in hideous rhetoric. In spite of all the mockery that Dilbert and the sitcoms have heaped on it, bad language still grows like an insidious vine, clinging to our everyday speech and choking the life out of it. We laugh but it hurts.
We are in danger of losing style. Not the kind they have a section for in the newspaper, but prose style. The beauty and the directness in the way we write and talk to each other. The power to express ideas clearly and eloquently.
For a long time, unfortunately, language was taught as a moral discipline. In English, we learned the Queen’s English, which was God’s English. God was an old man with a white beard and he spoke English, the Queen’s English. He did not split infinitives. For many in school, formal language was a strait jacket of nineteenth-century rules that they could not comfortably inhabit.
Nowadays, in many school systems, whole language is taught, a method that encourages creativity but is often accompanied by a lack of attention to rules. In many ways, it’s an advance, but in other ways it’s merely a pendulum swing from the moralistic rule-worship of earlier teaching. Students learn how to pour out their hearts, but they often have little skill in polishing what they have to say. (Read a sampling of first-year-or even fourth-year-college papers if you need evidence.)
And to make matters worse, the language of their betters has often become the kind of materialistic technospeak mentioned above, the language we lead the world with today. What’s with that? Why must an “ability” be recast as a “core competency” or as part of a “skill set”? Why must we all face the future armed with “strategic plans” that have identified “key leverage points”?
This is the kind of reification and deification that George Orwell lampooned in “Newspeak,” his appendix to 1984. Newspeak centered on an elite’s creation of a vocabulary with rigidly defined special meanings, accessible only to the initiated. It was these words that were to be used to discuss important matters of everyday life and work. This rigid use of language rendered the “expression of unorthodox opinions, above a very low level, well-nigh impossible.” Curiously, Orwell closed his essay by noting that final adoption of Newspeak would be complete in 2050.
So young people today are taught to express their ideas freely, creatively, without much attention to rules. Then, paradoxically, when they enter the world of work they are trained in a technocratic cant developed by management consultants and academics. The result is not something beautiful to behold (consult the average business, government, or non-profit report). The notion that everyday speaking and writing-about any subject-could be beautiful is unthinkable. Obscurity and pomposity hold a higher place than eloquence, which is left to “creative writers.”
Is public discourse doomed to proceed in an unerring path to the achievement of Newspeak? Where could we go from here?
Perhaps we could return to square one.
Many ancient writers on public discourse assumed that for democracy to have real meaning, a citizen must be able to make a case simply, eloquently, and convincingly. Otherwise, elites in possession of the ruling language would dictate to the uninitiated. Rhetorical skill-the ability to make clear, persuasive points in speaking and writing-was thought to supersede all skills in the public realm. If we have very unequal abilities to communicate, how can we work together?
To become a full participant in society (a citizen in the true sense of the word), a student needs to be taught to invent freely with words, and then to give their invention both structure and style. Good intentions are not sufficient. One must develop skill in speaking and writing. Neither our schools nor our workplaces encourage this sufficiently today. The schools do not emphasize rhetorical training, and the workplace is mired in the worst kind of materialistic rhetoric.
In the groundbreaking book by Strunk & White, Elements of Style, E.B. White (the spinner of Charlotte ‘s Web) makes the point that “style takes its shape more from attitudes of mind than from rules of composition.” It is these very attitudes of mind-subtlety, beauty, straightforwardness-that we must cultivate in future citizens.
Otherwise, debate and decision-making will become the province of an elite of technicians, legalists and theorists, and our children will be their “mentees,” armed only with the “skill sets” that will “grow” the “career paths” needed for the brave new world of 2050.