A number of authors have written about the trouble they see with modern language and the breaking down of actual meaning in the words that are used to try to communicate. For many of these authors, the political discourse is the primary culprit for this breakdown in meaning, but it is recognized within other forms of official language as well, such as the discourse of academic subjects and scientific journals. In many cases, this discourse has become so convoluted that it is no longer meaningful at all at the same time that students within the traditional educational system are not able to recognize the fallacies and the lack of meaning. While this is the main focus of some scholars, such as George Orwell, others attempt to find appropriate solutions that can be put in place within the classroom setting to counteract these effects.
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In his article “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell discusses the various ways in which political discourse has brought the language usage of the country to an all-time low level of actual meaning at the same time that it strives to disguise this lack of meaning behind an abundance of words. He points to the concepts of tired metaphors that no longer deliver the meaningful punch evoked through their surprising comparisons, ‘false limbs’ that complicate the subject with unnecessarily complicated words and phrases and pretentious diction that tends to lose meaning halfway through the statement as examples. It isn’t until near the end of the essay that he begins to examine some of the ways that these issues might be effectively addressed by newer generations to save the language from itself. These are predictably brief and clearly stated: “Never use a metaphor … which you are used to seeing in print; never use a long word where a short one will do; if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out; never use the passive where you can use the active; never use a foreign phrase … if you can think of an everyday English equivalent; break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous” (Orwell, 1946). These ideas are expanded upon in the work of Rochelle Harris and Neil Postman.
The primary concern of Rochelle Harris’ article “Encouraging Emergent Moments: The Personal, Critical and Rhetorical in the Writing Classroom” is to explore a new approach to teaching composition classes to students so that they become capable of seeing through the rhetoric of modern discourse. She introduces this approach as an imperfect fusion of three different literary disciplines – nonfiction literature, rhetoric and composition and critical pedagogy. Throughout the article, she makes the argument that creative writing, using the less-restricted language and approach of nonfiction writing, can be the key to teach students the important elements of critical pedagogy, which are rhetoric and composition. She illustrates throughout the article the vast degree to which these efforts are more effective, both short and long term, for student learning. “I am arguing that a critical writing pedagogy with a primary goal of having students claim their own agency and become active participants in critiquing and transforming unjust social institutions happens at the intersections of the personal-critical-rhetorical” (402). In making this argument, the author creates two new terms to refer to ideas – the personal-critical-rhetorical by which is meant the combination of individual experiences, critical thinking skills and rhetorical ability; and the emergent moment by which is meant the convergence in the student’s text of these various perspectives. In her discussion of critical pedagogy as defined by theorist-practitioners, Harris first define the practice and then reveals how her individual approach meets these criteria better than other forms of essay-writing assignments. Having shown that the personal narrative is already an essential element of critical pedagogy, she then points to creative writing to prove that the narrative is necessary to tease out the connections between the disciplines. With this background, Harris then reveals her own emergent moment when she was working with an individual student and realized the importance of this new approach to teaching writing. This experience with her student enabled the author to adjust her own approach to teaching and she discusses how this approach can be implemented within the traditional classroom.
By ending her article with practical examples of how to implement her approach into the traditional writing classroom, Harris makes a well-built argument for change in the way writing teachers approach their subject. Her examples show many places in which she engages with the students to point out areas of their writing where they can make their meaning clearer by following many of the basic rules that were brought forward by Orwell in his much earlier essay. Her proofs as to the desirability both for the student and for the community are strong and well-researched in support of the ideas that Orwell brought forward in the majority of his essay while her emphasis on application makes it easier for the reader to ‘see’ how the results of Orwell’s suggestions, expanded and constructed within a traditional classroom setting with a modern modification, can have an effect on the welfare of society at large.
In his article “Defending the Indefensible,” Neil Postman tacitly agrees with Harris that the way English is taught today is counterproductive to real learning when he mentions that he has stopped addressing English teachers because of their unwillingness to change their own traditions. He also clearly relates his thoughts to the thoughts that were expressed in Orwell’s article regarding political thought and language designed to “make glorious the malignant ambitions of nation states” (Postman 19), illustrating how his optimism stems from the possibility of “mount[ing] a practical counteroffensive by better preparing the minds of those for whom such language is intended” (Postman 20). While traditional English classrooms continue to follow the traditions of Plato and Confucius through the form of the prescribed pedagogy, another tradition is available through the traditions of Cicero and Descartes in which questioning is actively taught and encouraged. Postman, like Harris, is arguing that this kind of education as a defense against culture is necessary for positive social growth.
Like Harris, Postman offers a process through which this approach can be pursued in the classroom, but provides a more structured element by specifying seven core concepts that he feels leads the way to true wisdom. Before he launches into these ideas, though, he takes care to establish the foundation upon which these ideas rest. “Our ancestors understood well something we seem to have forgotten, namely, that all subjects are forms of discourse – indeed, forms of literature – and therefore that almost all education is language education. Knowledge of a subject mostly means knowledge of the language of that subject” (Postman 21). Thus, to know about something means that one is capable of fully understanding the language used as well as the ways in which the language is used to create meaning. This corresponds very closely to Harris’ ideas regarding the importance of the student’s personal experience in engaging critical thinking, but makes a stronger point about the importance of understanding the principles behind the meta-language, the language about language and how that relates to all knowledge.
Postman’s seven principles are ideas he has identified as being essential to the working of a critical intelligence. These insights can be listed as definition, approach, meaning, metaphor, reification, style and non-neutrality. By definition, he points out the importance of understanding that a definition is not a concrete thing established by nature but is instead a human construction designed to ensure that the participants in the conversation are all operating from the same underlying understanding. Thus, it can be different depending upon the individual understandings involved. This leads to the second idea which is approach. This idea points to the concept that how one approaches a question will help to determine its outcome as well as the importance of asking this question to begin with. “If they do not know the questions to which these are the answers, their opinions are quite literally thoughtless” (Postman 24). In discussing meaning, Postman refers to the highly subjective nature of the meaning of conceptual terms such as law, love, anger or truth. The meaning of the word metaphor is readily understandable by most educated persons, but Postman suggests the concept needs to be given greater emphasis within all levels of education. Reification refers to the tendency for us to believe that the words have real substance – that the flower smells sweet because it is a rose rather than simply understanding that the flower smells sweet regardless of what name we attach to it. Regarding style, Postman says teachers “can help their students to see that what we call a prayer, a political speech, and an advertisement differ from each other not only in their content but in their style and tone; one might say mostly in their style and tone and manner of address” (27). Finally, non-neutrality refers to the fact that every expressed idea necessarily has a specific inherent bias that cannot be fully removed.
Postman’s approach thus provides what is essentially the focus of Harris’ comments to her students in attempting to help them achieve the emergent moment of personal-critical-rhetorical understanding that both feel is essential in developing a more responsible, socially conscious public in support of the comments that were made so many years ago by Orwell. While all three authors agree that the modern discourse has become intentionally confused by overly complicated language and language use, they each spend a different amount of effort proving this point. Orwell devotes most of his essay to proving modern language has lost any sense of real meaning and depends on confusion to make its impact while Postman points to Orwell’s essay for most of his proof and Harris only suggests it has become a problem. While all three authors provide suggestions for how to address this problem and bring meaning back into the discourse, again, they do it to different degrees and effects. Orwell merely provides a list of guidelines that should be followed offered only to his readers as suggestions on how to improve their own communication. Harris and Postman both focus their attention on improving the education of students – Harris to improving the communication efforts of her English students and Postman for all students. In each case, the suggestions are intended to create more critical citizens who will be capable of independent thought. Harris conceives of a way to convey this to students within the classroom while Postman enumerates the important basic concepts that students should be made to understand.
Harris, Rochelle. “Encouraging Emergent Moments: The Personal, Critical and Rhetorical in the Writing Classroom.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. Duke University Press: Vol. 4, N. 3, (2004).
Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” (1946). Web.