As goes the writing, so goes the thinking

Liam Julian

An essay that every high-school freshman should be required to read but isn't is "Politics and the English Language" by George Orwell. It begins with this line: "Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it."

So it was in 1946, and so it is today and worse. Most people now do most of their writing in emails, and so, we learn, various email formatting (a disdain for capitalization, an explosion of exclamation marks) will creep and be seamlessly integrated into other prose forums. Text-messaging students are already inserting emoticons--i.e., smiley faces, frowny faces, and other pictures that express generally the emotions that words might specifically--into their schoolwork. It is not unheard of to read in eighth-grade papers that "Plato lived b4 Aristotle."

Conventional wisdom holds that this slide is inevitable because language shapes itself. We don't shape it.

That claim is dubious and has also been around since at least 1946, when Orwell made mincemeat of it. He wrote that "an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form." The English language "becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."

An example of this popped up the other day in the Wall Street Journal. Eric Gibson, the paper's Leisure & Arts features editor, wrote about the Whitney Biennial, a highly anticipated and roundly criticized art show. This go-round, however, derision was "directed at the exhibition's accompanying commentary instead of the art itself." The curators' descriptions were "widely (and accurately) dismissed as unalloyed gibberish."

For readers who didn't attend, Gibson offered some of the Biennial's most luscious fruits of bad writing ("...invents puzzles out of nonsequiturs to seek congruence in seemingly incongruous situations, whether visual or spatial...") and yearned for the time when art criticism and art writing were lucid and informative. He wrote, "It was Marcel Duchamp who unwittingly launched art criticism on its current path of willful obscurantism. His ‘Readymade' art--mass-produced commercial objects (most famously a urinal) that the artist removed from everyday utilitarian contexts and displayed in a museum--almost required this development."

A better portrayal of Orwell's wisdom would be hard to find. An effect (lousy writing about art) becomes a cause (new art fulfills the expectations of the lousy writing about it), and the two now-indistinguishable elements reinforce one another until walking into a gallery becomes about as enjoyable as listening to smooth jazz. And to think the whole thing began as an aesthetic enterprise!

A better portrayal of Orwell's wisdom would be hard to find, indeed, unless one chose to search for it in America's k-12 schools, where a dearth of knowledge and ideas and a muddle of obscure sentences have been roundly reinvigorating each other's awfulness for quite some time. (Will Fitzhugh, founder of the Concord Review, has long made this argument.)

It's true that the 2007 NAEP writing scores of both eighth and twelfth graders are better than the 2002 scores of those groups. But anyone who puts much stock in that test shouldn't--that much of use can be gleaned from subjective, rubric-based evaluations, by sundry different evaluators, of written material is unlikely--and those who insist will be disappointed to know that while marks are rising, still just 33 percent of eighth graders and 24 percent of twelfth graders were judged "proficient" on the 2007 exam.

The few good writers to emerge from k-12 will enter college and have the life drained from their papers by professors who require that they contain sentences fit for the Whitney Biennial. Thus, lots of American college graduates neither think nor write clearly.

And yet, there is hope: Orwell believed "that the process is reversible." But the remedy requires recognition of the problem. In k-12, districts and states should therefore realize that strong writers develop usually after reading the work of the strongest writers and by writing frequently themselves, neither of which pursuits is widely practiced in public schools where bland textbooks dominate and essay tests are verboten.

Simply put, this has to change, because a nation of uninspired writers will beget a nation of uninspired thinkers.