Communicating

I post here a piece I wrote many years ago and which seems to be even more relevant today as we swim in a sea of gibberish and tweets and the elections are about to begin. I have updated it a bit.

Once upon a time, long ago, after humans had freed themselves from the primeval ooze and struggled to stand upright, they gradually invented language in order to communicate with one another. Initially, it was through pictures and gestures, but eventually they developed an alphabet and put words together. All of this was in order to communicate their ideas and feelings to one another, to make clear what they had in mind.

It was thought for many years that language was the one thing that separated humans from other animal species. But then it was discovered by people like Wolfgang Köhler that chimpanzees could communicate with one another and it was later learned that they could even teach one another the language. Then we learned that other animal species also have communication skills and even something similar to language. This was about the time when humans were losing their own use of language. Coincidence? Probably. But in the event, humans discovered their vocabularies shrinking and their ability to grasp such things as compound sentences slipping away. It was about the time when they started playing with electronic gadgets designed to increase their ability to contact other people and, presumably, to communicate with them. Coincidence? Almost certainly.

But, it turns out, the idea is no longer to use language to communicate with one another. Language is now for self-expression. We use it to tell others how we feel or, at best, to order pizza. We discovered that we don’t need a rich vocabulary or complicated sentences. We can use images and gestures. Just like our ancestors. 😜

The problem is, of course, that language is necessary for thought and as language becomes impoverished so also does our ability to think. This is demonstrated, if we require a demonstration, by the alarming number of people who support Donald Trump. Obviously, these people have lost the ability to think. I haven’t been listening at doorways, but I would wager they can’t speak, either. The problem is that language was initiated in order to make it possible for us to communicate with one another. And this means that a fairly sophisticated vocabulary along with the rules of grammar and usage are also necessary if we are to tell each other what’s on our mind and find out what is going on in theirs. The point was wonderfully made by John Barth in his novel The End of The Road in which the hero, Jake Horner, is dealing with a reluctant student in his basic College English class. The student insists that because language came before grammar we don’t need grammar. After a lengthy Socratic exchange between Jake and the student, Horner concludes as follows:

“. . .if we want our sentences to be intelligible to very many people, we have to go along with the convention [the rules of grammar]. . . You’re free to break the rules, but not if you are after intelligibility. If you do want intelligibility, then [you must master the rules].”

But, it would appear that a great many of us are like the student in this exchange: we don’t want to obey the rules of grammar because ultimately we are not really interested in communicating, in intelligibility. Language is simply a device we employ to express ourselves. Period.

In a word, we as a species regress. And as we regress we are surrounded by a growing number of problems that require careful thought and imagination. This at a time when thought and imagination have become impoverished by “advances” in technology and the growing influence of the entertainment industry whose motto is: take it down to the lowest level in order to attract the largest audience. Educators have followed suit, lowering expectations and providing their students with electronic toys. Coincidence? Perhaps. But a bit unnerving none the less.

Thus we discover around us folks whose attention is directed at the toys in their hands — even when they are next to one another — and who find it difficult, if not impossible, to say what they mean or understand what others say to them,. But since language is no longer about communication, since it is now about self-expression, it really doesn’t matter. As long as others know that I am angry, hungry, or sad, that’s really all that matters. If they don’t understand what I am feeling so much the worse for them. It’s all about me. I don’t need language. 🙂

Foreign Languages

Over a year ago I wrote a blog about “useless subjects” that are no longer taught in our colleges and high schools. Following the attack on fundamentals in education during the turbulent 60s, the shift toward practical subjects that could guarantee students jobs began. And it has persisted to this day, even though the jobs just aren’t there when the students graduate from college, and, strictly speaking, colleges have lost their sense of purpose altogether and have no idea whatever how to “sell” their programs to their “customers.” The notion that there are certain subjects that every educated person should know has been lost in the kerfuffle, and probably would be lost on most high school students today. But it deserves a moment’s reflection: what has been given up?

Back in the day (as we say) when I went to high school, two years of foreign language, usually Latin, were required for graduation. Even the tiny high school I attended in Bethel, Connecticut required two years of Latin for graduation. And we diagrammed sentences in English classes, we had to memorize poetry, and we had few, if any elective courses. The idea was that the teachers knew best what their students should learn. Further, all colleges worth their salt required two years of a foreign language for entrance — along with subjects like civics and American history, math and lab science. And in order to graduate from college, I was required to take four years of foreign language in which we studies grammar and syntax, translated from the foreign language (Greek, French, and German) into English, and came to know our own language a bit better. But after the assault on education in the 60s when we began to let the kids decide what they would like to study and basic requirements were replaced by “cake” courses, or those that were largely geared for guaranteed employment after graduation; the notion that certain courses were essential passed by the boards.

If foreign languages are taught any more in college or high school it is usually in the form of “conversational” language– designed to allow the student to get by in a foreign land, find the rest room or the nearest hotel, perhaps. Despite the studies that show that other animals communicate with one another, there is no evidence that any of these animals have a “language” in a formal sense of that term. The notion that one studies a foreign language in order to come to know his or her own language better has been lost in the clouds of rhetoric that have surrounded education in recent years. If we consider that language is perhaps the one thing that separates humans from the other animals  the loss of close studies of English and Latin, at least, may have cost us a great deal.

Much has been said about the dumbing down of the curriculum at the high school, college, and even the post-graduate levels — where remedial courses are now the norm and language requirements have gone by the boards. And it has been said by me in previous posts and by a number of very bright and concerned writers in recent years. But it is a message that falls on deaf ears, in many cases ears of those who have never studied their language very closely and who have no idea what they are missing. How could they? As the downward spiral continues, and we proceed along the path of vocational training and abandon altogether the ideals of educating the young, we will have fewer and fewer voices expressing concern about the things that really matter in bringing up the young and helping them take possession of their own minds. And just as Shakespeare’s English has become a foreign language for the typical college graduate these days, the ability to read and express one’s ideas coherently will be diminished to the point that we are all lost in a sea of mindless babble and we will have become less than human. Or has that horse already left the barn?

TV And The Human Brain

The thing about studies is that they often confirm what common sense tells us. Most people know that watching too much TV will addle the brain. Moreover, there is evidence that TV watching is addictive. As Marie Winn says in her interesting book The Plug-In Drug, “The entry into another world offered by reading includes an easily accessible return ticket. The entry via television does not. In this way television viewing, for those vulnerable to addiction, is more like drinking or taking drugs — once you start it is hard to stop.”

But more serious than its effects on adults, are the effects it has on our children. Parents tell their children over and over “it will turn your brain to mush.”  Studies since as early as 1972 tend to confirm what we all know in our gut: TV has deleterious effects on brain development. It may not turn the brain to mush, but it doesn’t allow the left hemisphere of the brain to develop properly. It is not only addictive, it is stupefying.

Jane Healy wrote the definitive book on the subject, as I see it, when she wrote Endangered Minds. She was very cautious in her conclusions, but her book draws on a number of studies — such as the ones in 1987 involving Positron Emission Tomography (PET scans) that show that “environmental factors can alter neutron pathways during early childhood and long after.” This was startling news at the time as there was considerable disagreement whether environmental factors had any effects whatever on brain development. But the studies show disturbing effects. Children, especially at early ages, need human interaction. They learn language from humans, not from TV and radio. As a New York Times science writer said at the time the studies were conducted, “The words have to come from an attentive, engaged human being. As far as anyone has been able to determine, radio and television do not work.”

The problem with TV, radio, computers, iPhones, iPods, etc. is that they are not human and they do not engage the brains of the users fully. They are essentially passive media and the user simply acts like a receptor, not fully engaged in what is happening. Note how young children stare trance-like at the TV when viewing their programs.  Even highly regarded TV shows like “Sesame Street” engage only a part of the child’s brain and leave the major portions of it untouched. This is critical because there are small “windows” in the child’s brain development and once those windows are closed, it is difficult, if not impossible, to engage that part of the brain later on. In a word, TV (for example) has long-lasting effects. And those effects involve such vital things as language development. As Marie Winn points out in the book referred to above, “… a carefully controlled study designed to explore the relationship between television viewing and the language spoken by preschool children discovered an inverse relationship between viewing time and performance on tests of language development; the children in the study who viewed more television at home demonstrated lower language levels.”

The hampered ability to use language handcuffs the child throughout school and on into later life. Language is essential to thought and more than ever we need people who are not only articulate, but also able to think through the masses of information that overwhelm them each day and separate the nonsense from the essential truth — if there is any. If this is not always apparent it is especially so as elections come around and voters are called upon to make decisions that can affect them and their descendants for years to come.

In a word, parents would be well advised to turn the TV off for several hours at the end of each day and spend time with their kids talking, telling them stories, reading to them, having them read, and having them make up stories themselves. To refer again to Marie Winn’s  book referenced above, “TV Turnoffs organized by schools and libraries throughout the country. . .demonstrated that when competition from the TV is eliminated, children simply and easily turn to reading instead.” Further, I don’t think we should be overly anxious to have the schools incorporate electronic devices into the early years of a child’s education, either. Human contact and human interaction are essential. The more kids use words the more adept they will become and the more active the left hemisphere of their brains will be — and this is essential to their future success.

And as a footnote to this discussion, it would seem that we should look elsewhere than at our teachers when pointing to low test scores and the inability of our kids to do well in math and language. Teachers might do better than they do, perhaps, but it all starts at home.

Civilization at Risk

Ortega y Gasset thought that civilization is above all else the “will to live in common.” I referred to this claim by Ortega in a previous blog and want to return to this notion in a second. But I also want to evoke the authority of Clarence King who was a close friend of both Henry Adams and John Leslie Powell and who insisted that there is a natural “pilgrimage” in the development of human societies — from savagery, through barbarism, to civilization, and finally vulgarization.

The notion that humans evolved from savages (a word that is no longer politically correct, even if it connotes a stage in human development) to civilized humans with religion, art, literature, written history, language, and science is most provocative. All of this, of course, takes place in the name of “progress.” But the claim to the superiority of the “civilized” has come under fire of late as we learn that savage and barbarian people have a culture that in many respects is superior to that of “civilized” people. Indeed, we are now being sold the fiction of the “noble savage,” a notion that has long been around but which has become ever more prominent as colonization has come under fire. I find the notion of the “noble savage” borderline absurd. But the notion that we should impose our way of life on others rests on the assumption that our way of life is paradigmatic, which it most assuredly is not. In saying this, however, I seriously doubt whether even the most zealous among us would want to trade our “civilized” way of life for a more primitive one. The notion that we have progressed does seem to hold water, though I sometimes wonder if the “pilgrimage” that King talks about isn’t circular: we end up pretty much where we started from.

There is something to say for civilization, for art, music, science, and above all else language. But it does seem that in our urge to “tame” the wilderness, bring railroads, highways, airports, towns, and commerce, we have also brought the vulgar, and the next step may indeed be a return to the level of the savage. King doesn’t deny the possibility: the steps we take may not be linear, they may be circular. We do appear to be regressing, not progressing. What we are doing to the wilderness is inexcusable. But what we are doing to ourselves is even more distressing. Without language, sophisticated language, not just grunts and gestures, we cannot think. And thought at this time is absolutely necessary for our survival as a species. The “will to live in common,” that Ortega speaks of is rapidly becoming a thing of the past as we lose self-restraint and the good manners that take others into account.  Our sense of trust in one another, not to mention our basic awareness of others, is in retreat. The cause of this regression, in my view, is the weakening of the pillars of a civilized society: the family, religion, civil law, and the schools. These four institutions are essential for civilization to stand firm against the tide of self-interest and greed which foster the regression that is apparent. And while we remain, for the most part, a law-abiding country, the other three pillars are weak at the foundation.

I don’t say that we should bottle Western civilization and sell it to other “savage” or “barbarous” peoples. On the contrary.  But we should not allow it to vanish altogether. We should be aware that we are on the verge of becoming if not savage then barbarous ourselves — if we haven’t become so already. Jacques Barzun thought it was happening in the 1960s and warned us to lock up our treasures. The Romans were invaded by barbarians who brought about the fall of their empire. We are breeding our own with the failure of three of the pillars that support this civilization. I can’t believe this is a good thing.