My father died in his kitchen.
He wasn’t cooking, however. He was replacing a lightbulb. He’d climbed up a stepladder to reach a fixture in the ceiling, and in the process suffered a massive heart attack. Since he lived by himself in an apartment in St. Louis, it took many hours before the landlord found his body, crumpled on the floor at the base of the ladder. His cat, meanwhile, was wandering from one room to another.
Illustration by Eric Larsen based on J. J. Audubon Carolina Parakeet
I mention this not because I wish to be morbid—though I have no objection to morbidity—but because lately I’ve been thinking about the coercive relations between society and language, and my father embodied one of the best examples of this phenomenon I’ve ever encountered. Born near Pine Bluff, Arkansas in 1926, he grew up speaking in a slow drawl that marked him instantly as a rural southerner. When he returned from active duty in World War II, he took a job as a radio announcer, and since he had a deep voice and a laconic sense of humor, this seemed an excellent choice. There was just one catch: he needed to change his accent. No one told him this, but he knew perfectly well that if he sought a chance at working for a major urban station, he’d have to speak in the standard English of middle America. So he abandoned the relaxed speech rhythms of his native South and adopted a more rapid delivery, sharper enunciation, and locutions characteristic of the upper Midwest. It worked. He never again spoke like a boy from the hills of southern Arkansas.
Perhaps this wouldn’t happen nowadays. Perhaps American society has moved beyond such trivial pressures. But I doubt it. I think, rather, that the manipulation of language habits has taken on more insidious forms. Consider, for instance, the linguistic norms of social networking sites. Here’s a random “tweet” I found on the internet: “OMG thats hystrical cn u believe he sd that!!! ;-).” Granted, there’s a certain density of expression here, but I wouldn’t say that the comment tells us much about the tweeter’s unique individuality. If anything, it does just the opposite. There’s great safety in merging one’s identity within collective forms of expression—and greater ease of interpretation for those encountering such discourse. But the loss is also tremendous.
Last summer, on Father’s Day, my two sons persuaded me to join Facebook. They helped me set up a profile page and explained the process of uploading photos. Now, after seven or eight months, I’ve amassed a modest group of “friends”—a group perhaps better characterized as a statistically-improbable assemblage of relatives, in-laws, high-school buddies, current colleagues and former students. I scarcely ever write on people’s “walls” or provide “status updates,” but I confess that I find Facebook’s linguistic habits fascinating—and disappointing. If the essence of poetry is original and evocative use of language, then the dominant lingo of networking sites is anti-poetry. It’s fast-food communication, saturated in cliché: language marked by a peculiarly indulgent conventionality, a willful exclusion of imagination, an unapologetic triviality. There are exceptions, of course, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some future Wallace Stevens isn’t lurking in the verbal crevices of MySpace. But any exceptions merely prove the rule.
Still more disturbing is the invidious spread of corporate language within discussions of university life. An editorialist in my local newspaper recently opined that he had “long considered higher education to be a business, with the product being a graduate with a degree.” I’m hardly the first person to lament this kind of talk, but as a classroom teacher I find that it affects me in very direct ways. To the extent that education has become a “business,” students have become both “products” and “consumers,” and courses are now “delivered,” like so many Domino’s pizzas. Faculty talent is “intellectual capital,” and the university “invests” in certain programs while “divesting” itself of others—typically those that attract no money from outside agencies. “Stakeholders” within the “education industry” are expected to “buy into” such decisions; they’re tacitly encouraged to speak in the dead metaphors of getting and spending, profit and loss.
So why is this a problem? The “bottom line,” after all, is that modern American universities are intricately enmeshed in state and federal economies—and they also depend hugely on private funding. It’s a problem not because universities don’t have a significant financial dimension, but because emphasizing that dimension at the core site of education is completely inappropriate. The British philosopher Gilbert Ryle referred to this sort of error as a “category mistake”—a false or confused attribution. Yes, money is often a prerequisite for education. We need it for buildings, equipment, libraries, supplies. But it plays no part in the essential act of learning. I’m idealistic enough to believe that a university is doing the best thing it can possibly do when it enables its students to think for themselves. When they question authority, when they try out new perspectives, when they experiment, doubt, analyze, argue, imagine and create—that’s when learning occurs. And this, in its essence, has nothing to do with dollars and cents. Indeed, to conceive of education in terms of financial transaction is to degrade the entire enterprise. Money has no business in the classroom, the laboratory, or the hallway exchange between student and teacher that sparks an exhilarating flash of discovery.
Not surprisingly, Shakespeare was acutely conscious of the corrosive effects of money on human affairs. In his play Timon of Athens, Marx’s favorite work (and I don’t mean Groucho), we witness the title character’s gradual recognition of the ways in which wealth functions as a corrupting force. As Timon puts it, gold can “make black white, foul fair, wrong right”; it’s the “common whore of mankind,” often serving to “knit and break religions,” and it has the potential to taint every relationship, debase every principle. Potential, of course, is distinct from certainty, and there’s no question that wealth can be channeled toward wise and healthy ends. But this requires vigilance. And in the gated community of university administration—isolated from students, classrooms, and the messy work of instruction—such vigilance is not always maintained, particularly with regard to language. Too often the fiscal preoccupations of upper administration infiltrate the ways in which education is discussed. Too seldom are pecuniary motives excluded from these discussions, even those concerning the central purpose and most fundamental feature of university life: learning. When students enter a classroom in the belief that they’re purchasing knowledge, teachers face the added task of disabusing them of this idea. Luckily, the critical thinking involved in such an interaction exemplifies part of the true value of college attendance.
Concerns like the one I’m expressing here—concerns about the ways in which education is represented in language—are not particularly rare, but they’re unlikely to gain much attention at the levels where useful change might most easily be initiated. Because of the ongoing marginalization of the humanities in American culture, people interested in language and representation achieve only limited success in persuading others to consider their views—let alone to adopt them. Humanities professors are viewed nowadays as quaint relics of another era, amusing in their enthusiasms but ultimately insignificant: as benign as a handful of Cheddar Bunnies. We can’t cure cancer, or develop better strains of wheat, or even proffer astute analyses of our quarterly reports from TIAA-CREF. We show up on the evening news wi
th roughly the same frequency as the giant Palouse earthworm. But this doesn’t mean we don’t know what goes on at the heart of university education. We do. And most of us find it not merely inaccurate but grotesquely misleading when learning is described in quid pro quo financial terms. You can’t buy education any more than you can buy happiness.
I never heard my father’s original accent. By the time I was old enough to realize that his speech habits were adoptive, he was unwilling and probably unable to revert to his native idiom. Part of his identity had been lost. And much of what’s lost in life is beyond retrieval. But sometimes loss can be an occasion for newly-discovered vitality. Especially with issues of language, this prospect—though too rarely explored—is always present. Where better than the university to challenge ourselves to avoid linguistic lemminghood? Where better to represent the central scene of learning with vigor and accuracy: not as a purchase or a business deal, but as an intellectual encounter with transformative possibility?
Will Hamlin teaches English at WSU. The author of two books on Renaissance literature, he is a Guggenheim Fellow and a recipient of research support from the British Academy and the National Endowment for the Humanities.