Verbal Inflation vs. the Art of the Possible

I’ve been spending a goodly amount of time of late reading books by Jacques Barzun, particularly Teacher in America (1945) and Begin Here: the Forgotten conditions of teaching and learning (1991). He is most refreshing.

Forget EDUCATION. Education is a result, a slow growth, and hard to judge. Let us talk rather about Teaching and learning, a joint activity that can be provided for, though as a nation we have lost the knack of it. They blame falls on the public schools, but they deserve half the blame. The other half belongs to the people at large,

In suggesting what he believes some of those “thought cliches” to be, Barzun speaks most strongly against the multiplication of jargon in education, citing lofty goals and objectives that, while laudable, ignore limitations of the actual classroom: “Some years ago, a new school superintendent in the South-west calculated that by state authority he must find room in the high school curriculum for about 200 subjects… Legislatures are ever ready to add requirements that sound worthy or useful. Few survive in practice, but enough are attempted to make a mockery of the idea of schooling (Begin Here, pg. 50).” Barzun’s 1978 speech to the NAEA, titled Occupational Disease: Verbal Inflation deals with another variation on that theme. After describing the confusion, lack of substantial content, and lack of community support afflicting schools across the country, he continues:

How did the American people, the practical people who created the public school and made it work, get to such a pass? The answer is: inflation — not monetary inflation, but intellectual, emotional, social, egotistical inflation. For the last fifty years, American Education has pursued a policy of overstatement about its role and substance; it has lived by continual exaggeration of what it is and what it can do. The medium naturally is words, words misunderstood and misapplied — it is verbal inflation…

On the particular subject of our concern, look critically at what is said in current discussions of art for the schools. Here is a short list of the aims: to develop aesthetic potential — what is that but vague and pretentious talk? to transmit the cultural heritage — how can this possibly be done in one course? to supply an outlet for self-expression — this is impossible until technique is mastered; to give a chance of success to non-verbal minds — good, but success in which art and to what degree? to enlarge the understanding of Man — does that really come out of modeling clay or playing in the band? to master a system of symbols — this may do for reading music, but not for painting or any form of design; to fill out the outline of history, which is incomplete without art — that implies art history, not art in practice; to acquaint the child with foreign cultures — that would mean comparing styles after much familiarity with one’s own; to show than not everything is quantifiable — this can be done while teaching English composition, American history, or any foreign language; to enhance achievement in other subjects — why use art for this purpose instead of pep pills or free hamburgers? to counterbalance utilitarian subjects — who says that playing drums or drawing cans of tomato soup can’t be utilitarian? …

It is all inflation. It inflates the plausible or possible into the miraculous. And remember that this collection of vague, vacuous, lofty, unexamined phrases is not taken from as many plans expressing different hopes. One document contains eighteen such purposes, all to be gone after and realized by any one school program. Other programs list six or eight of these wonder cures. None connect any slogan or objective with any particular activity recognizable as teaching art. What the fatal gap means is that art — the most concrete, tangible, sensuous business in the world — art becomes an abstraction, a great white cloud showering on us by magic six or ten or eighteen golden benefits…

There do not have to be eighteen reasons to justify art in the school. One is enough. Let it be put this way: “Art is an important part of our culture. It corresponds to a deep instinct in man; hence it is enjoyable. We therefore teach its rudiments.” (Begin Here, pg. 105, 106)

Another culprit, in Barzun’s view, is what he calls “pre-posterism:” the sin of putting the cart before the horse, or of mistaking a desirable end for the means of its own achievement. Most commonly the “look-say” method of learning reading is given: educators recognized that practiced readers do not sound out every letter, but rather see each word as a complete unit allowing them greater speed and fluency. To reach this state more quickly and naturally, teachers should therefore introduce students to the “shape” of words, and memorize each as a complete unit. The new method proved no less unnatural, and a good deal less versatile than that of phonics and alphabet, the result of putting the last stage of reading first.

As one who has spent the greater part of his life teaching and learning, a scholar of history, and well educated in literature and art (among his other notable works are From Dawn to Decadence and Simple and Direct: a Rhetoric for Writers), Barzun speaks from conviction born of long experience in the art of education. He speaks more harshly than may be called for, and perhaps pushes his arguments against the educational establishment somewhat farther than might be expected, but those points are very much worth making. It’s similar to that of others who ask for “back to basics,” a return to great books, or “essential schools:” education is perpetually getting bogged down in new hopes, goals and methods, while teachers forget the “one thing needful,” and those going into the field struggle to find a center of teachable knowledge amongst a burden of methods, techniques, research, standards, objectives; ways to be more fair, multi-cultural, sensitive, exciting, relevant. But sometimes it’s hard to remember that all these things are simply the necessary conditions to carry on with our real task: teaching something. Something concrete and teachable. Teaching drawing, painting, sculpture; cubism, dada, surrealism, pop, renaissance, baroque, postmodernism. Not perfectly or completely, for it takes a lifetime to master just a handful of such skills or specialties, but broadly and with interest in subject and student.

All real teaching and learning involves particularities that are difficult to come by without actual students or courses: “everything is possibility, nothing is necessity,” and as a potential teacher it is grating to talk a great deal about theory, and very little about concrete realities — objects at best, but if it must be aesthetics, then let it at least be particular philosophers, saying things that can be quoted and analyzed. Tolstoy’s What is Art? is worth any number of discussions on “intentionality,” even if one disagrees with what he says (as I do). Of course I make things much more difficult on myself than necessary, for I take things very literally — and fail to manage even a single lesson plan that lives up to all the goals cited above and to my own desire as well — that of making something well, with good crafts[person]ship, and of seeing cultures from the inside. It may be possible, but is hardly something I know enough to undertake a synthesis of in my own mind, let alone attempt to teach to others. Which is why I like Barzun so much — something need not be neglectful to be straightforward and concrete; it is not needful to twist the mind into knots to produce a decent curriculum, and there is something between the impossibly intricate lesson plans of college and the lazy ones of burnt-out teachers instructing students in the finer points of mechanical copying, or the joys of holiday hand-turkeys. For another time: what does such a plan, something possible for my mind (bright, but hopelessly puzzled and confounded by even the most seemingly elementary of educational techniques)? I’ll see what can be done.

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