The State of the State

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Of recent date we have had cause to take on a number of people at work. Among them is one very bright, very enthusiastic, very promising young man. I have occasion to work with him closely. I was giving a bit of background/training/mentoring/pep talking. I pointed out some things that I don't particularly care for in the use of language--particularly, I was pointing out that we needn't utilize something when it is just as easy to use it. Following numerous dicta, I espoused the famous, "Always prefer words of Anglo-Saxon origin to those of latinate origin." I pointed out that this dictum was codified by George Orwell (among others) in his famous essay, "Politics and the English Language."

"Have you read it?" I asked.

"No," he answered.

"As a creative writing major, you should have encountered this essay. It's a succinct summary of some of the rules for clarifying your writing."

"Who did you say it was by?"

"George Orwell."

"How do you spell that?"

"The author of 1984"

"Of what?"

I was astounded. This man is a recent graduate of our so-called educational system and he has come through nearly completely unscathed by familiarity with important figures of Western Literature. And this is not his fault, but the fault of an educational system that kowtows to every special interest that comes down the road. There is no reason on Earth that he should not at least heard of Orwell. I can understand not wanting to read him, but given how much of Orwell is present symbolically and otherwise in our country, to lack a nodding acquaintance is cultural theft. It is akin to the horror (though much less) of the DRE who corrected my son's definition of a sacrament to say that it was "a special way of meeting God."

The Canon is important. Even if Orwell is only a minor figure in the canon, there are at least three works with which one should be familiar upon graduating college--Animal Farm, 1984, and Politics and the English Language. These three have contributed enormously to our culture. "Big Brother is watching." "Newspeak," and "minitruth" are all important reference points. "All animals are created equal. Some are more equal than others," stands as one of the foremost criticisms of communist regimes from their inception.

Our children are being systematically robbed of their cultural heritage. They are emerging from institutions of higher learning knowing less than I knew upon graduating high school. Indeed, in some cases less than I knew when I was a sophomore--and I don't regard myself as extraordinary by any means.

Moreover, the young man I am speaking of had a major in an area that would seem to entail a broad and deep acquaintance with the literature of our time. I could understand this in a business major or a psych major. But his major was English. Admittedly it was a creative writing emphasis--but how can one begin to create new works if one has no knowledge of what has come before?

Those of you with children, take care to guard against this. If they are in public school, help to supplement, as best you can, what they get there. If you are a reader, mix your present-day reading with classic reading. Let your children see that you are interested in good writing and that GOOD writing extends far beyond the bailiwick of Dan Brown, Michael Crichton, Dean Koontz, and Stephen King. I am not saying there is anything wrong with the proper enjoyment of these writers, but they certainly are not the font of literature from which most of our modern imagery springs. As with our CCD classes, it appears that parents must make a much greater effort on the part of educating their children than seems reasonable. However, unless you wish for your child to emerge from your care with the idea that Maya Angelou is the end-all be-all of poetry, care must be exercised to help them come to a wider awareness of the fullness of our cultural heritage. Star Wars is all very well and good in its place--but its place is far down the line from a heritage that starts (arguably) with Homer (and I don't mean SIMPSON).

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"...and I don't regard myself as extraordinary by any means."

I think you undercut your argument?

I've never enjoyed 1984, but it's appalling cultural ignorance to be unaware of it, especially when the term "Big Brother" is thrown around so freely these days. I've not read Politics and the English Language, but I once read an essay of Orwell's on shooting an elephant which has always stuck with me.

My BA is in literature (not just English - I read many authors in translation - Dostoevsky, Voltaire, Rilke and a few others I can't name just now). If your young man had been required to take the Graduate Record Exam subject test on Literature (which I was), I think that he would have failed it. Granted, there is a little too much teaching to the test in our culture, but sometimes one needs some sort of objective standard to reach for!
However, I have not read the essay of which you speak (or if I did, I do not remember the title!) Now I will have to seek it out.....

Dear Alicia,

Politics and the English Language is more a touchstone for those who are creative writing majors. It succinctly outlines some of the most important rules for clear, concise, comprehensible english. Orwell was a superb stylist if deficient in his religious and political views. His suggestions would improve the general discourse in America 10,000%. In fact, I would dance dances of great joy if I could convince one person at work that it is just as easy to "use" something as it is to "utilize" it, and it's a whole lot quicker to type about it.



Whoa! Was that really Orwell or was it Strunk? Was Strunk simply quoting Orwell? I am at my parents' house and have no idea where my father has the books in question filed (his library is even more disorganized than mine - probably because I am the one who organizes both (once in a blue moon)).

Dear Eric,

Or Orwell was quoting Strunk (unlikely). You can find the essay and analysis "Politics and the English Language" on-line. Orwell's 1984 particularly in its bulletins from the various "mini"s is a kind of apotheosis of what is spelled out in the essay.

So, I don't know how to answer your question, but I would go with Orwell, simply because there are so many other incisive observations in the same essay.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on January 9, 2006 9:14 AM.

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