Wednesday, November 28, 2007

As English Lay Dying

Today's second article:

Although he is a sometimes a bit of a crank, Fred Reed is a wonderful writer. In a column bemoaning the decline of the English language, he remarks, “Good English… depends on a cultivated elite to preserve it. A pride in language is needed to prevent degradation from seeping upward from the lower classes, and only careful schooling instills the fine distinctions that make the difference between the literate and those who recognize words vaguely, like half-forgotten relatives.”

Few of us receive such schooling. We at Tech do not even have an English department. The dearth of good writing, especially on this campus, isn’t exactly news. With this in mind, a friend and I decided to spend this semester discussing The Lode on our weekly radio show. For those interested—shameless plug—our show runs from 12-2pm on Fridays on 91.9 WMTU FM Houghton.

We discovered that if you lowered your standards, the campus paper isn’t so bad. There’s nothing really resembling good writing, but most articles manage to express themselves in something akin to English. Sure, subjects and verbs don’t always match up, and prepositions are occasionally AWOL, but how much can really be demanded from a bunch of college students in present day America? One in four adults didn’t read a single book last year. Judging from the rubbish atop the New York Times bestseller’s list, those of us who do manage to stumble through a book or two have terrible taste.

There's really no excuse for such intellectual indifference. Never before in human history have we had such tremendous access to information. Most works that have been out of print for seventy years or more—stupid, draconian copyright laws—are available for free on the Internet. Classics are readily available for a few dollars at any used bookstore.

It would be an overstatement to conclude that I am a good writer, but I am a competent one. During my waning weeks at Tech, the only advice I can offer to my fellow scribblers is to do what I have done. First, voraciously devour books of all kinds, especially the classics. Second, write often, revise, and write some more. To paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson completely out of context, this has always worked for me.

But this may not be enough. The will to write is not always concomitant with the ability to do so. While almost everyone wants to write, most people can’t. Meanwhile, the degradation of the language continues apace. Writers who delve deep to discover the true meanings of words, so as to use them correctly, will find that the populace is incapable of appreciating such subtleties. A slouching toward Idiocracy we go.

It is at once a relief and a disappointment that the problems faced by expand beyond the Keweenaw. On one hand, how can a handful of students, mired in a culture whose language is in precipitous decline, be expected to speak and write like their ancestors? On the other, if The Lode is representative of the best Tech can offer in the way of writers, how long until the newspaper succumbs to post-literate society and ceases to be entirely?

I don’t offer any solutions. Lowering one’s standards only perpetuates the problem, but there doesn’t seem to be an alternative. How can one write well if one cannot differentiate between good and bad writing?

The meanings of words in a dead language are forever fixed, and the unwashed masses can do nothing to degenerate them. Worse than dead, English is dying. It had a good run.

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