Two years before publishing 1984, in 1946, Eric Blair penned “Politics and the English Language.” I’d never read it before last night, when Younger Daughter – fatigued by illness, fatigue compounded by the double-time effort to make up lost schoolwork in her rigorous (George Orwell might’ve called that a euphemism for inhumane) International Baccalaureate High School workload – invited me to read it with her.
I like it, a lot. (Others have problems with it.) It clearly foreshadows “doublespeak” and “thought police” and other skewering concepts made familiar by the author’s more famous dystopian classic. And it provides some challenging Writer’s Rules I’m all too accustomed to breaking.
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Rule (vi) came as a big relief. That’s my excuse: I break the rules to repel barbarism!
But, I do have my doubts that very many of my college students – even my least barbarous Honors college students – would be up to finishing Younger Daughter’s elaborate class assignment in less than the two hours the IB teacher said would be the maximum time required to read and digest the piece and then analyze and critique the argument. What if every class assigned two hours of homework on a typical weeknight? Our time is still finite, after all, and mocking of most efforts at “management.” It’s hard to manage on four hours’ sleep.
I went to a meeting at the High School last night to learn all about the IB program. They take great pride in the program’s “rigorous” and unrelenting nature. I’m sure plenty of self-driven kids thrive under its regime and discover themselves through its discipline.
I worry about the others, though, the ones who’ll fail to thrive. They include the kids of Excellent Sheep, the hoop-jumpers and goal-chasers who will run through four years of higher education (elite or not) breaking their butts to please and impress teachers and parents and satisfy the demands of The System, only to come out the other end no closer to answering the big questions of our recent Opening Day: Who am I? Why am I here?
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