Monday, November 28, 2011

As We Wade Through a Morass of Modernity

As is his wont, a friend once surprised me with a most mundane remark and not before long induced from it an intuitive and practical generalization, which he put forward in a reasonably eloquent manner.

Some of his work colleagues, he recently discovered, read books! Ergo, he continued, each human being has limited mental resources that are either squandered on frivolous acts, such as gossiping and the likes, or harnessed effectively to climb the career ladder at rapid rates. Regardless of the narrow and compartmentalizing context in which he decided to express his generalization, a thing I still find to be interesting in its own right, it is hard to fully disagree.
But not a one to miss out on any chance to conduct an irony, life, as if sentient, led both of us later through a chain of germane antecedents to contend over the value of a certain TED video. At one end, the talk was highly applauded, while on the other it was dismissed as a derivative oratory, based on unfounded claims and propped by weak arguments of the much more solid work of Jim Collins et al. When the latter position was adequately substantiated, my friend, trying to secure a draw, retorted that I still can't deny the educative value of TED Talks as a whole. To his dismay, I disagreed, but not in the categorical sense of the word.
TED’s philosophy of unfolding the principles underling a given technology in a simple and endearing way is entertaining at its climax, benign at worst. But substitute abstract ideas and success stories for technologies, and the platform starts pandering, more often than not, to the educative morality of oversimplification and entertaining; alas, ubiquitous in our days, when it should be loathed for the mental obtuseness it encourages. - I find this moment most appropriate to point out that the matter at hand is much more deeper and trickier than it might have sounded thus far, or at least this is how I feel. At any rate, I find it only behooving to approach the crux deviously, while keeping my fingers crossed that the path I chose will depict a sufficiently alarming portion of the real problem.
Historically, the notion of educating the masses can be traced back to the Enlightenment period, as intellectuals back then had unwavering faith in the emancipating capacities of logic and, by extension, thinking. But perhaps they simultaneously held that issuing from the arms of serfdom must be the concerned individual’s effort only. As such, access to all sorts of knowledge was made as easy as it could be, but it was regarded as solely the less privileged job to come to grips with tomes of inscrutable nature, on the premise that liberty is most appreciated when it is hard-earned. Alternatively, it could be that scholars of the time were still too overawed by their perceived sanctity of knowledge to have had "peddled it". Either way, the ideals were too quixotic to have yielded any fruits or any immediate general ones at least.
Humanity would have to wait until the first twenty years of the previous century had passed for the first successful movement of knowledge humanization to take place, starting in the Anglo-American world. – There might be similar successful movements anterior to this one, but the purpose here is not writing history proper, or drawing on its authority, rather the historical context is meant to serve the function of a backbone to the argument. – Professors would finally deign, or knuckle under the economic pressures of the period, to write in intelligible manner. Yet the readers were still expected to exert some mental effort and meet the writer somewhere along the way, even if it was the writer who covered the longest distance to this meeting point.
Thus a profusion of books that try to recapitulate vast branches of knowledge or systems of thought poured (e.g. the now classic H. G. Wells' "The Outline of History"). Professors were only too aware of the inevitability of errors in any account written in a synoptic vein, which led many of them to criticize the project from early on. But some maintained the arguably tenable argument that dividends were being repaid in whetting the average intellect of the public and in nurturing their faculty for criticism and discerning, viz., far from reinforcing parochial penchants with scholasticism, the purpose of education is to liberate people from such tendencies; hence the term "Liberal Education".
However, this form began falling out of fashion toward the end of the thirties, which might be a corollary of its very success, for after all a secular project’s ultimate achievement is attained in rendering itself obsolete. The respective trends from this point onward are harder to demarcate with precision, for any number of reasons, but generally speaking, knowledge was no longer the rarefied domain of experts, in more than just one way.
One aspect of this was most clearly exemplified in the counterculture of the 60s and the subsequent cultural wars, which at the educational level yielded a long list of concessions from the side of universities, the most triumphal of which was introducing studies that had been scandalously suppressed until those times (e.g. studies of gender, equity, environment, cultures... et cetera). That makes this period's enduring contribution to humanity, aside from evincing what kind of effects a liberal education can have on the masses, a new realization of the term humanization of knowledge.
In juxtaposition with this cursory historical tour, our time seems to be extremely dichotomous. Radical scrutinized educative initiatives and open access high quality knowledge dissemination projects are proliferating ceaselessly (e.g. the OpenCourseWare concept, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Cornell's CyberTower and if I am allowed to add something from outside the cyber realm, the extremely affordable Very Short Introduction series by Oxford, to name only a few), carrying through the trend of bridging the chasm between the academic and the public spheres. 
In parallel, education seems to be constantly degenerating in the minds of the public to nothing more than a set of trivially simplified formulas for success, which is reflected in how enamored they are becoming with quotes, and which is, the success that is, being narrowly associated with the amelioration of economic status. But if we suppose that “something” used to prick the conscience of people from time to time in the past, prodding them to grab a worthy book and read it, halting this degeneration as result, could it be that the contemporary unprecedented flow of information we are exposed to is masquerading as education, and in the process neutralizing this “something”?
If so, a litmus test might be needed then. Could this be that true education is never a thing done in passing, or as an activity of a primary entertaining value, but is rather hard and time consuming, albeit rewarding and elating in the end? Fogyish, if you'd like, but definitely on the right track.


  1. If you think that by plugging unfamiliar & unnecessary out of context- words here & there amongst your sentences makes you look smart allow me to tell you that you are wrong. Go back and read what you wrote above it is incomprehensible not because it was well written, it is because it is very convoluted sentences with no common theme to link the words together.You don't have to use all of the vocabularies that you learned throughout your life every time you blog something. Just use the right amount of vocabularies that fit the topic at hand. If every one in this world would decide to write the way you do then written communications between people would cease to exist.

  2. Anonymous,

    But the process of reading is, at a basic level, an interaction between a mind and a another one. I can't see why you decided that the problem you are referring to lies in my end, when it could have possibly arisen from yours, or from somewhere in between. This means that I can come up with a long list of reasons for your dissatisfaction where you feature as the primary culprit. However, since I could glean very little about your personality, I will assume a worst case scenario of a person who confound squabbling with arguing and try my best to avoid any explanations that you might take personally. Instead, I will discuss this based on the nature of writing and communication.

    "If you think that by plugging unfamiliar & unnecessary out of context- words here & there amongst your sentences makes you look smart allow me to tell you that you are wrong."

    Synonyms are not identical words. They commonly represent something at a general level, but each alone expresses a nuance aspect of this thing. Now, since I am trying to explain some idea as vividly as I understand it, I have to use the most proper word there is I know of to do the job. If you failed to see the slight differences among words, you will not get the idea and the context, and naturally you will think the use was unnecessary and out of context. Also, when more than one synonym are used in the same text this is because repeating a word weakens the language (basic writing skills).

    "Go back and read what you wrote above it is incomprehensible not because it was well written, it is because it is very convoluted sentences with no common theme to link the words together."

    I read it and find it comprehensible. But this immediately begged a question. If I wrote something how can I find it incomprehensible, unless of course I was strumming randomly on my keyboard and got all these words by sheer luck! As for the "convoluted and no common theme to link the words" likewise, because you could not understand what each use implies, you failed to see the theme and you thought the sentences were convoluted (...continued)

  3. "You don't have to use all of the vocabularies that you learned throughout your life every time you blog something. Just use the right amount of vocabularies that fit the topic at hand." You don't have to use all of the vocabularies that you learned throughout your life every time you blog something. Just use the right amount of vocabularies that fit the topic at hand. If every one in this world would decide to write the way you do then written communications between people would cease to exist."

    The same preceding verbiage, but I will address it in a different way this time. Among the first things that a writer should have in mind when she prepares to write is the audience who she wants to address. As can be deduce from my post, I expect from a reader to exert some mental effort and to read word by word. I don't impose my posts on others, so it is completely the readers choice to opt for whatever they deem appropriate. Now I am terribly sorry if that did not fit you, but on the bright side there are many other writers out there whose writings will cater to your taste.

    Your last statement is at complete odds with the reality I know. According to your reasoning, much of the books I read through out my life should not have existed or sold more than few copies, yet I know that nothing of that happened. This is probably because you fail to acknowledge that life is more plural than you think it is, and think that your experience with life is the only authentic one. Allow me to explain. I acquired my English throughout my school and university days from textbooks, and later on from certain types of books. I come from a scientific background and this means I am highly influenced by the type of language used in such mediums (a highly abstract one, unlike the type of English that others might have been exposed to). Also, if you did not already notice it, this statement is oblivious to the fact that there are different levels of communications (reiterating, the level of communication is contingent on the audience, e.g. are they obtuse? sharp in mind? experts? laymen?)

    There is a possibility that I am only bluffing here, so all you have to do is to point at a certain part in the post or/and in this comment that you think is what you are claiming, and I will gladly show you how reading word by word can solve all your problems. (end)

  4. Let me just from the onset say that this is not an attempt to question your knowledge, your scientific background, or the number of books that you read . All I was saying and I’m still saying it that you are plugging words unnecessarily. Just so I can relief my compunction I went back and took the time to read all of your post, I wanted to see if this last post was an aberration or there is a pattern of plugging complex words. In all fairness some posts were les convoluted that others. However, this last one about the morass of modernity looks like you went out of whack. It is as if you were sitting down with the dictionary next you and then you were randomly flipping the pages and looking for moderately complex to severely complex words and plugging it in as you go along. This is just a hypothetical scenario that I’m depicting here and not necessarily what happened. I agree with you that I provided you with a broad based general comment that doesn’t cater to a specific paragraph or a sentence, but that was just it , I meant it to be that way. I’m not going to go through every paragraph that you wrote and point to you that this one is convoluted and that one is not. It would time consuming something that I don’t have too much of. In essence, you replied to your own self when you said that writing is meant to be for the reader that reads the passage and not for the writer that writes it. I happened to have been one of those readers that stumbled upon your blog by fluke and read the post. As you probably know from your elementary education that the purpose of writing has to be either to inform, to entertain, to request, to persuade, to motivate, and so on and so forth, and if I as a reader upon completing the reading of your post did not feel that none of these things had occurred to me, then I would have to say that you failed to deliver. Never mind the words are easy or difficult, there has to be some sort of lineage connecting the sentences and the paragraphs from the beginning to the end. Again, I’m in no way preaching you or telling you what to do you can continue with this pattern until doomsday if want. All I’m saying is every word that you write must be carefully chosen to fit the topic at hand. That is all. Good luck to you, you seem like an ambitious resplendent young man, God bliss you

  5. Anon,

    Now I did not say that the reader is what matter, did I? I said that the writer is free to select her audience.

    Also Anon, I was not saying that my background gives me advantage or authority, but only that it holds influence over my style of writing.

    Anyway, thank you for your feedback.

  6. Thank you for your patience and for your tolerance in accepting the others opinion even though it is not in harmony with yours.

  7. No need for thanking Anon, it is after all your granted right to comment and say whatever you want. But since you already did, I will say you are most welcome =)