Monday, February 26, 2007

Who Sets The Standards?

Disclaimer: If discussions on pedagogy, poetry, and lexical matters (plus tangents on music and film) bore you to absolute tears, move along, there’s nothing to see here.

That said…

I. A Smarter Person Might Say This More Eloquently, or Better…Or Not

A couple things recently got me thinking about a couple of loaded words: “pretentious” and the somewhat related duo of “obscure” and “difficult.” It all started with a blog post I read introducing me to a special type of social sub-taxonomy, The Pompous Big Word User (note: go ahead and accuse me of fitting this group simply because not only did I toss out the word “taxonomy,” but worse, made a hyphenated adjective out of the damned thing so it would sound more sociologically sound. And plus the whole clarifying point inside this very parenthetical aside. But don’t lay the title on me because of my repeated use of the word “brobdingnagian” in other posts, because I use that word for two specific reasons: 1. it was used as a running gag on an episode of Duckman and I just find that funny and 2. it’s fun to say. If you use the word often in serious conversation, I highly recommend you sequester yourself amongst PhD candidates in English Lit or Linguistics and don’t frighten us again.)

Anyhoo, a lot of the points made are pretty dead-on based on my experience (trust me, I was an English major, and quickly learned there were certain folks that I simply didn’t want to be trapped by.) There’s a definite “hey, look at me” aspect at work here.

I will warn readers that while the points about dress are probably accurate, folks with obscure band t-shirts are more likely (at least in my experience) Indie Music Snobs first and foremost, and their PBWU nature is secondary to their twin impulses to only like bands 4 other people (outside of Pitchfork) have ever heard of and pointing out that your’s, or anyone else's taste in popular music is horrible and wrong (which can of course include non-mainstream bands). But then if you want a handy abbreviation, you’re stuck with "IMS" and that sounds awfully close to both the IMF and the INS and nothing can kill a snarky conversation about those people who kept telling you how “sure you think there’s catchy music on that new Fall Out Boy album, but these escaped mental patients that formed a musical collective called Generic Animal Versus Other Generic Animal Versus Random Noun—and they play on instruments made out of items found in aisle five in a Glendale supermarket—they make the real catchy music” well, if suddenly the people you were talking too thought those deranged music fans dealt with inflation and the ever-changing status of the yen (I assume that’s what the IMF does—someone elucidate me further if I’m wrong here) or handle immigration issues too, you can see how confusing it would be.

Perhaps I get the music speeches because I’m a guy and she gets the big-words and obscure book and random (and often horrible) band references, and general “look at me, I’m smart and unique, just like the other guys who work on my ‘zine”-ness all at once because they don’t actually want to sleep with me.

But I also have some questions (in a general sense, not a “what do you mean here?” sense): what or who defines “unfamiliar” multi-syllabic words? And, more importantly, what—or who—defines “average intelligence?”

On the heels of this, this past Friday I had a brief discussion with a poet friend about stuff we simply aren’t going to have time to mess around with (books and poetry collections mostly…also, neither one of us is running for President in 2008. My apologies if you’re disappointed. No VP candidacies either.) He didn’t have time to read Infinite Jest because how does a massive novel relate to poetry? (plus there was a ton of poetry collections he wanted to get around to)—and I said I probably wouldn’t touch Ezra Pound’s Cantos with a 10-foot pole (going for the “it’s considered long and difficult, so it must be an apt comparison” analogy) and he went on to decry Pound’s later works for being too obscure. Obscurity, at least in my understanding of his view of Pound and others, takes a disdainful view of the audience, defies an egalitarian author-reader relationship, and is potentially masturbatory. Or at least that first part (keep in mind this is after some bar-hopping with old friends late/early in the morning time).

But is it?

I haven’t read the Cantos (I only know that at some points in it he blames the ills of the world on usury and the money-lenders, and either supports or admits and admiration for that happy dictator, Benito Mussolini), so I can’t actually comment on the obscurity contained therein. I have read The Wasteland, T.S. Eliot’s dense, allusive, epic poem that features at the very least bits of German and Sanskrit, and was dedicated to Ezra Pound.

But who’s the arbiter of obscurity and difficulty here? And don’t say Jonathan Franzen…

My theory sort-of-after-the-fact-at-the-time (and bear in mind, again, this was at close to 5am) was this: there have been studies (which I invite you to look up, for now, until I find the links I want on Google, or go by the library), showing that education-wise, the US has been in decline. I was one of at least thousands that had been forwarded a grade school test that had questions on it I remember from College Stat courses. A high school grad in 1907 had to go through more than a high school grad in 2007, on average (all you Exeter grads reading, settle down, I don’t mean your high school.) Ask a non-English or Education degree-holder—even from an Ivy League school—to diagram a sentence. See what happens. (Don’t ask me…I’m, um, retired from doing that. Yes that will do…)

What does this have to do with Pound and Eliot and “obscure and difficult” works? Maybe to the readers of that period their allusions weren’t as obtuse (odds at least are that more people—percentage-wise—were familiar with The Golden Bough than most collegians settling down to read about April being the cruelest month.) And I’m sure James Joyce got the references….

Who decides?

And if I declared a woman to be “brimming with pulchritude” I’d be met with stares, maybe a slap (it’s not a pretty-sounding word to my ears at least), a raised eyebrow or two, or branded with scarlet PBWU letters. But I’m betting if I had access to the etymology of the word, or least the UGA library password that’d let me pull up the online OED, I’d find that it did enjoy regular use many years ago. How did our ears come to find “beautiful” a more fetching adjective? (Aside from the fact that “pretty” and “beautiful” and “damn girl, you look fucking amazing” just sound better…well, two out of the three anyway.)

Who decides?

Which leads to my sort-of thesis: pretentiousness, like difficulty and obscurity, are highly relative terms. The guy attempting to look like Mensa material while hitting on girls at a college bar is out of place and has no clue what he’s doing, but might be considered boring and not-as-well-read as the thinks if he tried James Joyce-related lines at an MLA conference.

And now a quick detour back to the original link in question. Regarding PBWUs, my theory, and I think it was what she may have been at in the original post as well, and more eloquently (or at least succinctly) than I’m going to get at here, is that it’s not necessarily the words said, the size of the words said (must resist easy “it’s not the size of the words that matter” joke…), or the books mentioned, but the motivation behind them that truly defines the PBWU. In the obvious cases I picture a PBWU carrying on like Joey in that episode of Friends where he uses Word’s thesaurus option and everything he said wound up sounding unpalatable and brobdingnagianly prearranged. (Note: like everything excluding “and” after the word “sounding” in that last sentence.) They put on this big intellectual fireworks display, but it’s out of a fear that they don’t really have anything else interesting to say and/or, that any perceived “non-intelligent” discussion is somehow “beneath them”—and of course they have to consider it beneath them because if they don’t, it puts them in the general population, and the thought that they might be “normal” frightens the hell out of them. Or, the other obvious answer: the girl they’re talking to and trying like hell to impress or win over is so “brimming with pulchritude” they’re scared shitless and trying anything they think might work. (So like I said, I agree with her.) And it’s motivation—ascribed anyway—to writers being obscure at the root of Ryan’s point about Pound. A kind of authorial PBWUism; a “you must respect me and my work because I allude to an ancient Sanskrit ritual and make puns in 8 different languages!”

So let’s agree to agree that people who are intellectual show-offs intend to be intellectual show-offs. But let’s not forget that questioning just who sets the bar of “average” might be a valid question to tackle.

II. More Musings With Nary A Hint At Definite Conclusions

The above musings on what leads to these definitions dovetailed nicely with an article in this week’s TIME magazine on Harvard’s proposed Core Curriculum changes. The article’s author, Jeremy Caplan, starts with a great line: “the easiest way to start an academic brawl is to ask what an educated person should know.” (Note: it’s also fun, if you’re given to vivid flights of fantasy and/or daydreaming to actually imagine an academic brawl. But then again, I find the idea of tweed jacket-wearing-profs throwing suede-covered ‘bos hilarious.)

While it’s at least two years from implementation, the new core curriculum would require eight primary subject areas for all undergrads. The addition of Empirical Reasoning (math, logic and statistics), is the member of the Octrivium (I’ll explain in a minute) causing the most trouble.

Part of the trouble comes in the language used in the committee report justifying the changes, particularly the part about Harvard grads needing to “decided…how to manage their personal finances.” Hold on off on the assumed Harvard-grads-must-all-be-rich argument (that’s a topic for a different day) and assume your considering plunking down a monetary amount in the low six figures for your undergrad, that is considered one of the world’s best universities. Shouldn’t empirical reasoning being a given? (And I can’t wait for the inevitable response from Yale about this. Well actually I can, and Harvard has the Lampoon and if the roles were reversed their rips on Yale would be funnier than what the Yallies will do, but UGA based a lot of their campus buildings on Yale so I feel an odd affinity and have cheered for Yale against Harvard on the rare occasions when it shows up on ESPN 2 at some random hour of the morning.)

And also there’s a good bit of “what happened to pure learning” hand-wringing because history is no longer required. The change’s supporters say “the new approach emphasizes the kind of active learning that gets students thinking and applying knowledge,” and then follows with some lame analogy about the Boston Marathon and basically espousing a whole “you should learn by doing” theory. The TIME article then tosses out the unsurprising (at least to me) statistic that “students remember just 20% of the content of class lectures a week later.”

Other than mostly obvious things I knew before taking the class (such as: whales=mammals and mollusks=kind of slimly but a tasty treat to some French people and Francophiles) I remember next to nothing from my marine biology class, so we can score one point for the Harvard folks. But, I did have a lab that met once a week and I remember foul sea and fish odors and experiments and “learning by doing” in the class as well (don’t press me for specifics.) And why didn’t any of that stick with me beyond the class? Because, as an English major, it didn’t relate to what I was studying (if I’d been assigned Moby Dick perhaps things would have worked out differently.) And I think the point here is that colleges can set a variety of core curriculum requirements, but the bulk of retention is going to be around whatever subject the students end up majoring in.

But then we’ve got to tread lightly here: if student choice in majors determines focus, despite certain core requirements, Universities are opening to a fight between educational traditionalists and hardcore free market capitalist types that would say that departments and majors like History and English should bear the brunt of funding cuts because, as students don’t feel they can get rich with say, and English degree and pursue a business degree instead (and I’m not yet able to argue with them about the whole “you can’t get rich with an English degree” point), well their product just isn’t attractive to today’s college student.

So let’s backtrack to that somewhat PBWU-label-risking word from above: Octrivium. It’s not a hardcore metal band name (that I’m aware of, though it could be). But it is a play on the two modes of “classical education”: the Trivium (which is also a band name) and the Quadrivium. The Trivium was the “college prep” high school curriculum of its day (don’t you love Wikipedia? I do) and focused on three subjects: Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic. Like Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic minus the whole catchy alliteration. The Quadrivium made up the core curriculum at the college level and it’s four subject areas were arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Not basic stuff either…think studying Bach fugues and counterpoint, what makes quasars, advanced calculus, and…something difficult involving geometry (possibly a rhombus, or even a triple-dodecahedrarhombus. Which is a word that I may have made up.) And aside from the Trivium and Quadrivium, any good “learned person” was likely expected to know a few languages.

Could Harvard (and other schools), plus our current high school system, benefit from some sort of return to the Trivium/Quadrivium base for learning? Or is our current system, with massive disparity between the top high schools and the lowest, and colleges that require “core classes” that are suffered through and hastily forgotten by most students either fine as it is, or in need of some third option?

“Core knowledge”: what should it be? It looks like Harvard’s made their choice.

And yes, there is always the option of independent learning outside of what’s required. Again, who sets the bar, and where should the bar be set?

III. Could Education Reform Put Leno Out of His Favorite Bit, Or Are Those Actors Pretending To Be Dumb?

And I wish I could say that after 2,000+ words of questions I had some answers to them. I don’t. I know I’m not smart enough, haven’t read enough, haven’t experienced enough to make the ginormous judgment call of exactly what every college grad should know, and what every high-schooler should be learning, and just what defines average and obscure. An easy out would be to say that maybe a really pretentious person is someone who does have an answer to those questions. Maybe a uniform standard for a country as populated as ours is asking too much. Plus, I know I would bring biases to the table.

I love cinema (and yes, that means I enjoy some movies that have subtitles, which therefore requires me to use the word “cinema” sometimes instead of “movies”.) It’s quite possible I come across like a know-it-all, or McJackass, or generally pretentious when I talk about movies with someone that doesn’t either share my interest, or, for whatever reason, hasn’t seen that many movies. If I’d planned things better as an undergrad, I would’ve loved a film minor. To me, good movies (and also good TV shows) are comparable to great pieces of literature, and in many cases do things that either can’t be done in prose format, or have not yet been applied to prose. As a writer it’s a secondary treasure trove for ideas and inspiration. I get passionate about good movies…and therein lies the risk of pretentiousness. Also, I oftentimes embody the traditional male stereotype of being unable to get most subtle hints (which can be an issue when talking about or recommending movies). But I do know that they aren’t for everyone, and that my tastes in movies especially might not be for everyone, and I’m fine with that.

The basic point Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind makes isn’t a unique one, and people can find it in many places. I love the supernatural-as-metaphor for the perils of high school in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I also love the characters, and how, even with a large number of different writers—often changing from episode-to-episode—they created unique characters and changed and grew them across both short episodic events and season-long story arcs (and beyond.) What can I say, it can interest me intellectually and emotionally (and if I could turn the show into a person I was physically attracted to, I’d totally ask it out on a date.) But it’s not for everyone.

I don’t get the appeal of massive online RPGs like World of Warcraft (and I was a Nintendo/Sega junkie growing up) much less the programming that goes into making such games work. But I do know there are thousands that love this stuff.

So I guess the issue is an “it’s maybe not quite broke, but I don’t know how to fix it,” than anything else.

But I will say I feel better for having asked the questions.

(Now, cue smarmy music, and flash one of those “The more you know…” graphics.)

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