Chronicles of Higher Education

Paul Greenberg

7/5/2011 3:39:00 PM - Paul Greenberg

Higher education keeps getting lower. And not just in this state, where the core curriculum at the University of Arkansas' campus at Fayetteville is being hollowed out. It's happening all over. In Britain, the study of the humanities is being diluted, too.

Happily, this sad trend has inspired a familiar reaction. Over here, as state universities cut back on required courses that once were considered necessary for a well-rounded education, small liberal arts colleges have taken up the slack. Now comes word from England that A.C. Grayling, the renowned philosopher, has joined with other free-spirited academics to start a new, private College of the Humanities.

These new schools are part of an old tradition. Isn't that how the first universities in Europe began -- as communities of scholars teaching the classical curriculum? They were founded, organized and run by the faculty, not administrators. And out of those universities came a great renaissance, the rebirth of classical education after what we now call the Dark Ages.

Even in the darkest times, learning was kept alive by communities of scholars, whether in ancient monasteries or through that new invention, the university. No matter how dark the times, some never give up on the light. May their tribe increase in our time, too.

But it won't be easy, reviving the standards of higher education in this country. Case in point: The most obvious message of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is that its editors could use some.

The article was supposed to be about the educational background of state legislators in this country. It put Arkansas's at the bottom of the list, claiming they had the least amount of college education in the country, with a quarter of the lawmakers having no college at all. Including the half-dozen lawyers and professors who are state legislators.

The only thing clear about such a report is that whoever wrote it needs to rewrite it. After getting his facts and stats right. This kind of "research" makes our state legislature here in Arkansas, for all its faults, look like the very picture of probity and responsibility by comparison. That takes some doing, but the Chronicle of Higher Education is up to the job. Or rather down to it.

The best response to the report came from state Senator Jim Luker, a lawyer in little Wynne, Ark., who was listed by the Chronicle's source, Project Vote Smart, as having no higher education. (Maybe it should change its name to Project Vote Dumb.)

Counselor and Senator Luker noted that he got his law degree from the University of Arkansas in 1966, adding: "I've been accused of being ignorant, but I've never been accused of not having a degree."

The savvy senator seems quite aware that having a degree is no guarantee of being educated. Sir Thomas More, statesman and saint in that ascending order, said it: "Many are schooled, but few are educated."

Whenever the all too obvious shortcomings of American education -- higher, lower or in between -- are pointed out, the most predictable response from the defenders of the educational establishment tends to be delivered in pure educanto, a lingo designed to obscure rather than clarify meaning.

In that sense, educanto is much like the newspeak of George Orwell's "1984," the purpose of which was not only to provide a medium of expression for the party elite but also to make all other modes of thought impossible, language would have become so muddled.

Educantists realize there is no greater threat to their domination of American education than clear thought rendered in clear language. No wonder they abhor plain English and try to avoid it at all costs, lest they say something meaningful and give the game away.

The use of verbal fog to disguise, confuse and generally fend off any salient criticism is scarcely new. Specialized jargon has long been the first and last resort of those in any field who would like their views to appear well grounded when they're just hot air. Daniel Defoe spotted the same lamentable trend as long ago as 1702, when he wrote:

"We have seen many great Scholars, meer Learned Men, and Graduates in the last Degree of Study, whose English has been far from Polite, full of Stiffness and Affectation, hard Words, and long unusual Coupling of Syllables and Sentences, which sound harsh and untuneable to the Ear, and shock the Reader both in Expression and Understanding."

Daniel Defoe may have been writing at the dawn of the 18th century, but he could have been describing any textbook written in the best and most current educanto, with references to Normative Generalization Reference Cues and Situation Response Relationship Reinforcement. All of it sounds like something poorly translated from the original German.

This is not a new problem, but one that has metastasized with the expansion of bureaucracy in education and just about everywhere else. Its surest symptom: language that's more pretentious than meaningful.

Conclusion: Whatever sage exclaimed, "Oh, Justice! What crimes are committed in thy name!" may not have considered all those committed in education's.