Sunday, October 4, 2009
We have many things in common, you and me. Among them, I presume, is the habit of reading several books at the same time. While I may be off by a title or two, I think the current count is about six. That is, I’m reading something like six books at the moment.
It happens mainly because as much as I am enjoying a particular book, someone comes along with yet another must read, and I can’t help it. I’ll start the next one before I complete the first. And then it happens again, and so on. And here I am, surrounded by great books, partially read. The bookmarks and dog-eared page folds betray my series of incompletes.
Which is, I suppose, one more evidence that Neil Postman was right after all. He wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985, the year after the infamous George Orwell’s dark prediction was scheduled to come true. Just after the Second World War, the futurist envisioned that we would all be living under the thumb of an oppressive, controlling, all encompassing government. He gave the phrase “big brother” a whole new meaning. But Postman postulated then that Orwell missed it. Huxley got it right. In Brave New World, the other classic on social/cultural/political trends, written more than a decade before Orwell, Huxley imagined a world in which pleasure would trump pain; like Pinocchio, we would become so comfortable in a world of excess and accessibility to entertainment, that our indulgences would overtake us, and render us incapacitated.
I picked up Postman’s book over a year ago. I know because I wrote “Blowing in the Wind” in July 2008. Recently, I looked at the bookmark and marginal notes which ended somewhere in the middle of the book, realized how much I had enjoyed the first half, and set out to read it all the way to the end. And when I was through, I re-read the introduction written by his son, twenty years after his father wrote it. In the mean time, it has become a standard in college and university classrooms, translated into scores of languages and read all over the world. His son’s tribute to his father’s work is as good as the book itself.
Postman is primarily an educator. His passion is the classics. He believes in the cultivation of the disciplines of logic, rhetoric, reason, argumentation and nuance. None of these can be contained in a sound byte. They require sustained concentration, careful and thoughtful development of ideas, access to vocabulary, grammatical acuity, sequential reasoning. In a world afflicted by attention deficit disorder, civility is the first thing to go.
Every time I turned the page, I found another quote I wanted to share with you and then discuss. Here’s a sample –
“Embedded in the surrealistic frame of a television news show is a theory of anti-communication, featuring a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason, sequence and the rules of contradiction. In aesthetics, I believe the name given to this theory is Dadaism; in philosophy, nihilism; in psychiatry, schizophrenia. In the parlance of the theater, it is known as vaudeville.”
Over a year ago, when I wrote Part I, we were still a couple of months away from the current economic crisis. We had not yet elected our new President. The stock market had yet to lose half its value. No one had heard of Bernie Madoff. Look at it one way, and everything has changed. Look at it another, and nothing has changed, really.
The wisdom of the ages is still available. Our technologies have advanced. The means by which we access information, each other, the markets, our professions has changed dramatically. But the content remains largely the same. The underlying disciplines that make it all work are still pretty much operative, intact.
Kenneth Starr (yes, you got it right) made a speech last week over at the University. The most striking element of the presentation was that most of the students populating the large lecture hall were barely toddlers during those infamous impeachment proceedings targeting the sitting President back in the Nineties. (“Who is Kenneth Starr?” they wondered.) He is now Dean of the School of Law at Pepperdine University. At the end of a brilliant speech on Constitutional Law (he has argued thirty-six cases before the Supreme Court), he issued a convincing charge.
By now, he had the crowd in the palm of his hand. These are bright people. Top tier. They understood the caliber of intellect and breadth of experience before them. Looking directly into the eyes of the students, Starr said, “As I close, I want to leave you with a challenge. I have a deep concern that relates to your generation.”
Before he laid it on the table, he went on to compliment the emerging generation for their intelligence and passion. He noted the extraordinary difficulties of entering into the marketplace at such a time as this. He expressed optimism that these resourceful people will rise to the occasion and make the world a better place. But, he repeated, I have a concern.
To make your case, to advance your cause, Starr continued, you must pay more attention to your communication skills. “I may be mistaken, but I find your generation lacking in this area.” Work on your writing. Stand up and make speeches. Take courses in both. Sharpen your verbal skills. Read widely. Tighten up your language. Imagine yourself standing before a judge in open court, and stating your case with precision, brevity and passion. Eliminate the slang. Replace colloquialisms with a well-chosen metaphor. Join the debate team. Engage in meaningful, civil dialogue.
It was all us old guys, including faculty, could do to keep from giving him a standing ovation.
Afterward, the students lined up and down the aisle. They all wanted to meet this unlikely man with gray hair and gray suit who told them the truth.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009