Pseudo-education as a weapon: Beyond the ridiculous in linguistic prescriptivism

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Teacher in primary school in northern Laos

Teacher in primary school in northern Laos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of us are all too happy to repeat clichés about education to motivate ourselves and others to engage in this liminal ritual of mass socialization. One such phrase is “knowledge is power”. It is used to refer not just to education, of course, but to all sorts of intelligence gathering from business to politics. We tell many stories of how knowing something made the difference, from knowing a way of making something to work to knowing a secret only the hero or villain is privy to. But in education, in particular, it is not just knowing that matters to our tribe but also the display of knowing.

The more I look at education, the more I wonder how much of what is in the curriculum is about signaling rather than true need of knowledge. Signaling has been used in economics of education to indicate the complex value of a university degree but I think it goes much deeper. We make displays of knowledge through the curriculum to make the knowledge itself more valuable. Curriculum designers in all areas engage in complex dances to show how the content maps onto the real world. I have called this education voodoo, other people have spoken of cargo cult education, and yet others have talked about pseudo teaching. I wrote about pseudo teaching when I looked at Niall Ferguson‘s amusing, I think I called it cute, lesson plan of his own greatness. But pseudo teaching only describes the activities performed by teachers in the mistaken belief that they have real educational value. When pseudo teaching relies on pseudo content, I think we can talk more generally about “pseudo education”.

We were all pseudo-educated on a number of subjects. History, science, philosophy, etc. In history lessons, the most cherished “truths” of our past are distorted on a daily basis (see Lies My Teacher told me). From biology, we get to remember misinformation about the theory of evolution starting from attributing the very concept of evolution to Darwin or reducing natural selection to the nonsense of survival of the fittest. We may remember the names of a few philosophers but it rarely takes us any further than knowing winks at a Monty Python sketch or mouthing of unexamined platitudes like “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

That in itself is not a problem. Society, despite the omnipresent alarmist tropes, is coping quite well with pseudo-education. Perhaps, it even requires it to function because “it can’t handle the truth”. The problem is that we then judge people on how well they are able to replicate or respond to these pseudo-educated signals. Sometimes, these judgments are just a matter of petty prejudice but sometimes they could have an impact on somebody’s livelihood (and perhaps the former inevitably leads to the latter in aggregate).

Note: I have looked at some history and biology textbooks and they often offer a less distorted portrayal of their subject than what seems to be the outcome in public consciousness. Having the right curriculum and associated materials, then, doesn’t seem to be sufficient to avoid pseudo-education (if indeed avoiding it is desirable).

The one area where pseudo-education has received a lot of attention is language. Since time immemorial, our ways of speaking have served to identify us with one group or layer of society or another. And from its very beginning, education sought to play a role in slotting its charges into the linguistic groups with as high a prestige, as possible (or rather as appropriate). And even today, in academic literature we see references to the educated speaker as an analytic category. This is not a bad thing. Education correlates with exposure to certain types of language and engagement with certain kinds of speech communities. It is not the only way to achieve linguistic competence in those areas but it is the main way for the majority. But becoming “educated speaker” in this sense is mostly a by-product of education. Sufficient amount of the curriculum and classroom instruction is aimed in this direction to count for something but most students acquire the in-group ways of speaking without explicit instruction (disadvantaging those who would benefit from it). But probably a more salient output of language education is supposed knowledge about language (as opposed to knowledge of language).

Here students are expected not only to speak appropriately but also to know how this “appropriate language” works. And here is where most of what happens in schools can be called pseudo-education. Most teachers don’t really have any grasp of how language works (even those who took intro to linguistics classes). They are certainly not aware of the more complex issues around the social variability of language or its pragmatic dimension. But even in simple matters like grammar and usage, they are utterly clueless. This is often blamed on past deficiencies of the educational system where “grammar was not taught” to an entire generation. But judging by the behavior of previous generations who received ample instruction in grammar, that is not the problem. Their teachers were just as inept at teaching about language as they are today. They might have been better at labeling parts of speech and their tenses but that’s about it. It is possible that in the days of yore, people complaining about the use of the passive were actually more able to identify passive constructions in the text but it didn’t make that complaint any less inaccurate (Orwell made a right fool of himself when it turned out that he uses more passives than is the norm in English despite kvetching about their evil).

No matter what the content of school curriculum and method of instruction, “educated” people go about spouting nonsense when it comes to language. This nonsense seems to have its origins in half-remembered injunctions of their grade school teacher. And because the prime complainers are likely to either have been “good at language” or envied the teacher’s approbation of those who were described as being “good at language”, what we end up with in the typical language maven is a mishmash of linguistic prejudice and unjustified feeling smug superiority. Every little linguistic label that a person can remember, is then trotted out as a badge of honor regardless of how good that person is at deploying it.

And those who spout the loudest, get a reputation of being the “grammar experts” and everybody else who preemptively admits that they are “not good at grammar” defers to them and lets themselves be bullied by them. The most recent case of such bullying was a screed by an otherwise intelligent person in a position of power who decided that he will no longer hire people with bad grammar.

This prompted me to issue a rant on Google Plus, repeated below:

The trouble with pseudo educated blowhards complaining about grammar, like +Kyle Wien, is that they have no idea what grammar is. 90% of the things they complain about are spelling problems. The rest is a mishmash of half-remembered objections from their grade school teacher who got them from some other grammar bigot who doesn’t know their tense from their time.

I’ve got news for you Kyle! People who spell they’re, there and their interchangeably know the grammar of their use. They just don’t differentiate their spelling. It’s called homophony, dude, and English is chock full of it. Look it up. If your desire rose as you smelled a rose, you encountered homophony. Homophony is a ubiquitous feature of all languages. And equally all languages have some high profile homophones that cause trouble for spelling Nazis but almost never for actual understanding. Why? Because when you speak, there is no spelling.

Kyle thinks that what he calls “good grammar” is indicative of attention to detail. Hard to say since he, presumably always perfectly “grammatical”, failed to pay attention to the little detail of the difference between spelling and grammar. The other problem is, that I’m sure that Kyle and his ilk would be hard pressed to list more than a dozen or so of these “problems”. So his “attention to detail” should really be read as “attention to the few details of language use that annoy Kyle Wien”. He claims to have noticed a correlation in his practice but forgive me if I don’t take his word for it. Once you have developed a prejudice, no matter how outlandish, it is dead easy to find plenty of evidence in its support (not paying attention to any of the details that disconfirm it).

Sure there’s something to the argument that spelling mistakes in a news item, a blog post or a business newsletter will have an impact on its credibility. But hardly enough to worry about. Not that many people will notice and those who do will have plenty of other cues to make a better informed judgment. If a misplaced apostrophe is enough to sway them, then either they’re not convinced of the credibility of the source in the first place, or they’re not worth keeping as a customer. Journalists and bloggers engage in so many more significant pursuits that damage their credibility, like fatuous and unresearched claims about grammar, so that the odd it’s/its slip up can hardly make much more than (or is it then) a dent.

Note: I replaced ‘half-wit’ in the original with ‘blowhard’ because I don’t actually believe that Kyle Wien is a half-wit. He may not even be a blowhard. But, you can be a perfectly intelligent person, nice to kittens and beloved by co-workers, and be a blowhard when it comes to grammar. I also fixed a few typos, because I pay attention to detail.

My issue is not that I believe that linguistic purism and prescriptivism are in some way anomalous. In fact, I believe the exact opposite. I think, following a brilliant insight by my linguistics teacher, that we need to think of these phenomena as integral to our linguistic competence. I doubt that there is a linguistic community of any size above 3 that doesn’t enact some form of explicit linguistic normativity.

But when pseudo-knowledge about language is used as a n instrument of power, I think it is right to call out the perpetrators and try to shame them. Sure, linguists laugh at them, but I think we all need to follow the example of the Language Log and expose all such examples to public ridicule. Countermand the power.

Post Script: I have been similarly critical of the field of Critical Discourse Analysis which while based on an accurate insight about language and power, in my view, goes on to abuse the power that stems from the knowledge about language to clobber their opponents. My conclusion has been that if you want to study how people speak, study it for its own sake, and if you want to engage with the politics of what they say, do that on political terms not on linguistic ones. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t point out if you feel somebody is using language in a manipulative or misleading ways, but if you don’t need the apparatus of a whole academic discipline to do it, you’re doing something wrong.

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  • Tulilintu

    But the words are spelled wrong. That looks bad. It’s not a linguistic matter but a social one.

    • http://researchity.net/ Dominik Lukes

      That seems to me what this post was about.

  • Giuseppe Mirelli

    To Mr.Lukas:

    I disagree with your position and also refute your claims.

    Language is not always analogous to grammar and in some
    instances they’re separate entities.

    It is presumptuous of you to assert that people who
    interchange homophones are familiar with their use. Furthermore, an individual
    who transcribes: “I’m going ‘two’ the store” is either unschooled in
    orthography or orthology. Can we
    take such a person seriously? I don’t think so.

    Words are extremely powerful tools, but when misused that
    power is severely diminished.

    • http://twitter.com/techczech Dominik Lukes

      It seems to me that “Words are extremely powerful tools, but when misused that power is severely diminished.” is a statement that is in need of some proof. How is the power of the word “their” diminished when it is spelled “there”? If anything, if words are misused, it would seem to me, their power is increased (as in Newspeak).

      And with most homophones, it is clear that people are using them correctly from the context: “I like there new car.” and “I like to go their in a car” are clearly right. Just misspelled. There might be some confusion if it was spelled “I like to go they’re in a car” but nothing that couldn’t be clarified in a fraction of a second.

      BTW: Mis-spelling the name of someone you’re criticising about their liberal position on spelling is surely a sign of something.

  • Giuseppe Mirelli

    Mr.lukes:

    I apologize for mistyping your name, which was an obvious typographical error, not a mis-spelling,
    as you assume. Regardless, it’s negligent on my part, therefore I’m grateful
    for your critique, and it compels me to be more scrupulous.

    I did not criticize your liberal position on spelling; I
    criticized your liberal position on misusage. It is obvious that if someone
    writes “there” for “their” his problem is orthological rather than
    orthographical.

    My statement regarding the diminishing power of words when
    misused is self-explanatory and commonsensical and does not need substantiation.
    Misusage in language relates to more than interchanging homophones; it involves
    grammatical, orthographical and orthological errors, but you seem to be only
    concerned with homophones.

    If you think that the power of words does not diminish with
    misusage then there is no need for you to proofread, edit, or rewrite any of
    your material. The esteemed American novelist, Herman Melville, would agonize
    over just one word in a sentence.
    He would spend a week rewriting, polishing, editing and reexamining until he was satisfied
    he found the right word, and it was never mis-spelled.

    Your stance is rather idealistic and a bit vague.