Vilt shares teacher’s solution for nurturing intelligent kids

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 27, 2001

"It is not necessary to read everything in a book in order to speak intelligently of it.

Tuesday, February 27, 2001

"It is not necessary to read everything in a book in order to speak intelligently of it. Don’t tell everybody I said so." – Ezra Pound

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He went on to say … "but the thing that stands eternally in the way of really good writing is always one: the virtual impossibility of lifting to the imagination those things which lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses, close to the nose."

David Orr, a professor of conservation biology and "champion of the spoken and written word," wrote about "verbicide" in the winter edition of the "American Educator."

First, I should apologize for writing so often about schools and my lack of confidence there of. As a student, I was anything other than successful. However, reading chapters and answering questions at the end of the chapter, using spelling words in sentences, doing miles and miles of math problems and giving book reports did little to inspire me.

As a student, I was always amazed at the energy that came to life between the bells and then see it dissipate in the classroom.

As a substitute teacher, I used to marvel at the energy of kindergarten students. It carried over into first grade. It let up a bit in second grade, more in third and gradually faded until it was hard to find a trace of energy by our senior year – at least academic energy. They even stopped having pep assemblies with our class – a class that is scheduled to have a "reunion" in July. At this one, recognizing anyone will be in peril.

I’m getting off track again – Orr points out that in the past 50 years the working vocabulary of the average 14-year-old has declined from some 25,000 words to 10,000 words and, according to Orr, this leads to a decline in the capacity to think.

This is not a teen-ager or young adult problem but is part of what Orr calls "a national epidemic of incoherence evident in our public discourse, street talk, movies, television and music."

He further says, "In our time, language is under assault by those whose purpose it is to sell one kind of quackery or another: economic, political, religious, or technological. It is under attack because the clarity and felicity of language, as distinct from its quantity, are devalued in an industrial-technological society. The clear and artful use of language is, in fact, threatening to that society."

We help it out with our own "slovenliness," he points out.

As a nation of television watchers and Internet browsers, Orr says it shows in the way we talk and what we talk about: "More and more we speak as if we are spectators of life, not active participants, moral agents, or engaged citizens."

"The desire to read is jeopardized by the same forces that threaten to make us a violent, shallow, hedonistic and materialistic people." Orr fears this could lead to "our coming undone" as a nation.

His cure:

n Restore the habit of talking directly to each other and begin this by smashing every automated answering machine.

n Limit the use the Internet (here, the proper use of language is corrupted).

n Restore the habit of public reading and further Orr proposes that adults should turn off the television, disconnect the cable, undo the computer, and once again read good books aloud to their children. "I know of no better or pleasurable way to stimulate thinking, encourage a love of language, and facilitate a child’s ability to form images."

n Those who corrupt language ought to held accountable – beginning with the advertising industry. He points out, in 1997, it (advertising) spent $187 billion to sell us an "unconscionable amount of stuff, much of it useless, environmentally destructive, and deleterious to our health." "Dante would have consigned them (advertisers) to the lowest level of hell, only because there was no worse place to put them."

n Language. It grows from the outside in. "It is renewed in the streets, shops, farms and rural places where human life is most authentic." He also supports small independent bookstores and locally owned newspapers.

n "There should be no higher priority for schools, colleges and universities to defend the integrity and clarity of language in every possible way … as teachers insist on good writing and assign books and readings that are well written."

"We have a sense of evil," Susan Sontag said, "but we no longer have the religious or philosophical language to talk intelligently about evil."

I hope people read Dwight Ault’s Feb. 19 letter in the Star Tribune regarding producing safe meat.

Thanks, Pat.