I don’t know about you, but I’m totally against dumbing down subjects or language use before my students. I believe, for example, that if the undergraduates sitting before me in a class have limited vocabularies (and they all invariably do), it’s not time for me to match-up my vocabulary to theirs, reinforcing their language use habits. Instead, it’s time to start expanding their vocabularies by talking exactly the way that I do all the time. In other words, I get them hearing words they’ve never heard before, and I start expecting them to use those words. I’m talking serious adult academic vocabulary; words like these: metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics. Yes, I think that new college students, including those just getting a serious handle on their basic skills for college, are ready to run like this—ready to start using “big words” in both their papers and class conversations. So, when I’m talking about an essay, I don’t say, “How does the author know what (s)he is talking about in this passage?” Instead, I might say something like this:
What’s the epistemology underlying this author’s claim?
Of course, I’ve told them what epistemology means before I start doing this through the course of a semester, but you get the point. And I think students appreciate it. Who doesn’t appreciate being talked to like an adult?
So I want the students in my classes to demonstrate that they’re actually growing as new college students and not being catered to. College culture, after all, is a culture. The new college student is trying to figure out whether the professor has something that (s)he wants. So I give them what I have. Some, as it turns out, actually do want what I have; others find that they don’t. Both responses are okay. As one of my former colleagues used to say of those who didn’t get her, or who couldn’t tap into the interest that she had for her subject (which was English):
Everyone has their own journey through life.
In his recent book, former New York Times foreign correspondent Chris Hedges provides some fodder for my anti-dumbing down views, and so I share a taste. Here he is, from page 44 of Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (Nation Books, 2009):
We are a culture that has been denied, or has passively given up, the linguistic and intellectual tools to cope with complexity, to separate illusion from reality. We have traded the printed word for the gleaming image. Public rhetoric is designed to be comprehensible to a ten-year-old child or an adult with a sixth-grade reading level. Most of us speak at this level, are entertained and think at this level. We have transformed our culture into a vast replica of Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island, where boys were lured with the promise of no school and endless fun. They were all, however, turned into donkeys—a symbol, in Italian culture, of ignorance and stupidity.
Posted by Santi Tafarella