Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site


''You're no consultant,'' he sneered at me. Then there was silence. Technically, he was right. I was no consultant: I was an English teacher hired to do consulting on a writing program. And he, a discerning academic dean and provost, probably gathered from the questions I was asking that I was relatively new at the game, although I had done consulting occasionally over the years. Still, I felt . . . found out. He was astute, given to few words, and those blunt and precise. He was polite, charming in his directness, but understandably protective of procedures I was questioning.

''Argumentum ad hominem,'' I replied, more out of a sense of needing to answer something rather than riposte. But he quickly saw I had misunderstood his ''accusation,'' and moved to explain.

About these ads

''I mean, how can you be a consultant in education?'' he queried, banging his fist on the table, then palming out in a gesture of mock disbelief. ''I understand every word you're saying. You even use words like 'yes' and 'no.' ''

I recalled that incident recently when for the first time in my life as a book reviewer, I sent back a tome to the national magazine that had asked me to review it. It was a collection of essays by self-styled ''educational sociologists'' and ''socio-cultural educators''); some were from highly prestigious universities. No matter. I could not understand the articles. They seemed to require translation.

I was, at first, only frustrated. Just about every important word was big, averaging five to seven syllables, not counting the made-up compounds. And just about every sentence was compound-complex, with numerous dependent clauses in Byzantine arrangement. There were also hyphenated words I did not know existed, verbs made out of nouns, and adjectives everywhere. Footnotes were full (and fulsome), and authors referred to each other across the articles. It was a semantic jungle with no clear path.

I couldn't even understand the title of the book: it had lots of concept words in it like ''culture'' and ''society'' and other Latinate appellations that ordinarily I might have known but couldn't make sense of in juxtaposition. And although I knew it was not fair to judge a book by its cover, I got an uneasy feeling from the title alone; a fear confirmed by my rereading the introductory paragraph of the book eight times - to no advantage.

Then frustration turned to anger when I realized that the gobbledygook was written by professors of education, representatives of the discipline said to be attracting the lowest-scoring students on the standardized exams. Cynically, it might be said, education had finally got its proper role models: the blind were leading the blind.

The book was jargon, pure and simple, which is, of course, what jargon never is but rather a vague and superficial language pretending to be technical. But although ''educationalese'' has been around for decades and jargon continues to be cauterized by numerous word-watchers in the popular press, I found myself getting angrier. For these were ''educators'' who had written these pieces; heads of graduate schools, administering departments concerned with setting policy on literacy and good usage. The book had also come poorly timed, just as the school year was ending, when teachers at all levels sometimes go into temporary depression and suffer an affliction of conscience - could I have done more? done it differently? better? - a condition not usually noticeable in the educator/consultants who merely seem to discard theories, revise grand designs, and shuffle data into relevant jargon. As far as I could tell, the essays were written by isolated armchair generals; nowhere in sight were regular-army types testing out these grand designs and usually finding them wanting. And so the book went back, but with a long explanation to the editor of the magazine with permission to show it to anyone, including the well-respected publisher.

Ten days later I received a brief reply from the editor. She thanked me for my note, indicated that the editorial board had decided not to have the book reviewed, and volunteered that jargon is an indication of superficial and pretentious thought. I was pleased, of course, but not as pleased as I would be one week later when I attended a conference of high school English teachers and heard them talking about their revised curriculum. No jargon there. These were the troops, older, mostly, left over from the days of budget cutbacks; not without battle scars, but not without a sense of humor, either, and with a healthy skepticism about their own proposals. I told them about the book. They were more amused than angry, pointing out that it was my job to respond, theirs to set the right example by behavior. Their curriculum was sound: clear, well-written, responsive to real needs. They had published something valuable, though not with a prestigious press behind them or as a result of consultancies that lured them away from the jobs at hand.

About these ads

Those teachers taught me something. It is important to speak out about what is right and what is wrong. The academic dean and the editor of the national magazine had flattered me, but both represented single incidents that were personally rewarding but soon forgotten. Next time, I knew, I would not send back the bad book, but review it and include by way of contrast the significant but unsung work of the workers in the field.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.