The Profession of English

Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: / Teaching / Scholarship / English /

When you’re in a court room and the meanings of key terms such as freedom, rights, law, marriage, censorship, literature … are at issue, whose authority is appealed to? Writers? Philosophers? Etymologists? Anthropologists? English teachers? English professors? with rank and tenure? No: lawyers.

When similar or related meanings are at issue in some organ of the media, who makes the decisions? The writers? No. The writers have no authority as writers. Ranked professors may be consulted, but they’re given no decision-making authority. That authority rests with the editor. And the editor well knows he can be fired by the publisher. The publisher well knows she can be put out of business: overnight by the advertisers, and almost as precipitously by the public.

If push came to shove, whose word would be “final”?

A language is a dialect backed up
by its own army and navy.

English teachers, declaring on the communicational competence of lawyers? or Lawyers, declaring on the communicational competence of English teachers?

Don’t be silly. English teachers are never asked to decide anything of importance. English teachers have no real function except to help put labels on Billie and Suzie for the convenience of business and industry.

Are system analysts ever asked to declare on the communicational competence of lawyers?
(How about Nixon’s burglars deciding the competence of Nixon’s “enemies”? Ellsberg, Fonda …)
[How about the NFL and its law thugs determining the validity of science as it relates to head injuries … footballs’ air pressure?]

When you’re in a political setting and the meanings of key terms such as freedom, rights, law, marriage … are at issue, say on the floor of Congress, do the congressmen appeal to English professors for help? to writers? to semanticists? systems analysts? No. Authority resides with … whoever can manipulate the decision. Must the decision then be reviewed for either accuracy or for communicational efficiency by English teachers? By philosophers? By systems analysts? No. If it’s reviewed at all, it’s reviewed by ordinary speakers of ordinary (local) English who are brought the news of the events by media whose performance is reviewed — very strictly — by powerful commercial and political interests.

If English teachers did review the performance of the lawyers, could the Constitution as readily mean what the lawyers have made it mean? that the right to bear arms means that you can’t do it? Are we sure that there are no “Jesuits” in government? Aren’t the correctors of dangerous ambiguities ruled by the manipulators of those very ambiguities, the magnifiers of the danger?

Actually, if English teachers did review the performance of the lawyers, the legislators … why should we believe they’d be any more competent at yielding good, clear English than they are with the turbid, turgid prose of boards of education? God forbid that English teachers, in the form in which we are presently familiar with them, should have any real say in anything real, in anything of importance. Ah, but imagine a world in which there were real English teachers: just as there are real mathematicians, real chemists, real physicists.

2013 11 21 My views in the decade or so since I wrote the above have changed considerably: I no longer believe we have real mathematicians, real physicists, not reliably, not with state governments interfering with every aspect of education. If the priests kill Jesus soon after he appears, why should lesser being find an honest forum. Honest forms form naturally but are quickly corrupted. Then there are none. None likely.

I leave my first false start here merely for easy salvage while I work on the above:

As usual at, don’t understand me too quickly. Don’t assume that my meaning is either conventional, familiar, or easy to assimilate: just another moron showing how ordinary he is on the internet.

I was trained to be a teacher of English. I’d admired some of my college English teachers. What they dealt with was nothing we’d been introduced to in public school. My most exciting teachers were English teachers. That’s what I wanted to do: excite people: while we steeped ourselves in Donne, Yeats, and Shakespeare.

Any number of times since then, I, the traveling writer, the traveling salesman, the itinerant intellectual, the homeless teacher, will be making friends with someone, and my having taught college English will come up. And they’ll say, fingers to mouth, with alarm only half-feigned, Oh, then I’d better watch my grammar! The woman may be beautiful. The woman may be wealthy. The woman may already be suspecting that she wants to be my lover, but the woman has just shown herself, indelibly, as not having gone to Smith, Haverford, Rice, or the Sorbonne. She has a totally false image of the profession of English. And, since her mis-impression is state-fostered — shared by the majority, I should know instantly that true friendship will never be possible with her (which doesn’t mean I won’t spend that night in her bed). Had I said I was a physicist, would that same woman have playfully put up her guard about the most common ignorances of the physical universe? Had I said I was a mathematician, would she have rushed to warn me of her innumeracy? Had I said I was a doctor, would she have confessed that her own surgical skills were rusty?

Public education has created a mentality where knowledge is divided into two realms: what everyone knows and understands and what only some special persons know or understand. If I told a medieval peasant of a Renaissance widow that I was a priest, neither would presume that they too knew the Bible, maybe just not quite as well. Both would instantly think: Wow, he can turn wine to the blood of our Lord! (I certainly can’t, and would never dream of trying.) The medieval or Renaissance person would never dream that they were educated: unless they indeed were a peer in that respect: had put in their time with that discipline. The modern citizen, however you see, graduated. What I want to ask is: why does the modern “graduate” think that they know English: except for the grammar?   They don’t think they know mathematics: except for the arithmetic.

Ah. I see I’ve already written this in the wrong order. So it will have to stay for this draft. I’ll gut some quorum of my ideas down and then reorder. I must insert above: the particular woman I have in memory, typically enough, I assure you, latter on, once we were lovers, routinely use her high school knowledge to correct my university knowledge. What her high school teacher had told her, and all her friends and acquaintances seemed to agree on, had higher truth status than what scholars at Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Columbia, discover.



About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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