“Today marks the 100 year anniversary of Armenian Genocide!” Kim Kardashian tweeted on April 24. All have had a field day mocking her misuse of the exclamation point, not to mention the capitalization of Armenian Genocide as if it were a theme park ride.
But I’m beginning to think we need to accept writing like this as normal.
Stay with me. No doubt, a Kim Kardashian of yesteryear would not have released a public statement with such, shall we say, individual usage of capitalization and punctuation. The letters modestly educated soldiers wrote home during the Civil War attest to the centrality of refined composition in the American culture of yesteryear.
Schools inculcated the skill, the society placed a cultural value on it, and more to the point, technology was such that public language was still much more print-based than it is today. Speaking, no one could be heard beyond the stage they spoke on, and there was no recording technology yet. Well into the 20th century, even with amplification and broadcasting, one had little personal control over such technologies. Writing—and reading it—was still more necessary than it is today, such that cities could commonly support several newspapers appearing in two editions daily.
It was much harder not to be immersed in formal writing lifelong, even if you weren’t a member of the intelligentsia. And crucially, writing is slower than talking. You can look over it to fix it. You can write longer and more complex sentences, too, than you are likely to speak. Writing is language in its Sunday best, and in a world where writing was is as central to communication as it used to be, as even a modestly educated person you could barely escape high language.
Those days are over for good. What Kardashian’s tweet reveals is not someone strangely neglectful. She didn’t go to college, and her high school education, as a modern one in today’s increasingly oral society (see below) unsurprisingly did not teach her the finer points of how to write a sentence.
And then, one suspects she simply isn’t a reader. Whatever what we might call her accomplishments, one does not sense a printaholic in her: She has other things to do. At the end of the day, what makes a fluent writer is rich exposure to the printed page, certainly during childhood and optimally beyond. I know a number of people whose social media prose is much like Kardashian’s tweet. They are quite diverse in educational level, temperament, class, and race. What unites them is that none read for pleasure.
I also suspect that before about 1965, most of them would have. However, are Kardashian and the social media users a symptom of a problem, or just of times changing in ways that hurt no one?
After all, Kardashian is the norm. Most human beings worldwide would rather talk than read. Reading and writing are late inventions in the human story; widespread literacy in most places is only a few centuries old. And the fact that in black-and-white pictures of a commuter train almost every passenger is reading was an artifact of the technological state of things at the time. Today, most of those people’s equivalents are either talking on their phone or listening to music on it. Their forebears in those pictures would have been as well, if there had been devices to allow it. Most of them were only reading because it was the only way to pass the time.
Today, texting—essentially talking with your fingers—is increasingly preferred to the more writerly activity of email. Most people would rather listen than read—note the popularity of the e-book. These things are tokens of a new era; we cannot go back.
Crucially, this trend towards orality is by no means limited to less educated persons. The issue is actually germane to, of all things, Cornel West. The takeaway point in Michael Eric Dyson’s notorious takedown of West is not Dyson’s almost curiously comprehensive filleting of West’s person and accomplishments. Rather, Dyson lays down that Cornel West is a revered public intellectual who has not written academic books in a quarter-century now, does not write published refereed academic articles, and overall does not like writing and does as little of it as possible. His foundational trade book Race Matters is now over 20 years old. During West’s famous clash with then-Harvard president Lawrence Summers when the latter questioned West’s academic achievements of late, West responded that he was in fact at work on three academic books. Fifteen years later, those books do not exist, and it’s fair to say that they are not forthcoming. Writing is not what West does.
Rather, West talks. More to the point, Cornel West is a public intellectual cherished not for what he writes but for the way he sounds. In his speeches, his intonations and gestures are as central to his message as its content, as if Chris Rock were talking about democracy and dropping references to Chekhov—a kind of verbal jazz, as Dyson puts it.
Now, is West’s being black part of why this goes over so well? Partly. Many people of all races have a way of sensing it as “deep” when a black person uses big words and lists heavy-duty scholars with a jivey cadence.
But, the reception of West is also a symptom of an increasingly oral society. Fifty years ago and before, no matter how good he was on stage, West couldn’t have become a rock star based on what he did live. You couldn’t record television, there was no Internet to call up a video at any time—the only intellectual missive one could pick up at any time was an article or book. The public intellectual had to write, regularly, or remain an obscure local favorite. That’s no longer true, which opens up a space for a public intellectual who talks rather than writes, with barely anyone considering it worth notice.
And again—is this really such a terrible thing? Is the general possibility of a more orally based intellectual culture such a disaster? I ventured that West’s publishing record was oddly thin on a black radio show many years ago, and one of the people I was on with said, “Why should he write academic books that nobody reads?”
It wasn’t a crazy point. I have written a few purely academic books and they are consulted by almost no one; most such books aren’t. One helped get me tenure, but it’s questionable whether tenure should work that way. Writing them was massively enjoyable to me personally, but then, what also sends me is translating ideas into books for the general public, so that I get to teach the world something instead of parlaying with a few dozen scholars.
So why does West need even to write books for the general public on a regular basis? After all, most people like talk better than prose, and always will. I submit that a public intellectual’s main work could, with all dignity, consist of a series of 15-minute podcasts released every month or so—kind of like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats—displaying solid command of serious literature and ideas. In a society where this is technologically possible, the objection that such a person hadn’t penned six or seven 200-page tomes could well qualify as idle elitism.
I have what I will title a modest proposal, although many will consider it less modest than insane coming from an academic and writer. Let’s stop pretending that the way Kim Kardashian tweets and the way so many people write is a problem that can be fixed. Who among us imagines that public schools will really go back to teaching sentence structure and prose style as strictly as in the old days? After all, today’s crop of teachers below a certain age never even knew the America where language arts were taught that way. The horse is out of the barn. Let’s consider that we are seeing a natural movement towards a society in which language is more oral—or in the case of texting, oral-style—where written prose occupies a much smaller space than it used to.
As such—might we stop pretending that ordinary people need to be able to write on a level higher than functional?
Of course everyone should have basic writing ability. What I wonder is whether everyone needs to be taught how to write an essay. That is, we could allow that in tweets and beyond, capitalization and punctuation will be approached in an individual fashion. People like Lynne Truss of Eats, Shoots and Leaves fame may tear their hair out—but maybe that’s just the way it has to be. Judging a tweet, email, or even a sign according to the standards of formal prose makes no more sense than criticizing your favorite contemporary pop artist for not using oboes and violas or not writing sonatas. It should not be seen as problematic that most thoroughly intelligent adults today couldn’t write a letter like those Civil War soldiers even at gunpoint.
It may be time to understand that the writing culture of an earlier era was a matter of fashion, much like the elaborate clothing required of anyone who stepped outside. And just as fashions can be utilitarian—houses weren’t as well heated in the old days, making all those textiles more necessary most of the year—writing ability mattered more when it was the main way one had to communicate with the world beyond one’s self.
That will never again be true. In 1890, W.E.B. DuBois as a student wrote “I have something to say to the world and I have taken English twelve in order to say it well,” at the end of an essay couched in language worthy of Emerson. Imagine someone who could write as elegantly as that who nevertheless thought of his compositional ability as still unrefined—and yet DuBois’ sense of these things was ordinary for his time. Cornel West has not needed to hone writing skills in that way. He, like most human beings, would rather talk, and with today’s technology, he can.
Of course, if people wish to learn to write on a particularly developed level, tutelage should be available to them. In the coming America, ideally this would be part of the value of the most challenging universities, for example. However, the idea that everyone entering the work force should be able to pen an elegant five-paragraph essay is, I suggest, obsolete.
One likes the idea, of course, just as one likes the idea of a muffin, a walk on the beach, or Motown. However, that liking is increasingly detached from the realities of modern society. A hundred years ago, a family put children through piano lessons with a certain insistence, because at least one person had to be able to play for there to be any music in the house. Radio and records made that obsolete. Today, we like the idea of playing the piano, but increasingly fewer people do—because we can have music at the push of a button. In the music history class I am teaching now, not a single student out of 24 plays the piano—that’s an innocent sign of the times, not cause for dismay. There will always be piano players, but it will be more of a specialty taste. Might we start approaching high-level writing the same way?
There is a predictable objection: that writing is the only way to learn how to structure an argument. However, that’s not true. The contention would have surprised the ancient Greeks, whose pedagogical approach was primarily oral and stressed developing oratorical skills of rhetoric and persuasion. Nor is it true that one can only make a serious point with big words and long sentences, a view that implies that most humans on earth are incapable of higher reasoning.
I suggest not that we give up training people to think, but that we consider doing this with a focus on speaking and on forms of writing that are highly speech-inflected. For example, I see no reason why modern human beings cannot be instructed in oral composition. Toastmasters trains legions in the art of making an argument orally: upon what grounds do we reject that approach as inherently unscholarly or logically unsophisticated?
Note that an oral approach to composition lends itself to precisely the qualities so fashionable in today’s education schools. Training people in talking well is Taking To Them From Where They Are, after all. Talking is dynamic, personal, real, and so on—here is something the educational industry could easily get on board with.
Meanwhile, what are the chances that teaching of composition is going to improve? In remedial composition classes, students critique other students’ essays, with a focus on personal testimony over objective argument. It has been considered the height of wisdom to eliminate the vocabulary portion of the SAT as forcing “needless” drills. Through the ’70s, about a half-hour of Sustained Silent Reading (so institutionalized that it was called SSR) was regular educational practice in public schools. It fell out of fashion for assorted reasons which, in the end, make it clear that reading was not viewed as a crucial priority in, well, educating kids.
These things are not disconnected. They are a symptom of a shift away from the inculcation of the kind of writing ability a DuBois thought of as basic, in a society where technology has been allowed to take up ever more of its former space. One approach to that is to gnash one’s teeth. Another, however, is to accept that the prevalence of high-level writing in the old days was a temporary condition. Humans have existed for 150,000 years while writing only came along about 6,500 years ago. For a spell, as nations coalesced and humans increasingly expanded their horizons beyond the village, writing was the main way to say something beyond your doorstep. But with modern technology, you can just talk again—and because that is what has always come more naturally to people, increasingly, they do.
“Everybody Should Know How to Write Well”—nice idea. But that requires you to explain exactly how essay-level writing skills will benefit someone in the work force of 2015, beyond the sliver of writing-focused jobs. It gets harder to truly answer that question every year.
Kim Kardashian and Cornel West, of all people, are symptoms of the same thing—and not necessarily a bad one.