Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Harvard Campaign and the English Language

Harvard is finally launching a major capital campaign. Leadership instability caused years of delay, the House renewal project could not be put off any longer, and Harvard's endowment took a huge hit (see, from Bloomberg, this good reminder of why Larry Summers might not be the best person to prognosticate interest rates for all of us as chair of the Fed). In the meantime the student body has, by design, become less able to pay Harvard's list prices, financial aid has become more generous, science has gotten more expensive, and the Engineering School, intellectually constrained because it is physically landlocked, will move to a new site across the river in Allston. So it is time for Harvard to launch its campaign. It is no secret that the "quiet phase" has been going on for some time now. Rumor has it that the early returns are promising.

I am all for it. After a bumpy start, a thrilling vision for Allston is emerging; I hope it will come together for the campaign kickoff. A generation of my students, many of whom came to Harvard on scholarships, have prospered since the last campaign. Even those whose parents were able to pay Harvard's "sticker price" know that they have gotten back far more than they invested, through the "beauty, individuality, and wealth of associations" they experienced (to quote Santayana) and the opportunities they had to depart from whatever they thought they were going to college to achieve. The time has come for them, and other Harvard alumni, to pay their debt to the future, their moral obligation to help Harvard make possible for future generations what was possible for them.

In the way politicians announce that they are going to announce their candidacy for some office, President Faust officially announced in May that the campaign would be announced in September. Given that the campaign was a long time coming, the announcement, a sort of manifesto, is disappointing, as several alumni have observed to me privately. It doesn't sing. In fact it doesn't even hum. It doesn't elevate the spirit, or inspire optimism or pride. In fact, five minutes after reading it, I couldn't remember what it said.

I fear that criticizing language is rather like criticizing hairstyles or clothing. We are supposed to have enough respect for individual differences and cultural diversity not to get elitist over the way things are said, as long as the prose is, more or less, grammatically correct. I find this when I correct students' writing—they take offense, as though I was suggesting that their hair was the wrong color.

So no offense is meant here. It's obvious that the prizewinning author of This Republic of Suffering did not actually write the document over which her name appears, and I don't know who did. I just keep thinking this is Harvard. This might do for Eastern Missouri State, or even Yale! But Harvard should be able to say something more profound about our future, and say it better. For the success of the Campaign, which is vital to our future, I hope September's rhetoric will be better.

Take the second sentence of the manifesto: "The process of preparing for a campaign is one that focuses us on defining our future." Wouldn't any freshman writing teacher have marked that up, perhaps thus: "The process of pPreparing for a campaign is one that focuses us on defining our future." (If not simply "defines our future.") Well, perhaps the sentence really is intentional, because apparently the very first thing Harvard wants us all to know about the Campaign is the dreary process by which it was planned. The next several sentences list the many people and groups who were consulted, perhaps as a way of warning off those who think nobody asked them. We do love process at Harvard, and talking about it. Process is clean, unlikely to excite animosity, a ready tactic for the defense in case of litigation, and a counterargument to claims of bad results. Once when a terrible appointment was made, I was told that the process was impeccable. It involved lots of interviews, letters, and other documents; it just did did not involve an off-the-record telephone call to the candidate's supervisor. But it was a good process, I was told, completely by the book, so I should hold my tongue about the incompetence of the person who got the job.

After the windup, we get the pitch, or rather the seven pitches. But they aren't really pitches; they are rubrics, abstract categories like "Nurturing talent and leadership requires investment." Any fool can see where that one is going, but apparently it is too soon to say anything specific like "scholarships" or "professorships." That will come in September.

It is much less clear what other rubrics will mean in practice. "Harvard is dedicated to the generation of new knowledge, which will increasingly be discovered at the intersection of disciplines." Let's leave aside the question of whether it was necessary to stipulate that Harvard is less interested in generating old knowledge. What does this really mean for the future of departments and disciplines? Will we be looking for central funding to establish more and more interfaculty programs and institutes, or is some more radical restructuring contemplated? It is a serious question, and very timely, because Nicholas Christakis has a provocative piece in the July 21 New York Times, "Let's Shake Up the Social Sciences." I am no fan of that "shaking up" metaphor, which suggests that the current condition is so poor that even a random re-arrangement would be an improvement. But I am a big fan of Christakis, and I regretted his decision to leave Harvard for Yale—perhaps because he thought it would be easier there to pursue exactly the sort of interdisciplinary research the campaign manifesto suggests Harvard should be doing.

The level of abstraction gives the document a cotton-candy quality, pleasant enough but saccharine, nonnutritive, not very filling. One is left wondering, after all that consultation and planning, whether there is any vision of what Harvard will become, any tune that we will not be able to get out of our heads once we heard it sung in September. The flabby language doesn't help, and in fact goes hand in hand with the poverty of thought. As George Orwell wrote in his masterful essay "Politics and the English Language" (pdf),
A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. 
The manifesto violates pretty much every principle Orwell lists. I have already suggested a couple of transgressions against "If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out." Another is his warning against dying metaphors. Harvard's power needs to be harnessed in the first paragraph, but our curiosity needs to be unbridled in rubric 5. As Orwell says, "By using stale metaphors, … you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself." And it is an offense to the warning against pretentious diction to anticipate the end of school by reminding us that "the academic year approaches its Commencement finale."

Orwell suggests these simple rules.
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 
  1. What am I trying to say? 
  2. What words will express it? 
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? 
And he will probably ask himself two more:
  1. Could I put it more shortly? 
  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? 
But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you -- even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent -- and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.  
Consider those principles while reading just the main verbs of the sentences of this document: are anticipating, is, have been engaged, have worked, have shared, has worked, are helping, will hear, offers, will shape, is dedicated, will advance, will seek, must attract, must sustain, will pioneer, aspire, will enhance, will ensure, will affirm, must transcend, must offer, must embrace, will create, must provide, must revitalize, will propel, look. You could write a few pages about almost anything using the same series of verbs.

Or see how many tetrasyllabic words are used in the seven rubrics: dedicated, generation, increasingly, intersection, university, discovery, humanities, integrated, distributed, intellectual, society, consequential, community, understanding, transformative, innovation, increasingly, integration, curriculum, cosmopolitan, opportunities, significant, international, explorations, civilizations, creativity, immediate, instrumental, curiosity, discovery, innovation, creativity, discovery, engineering, experience-based, intellectual, aspirations, environment, intellectual, programmatic, revitalize, accommodate, collaborations. Of the 450 words in the rubrics, 45 of them—10%—are words of four syllables or more, almost all from Latin or Greek roots. As Orwell says,
The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.  
There once was another way, though I wonder whether it is possible any more. In 1869, when Eliot became Harvard president, the first words out of his mouth were both grand and simple.
The endless controversies whether language, philosophy, mathematics, or science supplies the best mental training, whether general education should be chiefly literary or chiefly scientific, have no practical lesson for us today. This University recognizes no real antagonism between literature and science, and consents to no such narrow alternatives as mathematics or classics, science or metaphysics. We would have them all, and at their best.
No fair comparing any institution to Eliot's Harvard, perhaps. His transformation of the university was unlike anything that had happened in America or is likely ever to happen again. But this was not Herculean Eliot speaking, in the fullness of his miracle-working, or at the end of his forty-year career as his portrait was being put on a US postage stamp. This was Eliot the 35-year-old chemist arriving from MIT under deep suspicion, having nudged out a genial pastor for the presidency after multiple ballots. He had no place to stand, but announced how he would move the earth.

I added the italics because that last sentence of Eliot's first paragraph as Harvard president is so remarkable. Will the president of a research university ever again utter a sentence of nine monosyllables?

1 comment:

  1. And they say that MIT grads cannot write or speak eloquently...