The Ivory Tower of Babel

David Clemens

The current issue of Academic Questions focuses on “sustainability,” that hollow abstraction around which coalesce feel-good connotations of moral superiority and environmental correctness.  At the very least, higher education should foster a scrupulous, continuous, and critical attention to language, yet academia today seems more enamored of rhetoric which is either empty (“student success”) or deceptive (“social justice”).  My own college has an institutional commitment to “diversity,” a word whose apparent meaning changes from document to document even though HR requires all teaching applicants to produce a “Diversity Statement.”  Diversity is a good thing and we’re for it, and, by gosh, you had better be, too, whatever it is! We also have an institutional commitment to “critical thinking.”  In my experience, most teachers are confident they know what critical thinking is (it’s what they do) but hardly any can provide a definition.  For them, "critical thinking" is just another abstract good thing.  Actually, California State University Chancellor Glenn Dumke's Executive Order 338 defined "critical thinking instruction" as

. . . designed to achieve an understanding of the relationship of language to logic, which should lead to the ability to analyze, criticize, and advocate ideas, to reason inductively and deductively, and to reach factual or judgmental conclusions based on sound inferences drawn from unambiguous statements of knowledge or belief (1980).

Personally, I favor William Graham Sumner’s succinct definition of critical thinking as “the examination of propositions of any kind which are offered for acceptance, in order to find out whether they correspond to reality or not” (1906). By either definition, my school’s proud commitment to “Promote academic excellence and critical thinking across all areas and disciplines” is incoherent since critical thinking is not germane in all disciplines.  Music?  Dance?  Literature?  Ornamental horticulture?  The academy’s adoption of language which is, in Peggy Noonan’s words, “bland and indecipherable,” betrays the foundation of verbal communication itself--that, as David Mulroy puts it in The War Against Grammar, “intelligible statements have definite literal meanings.” “Sustainability,” “diversity,” “social justice,” “critical thinking” are intended to convey feelings, not meanings.  In Disturbing the Peace, Vaclav Havel asks, “Isn't just such a subtle abuse of the truth, and of language, the real beginning . . . of the misery of the world we live in?”  Perhaps higher education should be promoting clarity rather than sponsoring a new confusion of tongues.

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