Monday 4 June 2007

Living in a fog

The other morning Brisbane experienced heavy fog. How rare to have the horizon only a few blocks away.

Your memory replaces the skyline and fills in all the bits. You get in the mood and think.

Fog - such a good metaphor for language. When the mists surround you objects retreat and turn into silhouettes. Much of their definition is lost, they have become two-dimensional.

Words can be like that. All those meanings so many of them have - unless the mind sees only one.

There seems to be a creeping paucity in people's understanding, an ever-shrinking space caused by the disappearance of meanings that have been swallowed up by their mental fog.

Take 'functionality' - in it's generic sense the property of a function. Over the years certain fields have added their special interpretations and so we have the functionality of a module in a software, or the nature of a hypothesis trying to model the human mind. Yet the original basis still stands, ready to be used.

In recent emails much confusion resulted from an insistence of readers to exclude any version of the word outside the context they were familiar with. Other words were suggested as a substitute to facilitate my explanation, but they didn't work because I wanted my readers' thoughts to proceed just so. But they couldn't know that, unless and until they accepted the word in its basic form.

In the exchange of emails the opportunity exists to at least point to the problem; but what if there is no feedback and contexts are changed ad hoc, never to be challenged?

Now the words have become like the silhouettes in the fog. The semantic landscape has turned into a flat canvas of shapes, a hotchpotch of things that may or may not connect with each other. One's very situatedness in the world has become precarious, based on subjective substitutes.

Carolyn Henshaw, an English teacher at a Brisbane school, has written about the worsening of language and how it is treated in the classroom (Courier Mail, 30 May 07, "Ideology turns joy of teaching English literature into an ugly game").

Instead of conveying the richness and beauty of language, the medium has become a vehicle for pushing ideological interpretations, a pared-down tool in the service of the political moment.

"Boys and girls", she writes, "who are still forming and clarifying their own beliefs and values are expected to analyse those of writers and historical contexts about which they know little or nothing."

"They regurgitate set phrases, such as 'marginalised groups', 'gaps and silences' and 'dominant discourse', in an attempt to meet criteria."

"Knowing how to play this critical literacy game is a more certain guarantee of 'success' than an appreciation of language and being able to respond to the complexities of literature with insight, intelligence and originality."

19th century poetry becomes an "integrating device for a discussion of inequality", "Hamlet is a stimulus for an exposé on Shakespeare's misogynistic attitude to women".

What happens when, instead of dancing with words, pupils are taught a "sociocultural-critical model of language", "invented by politically motivated academics and imposed by bureaucrats"?

Like someone wandering through a fog where the surrounds are looming shades of grey, their inner space has become a prison - and they can't even see its walls.

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