1967 Seems Sort of Like 2019

Austin Kleon pointed me towards the excellent Teaching as a Subversive Activity when I asked for his perspective on teaching students to stop following directions. Despite being written in 1967, I found it eye-opening. I wasn’t even asking the right question. Which is something for another post.

Anyways, it was also fascinating to see how similar the worries and perceived problems of 1967 are to those of 2019:

We cannot afford to ignore Norbert Wiener’s observation of a paradox that results from our increasing technological capability in electronic communication: as the number of messages increases, the amount of information carried decreases. We have more media to communicate fewer significant ideas.

One can begin almost anywhere in compiling a list of problems that, taken together and left unresolved, mean disaster for us and our children. For example, the number one health problem in the United States is mental illness: there are more Americans suffering from mental illness than from all other forms of illness combined. Of almost equal magnitude is the crime problem. It is advancing rapidly on many fronts, from delinquency among affluent adolescents to frauds perpetrated by some of our richest corporations. Another is the suicide problem. Are you aware that suicide is the second most common cause of death among adolescents? Or how about the problem of “damaged” children? The most common cause of infant mortality in the United States is parental beating. Still another problem concerns misinformation—commonly referred to as “the credibility gap” or “news management.” The misinformation problem takes a variety of forms, such as lies, clichés, and rumors, and implicates almost everybody, including the President of the United States.

It is the thesis of this book that change—constant, accelerating, ubiquitous—is the most striking characteristic of the world we live in and that our educational system has not yet recognized this fact.

There’s a lot of exploration in the book about how having things that “plug in” is radically shifting who we are as people and society. It’s fun to peer into a time when having electric devices was still new and novel enough that intellectuals were reading and writing about it.

Did we ever resolve those questions?

It’s almost like we present ourselves with problems, recognize that we’ve got some problems to reckon with, then invent fresh new problems before we’ve figured out how to handle the originals.

Badly Written Writing

A side effect of grading written work, a couple hundred pages every semester, is that I now see every typo, misspelling, and obvious grammatical error I pass in the world. I can sense when puffed-up language has been utilized within 100 feet.

Unless it’s something I’ve written.

It’s more gypsy curse than professional skill.

And it works more by intuition than mechanical knowledge.

That’s why I buy books like How to Write a Sentence, On Writing Well, and why I keep Eats, Shoots and Leaves, a gift from my first manager at my first job out of school, at my desk at work. The hard and fast rules of writing are contained within.

I haven’t read any of them. I’m not sure I’ve cracked the spine of Eats Shoots and Leaves.

Now there’s a new book on writing coming out, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. Written by Benjamin Dreyer, Twitter user, and copy editor at Random House, people who care about this sort of thing are very excited.

I’ve just preordered it.

And I’m pre-disappointed in myself for not reading it.

The Nunchucks of Punctuation

The Atlantic on the changing meaning of the exclamation point:

”Once exclamation points were scary and loud; they made you jump,” Heidi Julavits wrote in her 2015 memoir The Folded Clock. “You were in trouble when the exclamation points came out. They were the nunchucks of punctuation. They were a bark, a scold, a gallows sentence. Not any longer. The exclamation point is lighthearted, even whimsical.”

Quartz on the changing use of the period: 

The use of the period is one example of situational code-switching: When using one in a text message, it’s perceived as overly formal. So when you end your text with a period, it can come across as insincere or awkward, just like using formal spoken language in a casual setting like a bar.

We are living in a hell-scape of overburdened punctuation marks…

Related: I’ve just spent an hour reading about punctuation marks!