Friday, June 9, 2006

Words, mere words

From Mark Edmundson, Why Read? (Bloomsbury, 2004):

Many humanities teachers feel that they are fighting for a lost cause. They believe that the proliferation of electronic media will eventually make them obsolete. They see the time their students spend with TV and movies and on the Internet, and feel that what they have to offer — words, mere words — must look shabby by comparison.

Not so. When human beings try to come to terms with who they are and describe who they hope to be, the most effective medium is words. Through words we represent ourselves to ourselves; we fix our awareness of who and what we are. Then we can step back and gain distance on what we've said. With perspective comes the possibility for change. People write about their lives in their journals; talk things over with friends; talk, at day's end, to themselves about what has come to pass. And then they can brood on what they've said, privately or with another. From that brooding comes the chance for new beginnings. In this process, words allow for precision and nuance that images and music generally don't permit.

Our culture changes at an astounding velocity, so we must change or pay a price for remaining the same. Accordingly, the powers of self-rendering and self-revision are centrally important. These processes occur best in language. Surely there is something to be learned from the analysis of popular culture. But we as teachers can do better. We can strike to the central issues that confront students and the public at large, rather than relegating ourselves to the edges. People who have taught themselves how to live — what to be, what to do — from reading great works will not be overly susceptible to the culture industry's latest wares. They'll be able to sample them, or turn completely away — they'll have better things on their minds.
[Edmundson is quoting Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, 5.3:
Pandarus: What says she there?

Troilus: Words, words, mere words.
I'm reminded too of Hamlet, 2.2:
Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words.]
A related post » Mark Edmundson tells it like it is

comments: 3

Anonymous said...

I love these types of posts! Exploring the relevance of the humanities in today’s “dumb-dumb- I want a business degree- generation” fascinates me. I often wonder how the humanities will survive in this instantaeneous, capitalistic age we live in. Keep up the good work Dr. Leddy!- I mean Michael

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the comment. Look up Edmondson's book; it'll inspire you!

Genevieve Netz said...

When human beings try to come to terms with who they are and describe who they hope to be, the most effective medium is words.

I observe that it remains very popular for politicians (and people who hope to influence politics) to put out a book. Why? Well, they can carefully choose each word, for one thing.