Thursday, March 31, 2016

Block Gobbledygook - Save the Humanities!

First, let me say what a pleasure it is to be writing a piece where I am able to deploy the word "gobbledygook."  The word, spoken out loud, sounds like what it means: gibberish. Before I lay out why I am highlighting it, I should set some context.

Just a few days ago, Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard University and a noted historian, gave a speech at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point entitled " To be 'A Speaker of Words and Doer of Deeds' - Literature and Leadership" where she made the case for the vital role of the humanities and the power of language in leadership. She remarked that although West Point was the country's first college of engineering, over the past 50 years its course of study has evolved more to resemble a liberal arts curriculum.

Professor Faust cited a study that found "75% of business leaders say the most important skills in their work are the ability to analyze, communicate and write- the skills that are at the heart of the humanities." Yet, she observes, liberal arts education is under attack. For instance,  at one of the Republican presidential primary debates Senator Marco Rubio asserted "we need more welders, less philosophers."

Of course we need both ( I won't dwell on the observation by one commentator that Rubio should have said "fewer" not "less"). Many believe a major reason why the humanities are under assault is the fault of academic scholars, in particular their predilection to alienate readers by obscure, often unintelligible writing. Here is an example, mentioned in an article by Bruce Cole, former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, quoted in the February 3rd Wall Street Journal. Mr. Cole found it in a recent book by an unnamed university humanities institute director, laughably entitled a Manifesto for the Humanities. Warning: Gobbledygook Alert!

"Writing this book, I came to see the new scholar subject as a performance of passionate singularity, hybrid materiality and networked relationality. This is one sense in which the  humanities scholar that is becoming is possibly posthuman, and a posthumanist scholar.The locus of thinking, for the prosthetically extendable scholar joined among the currents of networked relationality,is an ensemble affair..."

I defy anyone to tell me what  all of that - or any of it- means. As Mr. Cole says "In some parts of the academy such obscurantist writing is seen as a sign of brilliance."  Bring on the welders.

Mr. Cole continued: " I believe clear writing is the result of clear thought and that the use of jargon is sometimes the lazy way to avoid hard thinking." In January 2015 I posted a blog entitled "Are You My Thought Partner"  ( advocating the need for clear written and oral expression in non profit management.  Mr. Cole and Ms. Faust's observations reinforce that imperative and its importance to leadership in whatever sector.

The Sciences are not exempt from attack either and, like the Humanities, can be their worst enemy, providing fodder for critics. Here's an example, again from the "Notable and Quotable "  section of the Wall Street Journal, March 3. A paper published by the University of Oregon and supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation is entitled "Glaciers, Genders and Science: A Feminist Framework for Global Environmental Change Research." I guess the thesis has something to do with exploring the role of gender in understanding ice. It should make for interesting reading, if you can understand it.

So there is plenty of gobbledygook in writing and gobbledygook in finding arcane subjects for research, even before the  writing begins.  Let's all work to put a stop to it before it's too late and we are buried in mounds of meaningless words. Politicians will always engage in non sequiturs, obfuscations and the trite. Our revenge is at the ballot box. But for others who communicate in any kind of business it is almost our duty to "call them out" and insist on clarity.

 Comments on this and any other post always welcome