Thursday, April 29, 2004

History is not so very long ago

Went to a special event this week. I graduated from the School of International Affairs (now the School of International and Public Affairs) of Columbia University in the City of New York in 1978. This year is the 250th Anniversary of the University. It was founded as Kings College by George II. So to commemorate this event, Columbia sponsored a film about the University and the event was the screening of the film.

The film was made by Columbia graduate Ric Burns who is a noted historical film maker. Among other things he did the 3 hour American Experience on the World Trade Center that was recently on PBS. While Columbia paid for the film it had no editorial input on the film.

It was fascinating to see the film and the changes the University went through from its first foundings. Most of the changes that make Columbia what it is happened during the 20th C. When I was there, Columbia College still was not admitting women. If you were a woman you went to Barnard, but could take classes in the College.

Columbia was a wonderful experience for me from a learning perspective. At first I was concerned that I wasn't learning anything. Then I realized that what I was learning, was how to question, how to think and analyze. It was a most profound change in me. In fact it is what my whole career was about - but that is another topic for musing.

The film also brought out the fact that they don't coddle you there and that if you find your feet, you can survive anywhere. VERY TRUE.

Some other truths:
- it was the first time I felt what hate was. I lived in NY - on the edge of Harlem and people looked at me, didn't know me, and projected hate. It was tangible.
- I was a lesser being. I had gone to a state school (University of California Berkeley) not an ivy league school. I came from upper middle class parents whose net worth was less than $1 Million and didn't do the country club or debutante route.
- I was a Jew, but not a jew - a western jew - a reform jew.
- I was in a great cultural center and could visit museums and the performing arts as much as time would allow.
- it was a time of great hope for the future. Carter was in the White House and it looked like Middle East peace could be a reality.
- it was a time of change. My class was a third to half women and we were getting top notch jobs upon graduation.
- it was a time of personal growth. No longer was I just someone's daughter or preparing to become someone's wife, I was becoming me and I could handle anything that came my way.
Of course I wasn't blind to the problems around me, but they weren't going to stop me. It was an interesting time.

Friday, April 02, 2004

The Dumbing Down of America

I know that I'm not the first to get frustrated with the phenomena of the dumbing down of nearly everything we encounter. It is just that with the passing of Alistair Cooke - with his wonderfully delicious way with the english language and thoughtful insights into life, that it becomes more poignant.

In the 2nd grade I read at the 6th grade level. In the 6th grade I worked my way through all the John Dickson Carr and Margery Allinghams I could get my hands on. I loved reading and the flow of words across the paper. In the 9th grade, we had a book - 100 days to a Better Vocabulary. It is a very good book for expanding ones vocabulary, but I already knew most of the words. Most of my peers struggled to get 50% on the exam each week.

When I began work in 1980, they sent me to a Writing for Business class. In short, my memos were to be written at no higher than a high school level and any procedures no higher than 8th grade. If a word was longer than 8 letters or 3 syllables, it was suspect. I understand the need, but I deplore the result.

I remember watching the news as I grew up with Cronkite and Chancellor and others. They used language as well as pictures to get information and concepts across. I remember the facility they had with language and while I'm sure it was still carefully edited for really unusual words, it was still far more exacting than what we hear today.

Language use can be like a dance. We see it rarely now on shows like West Wing, Charlie Rose, and Nightline. I miss the give and take that included double and triple entendres -- people don't even think in terms of them any more.

If we don't have the language skills to exactly express what we mean, then how can we be expected to understand difficult and multi-layered concepts? We forget to question what goes on around us. We lose interest in getting to the truth, because it is buried so deep in muck that we can't even see its glimmer. We lose the facility to think clearly. Perhaps the reason we are seeing so many people with Alzheimers is because we forgot how to do the mental gymnastics to keep our brains sharp?

What ever the reason, each one of us in our own way needs to fight this trend. Teach your children well. Read a "good" book periodically. Exercise your vocabulary with Crossword Puzzles - at least at the New York Times level. Use your vocabulary to say what you mean and mean what you say. It can't hurt and can only help - you and the world around you.