Oh, the Humanities!

(Many thanks to The Big Bang Theory for providing me with this entry’s title.)

I recently found myself, as I often do, defending the role of the humanities in public secondary education. (I will not discuss the context of this defense, but please trust that my words were relevant and heartfelt.) In the past when I’ve done such a thing I’ve been asked, “What do you mean when you talk about ‘humanities’?” I’ve wanted to answer, “The same thing that any educated person means when she uses that word,” but instead I explained what the humanities are: areas of study such as literature, history, philosophy, and religion that shed light on the human condition.

The humanities are part of the liberal arts, which also include art, natural and social science, and math. The word “liberal” is used in the original sense of “free”—meaning, in ancient Greece, the subjects appropriate for a free person, subjects that would help him participate in politics and society. In ancient Rome, the liberal arts consisted of the Quadrivium—arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music—and the Trivium—grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

I (and I’m not the only one) worry that many people see secondary schools as well as colleges and universities as places of vocational training only. According to these folks, the purpose of education is to prepare people for jobs, not to teach them to think for themselves about the world around them. Therefore, it follows that schools should focus on STEM skills, and history and language arts departments exist to serve the study of science, technology, engineering, and math.

The thing is that many CEOs and other successful business people disagree with these claims, as is evident here and here and here. They want employees who can think and who can communicate and who can entertain multiple perspectives.

Lest I seem to value the humanities to the extent that they serve the market, let me that this is not the only (or even the main) reason they should play a larger role in education. I agree with Stanley Fish and David Brooks when they say that the humanities are valuable in and of themselves.

Sadly, it is those who are diminishing the role of the humanities who need them the most.

Published in: on June 1, 2015 at 10:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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To See or Not to See . . . What Those Words Mean

The other day, I went to the mall, and as I was passing Forever 21, I had to stop. In the window was a shirt with Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy printed on it. I stopped not because the typeface was difficult to read, although it was, but because I was confused as to why someone chose to put that particular speech on a cheap piece of clothing. The obvious answer, of course, is “to make money,” but that answer raises the question of why the designer thought these words would do the trick:

To be, or not to be–that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep–

No more–and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep–

To sleep–perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause. There’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely

The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscovered country, from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprise of great pitch and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry

And lose the name of action.

To be clear: Hamlet is contemplating suicide. This internal conflict manifests itself in the soliloquy’s very first line; Hamlet must determine whether he’ll continue “to be” or decide instead “not to be.” He really couldn’t be any clearer. Should he “suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or “take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them”? The “sleep of death,” he says, would “end / The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to.” He notes, however, that “in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause.” After all, he figures, there must be a reason people “bear the whips and scorns of time, / Th’oppressor’s wrong,” and so on, when they could simply end it all instead. It must be “the dread of something after death,” he says, that “makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of.” In other words, it’s either the devil we know or the devil we don’t, and Hamlet chooses the devil he knows.

To recap: Hamlet is contemplating suicide, and the only thing that prevents him from committing it is the fear that whatever world comes after death will be even worse than this one.

Why would anyone want to wear that sentiment emblazoned across her torso?

I mentioned my soliloquy sighting to my two classes who read Hamlet earlier this semester. They were as appalled as I and explained that people might wear such a shirt so that others would think they were smart. (For the record, these students are not elitists by any means, unless they’ve been hiding it extremely well.) Maybe I should be happy that people want to be perceived as smart or educated, although I’d rather they want actually to be smart or educated.

A step in the right direction may be seeking to understand words instead of simply flaunting them.

Published in: on May 1, 2015 at 11:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Trivializing Pursuit

Yesterday my Facebook news feed revealed a meme comparing Hillary Clinton to Adolph Hitler. (I will not dignify the meme by linking to it.) Suffice it to say that I told the poster what I thought.

That anything an American politician can do to approximate the horrors perpetrated by Hitler is highly unlikely, to say the least. More insidious than this suggestion is the trivialization of Nazi atrocities that such statements involve.

The analogy demonstrates not only an ad hominem attack but also the association fallacy of Reductio ad Hitlerum, a phrase coined by philosopher Leo Strauss in 1951. Sadly, the use of Reductio ad Hitlerum (also known as “Playing the Hitler Card”) has only increased in recent years. It is not limited to one political party, and anyone is fair game, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who is Jewish), former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, both Presidents Bush, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, and President Obama. Individuals and groups compared to Nazis or the Nazi Party include the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the Tea Party, the Gay-Lesbian-Straight Education Network (GLSEN), gay people in general, the National Educational Association (NEA), and police officers.

If everyone seems to be a Hitler nowadays, then everything seems to be a Nazi policy or a Holocaust. (Like many Jews, I prefer the word “Shoah,” or “burning,” to Holocaust,” or “sacrifice” because it is more accurate and less of a whitewash. I use “Holocaust” here because that is the word used by the people in question.) Examples include such diverse (and sometimes opposing) phenomena as abortion, the Affordable Care Act, animal abuse, criticism of the wealthy, criticism of Fox Newsimmigration laws, ending filibusters, Guantanamo Bay detention, gun control, the Iraq War, lack of health care, national debt, regulating for-profit colleges, refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex couple, requiring a bakery to serve all customers regardless of sexual orientation, smoking bans, federal student loans, taxes, and vaccines.

These comparisons go beyond simple hyperbole. The problem is neither the logical fallacy nor the lack of imagination needed to commit it; rather, it is the aforementioned trivialization. If refusing to bake a cake for a couple is as bad as a Nazi policy that contributed to the deaths of millions of people, then it follows that Nazi policies that contributed to the deaths of millions of people were no worse than refusing to bake a cake. The dwindling number of Shoah survivors and World War II veterans distances us from the atrocities they endured and witnessed. We must keep their memories alive.

Several years ago, one of my students thought it would be funny to sieg heil me. (A classmate, to his credit, tried to stop him.) The young man in question was not evil, or even bad. He was immature, and he just didn’t get it. His dad got it; I could feel the man’s mortification over the phone when I told him what had happened. We are surrounded by words and phrases like “feminazi” and “Grammar Nazi” that dilute the reality of the Shoah, though, so it is not surprising that a teenager would not understand the gravity of the situation. As adults, we must set a good example by not taking the easy way out with shabby rhetoric, and we must set others on the correct path when they stray. When one of my students–or colleagues–tosses around the word “Nazi”–or “slavery,” or “rape”–I explain the idea and danger of trivialization and have the student find a less damaging and more accurate word or phrase. I owe it to those whose voices have been lost.

Published in: on April 19, 2015 at 2:34 am  Leave a Comment  
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Ye Olde Blogge Poste

Yes, the title of this post is ridiculous. I recently visited Savannah, where I saw a store called Ye Olde Tobacco Shop. We’ve all seen “Ye Olde” attached to names in order (I assume) to make the name seem quaint or old-fashioned. It’s not the motivation but rather the origin of this construction, however, that interests me. To figure out where “Ye Olde” comes from, we need to look way back to the Anglo-Saxons. Their language, Old English, did not have a definite (nor an indefinite) article. The word that became “the” was the Old English version of “that.” Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Old English was an inflected language, meaning that the form of a word, as opposed to its position in the sentence, indicated its part of speech. A noun or pronoun had one of three grammatical genders–masculine, neuter, or feminine–and appeared in one of five cases: nominative (subject), genitive (possessive), dative (indirect object), accusative (direct object) or instrumental (the means by or with which something is done). In addition, nouns and pronouns could be singular or plural. To determine which for of “that stone” to use, a would-be translator could look at the following chart: Singular Nominative  sē stān      Plural Nominative        þā stānas …………  Accusative   þone stān            Accusative         þā stānas …………  Genitive        þæs stānes         Genitive             þāra stāna …………  Dative            þǣm stāne         Dative                þǣm stānum …………  Instrumental    þӯ stāne         Instrumental     þǣm stānum Stān is only one type of noun, but I won’t even try to go there. In fact, let’s put aside nouns and focus on the demonstrative “that.”  Stān is a masculine noun, but remember that nouns and pronouns (including demonstratives) may be neuter, feminine, or plural, as well. The following chart shows all the forms of “that.” (Variations existed, but thankfully for all involved, they are beyond the scope of this post.) ………………….Masc.           Neut.            Fem.         Plural (“those”) Nominative     sē                þæt                sēo             þā Accusative      þone            þæt                þā              þā Genitive          þæs             þæs                þǣre         þāra Dative             þǣm            þǣm               þǣre          þǣm Instrumental   þӯ               þӯ                                       þǣm You’ll notice that almost every form of “that” begins with a þ (“thorn”–pronounced [th]). In time, as English became less inflected, the masculine singular  became the word for “that,” but it also adopted the initial /Ɵ/ (th) sound of the other earlier forms. At some point, it started being used as a definite article, as well. How does any of this relate to “Ye Olde” anything? Eventually, as scribes wrote or copied manuscripts, they used a symbol for þ that looked a lot like their letter “y.” Thus, when later readers saw ye, they read it as “ye” instead of þe. “Ye Olde” means simply (and should be pronounced as) “The Old.” This last bit raises the question of where “olde” came from, but the answer will have to wait. ************************************************* I found the following sources helpful in refreshing my memories of things I learned long ago: Barnhart, Robert K. (Ed.) Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. New York: Chambers, 1988. Print. Brinton, Laurel J. and Leslie K. Arnovick. The English Language: A Linguistic History. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. Print. Cassidy, Frederic G. and Richard N. Ringler. Bright’s Old English Grammar & Reader. Chicago: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1971. Print. “A Short History of the Word ‘The.’” Xefer. n.p. n.d. Web. 8 April 2015.

Published in: on April 10, 2015 at 8:57 pm  Comments (2)  
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Memory of an Ill-Spent Life?

I’m not suggesting that my life has been ill-spent. The proverbial jury is still out on that one and, I hope, will be for some time. The life I’m referring belongs–belonged–to another.

I’m already getting ahead of myself.

I’ve begun writing an essay about a dream I had about 15 years ago–a dream in which one of the most reprehensible people I’ve ever known (and I’ve known some pretty reprehensible people) returned from the grave to threaten me. (I won’t go into detail because doing so may count as publication, and if I finish this thing, I’ll probably want to pitch it as a previously unpublished work. Plus, I really don’t feel like getting into it right now.)  I really want to focus on the dream, but I will need to give at least a little background. it occurred to me, however, that should I publish the essay, said reprehensible person would be, on some level, immortalized. I don’t want to immortalize him.

Am I rationalizing an as yet unmade decision not to continue a project that forces me to think of things I’d rather not think about? I can see where that might be the case. I realize, of course, that this is what much writing involves, and I haven’t rationalized abandoning other unpleasant projects. Whether or not I am rationalizing, at any rate, I think the point is valid.

I think I’ll continue writing the essay, at least for now. Even if I never send it out, writing it will help me be a better writer. Who knows? Maybe as I write, the essay will go in some direction that will compensate for the immortality factor. Maybe it will even turn into something else entirely.

There’s only one way to find out.

Published in: on April 5, 2015 at 9:46 pm  Leave a Comment  
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I Long for a Bed . . . of Sloths!

The other day, I was creating a PowerPoint on subject-verb agreement and was working on a slide about collective nouns. Because several sample sentences on previous slides related to sloths (another story for another time), I typed “What is a group of sloths called?” into Google’s search bar. The first–and so far only–site I visited was Quizlet, which had a set of flashcards appropriately titled “Collective Nouns (Animals by NK).” I learned that a group of sloths is called a “bed.” Some other interesting names of groups of animals include:

a candle of anteaters

a cackle of hyenas

a prickle porcupines

a romp of otters

a wake of buzzards

an implausibility of gnus

an array of hedgehogs

a constellation of starfish

a wisdom of wombats

Finally: A group of bears–my second favorite animal–is called a “sloth.”

I look forward to sharing these with my students, and when I finish the PowerPoint, I’ll post it on this blog.


Published in: on October 10, 2014 at 11:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Because the Days of Awe–in Judaism, the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur–have just passed, the word “awe” is on my mind. I’m not sure if this is the case for everyone, but I say it the same way I express my happiness at seeing kittens: awww!  Once again, I lack access to the Oxford English Dictionary, but once again, another OED–the Online Etymology Dictionary–satisfies my curiosity about a word’s origin.  According to the latter, “awe” comes from ME aghe, which perhaps is from ON agi  (“fright”), as is OE ege (“fear”). Of course, our “awe” means not simply “fear” but rather a combination of fear and profound respect. This more recent connotation seems to have arisen from the word’s use in translations of the Bible, where it appears in reference to G-d.

The word “awful” has undergone an even more dramatic semantic shift than “awe.” It originally meant what one would expect: “full of awe” or “worthy of fear / respect.” It seems to have taken on today’s more negative, yet diminished, meaning in the early nineteenth century. If I can get to the library this week, I will investigate further and post my findings.

Published in: on October 6, 2014 at 2:32 am  Leave a Comment  
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Orange You Glad?

In one of my classes today, the phrase “comparing apples and oranges” came up. When it did, I was able to share this little known fact: “Orange” referred to the fruit before it referred to the color. I think many people assume it’s the other way around, that the fruit is called an orange because of its color. In fact, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary (I don’t have access to the OED at the moment), the former preceded the later by some 400 years. Do you know any other words like that?

Published in: on September 26, 2014 at 9:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

Apostrophes Part 1

My curiosity about apostrophes began when I noticed the sheer number of apostrophe errors in my students’ writing. Speaking with other teachers inspired questions about the punctuation mark’s origins, particularly in English. A little research intrigued me but raised more questions than it answered.

Apostrophes in contractions came from French, which had employed them in the sixteenth century. The use of apostrophes to indicate possession, however, ultimately derived from noun forms in Old English, which is inflected. In Old English, both plural masculine nominative (subject) and accusative (direct object) a-stem nouns and their singular masculine a-stem genitive (possessive) counterparts end in an “s”– –as and –es, respectively.[1] Singular a-stem genitive nouns also end in –es. For example, ModE “stone” was OE stānes (stones) in the plural nominative and accusative but stānas (stone’s) in the singular genitive. Likewise, ModE “ship” was scipes (ship’s) in the singular genitive.

How stānas and scipes became “stone’s” and “ship’s,” however, remains a mystery. Some believe that the second a in stānas and the e in scipes were replaced by apostrophes, but others point out that between scipes and “ship’s” existed “ships” as a singular genitive, meaning that by the time the apostrophe was introduced, there was no “e” for it to have replaced. In addition, this explanation would mean that the “s” changed from an affix, a part of a word, to a clitic, which may be attached to a word but functions as a separate word; such a shift is unlikely.[2]

Some people point to a construction called the “his-genitive,” which would appear as “The king his crown.”[3] This construction appears in such venerated works as Layamon’s Brut, Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale,” and Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 55.” A contraction of “king his” would necessitate an apostrophe: thus “The king’s crown.”

The step from “king his” to “king’s” is simple enough, but what if we replaced the king with a queen? We’d have to explain how “queen her” became “queen’s.” Some suggest the his-genitive was more common than the her-genitive or, for that matter, the its-genitive, but I don’t quite understand how “her” and “its” became “’s.”

[1] Many thanks to my well-worn copy of Bright’s Old English Grammar & Reader, as my Old English is a bit rusty.

[2] Naoko Kishida, “Some Notes on the Genitive s-Marker in English.” N.d. Web. 25 September 2014.

[3] John Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language Vol. 1. 2 February 2009. Web. 25 September 2014.

Published in: on September 25, 2014 at 11:06 pm  Comments (2)  
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Don’t Be Disconsolate

The other day, I was introducing my students to a new vocabulary list. One of the words, “disconsolate,” caught a young man’s attention. “If ‘disconsolate’ means ‘sad,’ and ‘dis’ means ‘not,'” he said, “does ‘consolate’ mean ‘happy’?” Not having heard the word “consulate” before, I looked it up.

Although I easily could have looked up the word on my computer, or ask the students to look it up on their phones, I walked over to  set of dictionaries and look it up. To me, for whatever reason, looking up a word in a dictionary conveys a love of words for their own sake in a way the other methods do not. Perhaps I’ll explore possible reason wshy in a future post.

“Apparently, the adjective form of ‘consolation’ is ‘consolatory.'”

The student thanked me, and we moved on. I hope that in some way I encouraged even one student’s interest in words, but, if nothing else, I fed my own curiosity.

Published in: on September 23, 2014 at 9:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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