A couple of months ago, I was having dinner with some new friends who are only a decade or so younger than I. While we were discussing the bank bailouts and Wall Street disaster, I was met with blank stares when I said that trying to find an honest man in lower Manhattan these days made one feel like Diogenes.
At another dinner a couple of decades ago, a friend who is a well-known cartoonist, told me he'd had a cartoon rejected by the humor editor of a major magazine because, said the editor, these days no one knows who Sisyphus was.
I'm hardly a scholar of ancient Greece and I've been known to confuse Roman writers with Greek ones, but shorthand references to Diogenes and Sisyphus are common enough – and have been for about 3,000 years – that they should be recognizable in general conversation or a joke.
Now comes Ralph Keyes, writing in Editor & Publisher, to admonish journalists and commentators for what he calls “retrotalk” by which he means
“...employing terminology rooted in our past that may not be familiar to younger readers. Or immigrants. Or anyone at all, for that matter.
“Journalists who lace their copy with such retro terms or names risk alienating those who are too young to get the allusions. Even common catch phrases that hearken back to earlier times may be puzzling to younger readers: stuck in a groove, 98-pound weakling, drop a dime, bigger than a breadbox, or a tough row to hoe. (As one giggling third-grader asked when his teacher used this one, 'Isn’t ho a bad word?)”
Mr. Keyes isn't talking about pre-Christian era philosophers or even Teddy Roosevelt. In his argument, even contemporary references are too much to ask young readers to understand:
“When a Minneapolis Star Tribune article included the line, 'And by the way, have you stopped beating your wife?' many readers wondered why the paper would pose such an off-the-wall question. (Lawyers have long considered it a classic query that can’t be answered without self-incrimination.)”
Yes, that is the standard question in Catch-22 situations – even well outside legal circles - which makes it hard to understand why Mr. Keyes feels he must explain it to the presumably older writers he is addressing. (Oops - “Catch-22” may be, according to Mr. Keyes, too archaic for some to understand.)
Apparently, what Mr. Keyes does not understand is that the retrotalk phrases he cites as “verbal fossils” derive their value through repeated use negating the need for several paragraphs of explanation and, more importantly, serve to transmit our culture from one generation to the next.
Throughout my lifetime, a good deal of my continuing education has resulted from my elders' use of references I didn't understand and sometimes didn't ask about, not wanting to reveal my ignorance at the moment. But I tracked them down later and learned. I'm pretty sure I wasn't taught about Diogenes in school, but discovered him through such an incident.
What Mr. Keyes is asking for then is a deliberate “dumbing down” of American youth. The phrase was made famous in the early 1990s by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in reference to declining education values and the subject was resurrected by Susan Jacoby in her 2008 book, The Age of American Unreason. In a Washington Post article published around the tiime the book was released, she touches on a corollary to that dumbing down:
“That leads us to the third and final factor behind the new American dumbness: not lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge. . .it’s the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place. Call this anti-rationalism — a syndrome that is particularly dangerous to our public institutions and discourse.”
That smugness permeates Mr. Keyes' commentary without any thought to the dumbing down of American discourse. Instead, Mr. Keyes wants us to believe journalists' historical and cultural references are an exclusionary tactic:
“Falling back on retro-references this way can give press coverage the flavor of a private conversation among those born before 1960. The implicit message to younger readers seems to be: Hey, if you don’t know what we’re talking about, maybe you should butt out. Haven’t you got some twittering to do?”
Or, young readers might, at the very least, visit Wikipedia instead. Should journalists take Mr. Keyes seriously, education will become a more a Sysiphean task than it already is.
Just now, having my first cup of coffee while getting ready to post, I discovered that today's story has disappeared from my computer. It was easy to figure out what happened: I saved a page with some notes and discarded the one with the story. Damn.
It's going to take awhile to re-create it. I'll will post it here as soon as I've done so. Meantime...
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mary E. Davies has been thinking about her former husband in About Face.]