We in the UK are often told that GCSE's are too easy and that standards are slipping. Quoted in the Daily Mail, the nerve centre of decent, honest reportage, it is noted that secondary school exams are "as easy as falling off a log". So, could we start to combat this with avowedly more complex curriculum material and tougher demands on pupils?
The author and columnist Will Self once exemplified his own daughter's educational duties as proof of limp expectations in schools. She was given a well-known Dickens book to read, but was informed of the ending by her teacher on the grounds that:
having read the little gobbets served up for interpretation, according to her pedagogue there was no necessity for her to try and choke down the whole indigestible meal.
For Self, setting students to read the whole "meal" (as he puts it) would adequately prepare them for tougher battles and encourage the passion to seek bigger and better challenges. In fact he uses this notion to justify his own use of obscure, and long, words in his fictional work.
Long acclimated to the perception that he uses unfamiliar, and uncommon, words in his writing, Self understands this as a sort of anti-intellectualism. But he recognises there is more to it than that. More than anything many of us approach the written word as something that should simply inform, not challenge us.
On the other hand, the written word poses challenges anyway, so the most effective way to communicate this challenge is to simplify. This was the primary lesson George Orwell taught us in his influential text The Politics of the English Language.
In it, Orwell poses six lessons which will markedly improve writing and, despite the message behind it, help turn bad writing in to good. They were:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
We can see from the second lesson where the conflict between what Orwell appreciated in good writing, and how Self prefers to practice it, are. However it should be appreciated that Self's sesquipedalian ways are not for their own sake, nor do they fall into some of the other lessons that Orwell mentions in his 1946 essay.
Orwell raised the alarm about pretentious diction and meaningless words, too. In the former, words like phenomenon, element and objective might be used by writers to "give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgements", while using foreign terms like mutatis mutandis, gleichschaltung or weltanschauung may be employed to "give an air of culture and elegance." In the latter, words like romantic, sentimental and vitality might be used simply to replace blank space with something rather than nothing.
Aside from Self arguing that his "texts were as full of resolutely Anglo-Saxon slang as they were the flowery and the Latinate", his insistence on the uncommon word is neither meaningless nor designed to hornswoggle the reader into submission.
For him it is nothing more than a way to rekindle the love of the word, and a sure fire way of avoiding the acceptance of what he called "a banal middlebrow culture".
In this sense Self does not contradict the wishes of Orwell in using a long word where a short word will do, because no shorter word would suffice. Instead, to eschew a world of the watered down and the vulgar, only an appreciation of the depth of the English language will do. Orwell would have understood the need for this.