The Parlance of Professors

August 19, 2015 1027


A liberal arts education was once intended to liberate the mind. Like gardeners pulling plants out of small pots and planting them in more open ground, teachers attempted to free students from the intellectual constraints of their upbringing and facilitate their exploration of new ideas, inside and outside of academia. Over time, however, as departments became more intellectually incestuous and scholarly conversations grew more and more distant from the world outside of institutional walls, that “freedom” became its own kind of constraint: language.

Orwell suggested back in 1946 that as thought can influence language, so too can language influence thought. Laziness is the primary cause of imprecise expression and of allowing popular and well-used phrases do our thinking for us, but now there is also an expectation within the realm of higher education to speak in the peculiar manner of academics: using ill-defined, ambiguous, and complex words like “patriarchy,” “hegemony,” “neocolonial,” and “deconstruction” are necessary, as they have been made the center of the conversation despite nobody being able to agree precisely on what these intimidating words really mean.  To make matters worse, students are expected to understand and emulate writing that is so compulsively precise that the exact meaning is actually lost in the muddle ( For example, “omit needless words” might become “one should usually omit superfluous descriptors or clauses so as to avoid confusion or obfuscation, unless other stylistic or semantic circumstances do not permit the omission”). Clarity and original thoughts no longer earn A’s. It’s B work at best, and more often in the C range.

Given the effect that using this academic language has on a writer’s own patterns of thought—“we are what we repeatedly do,” as the saying goes—students should pay very close attention to how they write for two reasons: first, being aware of this tendency can help students to remember what is expected to earn good grades, and remember that it is not their ideas that are important for the grade, but the appearance of comprehension on the subject at hand. Since the subjects being discussed in liberal arts are so vague and abstract that any disagreement with the professor can be construed as incomprehension, the ideal essay is not a composition of the students’ own take on the matter, but a summary of the material presented to the student with somewhat-related references and quotes supporting the thesis. If middle-management is in your future, the application of this kind of skill may be more important than the material content you are supposed to be learning anyways.

The second and more important reason is that being aware of this relationship between patterns of writing and thinking may allow students to pass through a University liberal arts program with their cognitive abilities intact, like a vaccinated man walking briskly through a crowded airport in the peak of flu season. Better still, it might point them towards other sources of knowledge and fresh thinking on important subjects, or even help them reconsider the enormous investment in a four-year or six-year degree given the abundance of job-options out there that provide an enjoyable life and don’t cost the surrender of one’s critical-thinking.


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