In âProfessors, We Need You!â
, an essay that came out in the Sunday Review of the February 15, 2014 issue of The New York Times
, op-columnist Nicholas Kristof set off a rancorous debate in the U.S. mass media when he argued that academics are beholden to a publish-or-perish tenure process and a culture that âglorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.â
Kristof observed that academics seeking tenure have a pronounced tendency to encode their insights into turgid prose. âAs a double protection against public consumption,â he said, âthis gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals â or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.â He then quoted a Harvard University historian, Jill Lepore, who said that the result of all this is âa great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose.â
As might be expected, Kristofâs views triggered an avalanche of denunciations and rebuttals from the academic community both in the U.S. and abroad. Before providing links to a sampler of them, however, Iâm taking the occasion to present first my own take on the âpublish or perishâ syndrome, Philippine style, as articulated in âWhen Educators Befuddle,â an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times
sometime in 2003. I think that reading that essay beforehand will put the debate on the issue in much clearer perspective particularly on how the usual run of academic English reads and sounds like.
Iâm now posting the essay in this weekâs edition of the Forum as my own position regarding the English that a good number of Filipino academics use to formally present their ideasâa position that, sad to say, Iâve found no reason yet to change in substantial measure over the 12 years that Iâve been advocating plain and simple English. (March 2, 2014)When educators befuddle
My son Eduardo, who was then in third year high, got befuddled one day by a source material he wanted to use for his school report on Philippine culture. He had chanced upon it on the op-ed page of one of the leading newspapers.
âDad, I found a very impressive report on the effect of culture on globalization,â he said. âThe only problem is that I canât seem to understand what itâs saying. Can you help me? Listen:
Basically, globalization indicates a qualitative deepening of the internationalization process, strengthening the functional and weakening the territorial dimension of development.
You always told me that Iâm good in English, but I just canât seem to understand this one!â
âLet me take a look,â I said, getting the paper and quickly running through the passage. âOh, no wonder! Itâs those educators speaking again, with their imprecise and obtuse English. Well, son, what they probably meant was this: âGlobalization is a deeper form of internationalization, one where a nationâs drive for development becomes more important than its territorial size.â In even simpler English, a nation can be small but it can become a major world economic power.â
âThat certainly makes sense,â he said, âbut why do these educators say it the way they do? They are writing not only for English experts but also for people like me, arenât they? Why then use such fuzzy words as âqualitative deepeningâ and âterritorial dimension of developmentâ? Why even use them in a newspaper like this?â
âSon, this article was not written for you. It was probably done with the best intentions for their fellow educators and higher-ups, but somehow it landed on this newspaper without being adapted for readers like us. In any case, donât ever think that anyone should use an âEnglish for expertsâ only. Linguists perhaps, but these educators, no. They should have used English that newspaper readers like us can understand.â
âSo why publish at all if they couldnât be understood anyway?â
âWell, son, in academic circles thereâs a jaded saying: âPublish or perish!â You must publish your work no matter how trivial or badly written, or you donât count for anything. You are dead fish. So in some countriesâours includedâ there has evolved something called vanity publishing. Itâs a growing industry that aims to meet this needâand also to massage some big peopleâs egos. Every now and then, of course, some good ideas with social value get across somehow through this mode, but more often they donât, as in this case.â
âI see. But, Dad, hereâs a great passage that seems to be clear enough for my school report. Listen:
The Philippine national culture is rooted in the people, their land, and their experience. From these develop their way of seeing and living, their systems of thought and values, their customs and traditions, their crafts and arts, their problems and their triumphs, that which they dream of and aspire for, and ultimately the national culture that they recognize in consensus and commitment.
Impressive! Do you think I can use it?â
âIâm not too sure, son. That sounds suspiciously trivial, more like a piled up definition of culture in general, but the authors just seem to have made it look like it was unique to Philippine culture in particular. You can apply the same thing to Kenya and Tobago and Palau and it will still be correct. In their own circles itâs called ârank tautology,â a needless repetition of an idea in different words. In fact, they could have reduced all of those 62 words into the words âPhilippine cultureâ and nothing would have been lost.â
âTough luck then! Now Iâll have to look for some other source material for my report,â he said, almost wailing. âBut wait, Dad, hereâs something that Iâm sure will impress my teacher. Listen:
The third posits that education paves the way towards the designated type of societyâwhich, to our belief, is a modern and humane society characterized by a comfortable quality of life in a peaceful, global and multicultural connection demonstrating adaptability and flexibility of a people without necessarily vitiating the core values that they hold or which define their culture.
Isnât it great English? Iâll probably get a 95 for my paper if I used it!â
âHold it, son, hold it! That sentence may sound nice but it actually says almost nothing. No new insight whatsoever. Notice how all of the 59 words are straining and groaning to define what needs no definition, because everybody already knows it deeply in his heart: that society needs good education to prosper. Donât tell me that you still donât know that!â
âYouâre right, dad,â he said dolefully, âof course I already know that. But aargh!
I guess Iâll just have to look elsewhere for something more substantial and readable for my school report.â
----------This essay originally appeared in the authorâs âEnglish Plain and Simpleâ column in
The Manila Times and subsequently became Chapter 142 of his book
Give Your English the Winning Edge. Manila Times Publishing Â©1969 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved. READINGS ON THE CURRENT U.S. FUROR OVER ACADEMIC WRITING:Nicholas Kristof's âProfessors, We Need You!â in The New York Times
Below is a sampling of the responses pro and con to Nicolas Kristofâs op-ed essay:Joshua Rothmanâs âWhy is academic writing so academic?â in NewYorker.comRev. Adam J. Copelandâs âWhy Nicholas Kristofâs Latest Column Stings So Much and Why Heâs Rightâ in HuffingtonPost.comErik Voetenâs âDear Nicholas Kristof: We are right here!â in WashingtonPost.comGeorge Shenâs âWe need to hear more, not less, from our intellectualsâ in the South China Morning PostKwok Pui-lanâs âFeminist Professors Are Not Secluded Monksâ in FeminismandReligion.com