Sunday, January 29, 2006

Good Writers: Richard Mitchell

Shortly after I wrote the “good writing as writing” post, Arthur disappeared from the Internet again. After that, I tried to get up the willpower to write the promised series, and kept coming up short.

Every day I would think about posting and decide against it. I’d read other sites that I love and tell myself that I really don’t have anything important enough to add, and then I got very busy with work, and then I finally contacted the people at Crooks and Liars who had helped me find Arthur’s new site when he had shut down his original “Light of Reason” blog asking them if he were all right.

I came back from the weekend to find no reply, but then when I re-tried Arthur’s new site, “Once Upon a Time,” I found that he had come back. Not only that, but he had posted my favorite group of his posts, the series on the power of denial, called ‘The Roots of Horror,’ on a second website he had just started up.

It seemed a day for posting once again.

So, let’s start this series with a short post on the Underground Grammarian, a crusty college professor whose real name was Richard Mitchell.

Richard Mitchell started a newsletter making fun of the academic bureaucracy in his college in the 1970s, which began by making fun of their language, and as time went on, became more philosophical and much wider-ranging than simply a mocking correction of other people's grammar. This was at the height of a sort of post-60s movement to make teaching sound more scientific by using scientific-sounding terminology. As I went to primary school in the 70s and felt the effects of this to some extent in my own schooling, I found his writing very funny and apt. He had a brilliant way of stripping the verbose silliness of its pretentions and showing it to be, in fact, empty of content. I remember vividly how he mocked hapless Ph.D students – and faculty – in the field of education, for using references to “circles” and “spheres” and talking about nonsensical role plays and other classroom activities designed to basically force kids to accept certain premises rather than making them think (usually using the term “the affective domain” which somehow sounds better than “well-meant brainwashing”). He continually reminded people of some unpleasant truths – first, that learning is not supposed to be either entertaining or prescriptive; second, that schooling as dictated by government standards cound not possibly ever produce truly educated citizenry; and third, that learning takes place in an individual mind, not in “group activities.” These truths should not really be all that unpleasant, but it appears that they are.

What was kind of amusing about him was that he collected a large following of iconoclasts. Some, like George Will (who would do well to go back and re-read the entire Underground Grammarian oeuvre now and get back to good serious writing), were conservative, others were merely grammar purists, others were homeschoolers who agreed with his attacks on government schooling but wished to carry out their own version of it using religious prescriptives rather than social ones (who were often chastised in the pages of the newsletter for their own version of sloppy thinking), still others were people like me, who love reading and love clear writing and love to think of things in new ways and learn new things.

I am not as good a writer as Richard Mitchell was (he passed away in 2002). I often catch myself writing bureaucratese (I work for a USAID-funded project, and it is hard to avoid falling into the trap of jargon and using long words to say nothing and to hedge). But, because of Richard Mitchell, I cannot avoid recognizing my own bad writing when I re-read it, and thanks to him (although actually it is sometimes rather a curse in my line of work), I see it and point it out in other written materials that I am supposed to edit, proofread or “give feedback on”.

Richard Mitchell’s ability to see through empty writing and his very witty takedowns of it made me a much more critical reader. This has helped me to learn more from, and to get more good out of, the things I read.

Mitchell also inspired me to read some classic works I would not have sought out before reading him, such as Boswell’s entire Life of Johnson (which was a much more enjoyable experience than I had imagined).

For all of Mitchell’s Underground Grammarian newsletters as well as longer essays and selections of classic texts that he compiled, go to Mark Alexander’s site where he has collected all of it on line. I don’t agree with Mark Alexander on very many political issues, but he and I sure do agree that Mitchell was an inspiring and amazing writer.