Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Language as classist

Here in the U.S., we like to think of ourselves as a classless society. And in some ways, it's true. With a certain amount good fortune and hard work, you can move from one economic class to another or the reverse, if your fortune's not so good. Many of the members of my parents' generation moved from the working class to the middle class in that prosperous time after WWII. And people marry up and down the economic system.

Education too can move you along. In unheard of numbers, children of the working class are getting not only college educations but advanced degrees and moving into a professional class of workers with the possibility if not the reality of professional wages.

I've been thinking about class issues these last two weeks as I edit a number of doctoral dissertations from a variety of institutions. All these writings in various fields and on various subjects have one thing in common: a highly inflated and stiff form of the language. Some are particularly obtuse and abstract. This kind of language is prized in very few places but it is prized in academia and it creates an elitism, a snobbery that is disconcerting to me.

Two of the writers are very liberal feminists and yet they are writing in a way that excludes many women from access to their ideas (which are quite fine). They would say that they are playing the game, that without learning to write like this they cannot succeed in graduate school and that may well be true. But having written a dissertation in plain English (albeit several decades ago), I don't think that's true. I think it is true that it's a game, but it's not a good one. For that kind of writing is classist--only a certain narrow class of intellectuals can access that information. Not very democratic, I don't think.

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