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On Thought and Language: Communication Takes Time

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Norman Cousins, the long-time editor of Saturday Review who, in recent years, was best known for his books on illness and the psyche, died Nov. 30 at the age of 75. The following essay was submitted to Time magazine shortly before his death and published posthumously. We thought it well worth reprinting:

A neighbor's daughter showed me a question from a state bar examination she took recently. It called for a 500-word essay having to do with an aspect of interstate commerce.

My concern here is not with the question; I assume it pertained to a conventional legal issue. My concern rather is with the time allotted for the essay: 30 minutes. This absurd limitation for a serious piece of writing is not unusual. Essay-type questions in high-school and college examinations routinely allow half an hour or less for expository answers. In the very act of testing writing skills, the schools foster poor writing habits.

Clean, precise writing or speaking requires systematic, sequential thought. Words have to be crafted not sprayed. They need to be fitted together with infinite care. William Faulkner would isolate himself in a small cell-like room and labor over his words like a jeweler arranging tiny jewels in a watch. Thomas Mann would consider himself lucky if, after a full day at his desk, he was able to put down on paper 500 words that he was willing to share with the world.

Much of the trouble we get into (as individuals or organizations or as government) is connected to sloppy communication. Our words too often lead us away from where we want to go; they unwittingly antagonize friends or business associates. We are infuriated when our position is not understood and then becomes the collapsing factor in an important business deal. Or we are terrified when the leaders of government miscommunicate and put their countries on a collision course.

The school can have no more important function than to teach students how to make themselves clear. But by putting speed ahead of substance, the school creates false values. Racing against the clock is not an ideal way to organize one's thoughts or arrange one's words.

The same hazards apply to speed-reading. Yes, we are bedeviled each day by a mound of papers, and we need to have some way of getting swiftly at the vitals of letters or articles or presentations. But the habit of skimming is too easily carried over to creative reading. Few things are more rewarding than the way the mind can hover over a luminous paragraph or even a phrase, allowing it to light up the imagination. The way the mind transforms little markings on paper into images is one of the highest manifestations of human uniqueness.

The teacher in high school who made the greatest impression on me would often devote the full classroom period to a single passage from a literary work, helping us get inside the author's mind and effect a junction between purpose and artistry. I still have a vivid memory, for example, of the way she slowly read the passage from Swift in which Gulliver was tied down by the Lilliputians. Each word became part of a picture in the mind. I don't know how long it took Swift to write this particular description, but it helped open young minds to the kind of imagery that belongs to creative expression. We had the same sense of literary splendor when our teacher read--so carefully and lovingly--from Thomas Hardy or the Brontes, or when she asked one of us to read Flaubert's word portrait of Emma Bovary.

On the opposite extreme, one need not strain for specimens of poor communication in everyday life. Like polluted air, it surrounds and encases us. I see it in the wording of informed-consent papers that patients are asked to sign before undergoing medical procedures. I see it in the small print of insurance policies or on the backs of airline tickets. I struggle over it in tax forms or information from government agencies. I agonize over it in the instructions that come with do-it-yourself kits. I strain to comprehend it when I stop to ask directions, or when I hear a sports announcer explain why an outfielder played a single into a triple or why a wide receiver ran the wrong route.

Much of the stumbling and incoherence that gets in the way of effective communication these days has its origin in our failure early on to develop respect for thought processes. The way thoughts are converted into language calls for no less attention in formal schooling than geography or mathematics or biology or any of the other systematic subjects. Squeezing essential meaning into arbitrary and unworkable time limits leads to glibness on one end and exasperation on the other. We need not put up with either.

Vol. 10, Issue 17, Page 27

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