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Published in Print: June 23, 1999, as Reality and Style

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Reality and Style

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Hi, everybody. I want to, like, you know, share with you, how I, like, got around to choosing my title tonight. It's "Reality and Style," and I hope it, like, impacts you.

I, like, you know, went to see the associate dean and asked what I should, like, you know, talk about. And she goes, "You mean, like, a topic?" and I said, "Whatever." So she goes, "Well, your talk should be, like, real, and like you know, stylish." So, I, like, chose "Reality and Style."

Now. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. If I really talked the way I have just talked, you would think me a foolish grown man running around behaving as a poorly educated, illiterate, and ill-spoken teenager--or a preteenager. You would take me to be a witless parody of an adult, a scholar, and a member of a profession. You would be exactly right.

If you are a bit more subtle, you will also realize that in my opening words, I included a euphemism that is by its nature dishonest and manipulative. I said I wanted to "share with you," when the truth is that I wanted to tell you something. Telling is not sharing, and speakers who describe themselves as sharing rather than telling try to give their audience the impression that they are performing an act of generosity, possibly even sacrificing something for the sake of the audience, when in fact they are performing an act of persuasion. So, the truth is, I don't have anything to share with you tonight. But I do want to tell you something about reality and style.

In reality, the way I talked earlier is not a style of speaking or thinking at all. It is the absence of style--a matter of swallowing whole and regurgitating whatever happens to be merely fashionable among some of the young and among some immature adults. In a setting like this, my willingness to talk in such a fashion amounts to treating my audience disrespectfully. You deserve better than that from me. You deserve my very best--and no one can habituate himself or herself to the transient dictates of fashion in speech and thought and still retain any hope of giving anyone his or her best.

What is true for me is likewise true for you. You cannot give the children you teach, or your colleagues, or your family and friends, your best, if you reduce yourself to mere embodiments of lowest-common-denominator fashion in speech and thought. In reality, such talk in the presence of children is an impediment to their learning respect for, and acquiring a love of, language. It is a dreadful thing to talk or think in any way that obscures to the young the enormous power of language rightly used--for learning, teaching, and giving our best to one another.

You are professionals, just as I am. You are adults, just as I am. The differences between us in age and experience are differences in degree, not differences in kind.

Within a very short time, you are likely to have professional responsibilities every bit as serious as mine. Nothing I do in my work, ever, is more important than what so many of you have already done in your teaching practica and what you will do in the future that will affect the lives of the young to whose education you are supposed to be dedicated. Dedication means delivering our best--not mirroring some shallow fashion.

If your habits of speech resemble the way I started out tonight, break the habits now, or risk being thought unprofessional by your more experienced colleagues in the field and the parents of your students; risk feeling powerless, because people take you to be immature and ignore what you think and say. Worse, break the habits now, or risk having children harm themselves by imitating you. The reality is that all of us, including children, are creatures of imitation and habit. All good teachers speak, think, and act in ways that children may safely imitate to their benefit, not to their harm--and make no mistake, children don't miss a thing. They often imitate the behavior and speech they witness, when we haven't even noticed that they have been paying attention.

Talk in the ways I aped at the start, and you can teach your students, in one breath, bad grammar--as in changing tenses in midbreath from "I said" to "she goes"; and misuse of words: She didn't "go" anywhere; she spoke, not merely in response, but in reply, to my question; improper use of nouns, such as "impact," as if they were verbs. In no time, you can teach a child disdain for both clear thinking and expansion of vocabulary, by taking refuge in "whatever" instead of bothering to think anything through in carefully chosen language.

It is tempting, but false, to say, "Talking this way is just words; it doesn't mean anything." Oh, yes, it really does. How we talk is a window into the soul, into how and what we think and feel, every bit as surely as the talk of people who use racial, ethnic, and gender slurs and epithets shows how they think and feel. Our words matter. Everywhere, and always.

I suspect you know as well as I do why fashionable, even if mindless, patterns of speech, and of dress and conduct, tend to exercise dominion so easily in the lives of school-age children and youths, and in the lives of adults who have grown older but never grown up. Sounding and looking the same as other people sound and look, especially age-group peers, can yield the comfortable feeling of belonging, fitting in, not standing out as odd, estranged, divorced from the mainstream.

Most of us yearn for acceptance, and all of us yearn to be spared loneliness. Sounding and looking the same as other people sound and look can yield the comfortable feeling of belonging.

Most of us yearn for acceptance, for the comfort of acceptance, at least some of the time, and hope to avoid ridicule and disparagement by others; and all of us yearn to be spared loneliness. These facts about us help to explain why fashion itself is a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry, and why so many among us are more concerned with appearance than with reality. Many youths have not yet figured out the differences between loneliness and solitude; some people never do. Avoiding solitude in hope of avoiding loneliness, filling solitude with media entertainment, increases the pressures of fashion and makes those pressures more relentless, ironically contributing more to loneliness and fear of loneliness than productive solitude ever does.

I am 57 years old, and so it is 40 years since I was the age of the high school students some of you will teach. Adolescent life seems to me slightly more frenetic and frantic now than I found it to be in my teens, and sexual experimentation may be somewhat more commonplace; but the pressure of fashion as such has not changed much, and the characteristics of human nature that give fashion such immense power have not changed at all. Neither has the capacity of the young to be contemptuous of and cruel to peers, because of countless infantile prejudices and thoughtless passing fancies.

Perhaps the greatest perceptible change is that the pressure of fashion reaches into the lives of children earlier than it did when I was a child. Many of you who have taught elementary and middle school children will have found them to be precocious in the sense that they are already keenly alert to fashionable speech, dress, and patterns of behavior, and have developed early many of the proclivities of adolescents. A disconcerting number of them are not permitted much time to be children.

Many adolescents say outright that they are more powerfully influenced by their peers than by any of the adults in their lives--parents or teachers. Some of them will learn as the years pass that they were more powerfully influenced by their teachers, and by parents and other adults, than they knew at the time; some will never realize that, even if it is true; and some will have been right--who and what they become will depend largely on chance: who their peers happened, by chance, to be.

Much more of reality than that is a matter of chance: We do not choose our parents, and we seldom decide, as children and youths, who will be employed by schools to teach us. A child or youth who enters a classroom where you teach enters by the luck of the draw--and whether that student's luck is good or bad depends squarely on you.

Knowing, as you surely must, that the cultural environment in which many students live--including, far too often, neglectful parents who, even if affluent, make themselves too busy for their children; exposure to adverse peer pressure driven by preoccupation with popular entertainment and fashion; relatively easy access to illegal drugs and criminally diverted prescription drugs--this cultural environment contains almost nothing that is devoted to drawing out and cultivating the best in the young. So, their opportunities can be fearfully limited to find fulfillment in the cultivation of their talents, and to find happiness in becoming, and keeping company with others who have become, people whose self-respect and consideration for others transcend the dictates, the tyranny, of fashion.

Some of these children and youths will be lucky. They will be lucky because you are their teachers. Your professors know something about what your best is, and so do you. In our Junior Pinning Ceremony, you promised to deliver your best every day. If you had participated in no such ceremony, you would nonetheless be making the same promise implicitly every time you think of yourself as, or call yourself, a professional. The word, and the promise, matter.

So: You cannot honorably go from here and live a life that collapses into, "Like ... you know ... whatever." You, and your teaching, must rise above fashion to the achievement of style and grace in language, thought, and action--you must rise to the reality that your students desperately need you to teach them as well as you possibly can. Go. Keep your promise.


Edwin J. Delattre, a professor of philosophy, is the dean of Boston University's school of education in Boston. This essay is adapted from his remarks at the school's robing ceremony last month.

Vol. 18, Issue 41, Pages 48,51

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