Phi Beta Cons

Clear English Versus Educationist Babble

Back on April 21, the Wall Street Journal juxtaposed two writings in its “Notable and Quotable” feature. The first is by Frederick Douglass, who was almost entirely self-educated:

Dear Harriet: I am glad to know that the story of your eventful life has been written by a kind lady, and that the same is soon to be published. You ask for what you do not need when you call upon me for a word of commendation. I need such words from you far more than you can need them from me, especially where your superior labors and devotion to the cause of the lately enslaved of our land are known as I know them. The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You on the other hand have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day—you in the night. I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes of being approved by the multitude, while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred, and foot-sore bondmen and women, whom you have led out of the house of bondage, and whose heartfelt “God bless you” has been your only reward. The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown—of sacred memory—I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have. Much that you have done would seem improbable to those who do not know you as I know you. It is to me a great pleasure and a great privilege to bear testimony to your character and your works, and to say to those to whom you may come, that I regard you in every way truthful and trustworthy.

Your friend,

Frederick Douglass

Contrast that letter with this abstract by a super-educated scholar of today:

The abstract for a paper by Patrick Callier in the linguistics department at Stanford University, published in 2014 by the peer-reviewed journal Discourse & Society:

This article critically examines the mass-mediated portrayal of social class and commodity formulation in a corpus of US television advertisements for the Ford F-150 pickup truck, aired in 2007. The use of stereotypical diacritics of white-collar and blue-collar social identities in the ads circulates a representation of class identities as consumer categories, even as the ads’ portrayals of class difference reproduce hegemonic relationships of markedness between ‘middle-class’ consumers and other social categories. Examining representations of different phases of commodity formulation and social voices loosely associated with these phases, I show how various social identities are subjugated to the commercial ends of the advertising encounter, and how the advertisements both induce consumer behavior as well as reshape hegemonic understandings of social difference and inequality.


George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.


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