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Debunking The Muse

“Whatever our course in life, we are largely the product of our very words.”
(Albert Camus)

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”
(Ludwig Wittgenstein)

Higher education is the key to enablement, the soul of empowerment. It stands--many aptly contend--as one of few bastions of hope in modern civilization. We, who, by dint of choice or fortune, inhabit the world of learning and teaching, mentoring and training are compelled to broaden opportunities and maximize outcomes as we endeavor to serve the needs of those whom we engage. Individually and collectively, we can thus restore hope where it might otherwise recede, wither or slake into oblivion.

Toward this end, I implore colleagues and peers (across disciplines and divisions) to confront and surmount one of the most deeply entrenched obstructions of our time, fallacious assumptions invidiously rampant in the secondary post-secondary arenas alike: specifically, the amalgam of myths and misnomers that thwart and often halt the pursuit of effective critical thinking and honed communication skills. Bizarre paradox, disarming in its manifestations, and demoralizing in its consequences. Explicitly or implicitly, yet without respite and as though at every turn, we fall prey to baseless axioms that mislead and delude. It is surely time to debunk the muse. Vigilantly consider, if you will, the following commonplace hypotheses, all mis-guided, all derisive: that sharp thinking and effective communicative skills are the harvest of some intangible and innate talent, possessed at birth or forever absent (false!); that there lurks deep within the chosen few that gift of bonded thought and articulation, a secret key to clear, sharp, precise turns of phrase -- and that, all others, keyless and clueless, are subject to a life of incoherent drool and babble (false!); that the tools of logical reasoning and effective self-expression cannot be imparted or acquired, but rather must be mystically gleaned (false!); that the success of career pursuits (from the moment of interview forward) is ultimately determined by the content of a résumé, not by the yield of the word (false -- yet again!).

We must undo and do in the glut of hypotheses that disallow the empowerment of those invested in the learning process so that they will reap the riches that come from the adept exchange of ideas. It is surely not practical that every student-apprentice dabble in the eloquence of tradition, negotiate the style of the classics, disinter the art of poetic flair. That logical concession notwithstanding, all must take ownership of language so that thought might find a fitting vehicle of transmission. That irreducible need erupts everywhere in life, and, subjacent to surface, links the e-mail to the memorandum, the executive summary to the laboratory synthesis, the telling of a tale to the chat at family dinner, the letter of grievance to the thank you note, the academic synthesis to the formulation of a well-honed grant request; the brief exposition in class to the dialogue that ideally ensues between interviewer and interviewee.

Whatever our course in life, we are largely the product of our very words. “More often than not,” Richard Wright declaims, post-empting the Camusian utterance: “destiny is, surprisingly, a linguistic phenomenon.” With this in mind, we must embrace the culture that language bespeaks, we must seek to make others hear and read what it is we have to say or write. We must abandon the belief in impediments and impart the principle of enablement.

My attempt here is not to simplify the irreducible. The acquisition, development or enhancement of communicative skills, verbal and written alike, calls for a proactive, deliberate and unyielding engagement with language – a conscious and unceasing commitment to forfeit old habits and adopt new ones, to forge a path and foresee the destination. We must lead our students along that alternate passageway toward a prosperous end, which is, ultimately, a new beginning. Systematized and rational, the channel to effective, message-driven self-expression, sometimes seemingly labyrinthine, if followed through faithfully, promises untold rewards – enduring and lifelong. Without magic, without legend, without providential intervention. At long last, let us debunk the muse!

Dick Barnett
Staff Writer