We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so somber, and a rain so penetrating, that further outdoor exercise was now out of the question.
That is the second sentence in Charlotte Bronte’s 19th century novel Jane Eyre. According to Microsoft Word, it scores an 11.1 grade on the Flesch Kinkaid readability level.
Now, I’ve always been a qualified fan of Rudolph Flesch and his book The Art of Plain Talk. Even more than that, how can a person who values Benjamin’s Franklin’s pioneering work in developing phonics, possibly complain about Flesch’s famous work, Why Johnny Can’t Read.
Furthermore, so much time has melted since I read Flesch’s Plain Talk that all I can do here is offer qualified recommendations to people who want to learn some basic principles of public speaking.
However, to understand why I went on that rabbit trail, I need to write some more opening sentences from a more recent book than Jane Eyre. Consider these words, because they are very, very revealing:
Sophie Amundsen was on her way home from school. She had walked the first part of the way with Joanna. They had been discussing robots. Joanna thought the human brain was like an advanced computer. Sophie was not certain she agreed. Surely a person was more than a piece of hardware?
I must state here and now that I have not read Sophie’s World, though I know of many children who have and many schools that use it. I don’t know why he wrote the opening paragraph to this book on philosophy at a 3.6 grade level.
Perhaps it was because he was being overly concerned about his audience: knowing they were being invited to think hard about issues that the greatest minds in history have still not settled and, for some reason, wanting junior high and high school students to engage in these matters, perhaps he felt like they shouldn’t have to pay too close attention to what they were reading; so he made it simple.
Or maybe he was trying to capture the implications of the mind working like a robot, so he wrote the opening paragraph in a robotic/computeristic manner. Maybe the reader will encounter complex syntax later in the book.
I turn randomly and optimistically to page 223 and read these words:
What was the difference between a dog and a person? She recalled Aristotle’s words. he said that people and animals are both natural living creatures with a lot of characteristics in common. But there was one distinct difference between people and animals, and that was human reasoning.
How could he have been so sure?
This paragraph draws me in and makes me want to read more, but probably (I cannot be sure until and unless I read much more) not for the reasons most authors would hope. First, I sincerely hope that he will not so simply dismiss Aristotle’s ideas.
I suppose a teenage girl might ask that question, especially one who has been conditioned toward skepticism by the structure and process of her education. But the question is really rather silly. If she remembers Aristotle’s words, then how can she possibly not remember that every word that preceded and followed them was the reasoning behind his being “so sure?”
What exactly were Aristotle’s words? They aren’t quoted here, only a paraphrase.
In what context did she experience them? Did her teacher give her a quotation or even a paraphrase himself, thus preventing her from encountering these words in their context?
I’m asking those questions so as to expose myself to ridicule. I know that a book would not survive if they had not been addressed at some level. Flipping through a few pages I note that the author places great emphasis on mystery and uncertainty. The ending indicates a father – daughter dialogue has been going through the entire book.
But here is something interesting. Page 189, in a chapter entitled The Renaissance, a time during which cultured life was enamored of, perhaps inebriated on, Platonic party games:
Philosophy is not a harmless party game. It’s about who we are and where we come from. Do you think we learn enough about that at school?
Nobody can answer questions like that anyway.
Yes, but we don’t even learn to ask them!
This goes to the heart of my concern. Here we have young people being confronted with questions that they are convinced can’t be answered. The reader is confronted with a 3000 year stream of philosophical speculations, from Aristotle, to Democritus, to Freud.
To be comfortable with this book, I need to know that the students are being given a coherent set of tools and a sound tradition to maneuver the wild shoals of metaphysical speculation.
I have been engaged in philosophical studies for 25 years, since I first tried to read Plato’s Republic. I’ve been engaged in theological studies much longer, since I started memorizing Bible verses and doing exegetical studies of the epistles of Paul. I’ve learned a few things in that time, though not much.
One thing I’ve learned is that a child should not be given this rope to hang himself if he does not have a mentor to guide him through it.
And that’s why the opening paragraph bothers me so much. This is a book about philosophy! You can’t do philosophy at a 3.6 grade level. You can learn about it, but why would you teach a child that there are no answers about who we are and where we come from, or that if there are answers the most recent discoveries indicate that they are blobs of protoplasm waiting to become manure.
There is, I am suggesting, a breakdown in the form of writing and the content of writing, at least in this first paragraph, that points to a much deeper and more penetrating breakdown between the content of the book (the history of philosophy) and reality (the content of metaphysics).
Permit me to recall Gaarder’s paragraph on Aristotle:
She recalled Aristotle’s words. He said that people and animals are both natural living creatures with a lot of characteristics in common. But there was one distinct difference between people and animals, and that was human reasoning.
That opening sentence should not be seperated from the next. The act of recollection should not draw the readers attention, but the words of Aristotle. Or rather, since they are not quoted, they should probably not be referred to. Instead, i would suggest something more like this: Aristotle had said that…
Then, at the end, when a phrase should have received more punch, more isolation, more distinctiveness, he blends it in with the preceding sentence. one distince difference between humans and animals: human reasoning.
Short sentences should only be used for emphasis, especially in a philosophical text. That is Flesch’s fatal mistake. Because everybody seems to write this way, our minds are being reduced to simplistic thoughts, thoughts that cannot be extended beyond the immediate subject and predicate, thoughts that don’t demand that we recall the main idea for more than eight or nine words.
The person who needs those sentences should not be studying philosophy. He should be studying grammar and learning how to read, two vital foundations for philosophy.
Please note that my primary concern here is not with philosophy but with writing. I’m arguing for the long sentence, contending that we have made ourselves stupid by refusing to express a thought that cannot be reduced to a single clause, by putting periods between every clause and sometimes phrase, by eliminating the semi-colon from the realm of comprehension, by compelling students, even in college, to think about matters for which the reading materials they have encountered have disabled them, by developing an attitude of resentment toward any writer that challenges their intellects beyond a single conjunction.
Have you tried to read Paradise Lost? The challenge is not the length of the sentence, though they are frequently immeasurable; the challenge is remembering the subject of the sentence. But if he had not written it that way, he would not have written the same poem, and the reader would have suffered for it.
We can write very well for business and advertising. Sometimes we get by on scientific writing. But to write about things that matter greatly: metaphysics, theology, ethics, politics, the arts, I say, to write about these matters demands that we be able to control more than a single clause at a time.
We cannot think beyond the capacity of our syntax.
The irony is that Flesch, who valued Plain Talk and Phonics so highly, has undercut Johnny’s ability to read by justifying writing that would keep him stuck at the mental development of a child in 3.6 grade.