Dumbing down the Declaration of Independence
Today we have posted part 4 in the series we are co-posting with Moreover. Diane and Michael Ravitch are the authors of “The English Reader: What Every Literate Person Needs To Know“. Diane is Professor of Education at the Steinhardt School of Education, New York University. Her books include “The American Reader”, “The Language Police”, “Left Back” and “The Troubled Crusade”. Michael Ravitch is a freelance critic and writer, his work has appeared in the New Republic, Yale Review and other publications. Be sure to check out parts one, two and three also.
A few years ago I read a story about an industrious high-school teacher in the Midwest who had taken it upon herself to revise the Declaration of Independence. The original version, she claimed, was too challenging for her students, the language too inaccessible. She hoped that her newly simplified version would sweep the nation’s schools, and after that success, she planned to move onto the Constitution and beyond.
It’s amazing how cavalier we are about language. If we were to wake up one day and discover that an alien force had pillaged and emptied the world’s art museums, there would certainly be an indignant public outcry and a huge sense of loss. But the vanishing of our literary classics has hardly been noticed, or if noticed at all, greeted with a certain smug contempt.
What counts as a “classic” has always been in dispute. Literary reputations rise and fall; individual tastes vary. What is new, however, is the idea that these books shouldn’t be studied at all, that the transmission of culture from one generation to the next is a waste of time.
After all, goes the argument, in a world in which entertainment has the highest value, how can we dare allow education to be less than entertaining for even a moment? And accustomed as they are to the passive stupefication of pop culture, how can students be expected to rise to the challenge of mastering something difficult? So why not translate our most sacred documents into the most rudimentary language?
While we may think we are liberating ourselves from the artificial and the old-fashioned, we are in fact impoverishing ourselves. We are whittling down our language to the lowest common denominator and, along with it, our possibilities.
The authors of the Declaration of Independence had the cadences and structure of great poetry ringing in their ears. The nobility of the document’s ideas are inseparable from the grandeur of its language.
Of course language evolves, a fact that we understand as natural and right. But that does not mean we have to sacrifice the ideal of literature. Our greatest writers know that language can shock and inspire and soar; this is the true meaning of poetry, and it is a meaning we still need today.
By Michael Ravitch