Communicating in many languages

“Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:7, KJV)

Genesis tells the story of the Tower of Babel, which ends with the Lord scattering the people across the world and giving them different languages. Maybe that’s where it began, but the process of creating new languages is ongoing.

The lifeblood of human society is communication. It is what holds us together. It is what enables us to move forward together. It gives us the power to name the things in the world in which we live, to define the roles we play in life, to share traditions as well as newly conceived ideas, to express devotion and fear, and attempt to capture the mystic.

Communication is not limited to speech, or writing. People can communicate through non-verbal sounds, through gestures, through music, through dance. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. We have developed a universal language for saying “no,” by using a circle with a diagonal line through it. We have devised a language that is capable of describing with precision quantities, volume, shapes, movement through space, and degrees of force – the language of mathematics.

The languages we use are in a constant state of change. New words appear, old words change their meaning. “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” Juliet asked, as Romeo hid beneath her balcony. Modern readers assume she was inquiring as to his location, but none of them actually use the word “wherefore” in their daily speech as people in Shakespeare’s time did. It meant why, not where, and Juliet is asking why the boy she just developed a crush on had to turn out to be a member of a rival family. Her next line is “Deny thy father and refuse thy name. Or if thou wilt not … I’ll no longer be a Capulet.” She is questioning fate, not her GPS.

Within each language, dialects appear with words that may or may not ever enter the standard version of the language. At any given time there might be a multitude of these variants from the standard, which may be perfectly suitable for communication for their users, but which could be confusing and seem “incorrect” to non-users.

Dialects can arise in ethnic communities and be nurtured in relatively closed environments. Dialects can sweep across the land borne by mass media targeted at specific audiences. Specialized versions of the language can develop along with technology – a whole vocabulary that is transparent to the tech-savvy, but opaque to most others. And there can be a specialized language that develops for use in a particular medium – KWIM?

Recently, a school administrator shared with me an insight that he seemed to find particularly encouraging. He told me that kids are actually writing more today than they did 10 years ago – because of all the texting they are doing. I had to fight the urge to LOL. Could he really be suggesting equivalence between texting and, say, writing a persuasive essay? Is the quantity of writing the relevant measure here?

The fact is that we all communicate, all the time. Many of us are fluent in more than one language. Most of us are fluent in more than one dialect. Almost all of us, whether we are conscious of it or not, practice code-switching – alternating between two languages or dialects – on a regular basis. The key is to use the appropriate language for the setting in which it is used.

Schools should not deny the validity of dialects, especially those that are in vibrant use by students. In fact, they should embrace and even celebrate the fact that students can communicate effectively in different modes.

But schools should not ignore their responsibility to teach effective means of communicating that the students may not be picking up on their own. Students should leave high school able to use standard English in verbal discourse. They should be comfortable with the conventions of public speaking. They should be able to write a business letter, a persuasive essay, a research paper with proper citations. Students should be cognizant of their own code-switching, understand its utility, and should not be trained to think that one form of communication is per se inferior to another.

The lifeblood of human society is communication. We can’t allow ourselves to be confounded by the many forms it takes, or distracted by the mistaken idea that there is only one style of communication that is always appropriate and correct. Form is dictated by content, by audience, and by purpose. It is only incorrect when the intended message does not get through. We need to be able to communicate effectively in all of the many languages that are spoken in the different areas of our lives.

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Creating …

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

This quotation, attributed to Charles Holland Duell, commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office from 1898 to 1901, has often been used to ridicule the notion that the product of human inventiveness was finite – and that we had reached its point of exhaustion. A pretty short-sighted perspective from anyone living in the modern era, and particularly coming from the man responsible for the registry of new inventions. But did Mr. Duell actually utter these words?

The quote was traced by researcher Samuel Sass to a book that had been published in 1981, long after Mr. Duell had died. In 2011, law professor Dennis Crouch conducted a Google search for mention of the phrase “everything that can be invented” and essentially corroborated Sass’s finding. Google found no mentions of that phrase from prior to 1981. But Crouch did discover another possible origin – a 1899 edition of Punch Magazine. Neither researcher found a contemporary attribution of the quote to Mr. Duell.[1]

Consider for a moment the idea that a person living at the dawn of the 20th century could think that technological advancement had run its course at the end of the 19th. Now consider how much easier it was for Professor Crouch to do his research circa 2011, than it had been for Mr. Sass circa 1989, before the internet had come into widespread usage. Even the process of debunking the erroneous attribution was affected by new inventions.

One invention opens the door for another invention. Information technology facilitates the exchange of information, and leads to the generation of new ideas. We keep trying to make our lives easier by turning what used to be laborious and time-consuming into a simple operation that might require just a few keystrokes. Progress is measured by how much work we can turn over to the machines we have made.

We have disassembled the old order in which we used our natural skill at problem solving to devise better ways to do things by hand, and replaced it with one in which we interact with machines that do these things for us. Freed from labor, we are now infinitely more free … but to do what, exactly?

In his book A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink points out that manufacturing technology has eliminated much of the role of skilled craftsmen in our economy. Furthermore, information technology has led to the creation of machines that can solve problems by evaluating far more information than a human mind could. So what is left after machines have taken over the jobs making things, and taken over the jobs figuring out how to do things?

According to Pink, it is creativity and empathy – the ability to generate new concepts and the ability to operate on the level of our shared humanity. Medical schools are now teaching students how to understand patient histories through narratives rather than simply through questionnaires. Corporate recruiters are now seeking applicants with Master of Fine Arts degrees, not just the usual crop of MBAs. [2]

Recognizing the importance of creativity and empathy requires a significant paradigm shift. We have spent generations creating tools that can do what we can do, better, cheaper, and faster. But by living among the machines that are supposed to free us from the rote and the mundane, we have to some extent made ourselves more machine-like and less free.

This is not some science fiction story in which the hapless humans become servants to their own machines. But there is a reason stories like those have some resonance in our collective consciousness. When our school systems invest enormous energy into preparing students for multiple-choice tests to generate data and measure progress, one must wonder – is this what we really need our schools to do – to train students to feed information to a computer? Is it in anyone’s best interest that we reward only the kind of intellectual achievement that can be demonstrated with a No. 2 pencil on an answer sheet?

Fortunately, some decision-makers on the leading edge of economic growth have recognized the importance of creative thinking. The medical schools and corporate leaders sited above understand the vast potential in individual human expression. Even more encouraging are the growing possibilities for small start-up business using the internet for those who have imagination and faith in their creative powers.

But public schools are not contributing to this growth the way that they should. We need to encourage creativity and empathy. We must recognize the danger in standardized curriculums and standardized testing that are robbing us of our individuality and our ability to imagine the unimagined.



[2] Pink, Daniel. A Whole New Mind. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005.

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Choosing the way

How many of us love our jobs so much that if we didn’t have bills to pay, we would still go to work for free? How many of us if given the opportunity to look for such a job would know what to look for? How many of us would even recognize such a job if we saw it?

Last Spring in the final project of a high school economics class, I had the students select a career they would like to pursue. There were various research tools they could use to discover the relevant numbers – compensation, rate of growth of the position, years of training required, expense of that education, etc. Students were also required to identify where they would live and to research living expenses – cost of their residence, utility bills, transportation costs, cost of food, cost of clothing, cost of entertainment, and so forth. The kids were given a detailed questionnaire that set out the categories of information they would need to find. Their task was to find the information and make choices. I was somewhat disappointed and quite concerned with the results.

A majority of the students chose their future career strictly on the basis of income potential. This is not a supposition on my part – I took a poll and the students were very upfront about it. Very few strongly considered their level of interest in the profession, fewer still considered their aptitude. Students who had proved to me over the course of months in my class that they were not dedicated students opted for careers as doctors and lawyers. Students who showed average athletic ability on the school’s playing field projected themselves having long careers in the NFL. It is good to set one’s sights high, I suppose, if one is willing to be realistic about what it takes to attain them.

But a surprising number of these students also imagined themselves living in the same suburban community where they had grown up – even if that meant a horrible commute to the central business district and forsaking the choice of a nicer neighborhood closer to work that was more in line with their substantial new income.

It was as if they could not quite imagine actually attaining the career goals they had set, so they were free to shoot the moon. But they also could not summon the courage to imagine moving away from the familiarity of home – even if staying in the community would mean a clear concession in their quality of life.

Most of my students were making choices on the basis of fantasies of wealth and sentimentality, not on the basis of aptitude and practicality. I was left feeling frustrated and concerned that these high school seniors were about to go out on their own so ill-prepared to make important decisions, and so lacking in insight about their own true potential.

We all have talents and abilities that are uniquely ours, and which make us happy when we use them. Unfortunately, most people have little awareness of their true gifts. Most of us don’t know what will make us truly happy. We feel lucky when we stumble across that rare and beautiful feeling that everything in life fits together perfectly. And yet never before in history have there been so many choices for us to make, and so many opportunities for us to find that perfect fit. We need to provide the next generation with better tools for building happy, productive lives. We need for our schools to help students learn how to make better choices for themselves.

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Finding information in the world where you live

My sons and I are from different worlds. When I was young, I listened to radio and purchased recorded music on either 45 rpm records with one song on each side or on 12-inch “long-playing” record albums (LPs) that contained a number of songs. It was years before I learned that the term “album” when applied to recorded music had originated at least a generation earlier.

You see, my father and I are from different worlds as well. In his day, records played at 78 rpm, and even though the discs were larger than the 45s I had in my collection, they could only hold one song on each side. So there were hardcover books with pages that were actually sleeves for the 78 rpm records. The original format for “record albums” was this type of book that looked like a photo album – but was in fact a place for organizing and storing recorded music. The term “album” was retained for the collections of songs on one long-playing disc, even though the hard-cover book was a thing of the past.

My father’s childhood records were replaced by the LPs of my youth, which were replaced by the CDs of my young adulthood. My sons know about CDs, but it is entirely possible that they will never own one. Their music comes from the internet. They never listen to the radio unless they are in the car with me. The term “album” has no meaning for them in the context of music. But they do know what a playlist is.

When I was young, I read books and watched television. There were some books that everyone (or so I thought) read, and some “events” on television that everyone (I believed) experienced. When I was very young, the film The Wizard of Oz was played on television every year. I recall it being on the weekend after Thanksgiving, but I’m not sure about the accuracy of that memory. I could look it up, I suppose, but I don’t feel any need to do so. The memory serves me well as a place marker for a period of time when I felt that the country where I lived had a common culture, and a finite set of shared experiences that were essentially universal. It wasn’t literally true, of course, but at one point in my life, everyone I knew could sing along to “If I Only Had A Brain.”

My sons don’t have any patience with the kind of hazy memory I hold related to the broadcasts of The Wizard of Oz. Too many times for me to count, I have described a partial bit of knowledge and within a minute or two my 13 year old has found the missing pieces in a quick online search.

My sons don’t have any real sense of the kind of shared experiences I had as a child. Last week a new television series based on the Batman character premiered. I asked my 11 year old to watch it with me. He said he would rather catch it later online. And when he does, he may watch it over and over – something that is perfectly natural for him to do, but to me that seems an odd investment of time. Not only does it diminish the special quality of the unique event, it takes time away from the potential new experiences he is giving up.

The generational differences in the way we encounter information – and in this context I include experiences like listening to music and watching movies – are significant in framing the way we think about information. In fact, the reality that we go to the same source for mindless entertainment that we access for research for a term paper also frames the way we think about information.

Experiencing information is less precious if it is an experience we can have at will, on our own schedule, without raising our eyes from our tiny screens. When filling in the gaps is easy, there is less opportunity to reflect on why we need the information in the first place. There is some virtue – it seems to me – in having to work for it, and sometimes having to wait for it.

But I approach this from my own cultural context. Anyone born in this century, and probably also the last decade of the 20th century, is likely to be able to find information in great detail with casual and refined ease. It is less clear that they will be able to use this information effectively.

Schools have a role in teaching about the nature of information, the ways to distinguish between information in terms of quality and reliability, and the ways to use information to reach original conclusions that have merit and significance. Schools should be operating in the same world as their students.


Extra credit question on The Wizard of Oz. Answer without using the internet.

What put the ape in apricot?

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Four essential skills

We need a fundamental reassessment of the goals of education in the 21st century. Students deserve to be prepared for lives that are fulfilling and uniquely their own. They need to learn how to become life-long learners. Their creative potential must be unleashed, for the sake of each individual, and for the benefit of society.

Students need to practice and become ready to refine throughout their lives the following skills:

  • find relevant information
  • choose thoughtfully
  • create boldly and intelligently, and
  • communicate appropriately


Information is no longer a precious commodity, confined to books and libraries. It is no longer accessible only to those with money or advanced degrees. It is available to anyone – often in the palm of their hand – and in greater abundance than would have been thought possible even a generation ago.

Students need to have the technical and intellectual tools to select the information that will be the most useful to them. They need to develop the ability to discriminate among the vast resources on the internet, what is reliable and what is not. They need to be prospectors and detectives, and most of all critical thinkers.


Life in human society for countless centuries involved very little real choice. Between economic necessity and social stratification, lives were pretty well laid out for most people. But today in the United States we are faced with an often bewildering variety of choices in everything from career decisions to family planning to political issues to how we are going to spend our money to fill our leisure time.

Students need to be empowered to make good choices based on a genuine understanding of their individual needs and of the available options. In terms of instructional practice this means that students should be shown how to direct their own learning, and given the opportunity to become experts in the field of their own choice.


Wealth is generated, and personal pride is grounded in personal accomplishment. The human race is imbued with incredible talent, and historically, we have only allowed for relatively few bright lights to shine. The economic growth of the 21st century will be spurred by creativity.

Students must be given the freedom to generate new ideas and create practical solutions to problems. Their work product should be assessed in its totality, not according to answers selected on a standardized test.


We live in an age of communication, and yet as our means of connecting with one another proliferate, our schools treat this new reality as an unpleasant distraction that must be stopped.

Students should be encouraged to use technology appropriately, and more importantly, to communicate with others in a productive manner. This means according text messaging its realistic place in students’ lives, and it also means teaching spoken and written communication that will enable students to communicate effectively no matter the context or medium. Communication in the 21st century involves both traditional modes with all their rules, and means of connecting that have yet to be invented.

These four skills are essential to modern life, but the standard practices in many schools work to discourage their development. Providing a set body of facts for students to learn denies them the opportunity to find the knowledge they need. Enforcing compliance with established procedures denies students the opportunity to choose. Making standardized multiple-choice tests the measure of success in school denies students the opportunity to create and to demonstrate their learning in an authentic manner. Restricting technology, a practice that is so clearly at odds with the real world needs of students in the 21st century, hampers their ability to connect meaningfully with one another.

We must do better by our children, and we can. But it will take a fundamental reassessment of our goals and a willingness to revolutionize our approach to public education.

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A personal challenge, a shared responsibility

Thinking and writing about education, synthesizing personal experiences as a student and as a teacher with the many brilliant insights I have read or heard about from others, has led me to an inescapable conclusion. We are doing something terribly important very badly.

The challenge is to find way to educate kids that is both a significant improvement on the status quo and at the same time practical. I believe that we need to rethink on a fundamental level the purposes of education, and reconcile our practices with those goals.

This is a daunting task. Consider the entrenched bureaucracies of schools, the political gamesmanship that steers educational policy, the vast sums of money involved and the powerful actors that will step up to protect their financial interests even at the expense of the people most directly affected by school policies – the children.

But the situation is not all dire. The daunting aspect is the institutional entropy, if not active resistance to any meaningful reform. The aspect that is encouraging is that nearly everyone agrees that some changes need to happen. There are brilliant ideas being generated every day by classroom teachers, college professors, researchers and policymakers, as well as by parents and the students themselves. To be sure, not everyone is on the same page, but this is not an entirely bad thing. It is possible to make meaningful progress on a small scale – as an individual, within one’s own classroom, with one new lesson that breaks the mold, by changing priorities within your own family, by generating discussion within your own community.

My own process for tackling this problem includes not just drawing from the vast resources developed by others over the years, but also a considerable amount of introspection and reflection on two decades of working in schools. Over the course of that time, my basic assumptions as well as some of the most important things I “knew” about education have changed. In some cases this was because of new information I acquired through learning what worked in the classroom, reading, and sharing with other educators. In some cases it was because real world experience overpowered some part of the conventional wisdom about schooling, and allowed human nature to show that it will always defeat institutional constraints.

I began as a teacher the way many educators do, with a fairly insightful understanding of how I learn, and a few good ideas about how to teach kids whose learning style matched my own. Over the years, experience brought both wisdom and humility. Everyone is different, and no one person will ever be able to create a system that is effective in teaching everyone. This has to be a collaborative process.

I am nearing completion of writing a book that offers one way to improve the quality of education. It proposes a different approach to teaching United States History, a course that I taught for over 12 years at four different schools and with which I am the most familiar among the classes I am certified to teach. But the core concept of the book is transferable to other subjects as well.

The personal challenge for me is to share my ideas with people who are receptive to them, and share my enthusiasm for reform with people who are willing to stand up and demand change. I hope to provide some wisdom and some guidance from the perspective of one who has lived and worked with these issues for years, but I know that I can’t provide all the energy that is needed.

Ultimately, this is a shared responsibility. I don’t have all the answers, but fortunately the answers are within the collective wisdom of everyone who cares and is willing to speak up. The future belongs to those who create it.


As of today, I will be posting on this blog every week on Mondays, but no longer on Thursdays. As much as I have enjoyed writing these essays, and as much as I hope you have found them thought-provoking, entertaining, and perhaps even useful, there are only so many hours in every week, and I need to spend a few more of them on other projects – including one I have deferred far too many times for too many good reasons – finishing the book mentioned above.

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Telling the stories of our own lives

The process of learning and the practice of narrating one’s own story came to an intersection for me at an early age. Please bear with me while I recall some fond and significant memories from long ago. I will, trust me, connect the story I am about to tell with the theme explored in the last two posts of narrating one’s own life.

I always liked stories, and I had a creative bent. From an early age I enjoyed making up characters and the imaginary worlds in which they lived. I also enjoyed drawing, and many of the sketch books of my youth are filled with scenes and actors from these stories.

I was drawn to comic books, and eventually to the related genres of comic strips and the early versions of graphic novels. I was intrigued enough by this peculiar narrative form – this hybrid of pictures and words – that I began to research the origins and history of the comics.

By age 12, I was beginning a collection of books on the subject: Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes, which included sentimental memories of growing up with the comics as well as reprints of the origin stories of Superman, Batman, Captain America and others; A History of the Comic Strip by Pierre Couperie and Maurice Horn, an account of the development of graphic storytelling that included stunningly beautiful examples of graphic design that had appeared originally in newspaper strips; Comix by Les Daniels, which included the stories of underground comics as well as the usual canon of titles more likely to be approved by parents; and the wonderfully titled All In Color For a Dime, a collection of well-researched and fondly crafted essays edited by Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson.

I also acquired collections of reprints of old comic strips – big books on Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers, Little Orphan Annie, and Bringing Up Father. I was a sponge for information about the art of making comics, regardless of the subject, and I became fascinated with the cultural context that shaped them. Through these particular books I learned about attitudes towards organized crime during Prohibition, the 20th century fascination with the possibilities of technology, economic and social conservatism during the era of the New Deal, and American attitudes towards immigration and social class.

As my social consciousness matured, I discovered that a similar development was occurring in the comics themselves. Green Lantern and Green Arrow grappled with issues like corporate greed and drug addiction. Spider-Man coped with the death of a loved one. And on the newspaper comic strip page, Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury appeared.

Doonesbury was the first mainstream comic strip that dealt directly with contemporary social and political issues. Characters in the strip struggled with changing sexual mores, used recreational drugs, took stands for or against the war in Vietnam. As the strip became more established, it began to include characters from the real world and more pointed commentary on specific people and events. When one of the fictional Doonesbury characters declared in May of 1973 that the very real Attorney General of the United States, then embroiled in the Watergate scandal was, “Guilty, guilty, guilty!” newspapers across the country yanked Doonesbury from the comics page and began running it on the editorial page. Comics could be not merely the reflection of their times, but also actual participants in the events.

In 1975, the first anthology collection of Doonesbury reprints in book form went on sale. I eagerly purchased it and therein discovered something that, initially at least, did not interest me at all – an introduction by the journalist, historian, and author Garry Wills. I read and re-read the entire collection of strips at least twice before I turned my attention to the six pages of text written by someone I had never heard of at the front of my new favorite book.

But when I did read Wills’ introduction I discovered something I think I had known for a long time, but had never been able to express in words. He pointed out that the Doonesbury characters tend to narrate their own lives. Indeed, the very first words of the strip’s long run are, “Well, here I sit at college awaiting my new roommate. I know he’ll be cool since he’s computer selected.” The obvious joke set up by this line appears two panels later, but the point Wills was making, and the revelation that occurred to me, was that we all do this. We all “create a running commentary on our own lives.” I had been doing it for years without a trace of self-consciousness and I suddenly realized that everyone else must do it too.

I believe this was the first time I ever really considered the idea that the concept of self exists in our minds in the form of a story line. And so I return today (finally – and I appreciate your indulgence) to the theme of the last two posts – that we narrate our own lives with ourselves as the hero of the story. It is important to our sense of self and to our ability to engage the world in a productive manner that we think of ourselves as successful and ultimately victorious. In a school setting, it is counterproductive to learning and personal growth if we pose so many obstacles, and so many opportunities for failure, that young people stop trying to find a way to win in school, and begin to play another game altogether – one in which their hero has a fighting chance.

And I return to this theme in this peculiar and rather personal context in order to weave into the discussion another concept important to learning.

Beginning at about age 12, I turned myself into an expert on the history of the American comic strip and comic book. No one asked me to do this, assigned me to do it, graded me on it, or put anything on my transcript acknowledging it. I don’t think I ever even mentioned to any of my teachers during the years that this was my obsession that I was doing this independent research project. I did it because the subject intrigued me and it gave me pleasure to know a lot about something I enjoyed.

I was not unique by any means. Nearly everybody has some interest that they enjoy enough to have gained some special knowledge about, if not impressive expertise in. I was fortunate enough to be able to pursue this interest in the context of a family that valued education and persistence, that was reasonably nonjudgmental about my choices, and that gave me encouragement even if they didn’t necessarily enjoy the long explanations I gave them about the differences between the Green Lantern of the 1940s and the rebooted version that appeared in the 1960s. I came out of this experience with a life-long belief that I have the ability to make myself an expert on any subject I choose. It is a good thing. I have had to use this ability a number of times.

But not everyone has this kind of support.

There are some obvious ways to give students an opportunity to succeed as scholars. This is an easy one. Encourage them to pursue their own interests. Allow them to choose topics that may not be in the standard curriculum, but that have some personal resonance for the student. Let the motivation to learn be internal rather than the usual fear of a failing grade.

Students want to learn – about a range of subjects far beyond what their teachers can imagine. Students want to succeed, and narrate a story of their own unique accomplishments.   Let’s be part of the audience that cheers them on.


The notorious Doonesbury strip mentioned above was scheduled to run May 29, 1973. Here is a link to a story about how and why it finally appeared in the Washington Post 41 years later.

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