The quote above is a wonderful embodiment of the message, per se. I take the simple explanation to infer both accuracy and precision in the language used to convey comprehensive understanding. Einstein doesn’t say that it is “good enough to know pretty much what you mean when you say” something. He doesn’t quibble or conflate. If you know it, explain it clearly, which apparently and obviously shouldn’t take long.
I have noticed a disturbing decline in breadth of vocabulary and a widespread antipathy for critical selection of words, terminology, and ideas. For example and as I have previously commented, many well educated individuals, many educators themselves, have embraced ‘failure’ as an acceptable pedagogy with which to teach our future generations. The ‘F-word’, as I call it, is liberally lauded in bombastic rhetoric that seemingly celebrates null achievement, for that is what failure is. The ‘failure is fine’ movement glorifies attempt over outcome whether the attempt is reasonable or any lessons are learned. If this is not what the movement endeavours to teach, then I question why use the F-word in as it’s leading appellation?
In the theory of Linguistic Relativity, we see that the language that we use, and the extent to which our vocabulary allows us to differentiate experience, is what provides context to our thoughts and depth to our comprehension. Quite simply, (Einstein would appreciate that) if the word green does not exist in the mind, the grass is always blueish-yellow. When we are lazy with how we describe objects, concepts, situations, ideas, etc. we weaken our ability to think critically, to analyze, to comprehend, and to synthesize our experiences into intelligent thoughts.
I defer to the expert, Orson Welles, and the description of NewSpeak from the prescient (one-time) fiction novel 1984. Specifically this outtake from 1984: Appendix – Principles of Newspeak
“Limiting language limits more than just words—it limits thought. Without the means to express thoughts beyond “I feel good or ungood”, people lack the means to commit a thought crime. Even if it were committed, it is unlikely that people would understand enough to take action. Free speech diminishes as the dictionary slims down with each new edition. There is not much difference between this action and reducing the population that could actually read the word “dictionary” if the book was placed in front of them. Without the ability to read or write, one is unaware of the concept of “free speech” and unable to know how to prevent its erosion.”
As an example of the exuberant distortion of language we as a society are facing, NPR’s Weekend Edition recorded a piece titled A Literal Truce Over The Misuse Of ‘Literally’. The arguments that ‘language evolves’ and ‘people understand what is meant’ is a clear sign of, and I aim to be candid and not offend necessarily, ignorance of linguistic evolution and an ironic dearth of critical analysis. It is true that language is born, evolves, and dies, but we must remember that the evolution of intelligence is that of increasing complexity and not of confounding, conflating, and whim-shifted definition of terms.
Imagine teaching heart physiology as “tubes and stuff in a pump-thingy, you know what I mean, with like, um, blood.” Would you trust the surgeon or even take them seriously? It is a very simple explanation and the individual certainly understands the basic parts, but where is the precision and accuracy?
As educators we need to ensure that our students are exposed to increasing diversity and complexity in language. They should practice selecting and employing specific terms for their well-established definitions’ capacity to express precise, critical thought and not just for its rank in the online thesaurus. Create and environment when students are encouraged to say out loud words that are new to them. Nurture experimentation with language. Start by having them replace simple language with near-synonyms such as “Google is a good repository of information” instead of “source” or “place for” or “site for”. Correct their written work, challenge them to rephrase and rewrite, have them brainstorm more exact descriptions, and require them to explain the terms they use in order to build their conceptual framework of language as the key to intelligence.
We can only conceive of those concepts for which we have words and if you don’t believe me, try describing a colour you haven’t seen yet. Too abstract? Go to a paint store and see all the swatches. Where once we saw only green now we see; Android, Acid, Apple, Ao, Arctic, Asparagus, Avocado….
Have an enjoyable, disfrutant, and pleasurable diurnal experience and thanks for reading.