De Profundis – or de-profounding?

“It is common to assume that we are dealing with a highly intelligent book when we cease to understand it.” (de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy, p157)

The notion of a lack of comprehension being a fundamental and innate fault of the reader, rather than the writer, is a mistake made, in many different and yet equally irritating ways, throughout the higher educational sector. A high pass rate may be seen as indicative of an easy course or a weak marker. A high failure rate may be attributed to the innate difficulty of the work or the inferior stuff of which the students are made. As I have written before, under such a presumption, I could fail all of my students and strut around, the smartest man in my University, for none have been able to understand the depths and subtlety of my area of knowledge.

Yet, if the real reason is that I have brought my students to a point where their abilities fail them and, either through ignorance or design, I do not strive to address this honestly and openly, then it doesn’t matter how many of them ultimately pass – I will be the biggest failure in the class. I know a great number of very interesting and intelligent educators but, were you to ask me if any of them could teach, I would have to answer that I did not know, unless I had actually seen them do so. For all of our pressure on students to contain the innate ability to persevere, to understand our discipline or to be (sorry, Ray) natural programmers, the notion that teaching itself might not be something that everyone is capable of is sometimes regarded as a great heresy. (The notion or insistence that developing as a teacher may require scholarship and, help us all, practise, is apostasy – our heresy leading us into exile.) Teaching revolves around imparting knowledge efficiently and effectively so that students may learn. The cornerstone of this activity is successful and continuing communication. Wisdom may be wisdom but it rapidly becomes hard to locate or learn from when it is swaddled in enough unnecessary baggage.

I have been, mostly thanks to the re-issue of cheap Penguins, undertaking a great deal of reading recently and I have revisited Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, de Botton and Wilde. The books that are the most influential upon me remain those books that, while profound, maintain their accessibility. Let me illustrate this with an example. For those who do not know what De Profundis means, it is a biblical reference to Psalm 130, appropriated by the ever humble Oscar Wilde as the title of his autobiographical letter to his former lover, from the prison in which he was housed because of that love.

But what it means is “From the depths”. In the original psalm, the first line is:

De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine;
From the depths, I have cried out to you, O Lord;

And in this reading, we see the measure of Wilde’s despair. Having been sentenced to hard labour, and having had his ability to write confiscated, his ability to read curtailed, and his reputation in tatters, he cries out from the depths to his Bosie, Lord Douglas.

De profundis [clamavi ad te, Bosie;]

If you have the context for this, then this immediately prepares you for the letter but, as it is, the number of people who are reading Wilde is shrinking, let alone the number of people who are reading a Latin Bible. Does this title still assist in the framing of the work, through its heavy dependence upon the anguish captured in Psalm 130, or is it time to retitle it “From the depths, I have cried out to you!” to capture both the translation and the sense. The message, the emotion and the hard-earned wisdom contained in the letter are still valuable but are we hurting the ability of people to discover and enjoy it by continuing to use a form of expression that may harm understanding?

Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 70r – De Profundis the Musée Condé, Chantilly. (Another form of expression of this Psalm.)

Now, don’t worry, I’m not planning to rewrite Wilde but this raises a point in terms of the occasionally unhappy union of the language of profundity and the wisdom that it seeks to impart. You will note the irony that I am using a heavily structured, formal English, to write this and that there is very little use of slang here. This is deliberate because I am trying to be precise while still being evocative and, at the same time, illustrating that accurate use of more ornate language can obscure one’s point. (Let me rephrase that. The unnecessary use of long words and complex grammar gets in the way of understanding.)

When Her Majesty the Queen told the Commonwealth of her terrible year, her words were:

“1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an Annus Horribilis.”

and I have difficulty thinking of a more complicated way of saying “1992 was a bad year” than to combine a complicated grammatical construction with a Latin term that is not going to be on the lips of the people who are listening to the speech. Let me try: “Looking back on 1992, it has been, in the words of one of my friends, a terrible year.” Same content. Same level of imparted knowledge. Much less getting in the way. (The professional tip here is to never use the letters “a”, “n”, “s” and “u” in one short word unless you are absolutely sure of your audience. “What did she say about… nahhh” is not the response you want from your loyal subjects.) [And there goes the Knighthood.]

I love language. I love reading. I am very lucky that, having had a very broad and classically based education, I can read just about anything and not be intimidated or confused by the language forms – providing that the author is writing in one of the languages that I read, of course! To assume that everyone is like me or, worse, to judge people on their ability because they find long and unfamiliar words confusing, or have never had the opportunity to use these skills before, is to leap towards the same problem outlined in the quote at the top. If we seek to label people unintelligent when they have not yet been exposed to something that is familiar to us, then this is just as bad as lauding someone’s intelligence because you don’t understand what they’re talking about.

If my students need to know something then I have to either ensure that they already do so, by clearly stating my need and being aware of the educational preparation in my locale, or I have to teach it to them in forms that they can understand and that will allow them to succeed. I may love language, classical works and big words, but I am paid to teach the students of 2012 to become the graduates, achievers and academics of the future. I have to understand, respect and incorporate their context, while also meeting the pedagogical and knowledge requirements of the courses that I teach.

No-one said it was going to be easy!

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