Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

So, like, he goes, what's with eloquence, and, you know, school?

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The Age of Eloquence is dead -- long live mediocre communications. North American written and verbal communication is increasingly permeated, blighted and desecrated by slang, jargon, euphemisms, idioms, colloquial and profanity.

Precise articulation and flowery rhetoric have practically vanished from North American society.

"People of great vision are almost exclusively eloquent speakers," concluded the late Ted Sorensen, a former U.S. presidential speechwriter.

Elaborate vocabularies are appropriate for explaining remarkable, glorious or extraordinary concepts. Superlative orators and writers command the respect necessary to shape public opinion.

"Eloquence is power," concluded researcher Sandra Gustafson.

In any society in any age, the art of eloquence in written and verbal communication has been an important element in human consciousness. But, according to researcher W. Barnett Pearce, the realm of communication has undergone regular "revolutions" and eloquence has been a recent victim of that process.

"Communication is, and has always been, central to whatever it means to be a human being," Pearce argues.

"New habits of literacy... eclipse time and space," says James Carey, who adds that eloquence deteriorates into a "mechanical reproduction of words."

Sloppy syntax, negligent and reckless grammatical usage, slipshod and lax punctuation are all symptoms of an ongoing restructuring of the way people communicate with each other.

Literacy is struggling to survive, and its demise dooms eloquence. Many believe the evolving philosophy of education is largely to blame.

The Canadian school system churns out graduates "who lack the basic anatomy of grammar and spelling," concluded a recent University of Victoria English Department report. "Remedial English literacy courses are now compulsory at many Canadian universities for all students."

According to Education Canada, "students leaving high school and entering university do not have the necessary skills to make themselves consistently understood."

"Few are eloquent from childhood," concludes researcher Kathleen Jamieson. "(The appropriate precursors) have been lost, stolen or have strayed from our schools."

Eloquence is a "fine art," and "analogous to sculpture, to poetry, to painting...

"But, the cultivation of eloquence... no longer takes place," she reports.

The pursuit of eloquence and articulate communication are rapidly fading into history. Training in rhetoric has all but vanished from the philosophy of education, hugely eclipsed by sports, music and other elements of school curricula.

Beginning in 1966, a new international education model stressed "personal growth," according to Education Canada. "The focus of curriculum and instruction (deviated) from traditional heritage and skills."

The teaching of grammar all but disappeared from classrooms. In 1985, the National Council of Teachers of English officially condemned the traditional teaching of grammar in schools. By 2007, two-thirds of elementary and high school students were found to significantly lack basic grammar and spelling skills and one-half required remedial writing classes for entry into universities.

Public office used to be a platform for accomplished eloquent orators.

"When speaking held the central role in the conduct of public affairs, the disposition toward eloquence was cultivated," Jamieson reported. But, currently, eloquence has been replaced by "governmentese," double-speak, brevity and "hitting and running" approaches, researchers claim.

Robert Alison is a zoologist

based in Victoria, B.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 3, 2011 A11

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