Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Return to SNOOTs

It will be proved to thy face that thou
hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and
a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear.

“Jack Cade” in Henry VI, Part II
I have suggested that SNOOTs must be both born and made. See “Of Solecisms and SNOOTs” & “What a Piece of Work.” And while thinking of SNOOTs I have known and loved, I recognized that SNOOTs can be divided into at least two distinct categories based on the motivation that drives them to hone their SNOOTiness:
1.      The pursuit of superiority;
2.      The need to combat chronic insecurity.
Some who have made a career of scolding lawyers about their bad writing habits and, perhaps, even my man Hamlet, fit into the first group; my husband fits into the second.
Yes, I definitely married a SNOOT—which is how I know quite well that I am not a true SNOOT. After all, having two such creatures living under one roof would be unthinkable, insufferable, if not downright execrable.
To understand the second way that SNOOTs are made, you have to study their origins. Let’s take my husband. He is the son of poor Greek immigrants. His father became a US citizen by jumping ship during World War II. Allegedly, Dimitri only graduated from the 4th grade back on his home island by bribing the teacher with a chicken. Mosha, my husband’s mother, was more academically capable. But she had some other issues, including such deep concern about her only son’s well-being that she did not see fit to let him out of their roach-infested Washington Heights apartment to attend Kindergarten. So he started school as a 1st grader—not speaking a word of English. Because he could neither read nor write anything in English at that time, he was assigned to “Level 1-4,” the slow class, the significance of which he had no trouble perceiving despite the language barrier. In short order, he worked his way out of that hole, though. Later, he skipped 8th grade and then proved himself no academic slouch by getting a B.A. from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in French from Cornell. Even after becoming tri-lingual, he could not shake that early, ESL-related trauma. That insecurity spawned a life-long obsession with amassing a ridiculously overwrought vocabulary and a constant vigilance regarding any and all grammatical faux pas committed by members of the media, colleagues, and loved ones—though only the latter get to hear all about it.
If “Shakespeare” really is the guy from Stratford, it makes sense that he, like my husband, would have felt compelled to amass one of the biggest vocabularies known to humanity as compensation for humble origins. Most of Will Shakespeare’s family was, after all, illiterate; he himself had no formal education beyond 6th grade, if that; and his father was perpetually in trouble with the law or at least with bill collectors because, despite knowing a decent trade and acquiring property, evidence suggests John Shakespeare could not seem to manage his affairs. The challenge for scholars has always been explaining exactly how, with that inheritance, Shakespeare managed to procure such a stupendous vocabulary, especially considering his rather limited exposure to things like books and other educated people. Unlike my husband, for instance, Shakespeare did not have access to the New York City public library system or to Bronx Science high school. Shakespeare just suddenly appeared on the scene as a young adult and started cranking out beautifully wrought poems and plays, even as he seemed to spend most of his days hanging about disreputable theater folks on the outskirts of London where they put the brothels and bear-baiting venues.
Those who point out this little “authorship problem” are routinely attacked as elitists. The perception is that only elites could be so insular as to believe that genius cannot spring full blown in a boy brought up in a provincial village. But to these great defenders of tradition and of egalitarian values I would say: “Uh, well, actually, it isn’t really elitist to think that genius has to be fostered by, er, something like, uhm, a decent education, is it?” Indeed, it is perfectly compatible to believe that (1) genius can arise anywhere, among the members of any class, yet (2) genius will languish if not exposed to a body of inherited knowledge and encouraged to develop habits reflecting discipline and drive.
Most people who manage to grow up to be lawyers may not be SNOOTs, let alone geniuses. But odds are they were at least encouraged to educate themselves and at least provided the resources to get their hands on a fair number of books and to get their behinds in classrooms for a fair number of hours before they ever contemplated law school. Indeed, we should all rejoice knowing that, even if a person is not born to be a SNOOT or a genius, that person can learn to be a more astute reader, writer, and thinker given sufficient time, interest, and access. All of these, however, require that a culture, not just a few of privileged pedigree, commits wholeheartedly to the enterprise. That means committing money—as well as validating the quest for truth over dogma. Yet all around this great country people continue to elect politicians committed to ever deeper cuts to public education, to deriding teachers, to reducing the very notion of education to a series of metrics and standardized tests. Should this course continue, the cost for us all could be staggering. The very concept of education might again be treated as a corruption, horded by the powerful few, breeding superstition in the multitudinous rabble in a way parodied so effectively by Shakespeare in Henry VI, Part II:
Thou hast most traitorously
corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a
grammar school; and whereas, before, our forefathers
had no other books but the score and the tally, thou
hast caused printing to be used, and, contrary to
the king, his crown and dignity, thou hast built a
paper-mill.

Scrapper-SNOOTs like my husband know where they would be if a real education were a phenomenon reserved solely for elites. And lawyers should know that celebrating ignorance goes hand-in-hand with rebuking the rule of law itself. Shakespeare, whoever the guy was, saw this—which is why he has the same radical character who considers education as “corrupting” agree that the first thing he should do if he ever attains power is to “kill all the lawyers.” (Henry VI, Part II, IV.vii 35-86).

1 comment:

  1. Why is there a semicolon after "superiority?"

    ReplyDelete