Sunday, February 8, 2009

Eureka!!! Um, I Mean, Ewwwww...

Ok, I'll warn you right here at the beginning: we've been teaching our eldest daughter about the digestive system lately. And, um... teaching about the digestive system to six-year-olds leads to some serious bodily function humor. If you're squeamish about bodily function humor, you probably shouldn't read too much farther.

Of course, if you're squeamish about bodily function humor, you probably shouldn't be raising kids, either.


One of my old math teachers had a phrase he used on occasion: When you have been trying to learn a new concept, but you just haven't been getting it; when you've been thinking about it until your brain hurts; when you've been working out problems and examples; sometimes, eventually, it suddenly all makes sense. One second, nothing; the next, the light comes on, the heavens open, the angels sing; and you suddenly understand how to factor polynomials. You get it. My math teacher described this kind of experience as the "Aha" experience. He said it was very like Archimedes' shouting "Eureka!", except that you don't usually jump out of the bathtub and run naked down the street immediately afterward.

Now, when you ask homeschooling parents why they homeschool, you get many answers; but one of the more common ones regards the "Aha" moments. There is tremendous joy in watching one's own kid, who's been struggling with some concept, suddenly get it. Not only is there tremendous joy, but (especially for new homeschooling parents) there's also a sense of affirmation, even a sense of relief: Yes, I'm actually able to do this! I now have evidence!

Well, the Pillowfight Fairy had an "Aha" experience the other day.

As I earlier said, the Fairy has been learning about the human body lately. And we think that a lot of what she's been learning is actually sinking in and staying there: when she saw Grandpa yesterday, she remembered that he was on those crutches because he had broken his tibia, which is a bone in the lower leg. And she's started to use the word esophagus in regular conversation.

Yup, the esophagus. We've lately gotten to the Digestive System. And let me tell you, there's something a little funny about trying to explain the Digestive System to a kid.
Well, kid, first you take a bite of your food, and then you start to chew it, and it looks like this. ("Ewwww!") And then your saliva mixes with it, and starts to break it down, even as it goes around and around and around in your mouth and turns into this mushy stuff. ("Ewwww!") And then you swallow, and it goes past the epiglottis and down into the stomach, where it gets mixed with bile from the liver and it gets broken down further, and sent into the small intestine, where it goes back and forth and back and forth and back and forth... Oh, and did you know we use the small intestines of sheep and pigs to make sausage casings? ("Ewwww!") Oh, yeah, and wait till I tell you what they used to do with pigs' bladders....
Actually, the Fairy already knows that one. We just finished reading Little House in the Big Woods.

So Mommy picked up this book from the library, and the Pillowfight Fairy happily read through it last Friday.

The book, entitled What Happens to a Hamburger?, is all about what happens at the various stages in the digestive process. It has lots of diagrams, and even some photographs ("Ewwww!"), and it traces the process of digestion from even before you take that first bite, all the way until, ahem:
Your body cannot use all of the food you eat. The food it cannot use is stored in the large intestine. You get rid of the unused food when you go to the toilet.
And this text is of course on a page that shows the cartoonish hero of the book, the one whose digestion we have been contemplating, happily running to the restroom carrying a roll of TP.


Now, all of that is just a set-up for the real point of this essay. I think we adults get squeamish at certain topics, so we tend to bury them in euphemism when we speak of them. I've already written about this phenomenon, regarding the illustrious literary genre of potty time-books. (By the way, ever write something, and then put it aside for a while, and then read it later after you've forgotten all about it? When I re-read this post of mine earlier tonight, I found myself thinking, Man, I wish I could write like that.)

The trouble is that you can't actually teach a topic when you're speaking in euphemisms. In that earlier essay of mine, I noted how we say "letting nature take its course" to refer to certain bodily functions that we don't actually want to talk about. But suppose you speak like that around a kid? The kid doesn't know that you're talking about, um... waste expulsion (there's another euphemism!). What does the kid think?
Oooh! I like nature. Waterfalls are part of nature. Deer and elk and bison are part of nature. Big pine trees are part of nature. I get to let all of this happen! How blissful.
Well, it turns out that even this book, What Happens to a Hamburger?, which is otherwise so well written, turns to euphemism when it comes to describing the, um... end stages of the digestive process. And Mommy developed a suspicion.

"[Fairy], do you know what that 'undigested food' is that the book keeps talking about?"

"Um... Soup?"
Ok, when she starts guessing like this, it's pretty apparent that she isn't getting it. And that was largely because the book didn't actually tell her! It was presumably trying to save the sensibilities of the parents by burying the ugly, stinky truth under an unoffensive euphemism that makes perfect sense to the parents, but means nothing to the kid.

So Tonya pointed out the oddly-shaped brown mass of "undigested food" in the picture, and tried to get the Fairy to guess what it was. No dice. So ultimately Tonya gave up, and just blurted out the answer:

"It's poop!"

Now, most of the time when a kid has an "Aha" experience, it's a joyful event that causes the spirit to soar and the heart to sing. But then, most of the time your "Aha" experiences don't involve learning where poop comes from.

"Eeeeeeeeeeewwwww! Ew! Ew! Ewewewew! Eww! Ewwwwww!" and so forth, et cetera, et cetera, for about the next two minutes.


So let's talk about George Orwell.

Good grief! You say. Where in the world did that come from?

Well, given the way my semi-coherent mind works, as my wife was describing to me the aforementioned set of events, and we were laughing ourselves silly, I was actually being reminded of a very important essay that Orwell wrote back in 1946.

You see, Orwell was very, very interested in our tendency to bury unpleasant concepts under impressive-sounding language. His concern was that, by using impressive-sounding official language filled with long, technical words, we hide the true meaning of what we're saying--sometimes even from ourselves.
Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, "I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so." Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

"While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement."

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.
This is an excellent essay, and I strongly recommend that anyone--schoolteacher, or homeschooling parent--attempting to teach writing style to a student of junior-high age or older, should read through it. The essay concludes with a set of simple rules intended to foster clarity and quality in writing. I myself refer to this essay from time to time to evaluate my own writing style--and I usually come away cringing at how wordy and cliched my style actually is, compared to what it should be.

Of course, Orwell himself criticizes his own writing in the essay, so at least I have some good company there.

If you have the opportunity, go ahead and take the time to read the thing. If you take it to heart, it may well help you notice where your own writing is vague and imprecise, and where this vagueness and imprecision comes from obscurity in your own thought processes.

And that's especially important, should you ever decide to start writing potty-time books.

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