LanguageLoggingHeads: SOTU edition

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Last September, the folks at Bloggingheads.tv brought John McWhorter and me together for a spirited dialog (sorry, diavlog) on a range of language issues. Today they asked us back to do a postmortem of President Obama's State of the Union address, analyzing the president's rhetoric. Here's the video.

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22 Comments

  1. J Lee said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 7:44 pm

    Nice analysis. Obama definitely seemed to realize the manifest stupidity of a metaphor that involves removing an airplane's engine in mid-flight.

    To me, the recasting of spending as 'investment' is not only trite but a little infantilizing for the viewers. Not only is it now widely known that JFK's 'missile gap' was a complete fabrication, but catching up with educational cultures that emphasize 'math and science' like China's or India's has not been a big concern in a time where Americans are worried about actual debt default in the most important states. Besides, few people in our society get more respect and admiration than teachers, who get total job security and benefits, summers off, and evidently no share of blame when so many students fail to achieve even decent marks. Clear pandering that made the speech too long.

  2. marie-lucie said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 11:19 pm

    few people in our society get more respect and admiration than teachers, who get total job security and benefits, summers off, and evidently no share of blame when so many students fail to achieve even decent marks.

    I don't think that teachers get that much "respect and admiration", otherwise more people would want to be teachers. It is a high stress profession, especially with teenagers. Summers off are necessary if teachers are not going to get totally burnt out during the year and have to quit the profession. And bad results are not just the fault of teachers: students do not arrive in school as blank slates, and those from educated families already have a leg up well before they enter school, while those growing up in very stressful conditions can rarely perform up to their full potential. Parents who did not do well in school (for whatever reason) do not project a positive attitude toward school in their children. Sure, there are problems with some teachers, but you can't put all the blame on teachers.

  3. axman said,

    January 26, 2011 @ 11:23 pm

    With unfelt excuses for speaking twice on the same subject, let me explain more precisely my revulsion at this. To me the video comes across as a linguist's, or actually a rhetorician's, abstraction of a binocular foxnews/msnbc view – that is, the practice here seems to have been: let's take current events, treat them as equivalent, since they occupy equivalent airtime, day for day, on the news channels- and discuss the president's rhetorical responses to each, as if those should also be equivalent, based on the relative airtime of the events themselves. I really wish contributors to this blog had kept their faces and voices blank, and their opinions considered and well articulated. The former are irrelevant, and in the end aggravating; the latter are highly relevant, and in the end, staying unconsidered and partially well articulated, (only) somewhat aggravating.

  4. chris said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 9:44 am

    To me, the recasting of spending as 'investment' is not only trite but a little infantilizing for the viewers.

    Well, it's a large step forward over the worldview that equates building infrastructure with throwing money out the window. Infrastructure IS an investment, and one that gets huge returns; but because the returns are enjoyed by the public and don't become measurable profit to any particular entity, they are often underestimated or even ignored altogether. That's why it's an investment that can only be undertaken by government, which (when it's working properly) serves the public good without expecting a direct profit for itself.

    Besides, few people in our society get more respect and admiration than teachers

    I can only assume this is some sort of joke.

  5. J Lee said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 2:40 pm

    That's a funny way of looking at it, and if it were true we wouldn't have 'pork.' Infrastructure is a vague enough term to be politically safe. Most people would agree that a better approach would make government LESS intrusive in business in general, and history is full of cases of governments cutting corporate taxes (ours are the world's 2nd highest) etc. to great success.

    Not a joke. The very fact that they deserved special mention is proof. If you don't realize that public teachers comprise the largest category of lionized state employees and the single most powerful union in California, you must not be from this country.

  6. The Ridger said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 2:57 pm

    J Lee: Do you actually know any teachers? "Summers off"? Without a paycheck, and with the requirement to attend various training sessions, sure "off". "Total job security"? Only at the tenured college professor level. They're getting laid off everywhere else. … But then, there is all that "respect" and "no blame", plus munificent salaries, so I guess you're right.

  7. Chandra said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 3:05 pm

    So who is respecting and admiring teachers, then? The students? Snort. The parents? Well, the students are picking up their attitudes from someone. And who are the parents getting their attitudes from? The media. Social discourse. People like you who make ignorant comments about something you only have the vaguest understanding of.

    Teachers get summers off because they pull 14-hour days 7 days a week between September and June.

    The several hundred teachers who were laid off here this year would have a lot to say about this supposed "total job security".

    Lots of people get benefits at work, so I'm not sure what your point is there.

    And finally, students are failing because resources are routinely taken away from the schools with at-risk populations who need them the most, students are crammed like sardines into classrooms with overworked teachers who have no time to devote enough attention to every person who needs help, and curriculum is dictated by people in government offices who have never spent a day in front of a class and have no actual concept of what would be interesting, relevant, or useful to their target audience. The system is failing the students, not the other way around.

  8. chris said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 4:08 pm

    Chandra: I have to disagree with your last paragraph. Most of the causes of student failure lie outside the school entirely–they are predetermined before the student even walks in the school door. Poverty, malnutrition, violence in the home and neighborhood, parental stress affecting the family, parental lack of free time to interact with the child, a culture that scorns academic success and only values sports or social climbing… the entire school and everything in it is a scapegoat, and teachers are a scapegoat within a scapegoat.

  9. Chandra said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 4:31 pm

    I agree that those factors set the foundation for failure. But I still maintain that the public school system has a part in the responsibility. I work as a literacy instructor at a community college, teaching young people and adults who come from backgrounds such as you describe, and I can assure you from personal experience that given the right environment, they can succeed. Our current public school system needs a radical overhaul if it ever hopes to meet the needs of such students.

  10. Nijma said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 5:44 pm

    Summers off, heh. You still have to pay your bills in the summer. I was lucky to get extra summer teaching hours at a time when teachers' hours have been cut in half, then cut in half again.

    If our adult program only accepted students with no Issues, we would have no students at all. They come exhausted after working all day, or as refugees from devastated countries, or with an attitude or substance abuse problem, or with learning disabilities, or after having failed numerous other programs. But they are all motivated enough to come, some because they want a better future and some because some agency will refuse them services if they don't come, and as teachers we must be prepared to teach them as they are. The teacher training sessions, some paid, but these days more and more unpaid, are full of discussions not just about how to teach the subjects we have been prepared to teach, but also about how to meet the student Issues that must be addressed before they will be able to learn. And yes, there are many, many success stories. Respect? Maybe sometimes, but from American students, not so much. The reward, and a powerful one for me, is to see them learn.

  11. J Lee said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 5:50 pm

    It's well known that teachers — or administration officers –essentially have to molest a student to get fired. Mainly because of people like Chandra who think we simply lack adequate materials or haven't reached an arbitrary minimum student-teacher ratio. As chris implied, what matters is if a child is brought up in an environment that doesn't encourage learning or scholastic achievement — this culture certainly afflicts minority communities, and if you disagree I would recommend you read LL's own John McWhorter's work on race.

  12. David Costa said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 10:55 pm

    "few people in our society get more respect and admiration than teachers, who get total job security and benefits"

    Someone obviously doesn't know any teachers.

  13. David Costa said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 11:05 pm

    "It's well known that teachers — or administration officers –essentially have to molest a student to get fired"

    "It's well known"? Despite being, you know, false?

    "Mainly because of people like Chandra who think we simply lack adequate materials or haven't reached an arbitrary minimum student-teacher ratio."

    I certainly hope you're not implying that class sizes can be increased ad infinitum with no negative impact on education — or the willingness of people to go into teaching, for that matter.

    In California, teachers have less job security, lower pay, higher stress and fewer benefits every year. And your 'three months off' = three months without pay. Please take the trouble to inform yourself before you recite your traditional teacher bashing talking points.

    As for teachers getting 'respect and admiration', all I see is thousands of people like you on the internet blaming all our educational problems on teachers, and claiming if their union was destroyed and their job security and benefits were taken away, somehow all our school problems would magically be fixed. Doesn't sound like 'respect and admiration' to me.

  14. Chandra said,

    January 27, 2011 @ 11:10 pm

    I will thank you not to put words in my mouth or make assumptions about what I believe. Of course there are bad individual teachers who shouldn't be teaching, just as there are bad individual doctors or lawyers or postal workers or whatever else. That still doesn't give you any justification to make derogatory, misinformed blanket statements about teachers as a group of professionals.

  15. J Lee said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 12:00 am

    That was quite a performance, David. If anyone is perpetuating a stereotype here it is the teacher-as-martyr. I do know teachers (not that I concede that is some sort of prerequisite for having an opinion) and they all became teachers because they failed to get other jobs and the state will basically always hire anybody with a BA. (Off at 3 p.m. is an attractive feature as well, of course.)
    Y'all should have predicted that your passionate defenses would inevitably prove my point that they are unduly lionized — I suppose the scores of teachers you all know personally had dreams of educating children for the benefit of our great nation.

  16. David Costa said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 12:19 am

    Yeah, I imagine that you might know some teachers, tho I can predict what their opinion is of you.

    Defending teachers from ignorant scapegoating is not the same as 'unduly lionized', tho given that you've ignored our rebuttals to your nonsensical claims, I shouldn't have expected you to grasp subtleties like that.

    "I suppose the scores of teachers you all know personally had dreams of educating children for the benefit of our great nation."

    Suddenly you're psychic about what teachers think. I'm dazzled.

  17. David Costa said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 12:21 am

    "That was quite a performance, David."

    So that's your substitute for backing up your arguments, I guess.

  18. Andrew said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 12:31 am

    J Lee: "I do know teachers (not that I concede that is some sort of prerequisite for having an opinion) and they all became teachers because they failed to get other jobs and the state will basically always hire anybody with a BA. (Off at 3 p.m. is an attractive feature as well, of course.)"

    This says more about the types of people J Lee mixes with than about the mass of teachers, who do (or at least did) indeed "have dreams of educating children for the benefit of" – at least – those children.

  19. Nijma said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 1:19 am

    the state will basically always hire anybody with a BA.
    No. In this state at least you need the specific K-12 degree to teach children.

    Off at 3 p.m.
    We're off at 9:30 pm. Except for weekends.

  20. J Lee said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 2:10 am

    David – absolutely nothing in your post constituted a rebuttal, just straw men and contradiction. I won't hold my breath for your condemnation of Andrew's mind-reading.

    Who's 'scapegoating'? I explicitly said learning depends on the student alone. The histrionics on display here is telling. I'm sure Obama had you all in tears with his exhortation that young people become teachers or 'inventors' — as if any kid actually chooses career paths on the basis of the country's current relative competitiveness in certain areas. I think we should be more concerned that most of these geniuses probably can't place Italy on a map.

  21. Graeme said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 7:26 am

    Wow, J Lee. Your chip on the shoulder is visible from a continent away. Of course I can say this without knowing you in the least.

  22. Mark Liberman said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 8:22 am

    I've closed this post to comments, as the discussion seems to have arrived at an asymptote of "nyah nyah" and "nyah".

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