Friday, November 21, 2003


The other day I was walking around UC Berkeley with a group of friends, and the topic of human accomplishment came up. Specifically, we discussed how some folks have the ability to effortlessly produce a huge body of accomplishments in a relatively short period of time.

To that end, I ran across a story about John McWhorter, professor of linguistics at Berkeley. I'll let the NY Times tell the story about this man and his work:
Mr. McWhorter, 38, a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a policy research group in New York City, is hardly the first to complain about Americans' brazen disregard for their native tongue. But unlike many others, he says the problem is not an epidemic of bad grammar.

As a linguist, he says, he knows that grammatical rules are arbitrary and that in casual conversation people have never abided by them. Rather, he argues, the fault lies with the collapse of the distinction between the written and the oral. Where formal, well-honed English was once de rigueur in public life, he argues, it has all but disappeared, supplanted by the indifferent cadences of speech and ultimately impairing our ability to think.

This bleak assessment notwithstanding, Mr. McWhorter, an intense, confident and � perhaps not surprisingly � loquacious man, is not a curmudgeon or a fuddy-duddy. Nor, for that matter, a nerd, despite a r�sum� that bristles with intellectual precociousness.

Self-taught in 12 languages � including Russian, Swedish, Swahili, Arabic and Hebrew, which he initially took up as a Philadelphia preschooler when he was 4 � he is a respected expert in Creole languages. (In his spare time, he is compiling the first written grammar of Saramaccan, a Creole language spoken by descendants of former slaves in Suriname.)

A college graduate at 19 and a tenured professor at 33, he has published seven previous books, including the controversial best seller, "Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America" (The Free Press, 2000), in which he accused middle-class blacks of embracing anti-intellectualism and a cult of victimology. An African-American who is an outspoken critic of affirmative action, welfare and reparations, he has aroused the ire of many liberals and earned a reputation as a conservative.
Professor McWhorter, you're a whiz, and you win the first edition of the 'Where Do They Find the Time?' award. Future award winners will be announced occasionally on this page.


First Things, in the October issue, presents an insightful editorial by Michael M. Uhlmann on the history and calamity that is judicial activism in the United States:
The academics' Constitution, which has willy-nilly become the Court�s, is commonly described as a framework for democratic aspiration, by which is meant a Constitution that is in a constant state of becoming. Toward what end the proponents do not precisely say, at least for public consumption, but they remain confident that the Supreme Court should be the preferred instrument through which the details are implemented in beneficent fashion. The living Constitution should be a protean artifact, changing shape in response to the impressions made upon it by what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called �the felt necessities of the times.� For reasons that have yet to be adequately explained, the Supreme Court has been vested with the authority to determine just what those necessities might be.
You can read the entire thing here.


On the Taste page of today's Wall Street Journal, some depressing news about student and administrator knowledge of the first amendment on our college campi:
That amendment begins as follows: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." But twin surveys commissioned by FIRE and conducted by the University of Connecticut's Center for Survey Research and Analysis tell us how few on campus really understand it. One of 10 college administrators even checked "don't know" when asked to name a specific First Amendment right. Increasingly this lack of awareness is having ugly consequences for campus believers.
Additionally, a puny percentage of those surveyed know anything about the religious liberties granted in the amendment:
Only 6% of administrators and 2% of students knew that freedom of religion is the first freedom mentioned by the First Amendment.
Sad. You can read the whole story here.