It Isn’t Just a Matter of Culinary Illiteracy….

I know that both Kate at The Accidental Hedonist and Elise at Simply Recipes have covered this interesting piece in the Washington Post about the “dumbing down” of recipe writing, but I had a few thoughts on the subject that I wanted to share.

Way back in the day, when I was a journalism student, working on the college newspaper, which was run pretty much like a professional paper, I remember getting into a big fight with my instructor over my use of the word, “myriad” in a news story.

You see, we had been told that we were supposed to be writing on an eighth grade reading level, because that is the level most Americans are comfortable at reading, and apparently, “myriad” was not a word that eighth graders regularly encounter.

The instructor, who wasn’t my instructor, actually–he taught another section of the news writing class, but he was a busybody and liked to hang out over any students’ shoulders while they were working–looked over my shoulder and just as I typed, “myriad,” pounced on it with a jabbing finger. “That,” he said more loudly than necessary, “is above an eighth grade reading level.”

I disliked the man intensely anyway, in large part because he once scolded me for having a filthy mouth when I had cussed a blue streak after the VDT (yes, it was way back in the day) had just eaten the story I had worked an hour on five minutes before deadline. I could have just used a different word. I could have just changed it until he started vulturing over someone else’s shoulder, and then put it back. But no. I narrowed my eyes, leaned back and looked up at him with a Clint Eastwood steely glare. I even pitched my voice low, like “The Man With No Name,” and said, “Am I writing for eighth graders?”

“Well, no,” he admitted.

“Who am I writing for?” I pressed.

“College students.”

“They had to pass the eighth grade to get here, didn’t they?” I said, nostrils flaring.

“Well, yes, but you know, when you get out in the real world, you can’t use words like myriad,” so you might as well get used to not using them now,” he countered. His position was logical, if defeatest. I refused to go gently into that long night.

I turned in my chair and looked him in the eye. “Well, when I go out into the real world, I will write for idiots. While I am here, writing for college students, I will be damned if I spoon feed them middle school pablum just because they don’t want to think. If a college student doesn’t know what the word “myriad” means, then they bloody well should, and if they don’t, they can look it up in a dictionary.”

I turned my back deliberately on him and went calmly back to writing.

He harumphed, and stood over me for a time. I think he wanted me to turn back around. But, as far as my nineteen year old self was concerned, the case was closed.

Finally, he said, “Well, if you feel that way, I suppose then that you can use the word myriad. We’ll just see if the copyeditors let it stand, though.”

I kept writing, and he vultured off to harass some other student.

The next day, my story appeared, and the word “myriad” was intact. Apparently the copyeditors agreed with me that it was an appropriate word to use in a college newspaper.

I see the issue of my fight to use the word “myriad” and the fact that recipe writers are having to leave off using culinary terms such as “fold,” “cream,” (as in, “cream together butter and sugar”) and “dredge” as all of a piece.

Many Americans are functionally illiterate, and frankly, I don’t see that changing anytime in the near future. Fewer than half of Americans read literature any more, and testable literacy proficiency has fallen dramatically among college graduates between the years of 1992 and 2003. In 1992, 40 percent of college graduates scored at the proficient level, which meant they were able to read long, complex texts and draw sophisticated inferences and conclusions. But on the 2003 test, only 31 percent of the graduates demonstrated reading skills at that level.

When you look at the problems cited in the Washington Post article, such the need to explicate terms such as “fold,” or “saute” intead of using them in writing recipes, in the context of flagging literacy across the boards in the US, you see that the problem is not merely the case that no one is learning to cook from Mamma or the Home Ec. teacher anymore.

It is also a matter of an inablity to read and follow -any- instructions, much less ones that include unfamiliar terms.


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  1. I’d say a good bit of it is coddling too. Not just in academics, though there’s a lot of that lately from helicopter parents. If more writers for the public were encouraged to use ‘big words’ then the exposure to them would certainly force the audience to learn the words. (If you don’t use it, you lose it.) Combines witha that, reading as a whole has been devalued in this society… which just flat out sucks.

    Comment by Bastlynn — March 20, 2006 #

  2. One would hope that a college newspaper would allow for higher capabilities in reading and writing than the standard American newspaper (NYT, WP, and WSJ excepted).

    This reminds me of the time that I was being interviewed for some telephone marketing survey and I used the word “monopoly” in one of my answers. I then had to define the word “monopoly” for the interviewer because, she told me, “any big words need to be defined.” I think I lost it at that point. Don’t have that much patience to begin with.

    Great story Barbara.

    Comment by Elise — March 20, 2006 #

  3. i was an editor at the parthenon for two years 🙂 who was the professor? if you had written that story for my section, i would’ve totally let it print 🙂

    Comment by ashley — March 20, 2006 #

  4. When did it happen? This is all, in my view, closely related to the growing treatment of education as a consumer product-where what is being purchased is the stamp of the diploma or degree, rather than the education itself.

    I think part of it is also a strange cultural disrespect for trades and crafts and blue collar jobs which makes so many people feel they must be a desk jockey to be a valuable person.

    Colleges are full of people studying things they aren’t interested in because they need the piece of paper to get a business job of some kind job where they will never actually use their liberal arts education. (Not that it wouldn’t be of use to anyone in any sort of job, who wanted it for personal enrichment, but that’s another story.)

    These “students” are, of course, indignant that they have to study subjects not related to their future employment, and which are not easy and immediately entertaining. They ruin these courses for students who actually want to explore them- by complaining, asking about the “test” constantly, and surly nonparticipation.

    They are “buying” something they have a “right” to-i.e the degree, not the education. So if it is difficult in any way (like looking up a word-so hard!) they just tend to skip it, and feel put upon, to boot.

    Small wonder that so many adults can’t communicate ideas in writing, and take no pleasure in reading. They have been led to believe that they are the customers, and if they don’t know something-it must be the teacher’s fault.

    Comment by lindy — March 21, 2006 #

  5. PS I’m not a teacher!

    Comment by lindy — March 21, 2006 #

  6. Lindy, I’m not sure what colleges you’ve observed. I’ve seen students occasionally whine about gen ed requirements (I’ve done it myself about specific classes that had problems, although I like the concept in general) — but on the whole, my classmates are engaged with the material and participating in discussions (or asking questions in lecture/lab-based classes).

    There is some of that “why bother?” attitude, but I don’t think it’s that widespread. (Or maybe I just hang out with a bunch of polymaths….)

    and the fact that recipe writers are having to leave off using culinary terms such as “fold,” “cream,” (as in, “cream together butter and sugar”) and “dredge” as all of a piece.

    *boggle* Isn’t this what the glossary is for? I can see a very beginning cook not understanding those terms, but whenever I come across an unfamiliar technique I go look it up in Joy of Cooking. Then I know what the word means.

    And isn’t FOLD pretty self-explanatory?

    Comment by Mel — March 21, 2006 #

  7. Bastlynn–I agree, that if we do not expose people to “big words” they will never learn them. Hence my adherence to the word, “myriad” beyond reason.

    Ashley, it was George Arnold. I doubt he was still teaching there by the time you got there–but he might have been.

    Elise–yes, having to define our words is irritating, especially when there is no real reason we need to.

    Lindy–you hit the nail on the head. I noticed this attitude between when I first attended college in 1983 and when I returned in 1992. Something happened in secondary education between those years, too–because upper-level college students could not write a simple 12 page paper for a high level history class. Everyone in that class, but myself, had their papers turned back to them with suggested corrections before the professor graded so that everyone wouldn’t fail.

    I asked him about it and he agreed, that the caliber of reading and writing skills had dropped precipitously in incoming freshmen.

    And yeah–the commodifying of college pisses me off, because I love taking cool classes, but I hate taking them with people who are just there for the degree.

    Comment by Barbara — March 21, 2006 #

  8. Hey, Mel–we posted at the same time.

    It depends on the University, Mel. The state Universities I have been to have a high proportion of the unmotivated students–private colleges have lots of the motivated ones. It also depends on the major you are in, too. Lots of science and math students are super motivated, lots of business students–not so much.

    As for fold–it means to gently mix beaten egg whites or whipped cream into a heavier mixture so as to not expell the air from the egg whites or cream.

    It doesn’t always mean fold, like fold the dough sheet in half….

    Comment by Barbara — March 21, 2006 #

  9. Ahhh…we wrote at the same paper: I covered “arts” and squirmed my way out of copyediting. I, too, have been the subject of derision as per use of “big words.” Once I composed myself, I took inventory; why are certain people(college students) intimidated by “big words.” Why is it sometimes assumed that the deployment of “big words” is merely to confuse others? I’ve always enjoyed vocabulary. It’s pleasurable. “Big words” are often the most most efficacious words; they contain *myriad* other, not lesser, words. They can put the kibosh on verbosity. Vocabulary is a beautiful tool. When I’ve been accused of wielding it instead of dumbing it down…I’m, like, huh, wah?

    Comment by Christopher Gordon — March 21, 2006 #

  10. Oh boy. Barbara, you hit the nail on the head again!

    I worked in the musuem field for a while and this sort of “dumbing” down attitude towards musueum education came from the top down.

    Most curators and education staff were always convinced they had to make the musuem literature/educational materials watered down enough for the public to comprehend “the art” and it always ended up coming off as condescending to the viewer.

    It was as if the public were all reading at elementary school level when they came across labels, catalogue entries etc.

    I dealt with the public/museum vistors to some extent and I always got the response that the literature was never “comprehensive or sophisticated enough” for them.

    Once I asked a curator why the materials were never that complex and his answer was “they can’t handle such complexity–they’ll never be able to handle it.”

    I always felt that if you continue to cater to the public at such a low level, they definitely wouldn’t be able to handle reading anything more complex because you don’t even give them the chance.

    If newspapers/media continue to pander to such levels because they don’t think the public are unable to follow along, they do no service to the public by continuing to cater to them in that way…a viscious spiral downward for society as a whole.

    Comment by Rose — March 21, 2006 #

  11. Don’t get me started on the state of English education in our schools. Just don’t. I can’t tell you how unmercifully bad most undergraduates’ writing is.

    Comment by Sibyl — March 21, 2006 #

  12. Actually, Christopher, the incident above happened at Marshall University, where I started my degree, not at OU where I finished it. But, I worked at both papers, so (rivals, at that in journalism competitions….) your experiences most certainly do parallel my own in that regard.

    I agree that if people are not exposed to good vocabulary through reading, or hearing words on television, radio, movies or on the street, they never develop a good vocabulary–and then, one wonders why they don’t have a good vocabulary….a vicious circle of dumbing down occurs.

    Rose–I have seen that in action, too. I really don’t understand the mindset of “they wouldn’t be able to handle it”–isn’t that horribly paternalistic? I used to argue with journalism profs using that point–and actually got a few of them to concede that perhaps it was paternalistic to treat the general public as if they were stupid, but that they didn’t see institutions such as textbook publishers and newspaper publishers changing that attitude anytime soon.

    Sibyl–yeah, I know. It is awful.

    Comment by Barbara — March 22, 2006 #

  13. I can’t breathe. I’m outraged at that idiot professor and I’m even more outraged after reading the Washington Post article.

    It all feels a bit too much like Vonnegut’s ‘Harrison Bergeron’ in “Welcome to the Monkey House”.


    Comment by ejm — March 22, 2006 #

  14. That article was so depressing to me! I commented on it over at Elise’s place.

    When I first started cooking, I didn’t know exactly what it meant to “scald” milk. Then I looked it up. Voila! Like magic, I knew what it meant.

    Why is that so hard for people?

    Comment by Jeni — March 26, 2006 #

  15. Ah, Elizabeth–outrage at that professor seldom did any good. But he and I tangled way more than the two times I related here. Luckily, I never had him for class, because we just got on each others nerves bigtime.

    Jeni–yeah, how hard is looking up a word in a bloody dictionary?

    I don’t know why people are resistant to it–maybe it is because folks don’t like looking things up. It is too much like work. It is too hard. I don’t know. Maybe they aren’t curious.

    But you are right. It is sad.

    Comment by Barbara — March 27, 2006 #

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