Friday, May 15, 2009

The treason of the clerks

Alice, shut your eyes.*

Christopher Francese, a professor of classics at Dickinson College, has published a well-reasoned and traitorous essay in The New York Times advocating the abandonment of Latin in college diplomas.

I don’t much care that graduates cannot read their own diplomas. The Universitas Syracusana, which conferred on me the degree Artium Magistri thirty-four years ago, has as its motto SUOS CULTORES SCIENTIA CORONAT, generally rendered as “Knowledge crowns those who seek her.” I doubt, judging from the noise level in the library during my time there, that Syracuse undergraduates paid much more attention to the English version. But I believe it still.

Diploma Latin, artificial and obscure as it is, is a link to the past, however tenuous. And you, graduate, you with your major in whatever was easiest for a passing grade, you see in the Latin on that piece of paper you will never look at again a link between your own feckless pursuit of knowledge and Bologna in the twelfth century, where the first university in Europe began the laborious recovery of learning for the West.

Frame the thing and put it on the wall. The Latin will do you no harm.

*My daughter, Alice Elizabeth Marian McIntyre, who holds an honors degree in Latin and Greek from Swarthmore, teaches Latin at the Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills and will teach a unit of Latin this summer for a Center for Talented Youth class at Dickinson College.

You get what you pay for

Pam Robinson’s Words at Work blog has a recent post about the mixup at The Washington Times in which an article about murdered Chicago schoolchildren was accompanied by a photo of President Obama’s children. The editor gave this explanation:

“The theme engine, through automation, grabbed a photo it thought was relevant, and attached it to the story,” Solomon said, acknowledging that the photo had gone up without a person seeing it. “There was no editorial decision to run it. As soon as it was brought to our attention, we pulled it down.”

“The theme engine,” some kind of robotic search-and-attach mechanism, operating without human oversight. Perhaps the other sense of oversight is apt here.

And over at That’s the Press, Baby, David Sullivan takes on Steve Yelvington’s quaint belief that copy editors can safely be dispensed with because, because, because reporters will write better. They’ll just have to. And the lion will beat the sword into a plowshare, and the lamb a spear into a pruning hook, everybody’ll get together, try to love one another, and Wikipedia entries will be trustworthy.

Getting things right is not easy, and publication, either in print or electronically, involves managing a multitude of details, any of which can go badly wrong. Making prose clear is not easy, either, and the most effective way to accomplish that is for writers to work with editors. You can take shortcuts, but the results will be less accurate and less clear, and sometimes downright embarrassing.

This is not sour grapes because I was turned out of the paragraph factory a couple of weeks ago. I’m a reader — a customer, if you will — and I want better stuff.

Follow-up: Yesterday I wrote about sloppy science reporting. Click over to Headsup for a couple of examples of corrupt science reporting.