Confession: every essay I wrote in junior high and high school began with the phrase “Throughout history.” Usually, it would go like this: “Throughout history, man has wrestled with the concept of good and evil.” I don’t think I’m alone on this. Didn’t you do it, too? It seems like such a natural way to glide into the topic at hand, since, really, the topic is NOT at hand and would NEVER be at hand if you didn’t have to write this paper. How else are you supposed to bring up the topic of, say, a comparison of Hopi and Pueblo houses? This topic doesn’t arise naturally in the course of conversation.
I used the trusted opener until my senior year in high school, when I took a philosophy class at the local college. My first paper (it was probably about morality in Plato’s Republic or some similar topic) began, “Throughout history, man has ….” When I got the paper back, the phrase was crossed out, and the professor had written, “What do you know about history?” This may have been the first time that I had received a comment on a paper that really spoke to me, that made me think, “Hey, you are right, I don’t know a goddam thing about history. What am I really trying to say*?”
So imagine my surprise when, reading the op-ed section of the Times yesterday, I came across the following (granted, from the third paragraph, not the very opening): “Throughout history, societies have struggled with how to deal with children and childhood.” This by a Joel Bakan, who writes on children’s issues. In fact, it was a nice opinion piece about raising children today (something in which I am very much embroiled), but that one phrase now always raises a red flag. My old professor (retired but still going strong) was right that I knew nothing about history, and why should I trust this opinion? Have societies really struggled, for the past 10,000 years or so, with how to bring up kids ? My impression (knowing little about history) is a resounding NO, that, while kids weren’t always so wonderfully raised in the past, at least parents didn’t agonize over how to do it. They treated their kids the way they themselves had been treated as kids. They didn’t spare the rod. They made sure the kids were seen but not heard. They enforced vegetable eating. They said Stand up straight, and gave you a smack if you didn’t. There was a tradition to rely on. Kids had other kids to play with. There were no video games. Traffic moved at a human rather than an automotive pace. TV didn’t exist. Life was hard, but at least you didn’t go around doubting your child rearing methods, even if your kid turned out to be a maniac, as many undoubtedly did.
In fact, the whole point of the article was that things are different now. So my question to the New York Times is, Why not edit that phrase out and insist on a little good writing? If the point of the piece is that times have changed, then don’t use a phrase that means It has ever been thus. I know, it’s not a big deal in our giant ocean of troubles, but can’t we at least get some good writing, and some good editing, on the op-ed page?
Those of you who are inclined to write a comment about the Liberal Media, take note: there’s plenty of horrible writing in your favorite journals, too.
* I admit that, in actuality, I had nothing worthwhile to say.