tape measure on a dictionary

We are but blockheads!

To anyone who doubts the great pace of human accomplishment, I give you this anecdote: I had to spend a bank holiday reading the works of a 16th century French philosopher to impress a Welsh girl.

My romantic hopes look to go the way of many great early modern thinkers, killed in painful and entertaining ways. But, unlike my Carmarthen sweetheart, the philosopher Michel de Montaigne looks to stay with me. His thoughts are not too original, nor are they particularly exciting to our modern ears. But they are useful and entertaining. To me, Montaigne is the 1500s’ answer to Russell Brand, a clown that mocks the empress by dressing in her clothes.

Much as Russell Brand holds a mirror to the adulation of celebrity in our time, Montaigne held a mirror to the adulation of academia in his. He thought that all people are stupid and that those that think themselves smart are the most stupid of all. To borrow one of his quotes:

“On the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses.”

To Montaigne, academics were the most stupid of all because they made everything much harder than it needed to be. He made fun of academics that wrote eight sentences for every full stop and wrote “Hannibal Ad Portas” when they meant “we’re screwed”. And 400 years later his criticisms are as fair as ever. Below is a quote from a scientific paper that argues that large blocks of text are a poor way of teaching people. It’s titled “When less is more”.

“The cognitive rationale for coherence is that a coherent summary allows the learner to organise the relevant words and the relevant images into respective cause-and-effect chains”

I asked my friends how many times they had to read that sentence before they understood what it was trying to say. The median was three. That is not good learning. Good learning should be straight-forward, and use as little energy as possible. Good learning should be like a good conversation, it should address the learner’s concern, surprise them and capture their imagination. Good learning should allow the learner to see themselves and then see a ‘better them’.

In comparison, let us consider the following sentence:

“Coherent summaries are good because they let the reader put the relevant words and images into the right order. And then they can use this to understand how a part of something relates to the rest of it”.

The above sentence says the same thing as the original but the median number of readings my friends needed to understand it was one.

And this criticism is not limited to academia. The modern business environment has its share of bad words and worse sentences. Take the following sentence from the ISACA IT Governance Framework:

“This chapter covers how to identify solutions and analyse requirements before acquisition or creation to ensure that they are in line with enterprise strategic requirements covering business processes, applications, information/data, infrastructure and services.”

The median number of reads for my friends to understand that was five.

Instead, we could say:

“When managing requirements, this chapter covers how to:

  1. Work out what you need to do.
  2. Think about how to do it.
  3. Make sure what you are doing fits in with what everyone else is doing.”

While we lose a little precision we make up for it in readability. Our intended user is also more likely to read the document because reading it is no longer painful. I haven’t done the research but illud assumi potest that staff that read the document are more likely to understand it.

Now, in fairness, long words aren’t all bad. They can be more precise provided everyone knows exactly what they mean beforehand. In the spirit of Montaigne, they can also allow us to have the occasional bit of fun. The brave can use unusual words to slip risqué jokes past the censors; I know senior partners have always enjoyed my prolixity.

But good learning will avoid such distractions. Learning is not about written prowess, nor is it about amusement. Learning is about people. It is about letting people embrace their ignorance and enjoy their mistakes. People should stop using long-words to hide their nakedness. For, in the words of Montaigne

“‘to learn that we have said or done a stupid thing is nothing, we must learn a more ample and important lesson: that we are but blockheads”

Or in the words of my Welsh sweetheart

“James you’s a right bewt and we all knows it”