Richard Mitchell, the Last Angry Grammarian, Makes Guerrilla War on Muddled Syntax in Academe
04/14/1980 at 01:00 AM EST
The ability to reason and think can be taught in only one way—through the teaching of clear, coherent, cohesive writing. When education fails to teach thinking, it fails in everything, and everybody talks nonsense.
Because placidity nearly always prevails at Glassboro State College in New Jersey, the exceptions are all the more memorable. There was one weekend in 1967 when President Lyndon Johnson borrowed the campus for a summit meeting with Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin. Then there was the day in 1976 when Prof. Richard Mitchell first let the world know he was mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
It was in his 23rd year as a teacher of language that Mitchell decided he'd had quite enough of the Solecistic flapdoodle that students habitually palm off as writing. The kids weren't to blame if they couldn't string together a grammatical sentence, he reasoned; many of their instructors could do no better.
Repairing to the ancient letterpress in the basement of his home in Pitman, N.J., Mitchell prepared to deliver a thunderbolt. The result was Vol. 1, No. 1 of The Underground Grammarian, an elegantly printed, four-page journal dedicated to the humiliation of "people who are paid for the work of their minds," but fail the test of acceptable writing. Many of his targets, of course, were his colleagues. Within hours after he handed out 1,000 copies of his maiden issue, there were demands for a public apology.
But Mitchell was in no mood to back down. The issues, he believed, were too serious. "Teaching is the easiest profession in America in which to fake it," he explains. "You can run off at your mouth for your whole career, and no one will know if your students are dying. It doesn't show. They die quietly." While he applauds the prose of such academics as Carl Sagan, Jacques Barzun and Lewis (Lives of a Cell) Thomas, Mitchell's bêtes noires are administrators and professors of education—"educationists," he slightingly calls them. Quoting liberally from their jargon-filled discourses, his subversive monthly names names and sometimes discloses their salaries. Even Glassboro President Mark Chamberlain has not been spared. "He has alienated a lot of people," admits Chamberlain. "Individuals have come to me and said, 'Why don't you shut this guy up?' But I won't try to censor him, because he's professionally competent."
A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., Glassboro's intellectual outlaw had once considered becoming a clergyman. Instead he earned his Ph.D. in literature at Syracuse, taught in New York and Ohio and arrived at Glassboro in 1963. "I've always been a pain in the ass to the place," he says, "but I've cast my lot here." He shares it with his wife, Frances, who worked until recently as a surgical nurse and still helps proofread the Grammarian. Three of their four daughters are grown; the fourth, Daphne, 12, is in private school.
Ever the iconoclast, Mitchell, 50, refused as a young man to join his father's electrical manufacturing firm in Mount Vernon, N.Y. "I don't care for that wealthy kind of life," he explains. Today he delights in rolling his own cigarettes ("because it looks disreputable"), and has parlayed his dyspeptic wit and rumpled appearance into a salable talk show persona. "My colleagues don't like that," says Mitchell, "and they don't like that I like it. But my celebrity is intimidating. People in America respect notoriety." Nourished by his dollop of fame, Mitchell last year published his first book, Less Than Words Can Say, and has welcomed hundreds of new subscribers to the Grammarian, bringing its paid circulation to 2,500. (Co-conspirators turn out thousands of photocopies, a practice Mitchell happily condones.) Only once has he turned down an applicant. "This is an independent, radical, terrorist magazine," he sniffs. "Why should it be in the Library of Congress?"