Explain Simply: Don’t Simply Explain


Liber: a Latin word that may refer to “book,” or to “liberty” and “freedom.”

A liberal arts education is rooted in the idea that there is freedom in understanding. So, while many consider elite liberal arts colleges a great American success, there is a contradiction in the model; academia explains the world really well, but only to a really small group of people. In other words, scholars’ ideas are often contained in a lockbox to which only intellectuals hold the key. As such, freedom in understanding is only available to those lucky few — an exclusive club that contradicts the “life, liberty and happiness for all” that this nation claims to strive for.

Picture yourself playing Mario Kart. You’re on the Rainbow Road level; the track is colourful, sparkling, and really hard to stay on. There are ten other players, jostling for first position, dropping banana peels to distract others, and searching for speed boosters. To me, this is the world of academia.

Now, picture yourself off the track, drifting in space. You’re floating pleasantly, enjoying the stars around you and confused by the dazzling scene in front of you. The Rainbow Road looks competitive, expensive and inaccessible. This is the world outside of academia. Carts are whizzing by like ideas, accelerating and morphing so quickly that once you understand them, they’ve changed. The thought of merging onto the Rainbow is overwhelming at best, and terrifying at worst. It’s probably better just to stick with what you know: the stars.

Academia does a great job of explaining the world. But it fails to explain it to the world. Instead, academics use flowery and exotic language to make our peers think we know what we’re talking about. As a result, the actual quality of the idea becomes less important than the way it is expressed. Or, the way it is expressed takes priority over the idea itself. This practice builds a layer of insulation around our ideas that demands an extensive vocabulary to break through; it makes the ability to understand — what we call freedom — an exclusive privilege. One of my classmates provided a perfectly ironic example of this while discussing the differences between the effectiveness of visual and written representations:

“A written medium is more easily proliferated to the masses.”

Translation: more people can understand text.

I’m not sure if I agree with the statement itself, but it shows exactly what I’m talking about: her actual point is hidden behind smoke and mirrors — an illusion of knowledge. In other words, we seem to use strong words to protect weak ideas from attack. This happens in classrooms, academic journals and other publications as well. But the jargon and bullshit create a barrier around the ideas themselves. As a student at an elite liberal arts college, I can and should be able to follow a high level of formal reasoning. Yet, I find myself nodding along to arguments from the “other side” simply because they’re so easy to follow! There are no distractions — no bananas on the Rainbow Road — to throw me off. We have to ask, how can a voter — with a high school education who is primarily concerned about tax increases — understand the benefits of public healthcare, if they can’t even understand the words and sentences used to describe them? How does a rancher in Montana get on board with gun control when one ear is fed easy-to-understand talking points from the NRA, and the other hears eloquent reasoning for common-sense gun laws? All that filters through is, “they want to take away my guns!”

To be clear, I am not placing the burden on others to better understand. Rather, it is our duty as educators to better explain. Maybe the real question is, how can we appreciate ideas that are expressed simply? It is us, the academics, that need to learn. We must include and value all perspectives in every debate, regardless of their formality or eloquence.

Maybe the 2016 presidential election wouldn’t have been such a shocker if we realized that winning a vote is not dependent on how eloquently your position is articulated, but on how it is received.

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Explain Simply: Don’t Simply Explain