Education, Language, Literature, recent

How the ‘Underground Grammarian’ Taught Me to Tell Reason from Rubbish

Thought control, like birth control, is best undertaken as long as possible before the fact. Many grown-ups will obstinately persist, if only now and then, in composing small strings of sentences in their heads and achieving at least a momentary logic. This probably cannot be prevented, but we have learned how to minimize its consequences by arranging that such grown-ups will be unable to pursue that logic very far.
~Richard Mitchell, Less Than Words Can Say

In January of 1977, New Jersey’s Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) saw the publication of a new campus journal. Sporting handset type and quaint nineteenth century line-drawn imagery, it was called the Underground Grammarian. On the front page of the first edition of the four page newsletter, the anonymous editor printed its “Editorial Policies”:

The Underground Grammarian is an unauthorised journal devoted to the protection of the Mother Tongue at Glassboro State College. Our language can be written and even spoken correctly, even beautifully. We do not demand beauty, but bad English cannot be excused or tolerated in a college. The Underground Grammarian will expose and even ridicule examples of jargon, faulty syntax, redundancy, needless neologism, and any other kind of outrage against English.

Clear language engenders clear thought, and clear thought is the most important benefit of education. We are neither peddlers nor politicians that we should prosper by that use of language which carries the least meaning. We cannot honorably accept the wages, confidence, or licensure of the citizens who employ us as we darken counsel by words without understanding. And so, to the whole college community, to students, to teachers, and to administrators of every degree, the Underground Grammarian gives

The newsletter’s self-declared “Wandering Scholar” provided examples and corrections. On the final page, he offered subscription information:

There are no subscriptions. We don’t lack money, and we may attack you in the next issue. No one is safe.

We will print no letters to the editor. We will give no space to opposing points of views. They are wrong. The Underground Grammarian is at war and will give the enemy nothing but battle.

Nine issues of the Underground Grammarian were published that first year. In issue four, the author provided a P.O. Box for letters, queries, and brief comments on grammatical matters. “Horrible examples gratefully accepted.” Issue eight revealed that a member of the staff, one R. Mitchell, “has been promoted to the post of Assistant Circulation Manager.”

Thus began a 15-year odyssey by an initially obscure professor of English, Richard Mitchell, one of the great and forgotten metaphysical minds of the twentieth century. He was the man who awoke me to the idea that, even though I was a published writer with a B.A. in English, I had yet to learn how to tell reason from rubbish.

*     *     *

Richard Mitchell conceived his historic newsletter the year I entered college. Born in Brooklyn in 1929, Mitchell spent his early years in Scarsdale, New York. He met his wife Francis while briefly attending the University of Chicago. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of the South and earned his Ph.D. at Syracuse University. After teaching college English in Defiance, Ohio, he became a professor of English (later of Classics) at Glassboro in 1963.

Almost 20 years later, the failure of my secondary education became apparent in a university Spanish class during which, for the first time I could recall, I learned about prepositions. In the mid-1970s, I was a straight-A high school sophomore elevated into Honors History and Honors English. In history, we learned about neither American history nor Western civilization, but rather about the Bantus of South Africa, a noble study. In English, we did not learn much about writing and grammar, and were instead left to be our open and creative selves. Nearly all of my bored fellow honors students indulged in pot, mescaline, and speed.

My Spanish class experience made me angry. I felt cheated. I had started community college studying computer programming. After publishing an article in a computing magazine, I transferred to a four year university with the assumption an English degree was my ticket to becoming a professional writer. I was right. But, more importantly, that shift had taken me from my science and math roots into the world of Shakespeare and Austen, Socrates and Augustine. I perceived a glimmer of what it meant to have a classical liberal education.

My first upper division English class shocked me when a dinosaur English professor, Dr. David Bell—a professor in Richard Mitchell’s mold, but not yet a curmudgeon—gave me my first C on a paper, busting my A-student self-image. That wake-up call helped me to see that, although I was published, I had much to learn about writing. Worse, in my first graduate course, Bell’s “Austen and Bronte,” I discovered that I had much to learn about reading, and that I lacked the acuity to appreciate Jane Austen’s clear, witty, and precise prose.

Not long before, I’d read Richard Mitchell’s first book, Less Than Words Can Say. I don’t recall how I stumbled upon him. I’d probably read some opinion column that referred to his work. In a publication announcement in the Underground Grammarian, Mitchell described it as “a melancholy meditation on the dismal consequences of the new illiteracy.”

He had wanted to title the book The Worm in the Brain, pointing to the dangers of administrative rhetoric. The publisher rejected that title as “too frightening and grisly,” But I knew I had found a fellow traveler when I read his Foreword:

Words never fail. We hear them, we read them; they enter into the mind and become part of us for as long as we shall live. Who speaks reason to his fellow men bestows it upon them. Who mouths inanity disorders thought for all who listen. There must be some minimum allowable dose of inanity beyond which the mind cannot remain reasonable. Irrationality, like buried chemical waste, sooner or later must seep into all the tissues of thought.

With that prophetic book, I first experienced the “cleansing fire [that] leaps from the writings of Richard Mitchell,” as George F. Will later described it.

Mitchell did title the first chapter “The Worm in the Brain,” in which he told the story of a colleague who would send him a note whenever there was some committee meeting. At first the note read something like, “Let’s meet next Monday at two o’clock, OK?” But when he aspired to become assistant dean pro tem, the simple, perfect prose changed. “This is to inform you that there will be a meeting next Monday at 2:00.” After achieving that appointment, the note read, “You are hereby informed that the committee on Memorial Plaques will meet on Monday at 2:00.” The worm in the brain had done its work.

I began to notice the worm in the brain during my everyday interactions with friends and colleagues at the university, especially the English professors. It often took the form of a label which created an image in the brain that prevented thought. One such professor, smart and engaging, returned a paper analyzing a passage in the U.S. Constitution. She gave the paper an A, but added, “I can’t help but feel that your argument is wrong, although I can’t explain why. I showed it to my husband, and he thought that it was a conservative argument.”

That statement invalidated the A, and I experienced my first taste of how subtly an abstract label can paralyze an otherwise thoughtful mind. Years later, while teaching at a business college, I saw a more pronounced form of the same phenomena. During a Business English class, I chatted with a bright student who volunteered for the NAACP. We would discuss all kinds of interesting topics, such as the similarities and differences between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

That is, until I noticed a change. She had stopped talking to me like a fellow human being and started talking at me like a white male. I stopped her and asked if she noticed what she had just done. She hadn’t, so I pointed out that she had shifted from talking to me to talking to an image inside her head. I told her that I would hold my hand up and block my face every time she did it. As the conversation proceeded, and I raised my hand, lowered it, and then raised it again, she became aware of the worm in her brain, a mental-emotional implant that prevented her from treating me as a colleague when certain topics were engaged.

Her implant was creating rubbish, of course, but it was insidious by nature because it disguised itself as something in the real world. Worms in the brain are like that.

*     *     *

Richard Mitchell (1929–2002)

My university library subscribed to the Underground Grammarian, and I quickly caught up with the first nine years of its 15 year run. In its second issue, Mitchell clarified the newsletter’s goal: “The Underground Grammarian does not seek to educate anyone. We intend rather to ridicule, humiliate, and infuriate those who abuse our language not so that they will do better but so that they will stop using language entirely or at least go away.”

For the first eight years, Mitchell used a Chandler & Price rattle-and-clank printing press that was over 70 years old and required the time consuming use of hand-set type. In year nine, he discovered the Macintosh computer and desktop publishing. While admitting that the transition was painful and that he would miss the taste of lead, he decided that “Our proper business is to get this thing out, and not to preserve a fine and ancient craft.”

The newsletter proved popular enough that his publisher Little, Brown, and Company released a collection titled, The Leaning Tower of Babel and other affronts from the UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN. One of my favorite essays in the collection, entitled “The Answering of Kautski,” begins:

Tyranny is always and everywhere the same, while freedom is always various. The well and truly enslaved are dependable; we know what they will say and think and do. The free are quirky. Tyrannies may be overt and violent or covert and insidious, but they all require the same thing, a subject population in which the power of the word is dulled and, thus, the power of thought occluded and the power of deed brought low.

Mitchell went on to discuss Vladimir Lenin’s views on education, logical thought, and his contempt for people, and how the educationists of his day were witting and unwitting agents of that tyranny.

Having read everything Mitchell published, I recognized my growing sensitivity to academic and media thoughtlessness. I grew queasy at how pervasive vague and meaningless language had become among professors, fellow students, the media, self-serving public servants, and especially professional educationists. A fellow graduate student who had started a teacher training program to be a high school teacher reported back on the thoroughly insane postmodernist requirements of the curriculum. However, he confessed that he was going to keep his head down and complete the program without resistance.

What educationists were doing to education was the topic of Mitchell’s 1981 book, The Graves of Academe. The infiltration of inanity into the public schools had already struck Mitchell’s disemboweling spirit: “Clear language,” he wrote, “engenders clear thought, and clear thought is the most important benefit of education.” He continued:

Schools do not fail. They succeed. Children always learn in school. Always and every day. When their rare and tiny compositions are “rated holistically” without regard for separate “aspects” like spelling, punctuation, capitalization, or even organization, they learn. They learn that mistakes bring no consequences.

After sober and judicious consideration, and weighing one thing against another in the interests of reasonable compromise, H. L. Mencken concluded that a startling and dramatic improvement in American education required only that we hang all the professors and burn down the schools. His uncharacteristically moderate proposal was not adopted.

The question for me after reading The Graves of Academe was this: Was anyone not already on board persuaded to take action? Was Mitchell’s just another voice in the wilderness?

Mitchell’s greatest achievement was his 1987 book The Gift of Fire. In the Introduction, he reviewed his role as satirist and the “ancient and honorable task” of the “castigation of fools.” But something had changed. Now he pondered doing good, and the extent to which he knew what the good was. Although he had heard about doing good, he realized that he had not known it. “True education is not knowing about, it is knowing.”

I decided as a Teaching Assistant to use this book as the reader in my English 1A Freshman Composition course. My aim was simple. Students embarking on a four year  education might find value in thinking about precisely what kind of education options they had. Are they there for the grades alone? The partying? Are they willing to ponder the difference between a liberal education and vocational training, which Mortimer Adler aptly described as that between “the education of free men” and “the education of workers and slaves”?

The Gift of Fire is full of wisdom:

Who first called Reason sweet, I don’t know. I suspect that he was a man with very few responsibilities, no children to rear, and no payroll to meet.


If you should prefer to understand that children are those human beings who have not yet found the grasp of their own minds, then the task you have given yourself, that task of rearing a child wisely and well, is suddenly transformed from indoctrination to education, in its truest sense, and made not only possible but even likely—provided, to be sure, one little prerequisite, which is that you are not a child, that you have come into the grasp of your mind.


Here is a truth that most teachers will not tell you, even if they know it: Good training is a continual friend and a solace; it helps you now, and assures you of help in the future. Good education is a continual pain in the neck, and assures you always of more of the same.

The Gift of Fire highlights Socrates, Epictetus, and Jesus as role models for true education. The final chapter, “How to Live (I think),” is a reflection on how each of us is always in a state of becoming. As such, Mitchell cannot tell anyone How to Live. He can, however, set out what he believes to be the “largest and simplest definition of a true education… It is all that is absent in the lives of those who aren’t composing How to Live (I think).

The book inspired me to find new ways of challenging my Freshman English students. I devised an exercise to answer the question, “If the government were to offer you millions of dollars on the condition that you give up access to all history and the arts before 1960, would you accept?” Students who chose not to take the money would stand on one side of the room. Those who chose to take it would stand on the other. The undecided would sit in the middle as the rest would try to persuade them to come to their side.

The students were evenly divided, with only a handful in the middle. I’ll never forget one young man who struggled with the class, his writing barely passable. He sat in the middle with a serious look on his face, while students around him had fun trying to persuade him to take their side. At one point he looked up at me and said, “This is really important, isn’t it?” I responded, “It’s probably one of the most important decisions you will ever make.”

*     *     *

In 1996, I received an email from Richard Mitchell, five years after he had closed the Underground Grammarian. It read simply, “What are you doing?”

The year before I had created the Underground Grammarian website, using optical recognition software to scan his out-of-print books and make them freely available online. I called it an “Unauthorized Site Dedicated to the Preservation of the Works of Richard Mitchell.” It was while I was uploading the newsletters I had, and requesting missing issues from other readers, that I received Mitchell’s email. He had already given permission to copy or plagiarize his writings in one of the newsletters. But did that extend to his books?

Happy but horrified by this first contact, I explained that I wanted to make his works freely available to teachers and anyone else who wanted to enjoy them. But, if he preferred, I would remove the entire site. I did request donations from readers to help keep the site alive, but no donations were required to enjoy free access to the site’s content. He replied that he was fine with the work I had done, just as long as I kept it freely available. I breathed a sigh of relief, and we embarked on an occasional correspondence.

In one email, I told him about how I used The Gift of Fire in class, and mentioned the exercise I conducted and the young man who had asked about the importance of his decision. Mitchell responded, “You succeeded in creating an occasion for education.” This was a description he had used in The Gift of Fire.

I cannot say that Mitchell taught me reason from rubbish. More accurately, from his lucid writing I caught the ability to tell reason from rubbish. I learned that he, as well as Dr. Bell, among others, burned with a cleansing fire that cleared away some of the dross within me. I learned that great teachers create an environment where true education is caught, not taught—the occasion of education—and that we now live in a world with fewer and fewer great teachers.

*     *     *

Richard Mitchell died at his home on December 27, 2002. A memorial was held at the university where he had taught all his life. I published a call for stories from readers who knew Richard Mitchell to post on the site, and the messages I received are a testament to the affection with which he is remembered and the influence he had upon those his writing touched.

Today, in a world awash with emotional reactiveness and churlish rubbish that crowds out precious reflection and reasoned conversation, I ache for the wry humor and penetrating insights of the man who ended his life so far above ground—Professor Richard Mitchell, the one and only Underground Grammarian.


Mark Andre Alexander is a Silicon Valley consultant and the author of several books, including Creating Your Life. He continues to curate the Underground Grammarian and encourages those who knew Richard Mitchell to send him their stories. You can follow the Underground Grammarian on Twitter @UndergroundGra4

Featured image courtesy of Daphne Keller


  1. Wow. I had never heard of the UG or Professor Richard Mitchell. As a long-time fan of clear thinking and clear writing, I thank you for introducing me.

    • Gringo says

      Glassboro was once in the news as the site of a summit conference in 1967 between LBJ and Kosygin. Glassboro Summit Conference.

      I hadn’t heard about the Underground Grammarian in years. Thanks for bringing it to my attention once again. Good to know the author created a website for it.

  2. Richard Singh says

    Not only does the blatant politicization of education threaten its integrity, but so does a lack of respect for the core tenets of a well-rounded and effective pedagogy. Although I’ve not known so many of the works of Richard Mitchell as it is clear Mr. Alexander has, I do respect that in this day and age, even with a lack so thereof of good education, people can appreciate that there is still a glimmer of hope. I remain doubtful as to whether the issue will only become greater as time passes; whatever the case, a good article and a perspective worthy of recognition through the ages.

  3. C.P. Visser says

    Thanks, very valuable article, starting reading on the website now!

  4. Rich Smith says

    Thanks Mark.

    I have long read you mentioning The Underground Grammarian, but never took the time to know what it was.

  5. Peter from Oz says

    Samuel Coleridge said that watching Richard Keen in Hamlet was like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning. That is how I felt reading this great article. The jumps in chronology and the strange usage made a lot of Mr Alexander’s message get a wee bit blurry.
    But of course, I soon realised that the reason why this article was slightly odd was that it was steeped in American culture and idioms. And although the American culture has permeated much of the rest of the world, when it is seen up close it can still seem quite odd to those of us from the rest of the Anglosphere.

  6. Gerald Berg says

    I’ll bet that Mitchell was inspired by Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”. Bravo to both!

  7. Klaus C. says

    “True education is not knowing about, it is knowing.”

    Hmm. This might be interpreted as the same stance as the “doctrinaire” academic attitudes that are supposedly being criticised – never mind the facts, get the agenda right.

    Mitchell’s oracular generalisations would have been given a more illuminating context if the article had provided a range of examples of what he actually criticised, and why.

    • jakesbrain says

      Mitchell seems to have focused his ire on jargon-loaded gobbledygook, wanton cruelty to grammar, poor deployment of vocabulary, and all the sorts of things that would later be collected and published in Richard Lederer’s Anguished English books. His greatest venom is saved — as one reading the article might guess — for people whose business it is to teach, yet who cannot communicate clearly. Such people need to be above complications, obfuscatory word choice, and egregious mistakes if they’re to inculcate their students with any useful knowledge at all.

    • jakesbrain says

      Relevant quote: “An outer and visible sign of intellectual shoddiness is the inability to express and examine ideas clearly and logically.”

  8. Defenstrator says

    “Tyranny is always and everywhere the same, while freedom is always various. The well and truly enslaved are dependable; we know what they will say and think and do. The free are quirky. Tyrannies may be overt and violent or covert and insidious, but they all require the same thing, a subject population in which the power of the word is dulled and, thus, the power of thought occluded and the power of deed brought low.”

    This immediately brought to mind the modern NPC meme. It was surprising how telling a blow it struck, the simple comparison of activists to video game characters who can only speak wrote. But it brought home the fact that these people who styled themselves freedom fighters were in fact exceedingly dogmatic, and did not dare speak out of turn.

  9. Klaus C. says

    Let’s look at one of the very few examples that the writer did find important enough to include:

    “Mitchell did title the first chapter “The Worm in the Brain,” in which he told the story of a colleague who would send him a note whenever there was some committee meeting. At first the note read something like, “Let’s meet next Monday at two o’clock, OK?” But when he aspired to become assistant dean pro tem, the simple, perfect prose changed. “This is to inform you that there will be a meeting next Monday at 2:00.” After achieving that appointment, the note read, “You are hereby informed that the committee on Memorial Plaques will meet on Monday at 2:00.” The worm in the brain had done its work.”

    Call me insane, but the only significant difference I can see is that the first note is from a person of equal status to the recipient, seeking agreement as to when they should meet. In the second two the person is now of higher status and can set the meeting time without requiring assent, and does so in a simple but slightly formal manner.

    The third includes more actual information about the meeting, and the implication is that we should treat these extra (perfectly meaningful) words as some kind of waffle, simply because they make the message longer.

    I’m not necessarily criticising Mitchell here – I know nothing about him and the fellow might have had important things to say.

    But it’s very hard to tell from this article 🙂

    • David of Kirkland says

      “This is to inform you” is meaningless unless he otherwise writes to people to not provide information. “I am writing this comment…” would be similar. Strike the clause.
      “You are hereby informed” sounds like legal babel from a ruler.
      But it does seem hard to see this as the problem with language.

    • b396863 says

      You should take a look at George Orwell’s wonderful six rules for writing. Specifically, “Never use a long word where a short one will do,” and “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”

      “There will be a meeting next Monday at 2:00” and “The committee on Memorial Plaques will meet on Monday at 2:00” would convey the same details without being superfluously supernumerary—that is to say, needlessly long.

      • Klaus C. says

        The irony is that this “official” language is just a relic of the more formal use of language in the old days, not some new-fangled mutation of the “mother tongue”.

        Such a mutation is seen more readily in the first example with its typical truncated Americanism – “OK”.

        Seems somewhat farcical for a man who champions Shakespeare and Austen to condemn a meeting memo because it contains two or three more words than is strictly necessary.

        • Ardy says

          Klaus: I am hardly a person to criticise you (my writing is obscure and my grammar almost non-existent) but you seem to be to a pedagogue. I suspect a lack of imagination as this can be a block to full understanding.

          What Mitchell is saying is, to me, very important and a foundation stone of the mess we have created in basic education since 1960. Please don’t ask ‘why 1960 exactly’ as that will only confirm what I suspect.

          I apologise if English is not your first language.

  10. Perhaps its only a grand and resolute worm in the brain, but I reckon there’ll be a before and after reading this article.

  11. John Lee says

    Just got done watching the debate with Jordon Peterson with a panel of australians. I have come to the realization that the only gender that matters is the biological one. ‘the one ‘assigned’ at birth’ – all this Trans stuff is just bad plastic surgery, and aggressive privileged trannie silliness.

    Sorry to break it to you ‘sister’ you aren’t fooling anyone. you are an not-attractive man who likes other men, and likes to wear pantyhose. Sorry you were born with a penis. (and the corresponding apologies to girls who like girls)

    I don’t have to care what your wear, or what genitalia you like to interact with (I like vaginas, which qualifies me as hetero). Seeing an old ‘Transwoman’ on the panel just crystallized it for me- just an old weird looking old man wearing pearls. Everyone just pretending

    Nope, not a woman, just an old gay guy with too much BAD plastic surgery.

    Nice, Polite, well spoken, man.

  12. This is the best article I have read here. Thank you. What a great discovery. Can’t wait to dig in.

    • Ardy says

      Diito lydia. Like a wave of understanding I never knew existed.

  13. JSF says

    A little harsh on vocational training. With the current state of liberal education, I think it is actually less like a slave’s education. Vocational teaching will only incidentally shape how someone views things outside of the remit of the intended field of employment, whereas a deficient liberal education can warp how one sees the entire world.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Yes, my take as well.
      “Are they willing to ponder the difference between a liberal education and vocational training, which Mortimer Adler aptly described as that between “the education of free men” and “the education of workers and slaves”?”
      Why are workers bad? If workers are not forced into labor, they are not slaves. It sounds like a poor use of language, histrionics over clarity of thought, as if the food Adler ate, the clothes Adler wore, the transportation Adler took, the buildings Adler learned and taught in, etc. were done by lessor humans.

      • TJR says

        Yes, I agreed with much of the article (embracing my inner Ed Reardon) but that line reeks of class prejudice.

  14. Milo Minderbinder says

    Glad to see Dr. Mitchell so fondly remembered.

    I met him when I was a child, my sister and Dr. Mitchell’s daughter Daphne were best friends in grammar school. My English teacher was a huge fan and we would read the UG in class.

  15. K. Robert says

    As a holder of a BA in English, myself, I wish I had been asked to read Mitchell in my AP English classes in high school, or at least in my undergraduate studies. I hope to now read at least some of his work in preparation for homeschooling my children. I would further be interested to know if schools offering “classical educations” ever make use of Mitchell for the purposes of teaching composition and rhetoric.

  16. Chris says

    People who proselytize for grammar and clear writing seem to have little to say for themselves and then settle on this trivia to claim their superiority. Is this article an example of clear thinking? I’d say not. It is a pile of self aggrandizement. The quotes do not clarify what it is to think or write clearly. They are simply unjustified claims of superiority in purple prose. “Rape of language?” Pish!!

    • David of Kirkland says

      Or that those who attend university are someone getting a broad education rather than learning skills for jobs…

  17. Mike W. says

    Thanks for this article. I have started to read Mitchell now. For more on language, I suggest; if you can get a copy, “The Writer’s Art,” by James J. Kilpatrick.

  18. Thanks for the interesting article. Some of the quotes are wonderfully funny. I’ll have to read the newsletter soon. I just have some questions about this sentence:

    “Mitchell went on to discuss Vladimir Lenin’s views on education, logical thought, and his contempt for people, and how the educationists of his day were witting and unwitting agents of that tyranny.”

    Is Mitchell discussing Lenin’s views on Lenin’s contempt for people, or is Mitchell just discussing Lenin’s contempt for people, or is Mitchell discussing his own contempt for people?

    More generally, is it the case that “Lenin’s views” relates only to “education”, or does it relate to “logical thought” and any of the other items as well?

  19. Mattias says

    I thoroughly enjoyed the article, and have long held that the importance of clear and direct communication is not given its due. Such communication requires — at the very least — three things: consistent structure (the grammar discussed here), agreed-upon meanings (the opposite of the “newspeak” which Orwell also railed against) and freedom to speak. It is good to see a contribution to at least one of these three.

  20. Francisco d'Anconio says

    This reminds me of my years-ago discovery of Stephen Potter’s book Gamesmanship. As a young lad, I thought my sense of humour was unique. Then I discovered the bone dry wit of Gamesmanship, and therein Mr. Potter put forth a display I could scarcely believe. I especially liked the illustration of the golf tee he used (the “Golden Perfecto”), A golf tee illustration revealing 5 different sections (cup, neck upper shaft, lower shaft and plungebill),

  21. “Tyranny is always and everywhere the same, while freedom is always various. … The free are quirky. …”

    These statements are just as blindly ideological and guess-based than the systems it purports to “refute”. I presume he is referring to the countries that where behind the Iron Curtain. Did he visit them all, and conversed at large with their ordinary citizens? Did he seek out their thoughts, their sense of humor? No, he didn’t. He was just guessing, through what must have been dubious, second-hand evidence.

    Americans (and Western Europeans, but to a much lesser degree) always assumed that what lied beyond “the land of the free” is a homogenous mass of “enslaved” drones with identical thoughts forced upon them by their “tyrannies”. They think the world of ‘1984’ is an actual portrait of what life in the USSR was like right up until 1990.

    But this is irrational, propagandistic nonsense.

    And, to be honest, I find much more uniformity of thought and conformity in the present-day United States than I did in Belarus during the Soviet times. Among other things: there was NOTHING even remotely resembling the ongoing PC madness that is strangling individual thought today in The Land of The Free.

    • David of Kirkland says

      This is partly because Liberty and Equal Protection are concepts that haven’t been realized anywhere because tyranny is everywhere the same (a group creates a central plan of “goodness” or “rightness” that is presumed to apply to all, with punishment for getting it “wrong”).
      It may have applied to just countries behind the Iron Curtain, but that’s not clear from this text.
      Freedom suggests that 7.5 billion people can have 7.5 billion different preferences; tyranny limits this to those of the powerful, be that a king or a democratic mob or a teacher who indoctrinates.

    • R O says

      With all due respect for your experience, I think you may need to remember that the term Politically Correct/Political Correctness) is understood to have originated with the “Party Line” of the ruling Communist Party in each applicable nation. I think that is what Mitchell was condemning, but also to tyranny throughout the history of our planet. What you perceive here as our Western equivalent of PC is relatively recent, and only partially official as our version of a Party Line, more like the ascendant cultural “Line”.

      Since you seem to have grown up under that regime, you may not quite fully appreciate how resisting it probably became an almost automatic mental defensive habit among you and those around you then. Did not Solzhenitsyn portray this passive resistance (and more)?

      We in the West are just learning to develop the necessary mindset, techniques, and almost clandestine infrastructure (i.e. “Dark Web” that Quillette has been associated with) to resist our own PC regime being imposed by ProAGgressiveism. However, we still believe we have the right to debate our dissents in public with the goal changing/restoring things. It remains to be seen if we will survive, and better yet, prevail in a restoration of a classic Liberal political culture.

  22. David of Kirkland says

    “True education is not knowing about, but knowing.”
    This sounds like old fashioned hubris. The presumption that there’s a correct answer, a correct wisdom, a correct thought, a correct life. Can you ever “know” something without first “knowing about” it? And when you “know” it, do you just mean your preferred thinking on a single specific example? Without context, we cannot even agree that killing a person a good or bad. And science teaches us that we can only have our current best understanding, rarely if ever “the truth.”

  23. Josh Guerra says

    Thank you for writing this article. I had not heard of Richard Mitchell, but I will certainly add his books to my reading list.

  24. Apostate says

    Being a binary heterodox white oppressor, I am glad to know about mr. Mitchell.

  25. Deni Pisani says

    Ah, finally – The Underground Grammarian sees the light of day.
    Richard’s writings are both insightful and hilarious.
    I re-read all the newsletters every year.
    I have jotted down dozens and dozens of his utterances.
    And I see it, what he was raging against, in my daughter’s school, and in the universities, and in the general thinking about ‘education’ vs learning.
    Everyone should read his words – even if you disagree, you will come away wiser, happier, and more erudite.

  26. Geary Johansen says

    Wow. This article really resonates. I was never really taught grammar in school. Instead we were left to stumble around in a darkened room, feeling by touch. Now, I understand the theory behind this- the idea being for the pupil to learn by trial and error, and ‘discover’ good practice, not to mention sentence structure, for themselves. But, like most education policies designed by academics far away from the classroom and only ever tested in the most ideal circumstances, this one really stunk, and it still stinks today.

    It’s all based on Rousseau, that enlightenment cuckoo- as if one should really take advice on education from a man who abandoned his own children’s welfare to the tender mercies of state-run orphanages. The idea is that a teacher should not impart knowledge- that knowledge is indoctrination, it ‘limits’ kids- instead coaxing the child to ‘discover’ knowledge for themselves, through exploration. What a crock. Never mind that this process is inefficient, it wastes huge amounts of time, so crucial to kids from poorer backgrounds, who don’t live in a home full of books. Never mind that philosophically it’s a flawed notion, at it’s worst imagining that children might have some indefinable inherent knowledge, the teacher an alchemist summoning something from nothing. Worst of all, with the liberals instinctive distrust of rules or anything resembling good order permeating everything the progressive education establishment has become, it ignores the fact that rules and structure can act as a set of stabilisers to any writers first attempts to learn through doing, providing a true and certain path to negotiating prose construction, without falling prey to the stalled loss of momentum that wavering uncertainty can bring.

    It’s been a lifelong ambition of mine to be a successful writer. I’ve felt crippled by the lack of foundational instruction, drilled home through dull repetition, that might have allowed me to construct sentences more fluently and flourish as a writer. The very act of attempting to promote creativity by limiting constraints, is harmful in that those constraints are tools- which one might be able to leave behind once one has mastered the craft of sentence structure and good grammar- but not before. Posting comments on this website, is a deliberate routine, established as an alternative to scribbling prose on A4 legal pads and as a prequel to the dreaded blank screen.

    So far my only real commercial success was writing erotic fiction, back in the days when the internet first expanded beyond academia and before porn sites like porn hub became ubiquitous. The last time I tried writing a novel it was a car crash- thirty rewrites of chapter one and only six chapters ever completed. I hope Richard Mitchell is available through my local library service- If not then Amazon will have to suffice. If that doesn’t work, I did come across a deliberate practice exercise, which involved copying out excepts from great works of fiction- because that way you really notice grammar and the tactical placement of punctuation. Until then, Iris Murdoch really was right when she said that ‘Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.’

    • Lorraine V says

      I hadn’t heard about The Underground Grammarian before. Thanks for the introduction.

  27. Jezza says

    How many grammatical errors can you spot in this comments section? I skimmed through it and noted seven. That they leapt from the text and set my teeth on edge is the result of years of proof-reading. Apply attention to detail, you warriors of reason!

  28. Megan M says

    Very interesting, and well written. Thank you.

  29. JGO says

    Thank you.
    I have saved “, taken it under advisement, will share it by forwarding it to both friends but also enemies.

  30. LPowers says

    Thank you for this well written and informative article. I look forward to reading more of your writing as well as the books by Richard Miller. Thank you.

  31. Pingback: Encountering Richard Mitchell’s Less Than Words Can Say « Quotulatiousness

  32. S. A. Wolfe says

    After reading this article, I’m not clear who Richard Mitchell was and how he influenced others with his point of view. Looking him up would be necessary for this. More samples in the article would have been welcome. Obviously, the writer has a great appreciation, having created a website for Mitchell’s work.

    I have gathered that Mitchell was unsettled by people communicating poorly with each other, and that he saw this as a big problem. A problem for humanity. His definition of poorly is not clear to me from this article. Reading the quotes, offered by the author, was an exercise in decoding, probably because Mitchell’s vocabulary and syntax come from another era, society or both. Mitchell does seem a bit hostile. Not that I wouldn’t stretch in order to have greater comprehension: my favorite poet as a teen was Tennyson. Now, I love haiku.

    To respond to one of the earlier comments, my take on the backlash, cynically termed “political correctness”, is that the cry of PC means “don’t want to stretch, the old way is just fine!” Taking the time to think, ponder, consider that which we don’t understand means we are open to life in its wondrous complexity. It may also keep our brain healthy.

    My writing education began well in school. I got the concept of a preposition in 6th grade, and was an epiphany…a beautiful, mental exercise. However, my 8th grade English teacher came down hard on the word “snuck” which I used in a piece I wrote for class. He insisted on “sneaked”, because “snuck is not a word.” I guess it hadn’t been accepted at that time. Everybody was SAYING IT! I wasn’t daunted. I learned to write, continue to write, have been published. Am still writing.

    I tell my students, who have been disappointed that the word they sought wasn’t in the dictionary, “Not all words are in all dictionaries. There is only one that has all the words, along with the new ones being created, the OED. And that has many volumes. Each dictionary must define words uniquely to avoid copyright problems.” So, we looked up the word online.

    I love being coaxed by language. Invited by language. And if I don’t understand what someone has said or written, I am free to say, “Not sure what is meant, yet. Can you say more?” I don’t believe it’s right to pretend I understand.

    As a teacher, I let my students know the problems I have with their writing, as a reader, and guide them to clearer writing. I tell them, “You are your first reader. Always read what you’ve written, several times. Does it make sense to you? Have you said what you wanted to say? Have you left out a word? Have you organized your writing?” Etc.

    For this article, I would have liked more examples of Mitchell’s problems with language, and more bio of Mitchell, to round it out.

    • Nicolas Martin says

      It’s too much trouble to google Mitchell and Underground Grammarian? What does that say about your intellectual curiosity?

  33. Geary Johansen says

    My favourite recent addition to the dictionary is omnishambles- perfect for describing the mismanagement of government and bureaucracy- and apt, given it’s origin on the UK TV show ‘The Thick of It’.

    Proof that not everything new is necessarily to be distrusted.

  34. Essie says

    Great article and introduction to Richard Mitchell’s UG and books. Appreciate his wit, ideas, and writing. Hope this and other efforts will revive an interest in Mitchell’s message.

  35. Ardy says

    If we men took up the authors plot of raising our hand in front of our face everytime a woman spoke to their prejudice and not to ‘me’. Things might improve a bit.

  36. Nicolas Martin says

    Along with Thomas Szasz and Mencken, Mitchell was the third major influence on my thinking, and my manner of thinking. I was his student, but as a subscriber to The Underground Grammarian. I’ve never been more excited to receive anything in the mail that the latest edition of his handiwork. Like no one else, he understood American education and its failings. Not a word of what he wrote lacks as much or more relevance today.

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