OUR prolonged, vexing national debate about what books college students ought to read and what skills they need to acquire comes down to a simple question: Can these students know, with a degree of confidence, when somebody is talking rot?
I use ''talking rot'' - the British expression for remarks that make no logical sense - consciously, because 1996 marks the 50th anniversary of George Orwell's essay ''Politics and the English Language.'' My worry is that many have forgotten Orwell's warning about what happens when the connection between clear thinking and clear writing evaporates. I worry even more that many students never encounter Orwell's essay at all.
''All issues are political issues,'' George Orwell declared with the no-nonsense clarity that characterized nearly everything he wrote. He went on to make clear just how debased most political writing had become: ''.... and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.''
Orwell had completed ''Animal Farm'' and was at work on ''1984'' when he wrote these words. He had had a bellyful of the worst that willful obfuscation could offer and set about cataloguing the sins of dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, and pretentious diction. Those who wrote on automatic pilot never had a chance. At their most benign, such writers generated fog rather than light; at worst, they produced the ''newspeak'' that ''1984'' held up for scathing critique: ''War Is Peace Freedom Is Slavery Ignorance Is Strength,'' and 2 + 2 turns out to be any number the government says it is.
Political speech and writing, Orwell insisted, was largely ''the defense of the indefensible.'' The result was cloudy constructions such as ''transfer of population'' or ''elimination of unreliable elements,'' rather than the blunt sentence that says what it means: ''I believe in killing off my opponents when I can get good results by doing so.'' Politicians knew that utterances of this sort would be, let us say, problematic, so they learned to cover their tracks with verbal grease.
Orwell's essay championed writing committed to plain sense, a process he described as ''picking words for their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer.'' Unfortunately, those who earn their bread as teachers of composition have largely forgotten Orwell's lessons; worse, they tend no longer to even assign ''Politics and the English Language'' to their students. Why? Part of the reason, I'm told, is that today's freshmen are so far removed from the Realpolitik of 1946 that efforts to provide them with a sufficient intellectual background would be Herculean. Better to engage students with material more immediately familiar - everything from the controversies swirling around collegiate athletics or multiculturalism to MTV and AIDS.
Other teachers take another tack. They say the ''plain style'' that Orwell advocates is itself the problem. Words, they argue, don't have fixed meanings, nor are they, as Orwell imagined, markers aiming us at transcendent truths. Rather, language is political to its very teeth, and Orwell's essay is often trotted out as Exhibit A. By insisting that words such as ''fascist,'' ''democrat,'' and ''freedom'' be used with precision, Orwell branded himself as something of a reactionary.
If the squabbles about language were confined to classroom blackboards, there would be no need to worry. But because all of us are surrounded by shoddy speech, by the bromides of advertising and the banalities of political rhetoric, it is more important than ever to recognize when somebody is speaking rot. During the Gulf war, we were treated to accounts of ''collateral damage,'' but never to a spokesperson who said, ''Oops! We aimed at a military installation but hit the hospital next door, killing 200 innocent civilians.'' And who has not wondered what a term like ''revenue enhancement'' means - until the tax bill turns up in the mail slot.
Meanwhile, we are graduating far too many students who cannot think - and therefore cannot write - clearly. Orwell argued the two activities were inextricably related, and that when writing devolved to ''gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug,'' politics would suffer. Disagreements about public policy will continue; what's not certain is if these discussions will be conducted by an electorate that knows the difference between plain sense and sheer rot.
Language mavens are often written off as snobs who flinch when someone begins a sentence with ''Hopefully,'' for example. But what Orwell had in mind, and what still matters, is a realization that ''the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.''
Fifty years after ''Politics and the English Language'' appeared in Horizon magazine, I can think of no better antidote for the pretentious prose and threadbare argumentation being churned out on college campuses than this: Anybody teaching freshman composition should be required to read each of Orwell's paragraphs and to understand the difference between the verbally quick and the linguistically dead. If teachers can agree on the principles that separate clear writing from willful obfuscation, the literary enterprise will have made progress. More important, their students may understand why clear writing is not only important for its own sake, but also for the writer's very soul.