Friday, August 26, 2011

“Learning and Language -- An Essay in Honor of Richard Mitchell, the Underground Grammarian”

By speaking our universe into existence, God gave us a world with words at its root.  Language is at the core of reality.  The relationship between words and the world is intimate and enduring.  Because it is, unless you get the words right, you cannot get the world right.  Mastery of words makes understanding the world possible.  For that reason and others, education must include mastery of language, without which wisdom and knowledge are impossible, something the best educators have known for many centuries.
Classically, education proceeded along this path:  First grammar, then dialectic, and finally rhetoric.  If grammar is how to speak, then dialectic is how to speak sense, and rhetoric is how to speak sense beautifully, memorably and compellingly, a talent which, if you possess it, enables you to serve both God and the nation with far greater effect.  Classical educators reasoned that to be rhetorically adept is to be articulate, clear thinking and persuasive.  They devised their educational agenda accordingly.
But that is not the case today, at least not in many of America’s schools, whether public or private.  Whereas grammar used to be a chief or primary focus of grammar schools, it is so no longer.  What we euphemistically call grammar schools are too often grammar-free zones wherein the so-called learning facilitators are more intent upon making students feel good rather than do well, as if rewards precede achievement.  Mastery of grammar is often the one thing most conspicuously absent from grammar schools.  We no longer require of our youngest students that they master grammar as their first major step on the long and difficult journey toward becoming educated men and women able to think and speak for themselves.  Our failure to require this mastery of our students cripples them.
Let me explain.
A sentence is a complete thought.  But if you cannot write or speak a proper sentence, then you cannot think properly a complete thought.  Because you cannot, you also cannot tell that you are failing at thought.  You are ignorant even of your ignorance.  The things that pass for thought in such crippled minds are normally not thought at all, just an untutored rummaging around in one’s brain for whatever appears to be a suitable slogan to toss out at the moment.
In other words, not all mental activity is thinking.  Indeed, most mental activity is decisively not thought, but mere sloganeering and jargon, which together are the death of thought.  Sloganeering and jargon are to thinking what abortion is the unborn – the end, not the beginning.
You must master language and grammar because language is a logic, a rational way of understanding.  For example, because mastering prepositions makes understanding relationships possible, if you have not mastered prepositions, you cannot understand relationships.  If you have not mastered direct and indirect objects, or the active and passive voices, then you cannot understand either the complexities of causation or who is doing what to whom.  If you have not mastered adjectives and adverbs, then you cannot understand the connection between things and their attributes, on the one hand, or between actions and their attributes, on the other.  You do not think and then translate your thoughts into words; you think in words.  Grammar makes it all possible.
To put a point on it:  When the power of language is small, the power of thought is small.  Schools that do not require verbal mastery of their students render those students incapable of real thinking.  Whatever else this might be, it is not education.
That this failure to master language so often characterizes Christian schools and colleges is doubly appalling.  You cannot work effectively in the service of Him who is called the Word unless you have mastered words.  You cannot understand or explain the content of God’s inspired Word unless you have mastered words.  You cannot preach the message of salvation and hope powerfully to a fallen world unless you have mastered words.
Language is one of the chief means by which God enabled human beings to search for and acquire both knowledge and understanding.  By forcing ourselves to choose the right words and to put the right words in the right order in clear and concise prose, and by forcing ourselves to call things by their proper and rightful names, we begin to do what God intended us to do:  We gain fuller mastery over the world He called us to subdue and to develop, a task that began with Adam using language to name the animals.  So potent is the verbal power God gave us that He Himself had to hinder it at the tower of Babel, lest human evil grow even more destructive, perverse and all-pervasive.  The power of language is so extraordinary that it cannot be left unchecked in the hands of the wicked.   
         Politically the case is no different.  Regarding language, the choice the world gives you is this and only this:  Either you master language or those who do will master you.  Both human freedom and human dignity depend directly upon it.  Unless you know what and how words mean, and unless you can resist effectively those who mangle words for their own political ends, you will become the political and cultural captive of politicians whose unconstrained manipulation of language makes their alteration of government and society possible, and of the judges they appoint to carry it out.  They fervently hope that you do not know what the meaning of the word “is” is.
         Confucius’ way of saying this was to assert that when words lose their meaning people lose their freedom and their lives.
         Therefore, you must never be content with sloppy language.  Sloppy language makes sloppy thought possible.  Rather, even if you fall short, you must strive for complete verbal precision.  You must pause to find the right word and refuse to go on until you have found the right word.  When you pause to find the right word and do not go on until you have found it, you learn better not only what you do mean, but what you should mean.  But if you are content simply to use any word that is merely close, any word that comes quickly to hand or that even loosely approximates your intention, then you make it plain to those who do pay close attention to your words that you are thoughtless and careless.  You must never write or speak as if you graduated from the Hand Grenade School of Language, as if close were good enough.  It is not.
         Mark Twain was correct:  The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
         For these lessons and for so much more, I am deeply indebted to Richard Mitchell, the Underground Grammarian, the wisest and shrewdest of my unofficial teachers.
         Regarding any text, if Richard Mitchell wrote it, you should read it.        


Mitchell Powell said...

Many thanks for mentioning Richard Mitchell. Since you wrote this post, I've read his book Less Than Words Can say and am now beginning The Graves of Academe. He's a great writer.

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

Excellent! I'm glad you're finding him to be of help, Mitch. I owe him a great deal.

Happy reading!

Keythus said...

I cannot wait to get into Mitchell myself. But we don't stock his books in Australia. As such I have bought myself a Nook (over the Kindle) and am downloading them through Amazon. Richard Mitchell is to writing as Michael Jordan is to basketball.

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

You can download all his books and the entire Underground Grammarian series for free. Go to