“For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armour was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.” – Dorothy Sayers
Words are our only means of knowing the world as rational beings. You cannot think without words. Go ahead, and try it: try thinking without words. Form pictures in your mind without words, but you will soon find yourself naming those objects, and even making short sentences about them. You cannot know the world without thinking in words. Words are the basis of rationality and self-awareness.
Not surprisingly, we read that creation came into being through words, and John’s Gospel tells us that those words spoken at the beginning were through the Word of God Himself. God’s Eternal Son is the Word: the communication and explication of the life of God. God knows Himself through His Word by His Spirit.
The written Word, God’s special revelation, is the foundation of knowledge about God, ourselves and the world. Words themselves are part of general revelation: language mediated through culture, through which we obtain light. All we know comes through words.
Richard Mitchell’s Less Than Words Can Say may seem like an odd choice as a book to explain Christian education. After all, Mitchell did not profess to be a Christian. At times, he can even be lewd. But Mitchell is one of the few writers who understands that language is more than a convention: it is the very filter we use to understand reality.
Less Than Words Can Say starts, as The Abolition of Man does, with some errors committed by professional educators. In this case, the error is not logical positivism, but a kind of bureaucratic-speak that steadily destroys meaning while posturing as formal and educated. Mitchell shows this is more than irritating; it represents a hollowing out of meaning (a worm in the brain, as he calls it) and this by people who are meant to teach meaning to younger minds.
To illustrate, Mitchell then imagines a tribe of people, the Jiukukwe, who have few active verbs in their language, and plenty of passives and indirect forms of address. He pictures these people doing little in the way of forming a civilisation, except clawing for food out of tree bark. The problem with these people is not a lack of sophistication with words or grammar (for their language is highly complex). The problem is that their language spirits away personal responsibility, and the resulting worldview creates a passive and complacent way of life. The way the Jiukukwe understand reality is shaped by their syntax and grammar, not by some outside force. The meaning of the world comes at them through the filter of their language.
Mitchell points out that language is at the very heart of meaning. The words we use (vocabulary), and the way we use them (syntax) combine to form a worldview, and concept of reality. That concept may be a correct rendering of reality, or a terribly false and distorted one. Whichever one it is, our words are the lens or filter through which the light of reality must pass. Mitchell teaches us that people who are careless with words are consequently careless about meaning in general, and therefore careless about truth. For to know the truth is to know reality as it is, mediated to us in words.
Christian education sees language as God’s gift to us to know reality. It is not simply a set of names. Mitchell shows us that the differences between naming and telling is the difference between irrationality and reasoning sentience. Even a parrot or monkey can learn some names or labels for objects. Telling is the privilege of rational beings. Only a human can tell you what something is, or what it is like, or what is does. Am, are, and is, are not mere labels, but ways of telling others what the world is like, what reality is. They are predications, and predications are statements about reality. Christian education cultivates proper language use because we want our children to name and tell truthfully.
This means Christian education cares about word meanings, precise grammar, and proper usage. We want to avoid ambiguity, errors in spelling, grammar or usage, or even slang and colloquialisms that distort meaning. We desire clarity, fertility of thought, and richness of expression. We want this not only for utilitarian reasons: to be accurate in our exposition of the original languages of the Bible. We want it for the pursuit of meaning in all things. Children who are careless about, say, a subject and verb agreeing in number will likely be equally careless about the meaning of theological terms, the meaning of musical forms, the congruence of ideas, the meaning of philosophical concepts, or the meaning of cultural phenomena. Carelessness or agnosticism when it comes to the very heart of meaning – language – usually reverberates into a similar apathy toward meaning in the rest of life.
Dorothy Sayers agreed in her essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning”. There she explains that the medieval Trivium (or three ways) was essentially one long education in language, which prepared one for the search for meaning in all other “subjects”. Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric were the three successive forms of learning how to discover meaning in the world. She writes,
“But language itself is simply the medium in which thought is expressed. The whole of the Trivium was, in fact, intended to teach the pupil the proper use of the tools of learning, before he began to apply them to “subjects” at all. First, he learned a language; not just how to order a meal in a foreign language, but the structure of language–a language, and hence of language itself–what it was, how it was put together and how it worked. Secondly, he learned how to use language: how to define his terms and make accurate statements; how to construct an argument and how to detect fallacies in argument (his own arguments and other people’s). Dialectic, that is to say, embraced Logic and Disputation. Thirdly, he learned to express himself in language; how to say what he had to say elegantly and persuasively.”
Along these lines, Sayers recommended the teaching of Latin, not for some kind of nostalgic longing for the past, but because Latin is a gymnasium to teach this kind of approach to meaning: grammar, then logic, then rhetoric. Christian education therefore gives itself to old-fashioned reading through phonics, vocabulary practice and spelling, grammar and syntax, and learning to craft correct, logical and winsome compositions.
Just as you cannot do algebra without numbers, so you cannot know, discover or communicate meaning without clear, accurate, and precise language. It is not too much to say that bad grammar is the enemy of truth. Christians should then prioritise language, since it is the media of propositional truth. God has communicated Himself and all of reality in words, not firstly or primarily in pictures, or sculptures, or sounds. Indeed, all creation reveals God, but only words can give rational expression to what we see, hear, taste, touch, or smell. Christians are people of the Word, and a Christian education is immersion in the meaning, structure, and coherence of language.
“Thy Word is truth,” said the Lord in His prayer, and no one who cares about truth is careless about words.