More Than a Subject: the Purpose, Place and Power of Language

Andrew Kern makes the case for writing as the focal point and organizing principle of the whole tree of learning.
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Picture a city, established long ago through the wisdom and virtue of those who founded and built it, but gradually weakened by the long neglect of that wisdom andvirtue. Now it finds itself assaulted by a tyrannical and temperamental enemy whose weapons consist of deception, envy, and confusion.

What should they do, return to the forgotten virtues, or forsake them entirely and learn instead to think and act like the attacker? Could they win with the second option? If they did, would such a city be worth living in?

Language has been under assault for a long time. For one thing, the logic of technology is to reduce reality to something it can manage, but language can never be managed. Furthermore, the dual philosophical attacks of Relativism and Utilitarianism (“meaning is determined by usage alone”) have severed the fruitful bond between language and both the things it names and the insights it prompts through its generative forms.

I was asked, “Why subject children to the agony of learning to sustain a line of thought in well-ordered written paragraphs in the computer age which has redefined human communication and freed us from linear thinking. Isn’t it akin to teaching children to build catapults in the age of the nuclear guided missile?”

One is struck by the use of weapons technology for the metaphors, typical of the modern thinker even in this post-modern age. Power, it assumes, is found in machines and techniques.

There are better metaphors with which to think about education. For example, it was once common to think of education as a tree. We still speak of the branches of learning, and, occasionally, of the fruit of study. It is less common to mention the trunk of the tree of learning.

The conventional curriculum, however, presents branches of learning lacking both trunk and roots. But the classical curriculum attended assiduously to trunk and the roots, allowed the branches to grow naturally from the trunk, and watched those branches bear fruit.

source of life, rendering it as fruitful as a branch lopped from a tree. It is a liberating art reduced to a specialized subject. But writing cannot be a mere subject, it must be an expression of rhetoric, and rhetoric must be recognized as the focal point and organizing principle of the whole tree of learning.

Therefore, the argument I offer in this article is that writing is at least as important as ever, and for this reason it must be taught correctly. Writing is important for two reasons, each of which I will develop while considering what it means to teach correctly. First, writing is the practical integrating principle of the curriculum. Second, writing is an art of truth-perception.

To realize the significance of these two values, let us consider how to teach writing correctly in five areas, each drawn from the heart of the Christian classical tradition. Writing must be taught according to its nature, its purpose (i.e. for the right reasons), its modes (i.e. in the right ways), its parts, and its relations (i.e. it must be given its proper place in the curriculum).

According to its nature

First, to teach writing correctly, we must understand what it is, and the most important thing we must understand about it is that it is a Liberating Art, not a mere “subject.” To be precise, writing is an element flowing through the three language arts contained in the classical trivium. I cannot overemphasize the fact that the trivium does not consist of isolated “subjects,” but rather of the skills that flow through and, in fact, enable what we call subjects (though this is an unfortunate use of the word).

The liberating arts are arts of truth perception, and writing is a tool those arts use extensively. Therefore, the second biggest mistake a school can make with writing is to treat it like a specialized subject, equal to any other, when it is truly an art on which every other study depends.

Thus writing must be taught as an art that enables students to perceive and reflect on truth and that enables the subjects, activities, and artifacts that compose the rest of the curriculum. It must not be treated like a specialized

The trunk of the tree is the seven liberating arts. Writing severed from this trunk does not abide in its activity or an isolated subject, but as the heart of the classical trivium.

According to its purpose

Next, writing must be taught for the right reason. Wisdom instructs us to distinguish purpose from blessings. It is for us to faithfully fulfill our commission; it is for God to bless according to His wisdom. When we approach teaching writing classically, our goal must not be to seek the known benefits that writing usually provides, but to faithfully fulfill its God-given purpose.

Only love of God and neighbor provide an adequate motivation and sufficient purpose for writing instruction. Well-ordered thought is a fine way to express love for your neighbor. Disordered thought is self- indulgence.

Since, above all, our odyssey requires wisdom and virtue, cultivating them is the secondary purpose of writing instruction. A virtue is a human ability (a faculty) refined to a pitch of excellence. Language is a faculty given to us by God to glorify, know, and enjoy Him and to bless and love our neighbors. Writing is a means to transform our use of language from a natural ability into a virtue. No lesser purpose will reveal the extent of its power or achieve its full benefits.

In addition, writing should be taught to teach us how to think and communicate. It is the most effective way we humans have ever come up with to practice thinking, explore our thoughts, and communicate them with each other.

Thus writing must be taught to the end that the writer is better able to love God and neighbor, both of which are nourished through the cultivation of wisdom and virtue.

According to its modes

To these noble ends, writing must be taught according to its modes, or in the right ways. Once again, this means, not as a specialized activity or isolated subject.

Specialized writing courses want to take a single path – and that a shortcut – to good writing, but there are six paths on which the student must travel, some of which are not usually considered “writing.”

These six paths are:

  • The Literary Path: writers must read the best

    writings available to them,

  • The Linguistic Path: writers must learn a

    foreign language,

• The Theoretical Path: writers must study the principles, elements, and forms of writing,

• The Critical Path: writers must master the rules and customs of good writing (e.g. Spelling, grammar rules, rhetorical conventions, etc.),

• The Practical Path: writers must practice the coached exercises that discipline their raw skills.

• Life: the aspiration to write requires that the writer live a little and pray a lot, or at least open himself to inspiration.

In other words, learning to write takes a very long time with consistent coaching, examined experience, and wide learning.

According to its parts

Furthermore, no one can learn to write well unless he is taught its elements (the practical path). Writing embodies three canons, or elements, of classical rhetoric: Invention, or coming up with something to say, Arrangement, or ordering what has been discovered, and Elocution, or expressing the materials appropriately.

Invention might well be the pith of the trunk of the tree of learning because it provides the most fundamental and universal tools of thinking: the questions that we ask no matter what we are thinking about. These questions, which comprise both material and formal logic, are the tools of perception, which is partly why I argued earlier that writing is a tool of truth-perception: what we perceive depends on what we ask.

In addition, the topics of Invention equip students to read at ever higher levels by teaching them to ask their own questions. Students answering text-book questions are necessarily reading at a low level, if only because they are not engaged in self-directed reading. Giving them the tools of Invention enables them to read well on their own.

The second canon of rhetoric is Arrangement, which teaches writers the structures of the various types
of writing, enabling them to write and to read ever more challenging compositions. Arrangement tends to be boring; however, it is one of the areas where love of neighbor most manifests itself in the writer’s character.

The third canon of rhetoric is Elocution, which consists of schemes, tropes, and revision. The forms learned through Elocution reveal the generative power of limits. By learning about subordinate clauses, the student is enabled to pursue a raw thought in multiple directions.

By learning about parallel structures, he learns to explore relations between real things (not just words). By learning how to rhyme or use alliteration he experiences the sensory pleasure of words and is often surprised by the insights generated by the coincidences in words. By learning how to generate similes and metaphors he learns about surprising relationships between the things that make up the universe of images created by the Good Creator.

According to its relations

I have insisted repeatedly that writing is a liberating art, not a mere subject. I have also argued that, as a liberating art, writing is the foundation for every other subject. What I am trying to stress is that writing is not and cannot be a class or subject but that it is the very core, the only appropriate integrating activity, of the curriculum. Nothing else flows between the subjects without mingling and confusing them. Not only is it appropriate for writing to be used in the subjects, it is writing, or at least the trivium, that makes the subjects possible. The Trivium, therefore, is the trunk of the tree of learning.

I should perhaps clarify what I mean by a subject. Indeed, the very word subject is a vague and almost meaningless substitute for what the classical tradition called arts (ways of making) and sciences (things known). The liberating arts are liberating because they are used to make knowledge, knowledge can only be of truth, and truth liberates us. Arts > Truth perception > Liberty.

Subjects don’t concern themselves with such idealistic matters.

Think for example of history. If you see it as a subject, and most students do, then it’s easy to see how you could regard writing as unnecessary. You just need to learn a lot of information about history and go on to the next subject. But if you see it as a moral science, as the classical tradition does, then you need to think about the questions it raises, not simply remember information. You need to apply the liberating arts of reading and writing, logic and dialectic, and rhetoric to the issues raised in historical

studies. That way, you learn to perceive the sorts of truths history teaches which can strengthen a nation’s liberties, not through indoctrination but through truth.

When you begin to think, you need to write.The decline of writing in the school curriculum, therefore, is a product of the loss of the classical curriculum and a cause of the loss of freedom.

One could go on, and comment on how writing prepares the writer to speak, supports his memory, and disciplines the mind in a dozen ways while opening to him the “realms of gold” about which Keats sang. But I am out of space. I will only say that this gold is the Christian classical curriculum and that writing prepares the student to love and feed on it.

Our duty is to teach writing as a thread of classical rhetoric, for the right reasons, in the right modes, including the right parts, and in the right relations. God will attend to the blessings that will flow from that according to the measure of His good will, though some of them are bound up in the nature of writing and can be realistically expected.

It takes a long time with intensive coaching over many years to learn how to write. All six paths have to be walked intelligently. All three canons must be mastered. The relations between writing and other subjects and artifacts needs to be recognized and nourished. But the blessings it contains are more than any student or teacher will ever know.

A closing thought: it wasn’t hard for me to purge my mind of the ideas that poured into this article. Most of my time went into putting it in order so you could follow
it and think about these things for yourself. I hope it was worth the trouble because it was done out of respect to you, my dear reader/neighbor.