Bless and Curse Not: a Path to Loving Words Well

The Bible is rich with teachings about the work of our words, from lines of poetry to pastoral exhortation, from wisdom proverbs to prophetic utterances. The psalmists remind us that the tongue and lips are for the praise of God and not deceit (Ps. 34:13; 119:171-2), Solomon observes that rash words kill while wise words bring healing (Prov. 12:18), and Jesus unequivocally links the words of the mouth with the state of a person’s heart (Matt. 12:36-37). James depicts the tongue as a rudder, moving a person like a ship and soberly appraises the hypocritical capacity to at once “bless our Lord and Father…and curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (See James 3:2- 10). The Apostle Paul, too, uses the language of blessing and cursing in his instructions to the Christians in Rome: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Rom.12:14). The Biblical language of ‘blessing’ and ‘cursing’ offers a very deep well to draw from when asking what it might mean to love and care for and with words.

Except in reference to taboo “four letter words,” or as a synonym for an evil spell, ‘curse’ is rarely heard today. In contrast, ‘bless’ is used frequently and variously, from ‘blessing’ someone who sneezes to bumper sticker prayers (“God bless the U.S.A.”) to mildly amused appraisals of awkward people or well-meaning actions (“Bless her heart”). Whether because of disuse, overuse or misuse, the meanings of these deeply Biblical words, and especially their connotations to the Hebrew imagination, need to be recovered if we are to heed Paul’s directive in more than a cursory or shallow manner. Throughout the New Testament the Greek word eulogeō (to speak well of, to praise, to flatter) is used to convey the idea of ‘blessing.’ Eulogeō is also the word used in the Greek translation
of the Old Testament to render the Hebrew word barak,
a term that “is bound to a very rich theological set of semantic construals.”1 Suffice it to say eulogeō, and most certainly our contemporary uses of ‘bless’, fall short of a more comprehensive Biblical vision for the term. A fuller appreciation of the Hebrew barak can fill out an otherwise anemic understanding of what it might mean for us to “bless and…not curse.”

Barak is used almost exclusively throughout the Old Testament for the verb bless, and etymologically, its meaning is “shrouded in mystery.”2 Theories of the root meanings include break down (into pieces); kneel; hence, “adore.” What is not mysterious is that God is first to bless and blessing is his to give. If it is within the range of semantic possibilities to imagine God’s act of blessing as God kneeling to his creation, we see from the beginning intimations of
the Incarnation: God in Jesus is God unequivocally with his creation from the beginning.

Genesis 1 shows that God speaking, creating, seeing goodness, and blessing happen together. Before there is speech there is a speaker, and the words of the speaker
have the power to create. The speaker sees what is created and blesses it—a speech-act that sees the inner coherence between what is spoken and what is made, and is pleased. Additionally, God’s blessing involves commands to be fruitful, to multiply, and to humans, to have dominion over all of creation (Gen. 1:22, 28). God speaks, creates, sees goodness, blesses, and the result of blessing is fruitfulness. Ephraim Radner summarizes, “Blessing is life created by and from God, a life that gives life and extends life.”3 Put differently, life is a gift contingent on God’s blessing. The converse is also true: God’s blessing is contingent on living life as God created it. That existence is first and foremost a gift given by God is critical for our concern for words today, for as Marilyn Chandler McEntyre has observed, “…the marketing language that dominates descriptions of human interaction in a capitalist economy obscures a much deeper understanding of the gift character of all that is, and our familial relationship to all life and especially to each other.”4

It is also noteworthy that God speaks blessing: “And God blessed them, saying…” (1:22); “And God blessed them. And God said…” (1:28); and in the retelling of the human creation story in Genesis 5: “Male and female
he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man…” (v.2). Again in God’s covenant with Noah after
the flood, “God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them…” And again—and perhaps most profoundly—in God’s covenant with Abram: “the LORD said…and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be
a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3). This promise of beautifully entangled blessing is the first time we explicitly see a human being become a blessing, a mediator of God’s blessing. Yet I would argue that even back in the garden, humans are given the vocation of blessing, and this too
is linked with speaking. In the Genesis 2 account of the creation of humans, man is put in the garden of Eden
“to work it and keep it,” and God brings the animals before man to see what he would name them. Why is this work—this naming—part of the working and keeping of the garden? Is it not the right of the creator to name his creation? Naming strikes me as an exceedingly parental right, and yet perhaps it is not too great a stretch to see this work of naming as God’s invitation to man to (I use the theologically weighty term advisedly) adopt the rest of creation as his. It seems, strangely enough, that God is to some extent sharing the divine right to bless with humans.

If blessing is God creating life and thickening it with blessing—adding life to life to life in interconnected layers of sustaining care—the Hebrew notion of “cursing” (qalal), Ephriam Radner notes, “seems to imply ‘thinning out’ reality, making it light and superfluous, and finally lifeless.”5 This picture of thinning—of wasting away in
a famine—brings to mind disconnection, fragmentation, shallowness and façade. A shell-like existence and shell-like words. And this is exactly how speech is used in Genesis 3, in the serpent’s deception of Eve.

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

The two words “actually say” leap out as full of incredulity that God could mean what he says, and of course, as the woman rightly points out, God did not actually say what the serpent suggested. But reality is thinned out as the power of suggestion hangs heavy: God doesn’t mean what he says, God doesn’t stand by his words. Though the word ‘curse’ does not appear here, I would argue that what is happening is curse-like: reality is being thinned out; God’s trustworthiness and his faithfulness to his words is radically questioned. And of course a curse
is precisely what ensues: they ate and their eyes were opened, but rather than a heightened vision of depth and complexity and connectedness, there is nakedness. Craig Gay writes, “Tragically, the serpent managed to deceive our first parents, thereby introducing death, corruption, and the distortion of language into our world […] Refusing to take words seriously or deceitfully playing with them is still the surest way to confuse and to unmake our world.”6 So it stands: death and life are indeed in the power of the tongue (Prov. 18:21).

What does blessing and cursing with our words— giving life or dealing death—look like today? Here I will consider two sets of contrasting possibilities for words: first, deceit versus speaking truth, and second, terrorizing with words versus healing with words.

All the way back in the garden of Eden, words were used to deceive. Richard Wilbur’s poem, “Lying” depicts the work and nature of deception exceedingly well. He considers the “airy fabrication” produced for the sake of small talk at a party, then the “toxic” nature of pretentious chatter. He identifies boredom at the root of this: “a dull/ impatience or a fierce velleity,/A champing wish, stalled by our lassitude,/To make or do” and sees that behind boredom is a failure to see the world as it really is and respond with due thankfulness. This, he shows, is precisely what was behind the first deception. He writes, “In the strict sense, of course,/We invent nothing, merely bearing witness/To what each morning brings again to light…” and it is this fact of our contingency that so nettled the Devil, and drove the spite underlying his deceit:

There is what galled the arch-negator, sprung From Hell to probe with intellectual sight The cells and heavens of a given world Which he could take but as another prison: Small wonder that, pretending not to be, He drifted through the bar-like boles of Eden
In a black mist low creeping, dragging down
And darkening with moody self-absorption
What, when he left it, lifted and, if seen
From the sun’s vantage, seethed with vaulting hues.

(Underlining mine)

Behind deceit is the gall of not being able to make in the way God makes, to create. And so, the “given world” is taken as a prison; everything that is is seen through the black mist of “moody self-absorption,” and the work is spite, negation, and fraud. Reality is thinned out, made out to be superfluous, prison-like, lifeless. The curse of deceit is first a failure to see things as they really are, and to, in Wilbur’s words, “bear witness.”

A recent example of this failure is the Volkswagon emissions scandal, which was a blatant act of “thinning
out reality.” “The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that many VW cars being sold in America had devices in diesel engines that could detect when they were being tested, changing the performance accordingly to improve results” all the while advancing “a huge marketing campaign trumpeting its cars’ low emissions”7 (Ibid.). This deceit depicts a familiar problem today: when persons are seen as merely consumers, the “moody self-absorption”— hear here, the profiteering agenda—becomes the “black mist” over a much brighter reality.

But deceit is often more subtle than this, taking the form of half-truth, spin and euphemism, which all rely on deliberate imprecision. MacIntyre notes, “…precision is difficult to achieve. Imprecision is easier. Imprecision is available in a wide variety of attractive and user-friendly forms: clichés, abstractions and generalizations, jargon, passive constructions, hyperbole, sentimentality, and reassuring absolutes.”8 Deliberate imprecision is a way in which lying can masquerade as confidence, tentativeness, sensitivity, even humility. All of these are critical traits to nurture when they are put in the service of truth telling, but where they merely serve to blur and blunt precision, they are agents of deceit. Wendell Berry describes such language as “unable to admit what it is talking about” (38). Political discourse is perhaps most infamous for this, especially language used around war. Phrases like “collateral damage” and “enhanced interrogation program” obscure the realities to which they refer: accidentally killing civilians and torture. As George Orwell said, when “certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract.”9

Two ways we might instead bless by speaking truth include bearing witness, and refusing to tolerate lies. Remember the words from Richard Wilbur’s poem: “In the strict sense, of course,/We invent nothing, merely bearing witness/To what each morning brings again to light…” This is at once a maddeningly basic and dauntingly lofty goal: to bend our full faculties toward what is, to perceive well—and then to articulate it! This involves close and patient observation, attentive listening and the humility to be transparent with our own limitations. This posture of bearing witness is prerequisite to the work of precision and to the task of resisting lies. This is a posture to take before God, each other, and creation, and this work of witnessing—of perceiving—must come before the work of speaking. So to tell the truth we must first “bear witness/To what each morning brings again to light,” and when words are spoken, we love them by attending to them. To riff on Wilbur’s line: We invent nothing, merely bearing witness/To what each speaker speaks, to get it right…” To love words, and to love with words means we attend “to the ways the word is used, not merely to some notion of how it should be used. It means humbly inquiring what the user means, and then listening” (45). In this way loving words through bearing witness means learning to love silence, and its vital relationship to truth hearing, and truth telling.

When it comes to resisting deliberate imprecision and other cursing deceptions, refusing to tolerate lies begins with resisting our own preference to be deceived. McEntyre writes, “Indeed, we bear a heavy responsibility for allowing ourselves to be lied to.” She quotes Pascal’s observation, offered “long before the age of media spin, ‘We hate the truth, and people hide it from us; we want to be flattered and people flatter us; we like being deceived, and we are deceived.” Piercingly, she lists what seem to
be the deceptions we especially want today: “those that comfort, insulate, legitimate, and provide ready excuses for inaction.”10 Calling those who lie to account begins first by calling ourselves to account for our tolerance of— or passivity toward—lies. For words to give life, to bless, there must be a speaker behind what is spoken and a hearer whose involved listening holds the speaker accountable. Herein lies the heart of the problem: we expect to be lied
to and so we are cynical. We want to be lied to, and so we are passive. But loving and caring for words, and choosing to bless rather than to curse with them requires that we seek truth, and hold those in leadership to account for their words. This means “clarifying where there is confusion; naming where there is evasion; correcting where there is error; fine tuning where there is imprecision; satirizing where there is folly; changing the terms when the terms falsify.”11 These are numerous and complex responsibilities and not one of us can fulfill them alone. These are tasks for whole communities, churches, and schools.

Deception distances us from reality—thins it out—and it does so on a path toward blotting out reality all together. The cursing potential for words to deal death—to terrorize—stands in stark contrast to the God- given intention for language: to give life. Recently the BBC carried an article about a Syrian Catholic priest who had been kidnapped by the Islamic State, held for three months and regularly threatened with execution. Father Jack Murad said of his captivity: “We were well-fed, given medical treatment, and never tortured…what stood out
was the verbal abuse…For them, my fate for refusing to convert to Islam was death. To frighten us, they would even tell us in detail how we would die. They are truly gifted at using words and imagery to terrorise.”12 Of course,
the Islamic State is not the first or only military body to
use words—among many other means—to terrorize. The myriad abuses of language by the Third Reich are well- documented. Words that strike fear, manipulate, taunt and threaten are perhaps most noticeable and most appalling to us when they are spoken by those acting on a global stage with widespread impact, but playground and school hall power struggles begin with bullying—even terrorizing— words. The adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words—or names—can never hurt me” has it exactly wrong. Craig Gay notes, “Indeed, words can crush our spirits more efficiently and effectively than perhaps any other single agency,” (12). And Solomon observed “A man’s spirit will endure sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?” (Prov. 18:14).

One way of responding to the power of language to terrorize in small and large ways is described in The Atlantic article, “Better Watch What You Say!: The Coddling of the American Mind.” Writers Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, take a critical look at the priority placed in colleges and universities on protecting students from words and ideas they don’t like—words and ideas that ‘trigger’ or offend them. The trend basically amounts to policing language in the name of protecting students’ emotional well-being. “Microaggressions”— “small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless” are condemned, an example of this being the question, “Where were you born?” posed to an Asian or Latino American—the subtext of the question assumed to be, you’re not a real American. Professors are also expected to provide “trigger warnings” before assigning course content (books like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Fitzgerald’s
The Great Gatsby are noted) that carries the potential to retraumatize students who have experienced, for example, racism or domestic violence in the past. This movement takes very seriously the potential for words to terrorize, but I cite it here as a negative example of a cultural response to this reality that words do hurt more than sticks and stones. As Lukianoff and Haidt convincingly show, this policing of speech and censoring of content is doing no one a great service, and is in fact perpetuating and deepening pathological patterns of thinking in students. To counter the curse of terrorizing speech, we must learn to bless with language that makes safe and ministers healing, not attempt to create a language bubble around emerging adults, or go on verbal witch-hunts.

In contrast to the cursing power of terrorizing words and this policing reaction, two ways of blessing by ministering safety and healing with words include staying in conversation even when it is hard, and speaking peace.

In their article, Lukianoff and Haidt ask the questions, “What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce? Would they not be better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to give people the benefit of the doubt?” One key way to do this is through modelling and teaching the art of conversation and building up in students the emotional and mental reserves to stay in conversation— especially with people they do not agree with.

The first lesson of conversation is that it is persons— not disembodied ideas, opinions or principles—engaging one another. This requires respect and a measure of grace from the outset. Conversation has been called the “process of coming to an understanding” and Gay notes, “At the end of the day, the words that really make ‘coming to an understanding’ possible for us are those that are spoken genuinely and truthfully…Our words only become solid and dependable…in so far as we have committed ourselves to standing behind them.”13 But conversation pursued deliberately, honestly, with genuine curiosity and with great effort to hear what, exactly, the other person is saying, is truly a way to bless—to give life—with our words.

Not only does genuine, sustained conversation create a safe space to “come to an understanding,” it is
also an essential component in healing and reconciliation. In Proverbs we read, “Pleasant words are a honeycomb sweet to the soul and healing to the bones,” (16:24) as well as, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (27:6). Perhaps we have not terrorized or bullied with our words, but we have all hurt with our words or will hurt with our words, and so the work of confessing wrong, asking forgiveness and seeking to heal wounds we have inflicted with our words with new, healing words, is a way of blessing we must all cultivate. This is deeply humbling work, but it is the way of blessing.

Remember Jesus’ words: “out of the abundance of the
heart the mouth speaks”: words are our primary means of showing a change of heart, and it is a gift that we are able to do so.

Akin to this work of reconciling and healing conversations is the possibility of blessing with words by speaking peace to one another. In Psalm 85 the psalmist longs to hear the Lord’s voice: “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints…” To speak peace is to impart life-giving speech that powerfully contradicts and undoes the cursing of words that terrorize. The simple absence of the word “of” unites the action of speaking with what is spoken—we do not read ‘speak of peace’. This kind of speech is not a cerebral reasoning about peace, this is peace itself spoken and imparted. This kind of speech is an extension of prayer, and for those of us who worship in a liturgical setting, the location of the ‘passing of the peace’ reflects this order: we confess, we are reminded of God’s forgiveness and declared free from our sin and extended God’s peace, and then we are invited to extend that peace to one another. It takes hearing God the Lord speak peace into our anxiety, into our heartache, and into our fears for us to be able to speak a peace that is true peace to others. And then speaking peace might take the shape of words that provide a new angle
on a difficult circumstance, or words that open a hidden door where there seemed to be a dead-end in our thinking, or words that simply allow pause, and quiet, and space
to believe there may be alternatives to our way of seeing things.

Bless. Bless and do not curse.

Latin: the Buttress of English

If you ever visit Paris, you cannot miss the Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame. It is essential to any tourist’s list of places to visit. Not only is the interior spectacular, but the exterior is as well. If you approach the church from the front, you will be struck by the imposing façade designed to reflect the majesty of God. If you see the church from another angle, however, it is less imposing and has an intricate, beautiful quality about it. In the midst of the stained glass windows and the detailed stonework, the flying buttresses are impos- sible to miss.

They were not in the original plans for Notre Dame. As the builders raised the walls higher and higher—taller than the building convention at the time—they started to notice cracks. They solved the problem with flying but- tresses. These flying buttresses are not in contact with the wall except for where they meet at the top. Buttresses had existed before but they were always up against the building, effectively forming massive walls. Flying buttresses added to the beauty of the building and provided support to the tall, thin walls.

Latin is the support holding up English. It adds a beautiful dimension to our language. And without Latin, English would be nothing like we know it today.

Possibly the most important influence of Latin on our language is the alphabet. Old English was originally written in runes borrowed from other Germanic tribes. Around the 9th century, Irish Christian missionaries applied the Latin alphabet to the Old English language.

In addition to taking Latin’s alphabet, somewhere around 60% of English vocabulary is derived from Latin. Over half our words come from the Romans. In fact, it is rare to find a Latin word that has not been brought into English in some way. The lexicon of English pays daily tribute to Latin. Take a look at words like “rebel,” from the Latin rebellare meaning “to fight back,” “imperial” and “em- pire” from imperare meaning “to command,” and “force” from fortis meaning “strong.” And lest the examples give one the impression that it is mainly military terms that are from Latin, check out “deciduous” from decedere meaning “to retire,” “turbulent” from turba meaning “crowd,” and “eject” from jacere meaning “to throw.”

The grammar and style of English also owe a lot to Latin. Rules such as not splitting an infinitive—whether you agree with it or not—come from Latin where the infinitive is just one word and thus cannot be split. Requiring subjects and verbs to agree in number, even if it might sound odd to the native speaker, is also a holdover from Latin (e.g., “None of us is perfect” instead of “None of us are perfect”).

This dependence of English on Latin is rooted in the time of Julius Caesar. He was the first Roman to lead an expedition into Britain, and his political dealings with the Britons were a precursor to the relationship Latin would have with English. After his second invasion he chose to install a local king who would be an ally, ceding all territory back to the Britons instead of setting up a Roman governor- ship. It would be a full century before Claudius conquered Britain. In the same way that Rome did not rule Britain in Caesar’s time, Latin has never ruled English but has guided, informed, and changed it.

It would be negligent not to note that Latin was present in Britain before English arrived. Before the Romans brought Latin with them, the Britons spoke Brittonic, a Celt- ic language. Throughout the Roman occupation, Latin was spoken by the upper classes while Brittonic lasted as the common language in many parts. When the Anglo-Saxons came, Old English, the ancestor of our language, became the primary language throughout the land.

While the English language itself owes a debt to Latin, the major support Latin gives to English has to do with instruction. English has by some estimates over one million words. It also has a grammar that is, in a sense, in- tangible. Because the language is built around word order, the very concept the word conveys as well as its context must be examined to find what part of speech it is. In con- trast, an inflected language like Latin shows its grammar through the word itself.

If a student were to be confronted with the English sentence “The girl desires a lamb,” he must ask himself, “What is a ‘girl’? Is it a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, or other part of speech?” He has to remember that a noun is a person, place, or thing, and check “girl” against those con- cepts. Only after he figures out that “girl” is a noun can he deduce that it is the subject. And he must go through that process for each word in the sentence. This is a very difficult task for any student in middle school or younger. If, how- ever, the student was given the Latin sentence Puella agnum cupit, he immediately knows that puella is a noun and is most likely the subject by the “a” on the end of it. The “um” on the end of agnum tells him it is also a noun and must be the direct object. The “-it” ending of cupit is clearly the third person singular present active indicative form of cupio. The grammar is tangible.

Every English teacher can vouch that year after year the same students need to be retaught grammar concepts covered the year (or years) prior. That inability to grasp these concepts fully is the crack in the wall of our English cathedral. We try to build higher and higher, cracks start to form, and we don’t know what to do. Latin should be the support.

Different methods of building such a prop are available. Some people choose to study Latin and Greek root words as an English vocabulary building exercise. They learn roots like docere which means “to teach” and the English words that come from them like “documentary” and “indoctrinate.” This method of leveraging Latin to help students of English can be likened to the original buttresses in Romanesque architecture: big, bulky, and not all that beautiful.

Others choose to study part of the Latin language.

They learn vocabulary and its derivatives and begin memorizing grammar forms. They may even start doing simple translations like “Mary walks” or “The boy jumps the fence.” However, they stop before they complete their study of all five declensions or call a halt before they even reach the passive voice. Parents and students feel they have learned Latin because they can recite amo and servus.

In this case, while this limited understanding of Latin grammar helps the student understand basic concepts of English grammar, it falters when the student really needs the help: for the complex ideas of participles, gerunds, sub- junctive, subordinate clauses, et cetera. Through imitation, students use these constructions but do not know what they are. They are unaware of the rules and thus are ignorant of the errors they themselves make. Studying these advanced grammatical concepts in Latin allows the student to play with them in a controlled environment. They can experi- ment with participial and gerund phrases and realize that while the present participle and gerund in English have the same form (e.g., “praising”), in Latin they are different. “He rejoices in praising God” would be translated Laudando Deo gaudet while “He is killed praising God” would be Laudans Deum occiditur. In this way the student learns the verbal qualities of a gerund and a participle.

You can imagine the beauty that would be lacking, and the perilous position Notre Dame would be in if it only had half its current flying buttresses. It would be like the first construction of the Roman Pantheon: Lacking support, it crumbled to the ground.

Rather than only learning roots or part of the language, the best way to reinforce the English cathedral is to study the entire Latin language. This means learning vo- cabulary and derivatives, as well as the complete morphol- ogy and syntax of Latin. Some start it in Kindergarten, but it is preferable to begin in second or third grade. It will take at least through seventh grade to complete such a study of the Latin grammar alongside a normal course load. It would be a shame to spend all that time and not dedicate time in high school to reading the classics in Latin.

This seems overwhelming, but a serious study of Latin will alleviate the struggle to master English vo- cabulary and grammar. The effort needed for a student to conceptualize that a participle is a verbal adjective disap- pears when they see that a participle is formed from a verb but has adjectival endings. It is obvious—it has both verbal and adjectival properties. The idea of agreement (between subject and verb, noun and adjective, pronoun and ante- cedent) becomes second nature to them because they must implement it over and over. Grammar becomes their daily bread. They become familiar with it and their learning spills over into all their other writing. Most adults who studied Latin for enough time to master the entirety of the grammar will say they don’t remember much of it, but what they do remember is their grammar.

After all this discussion about how Latin bolsters an English speaker’s knowledge, it must be pointed out that Latin should not be learned purely for its secondary ben- efits. To assume otherwise would be to think that the flying buttresses at Notre Dame are not beautiful in themselves. Even without the benefits of supporting English, people still study Latin because there are other reasons to learn it, among which are access to the original works foundational to Western civilization and a host of mental skills trans- latable to other disciplines. That, however, is a topic for another day.

The development of mental skills is why Dorothy Sayers advocates teaching Latin in her speech “The Lost Tools of Learning.” She laments that people just learn facts and are no longer taught how to think:

Do you often come across people for whom, all their lives, a “subject” remains a “subject,” divided by watertight bulkheads from all other “subjects,” so that they experi- ence very great difficulty in making an immediate mental connection between let us say, algebra and detective fiction, sewage disposal and the price of salmon—or, more generally, between such spheres of knowledge as philoso- phy and economics, or chemistry and art?

Later on she states explicitly, “Although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamenta- bly on the whole in teaching them how to think.” She then proceeds to lay out the three stages she sees (Poll-Parrot, Pert, and Poetic) and draws the analogy to the Trivium. In the Grammar stage she states “Latin should be begun as early as possible,” having defended it earlier because “the best grounding for education is the Latin grammar” and “even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least fifty percent.”

In accord with Sayers, it seems the Grammar student is most adept at learning the Latin grammar forms. But a Logic student must begin to translate in order to practice the skill of analysis. In Puer bonus sororem docet, the nouns must be identified, their number determined, their gender remembered, the case ending recalled, and the case use established. Then the same must be done for the adjective, with the difference that the gender has to be identified from the ending. The verb has to be parsed out into person, number, tense, voice, and mood. Adjectives and nouns must be found to agree, subject and verb must agree. Only then can all the information be synthesized into a translation: The good boy teaches his sister.

Complex and compound sentences add to this skill- building exercise. Those comfortable with Latin start to for- get the amount of work it takes to translate a Latin sentence; it can become second nature and happens unconsciously. But the student learning Latin will have to walk consciously through each and every step time and time again. The habit of examining words and their endings in Latin transfers over into examining words and ideas in literature, details in math, evidence behind scientific theories, and motivations of historical figures.

Just as the flying buttresses aren’t only about hold- ing up the walls of Notre Dame but are beautiful in them- selves, learning Latin would be worthwhile even if it didn’t have the vocabulary and grammar benefits for the English speaker. So, once you have mastered the language, don’t forget to go read Cicero, Augustine, Vergil, and Tertullian exactly as they expressed themselves.

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

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.

“What’s in a Name?”

All education is learning to name rightly, as Adam named the animals.”

— Richard Weaver Ideas Have Consequences

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” We know what Shakespeare was getting at here, but it’s worth noting that if the rose didn’t have a name, he wouldn’t have been able to say this. I’m quite sure he’s not recommending we’d be better off as a society of mutes with heightened olfactory sensibilities. Names are important; things need names so that we can think and communicate clearly and accurately.

Naming things involves making distinctions; it requires discernment and understanding. Adam’s vice- regency over God’s Creation was intellectual and moral as well as physical, explains Patrick Henry Reardon in the Sept/Oct 2015 issue of Touchstone. God charged Adam with naming the animals He brought before him by exercising his ability to distinguish the differences among all the kinds that God had created. “Adam thus became mankind’s first cataloguist, the father of scientific and analytical study, the very founder of philosophy,” states Reardon.

There are those in modern culture who have an aversion to the naming and labeling of things. As Michael Hintze explained in a talk to our school’s faculty, these people see labelers as arrogant; the labeler “by labeling things seems to be setting a distance between them and himself and, worse, seems by naming them to be marking them as a possession…as though nature existed primarily in relation to man, as though nature were made for man, as though man the namer were somehow the master, and not simply a fellow ingredient in the Great Soup.” God gave man dominion over all that He had made. Fallen man can and certainly does abuse that dominion, but making proper distinctions and naming things rightly is not a form of abuse. …to recognize kinds and classes and singularities, to distinguish essence from attributes, and general from particular, to name in the image of God who separated light from darkness and labeled the light, ‘Day’, and the darkness, ‘Night’, to name, as the descendants of Adam who in his holiness named the beasts that were presented to him—whether we name the speed of light or the organs of bodies or even a thing so profound as the nature of a noun—to name is to know and to know the works of God… Our work as teachers is to a great extent the work of presenting things to our students and helping them to learn to name these things rightly and then to remember those names. In classical mythology the goddess Mnemosyne (Memory) was responsible for the naming of things. When we teach the art of grammar we are providing students with language for naming and remembering all that they see in the world around them. More is involved here than merely remembering words. “A word with meaning is an act of remembering the being of the thing itself,” says Stratford Caldecott in his glorious book on the trivium, Beauty in the Word. He goes on, “Through language we demonstrate and activate our humanity, and channel the faculties of memory, imagination, and thought.”

Learning to name the kinds of words we use helps us to see how language works to communicate clearly about both visible and invisible realities. For instance, nouns name the substance of things while adjectives name the qualities of things. I love how J.R.R. Tolkien talks about adjectives in his essay “On Fairy Stories.” He explains how our use of adjectives reveals the ability of the human mind for abstraction, for seeing qualities as apart from objects.

The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green- grass, discriminating it from other things, but sees that it is green as well as grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Fairie is more potent. And that is not surprising; such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythological grammar. The mind that thought of ‘light’, ‘heavy’, ‘grey’, ‘yellow’, ‘still’, ‘swift’, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and still rock into swift water…in such ‘fantasy’, as it is called, a new form is made; Fairie begins: Man becomes a sub-creator.
Our ability to name qualities and play with them in stories is a mark of our being made in the image of the Creator of all things.

Cut off from this understanding modern culture is busy finding ways to do away with our need for words. Communication could be so much more efficient if there were fewer words and those words and what they denote were reduced either to images or abbreviations. Emoticons and acronyms take the work out of communication and speed it up. C.S. Lewis writes in the introduction to his book Studies in Words of the danger of verbicide, the killing of words. Words are necessary to keep ideas alive. When we kill words by overuse or misuse, we alter people’s ways of thinking. In his essay “The Death of Words” Lewis
says, “To save any word from the eulogistic or dyslogistic abyss is a task worth the efforts of all who love the English language…When you have killed a word, you have blotted from the human mind the thing the word originally stood for. Men do not long continue to think about what they have forgotten how to say.” Lewis perhaps did not imagine that now fifty years later we would need to also be working against the disuse of words!

Evidence for this killing of words can be found in the clever obituary by Ann Wroe carried in the Dec 2015 issue of The Economist and entitled “Elegy for lost verbiage.” The obituary is a response to the news that 153 difficult words will be dropped from the 2016 edition of the SAT tests. In this piece, which uses all 153 words, the words have gathered for a farewell party. Here’s an excerpt (The soon-to-be-dead words are italicized.):

This was not, he knew, a gathering to cajole, carouse, or cavort, let alone a licentious debauch. Instead, it was a maudlin occasion, at which a dirge might well be sung and a knell tolled. The guests were there to mark their disappearance from the consciousness of most American schoolchildren, who would no longer be exhorted and admonished to remember the lot of them for their SAT exams, and upbraided when they couldn’t. For it was an incontrovertible fact that these onerous, grandiloquent, idiosyncratic words were the bane of many young lives, inimical to summer and fun. Instead of indulging the serendipity of youth, fishing, swimming and hitting balls through windows, pupils were subjugated to the dogmatic and arbitrary yoke of spending days with dictionaries.

Classical education is decidedly non-modern in that it is logocentric. It begins with the three language arts: grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and it involves learning to name and thus understand rightly across the curriculum. As teachers in classical schools we serve as custodians of language attempting to carry out what David Hicks calls “the beloved and arduous task of the schoolmaster— showing how words disclose the transcendent order of meaning and value behind the curtain of the transient world.”

The Plena of Participation: How an Algebra Lesson with My Daughter Revealed the Fullness of Knowledge

Doing mathematics should always mean finding patterns and crafting beautiful and meaningful explanations.”

– Paul Lockhart

One recent morning, a few winter rays of sun beamed through the kitchen window and lit up the top of my black coffee. In that moment, I felt a little more of my being. I experienced, however faintly and briefly, a certain calm and joy. I reflected upon the coffee and the sunbeam; I could see them both in new and different ways. In this moment of contemplation, I gained a slightly deeper insight. Let’s face it, we were all in this together: the sun, the coffee, the kitchen, the window; my visual observation, my thought and reflection.

I mention this rather trite experience merely as a setup for a second, more profound, personal story. You see, the kitchen experience contains some key elements in the art of knowing, but it lacks others—so I offer it merely as a forerunner. I propose the following story as an epistemological model, a study in the fullness of knowledge and meaning.

As I was getting ready to write this article, I insisted that my 13-year-old daughter, Charlotte, sit down with me at the kitchen table to catch up on her prealgebra lessons. With my wife and other children out for the day, the house was unusually quiet. I sensed a good opportunity for us to spend some time together by working on our own materials next to each other. Because I work outside the home, my wife teaches the lessons to the kids; opportunities to study with my children are sparse. Shortly into my canon of inventio, Charlotte began to ask a multitude of questions about chapter 3 in College of the Redwoods Prealgebra Textbook, “The Fundamentals of Algebra.” Her questions revealed her frustrations and insecurity in this new terrain: Why do these equations vary? How do I work with these negative numbers. Should I multiply or divide? Which part of the equation should I attack first?
Now it had been several years since I had solved such equations—and I confess, my memory had grown a little fuzzy with algebra. And I really wanted to work on my article. So when she asked her initial questions about the function and operation of the coefficient, variable parts, like and unlike terms, the communicative, associative, and distributive properties, and ultimately, how to solve equations involving integers with variables on both sides, I declared that it would be best for her to simply read closely the four pages of detailed explanations and examples—and surely she would come to understand the fundamentals of basic algebra and be able to solve the 68 equations. In my body language and tone, I probably conveyed that I had work to do, and that algebra is a subject that you “just have to get through at your age.”

Yet, this clinical suggestion that she simply “read the objective facts of the chapter and acquire the factual knowledge for the equations” was not working very well. She was far from gaining true knowledge, and even further from the meaning of algebra in its essential nature. My selfish fortitude did not last long, for she and I both knew the advice was cheap. Besides, her questions had piqued my curiosity and wonder. I was soon sitting next to her, determined to answer her questions by reading the chapter along with her. Now we both wanted to know what to do at each step. For me, it was an exercise in memory; I had learned these long ago in school, and some years later for the GRE exam. For Charlotte, it was all new.

As we read the explanation pages together, each part of the various operations became intelligible. After each example, we would turn to the assigned equations and begin solving them. Step by step we proceeded. After a few rounds of this, I returned to my seat to resume my studies. After all, our own agendas die hard. But as the problems became more advanced, she asked more questions. And yet again, I found myself sitting next to her, learning with her, sharing in the act of discovery. As she gained confidence, we gained joy. I was teaching and learning. We were learning together. After an hour or two, Charlotte reached an epiphanal moment, exclaiming with pure joy, “I get it! I can solve this equation on my own without a mistake!”

So my article was off, but life was on.

After reflecting on this experience, I was struck by how rife it was with the fullness of knowledge—so much so that it seemed the perfect model to serve as a central example. Indeed, our lesson embodied knowledge and meaning, for we employed and adhered to no less than twenty-five different tools and principles in the process of attaining knowledge. (We shall define knowledge as justified true beliefs.) I will list them here, with each one followed by a brief explanation of its use in our lesson.

My purpose for offering these twenty-five tools and principles is to provide a brief exposure to all that is involved in the art of knowing, to reveal just how much is at stake. After these, we will look at three fundamental concepts in greater detail.

1. Experiential and Intellectual Input – Input acquired through the five senses, along with our conceptual ideas, provided the necessary data for us to solve the equations. For example, through the use of our sight we were able to read the information on the page, and then process the ideas derived from that sensory and intellectual information.

2. Memory and Imitation – Because I learned algebra in the past, I used my memory to recall many of the details; as well, Charlotte used her memory to recall a variety of arithmetic facts. Additionally, the ancient Greeks suggested that all learning happens by imitation, the creative impulse to reflect what is already there. We imitated the steps portrayed in the examples.

3. Reason and Logic (dialectic and hypotheses construction; formal and informal) – The equations involved the use
of reason, the means by which we move from one idea
to another, by means of logical inference. We combined

like terms by dividing. We negated terms in the sum.
We divided both sides of equations. We multiplied and simplified. These were logical and reasonable moves that we knew would help us solve the problem. We also used dialectic, the “question and answer” dialogue in our joint discussion to solve the problems.
4. Verbal and Mathematical Language – We used a fairly complex verbal language to communicate with each other and to describe and explain the mathematical language.
5. Pattern Discernment and Recognition – Because our

minds are able to recognize visual patterns, cause-and-effect patterns, and other structural patterns, we noticed that a pattern exists in each equation, a pattern similar to other equations.

6. Adherence to Order – Each step in the equation needed to be solved in the proper order otherwise we would not have arrived at the truth (right solution).
7. Practice and Repetition – To arrive at the truth (right solution) consistently on our own, we needed to practice and repeat the steps several times.
8. Association – By associating one idea with another, and one experience with another, we were able to understand increasingly complex ideas by reasoning from one concept to the next.
9. Belief in Objective Truth – the mathematical numbers, laws, and principles in these algebraic equations are objective, eternal, and immutable. There is one right solution; anything other than the right solution is wrong.
10. Effort and Discipline – In order to arrive at the truth (right solution), we needed to put forth effort and to be disciplined. Though challenging, we believed that truth can be discovered, and that finding the truth is worth the effort. 11. Invention – Invention involves creativity; it is the activity of inventing ideas and arguments. This includes hypotheses, explanations, and interpretations. We interpreted the explanations of the algebraic equations.
12. Experimentation – On a few occasions we were inspired to think in different ways to solve the equations. If we generated hypotheses that produced different results from the method taught, we used dialectical reasoning to compare hypotheses and to determine which ones were correct.
13. Form, Structure, and Parts – It was important that we honored and adhered to the proper form, structure, and parts of the equations.
14. Evidence and Proof – Charlotte’s answers would have meant little or nothing if she did not show her work: how she arrived at the solution. Similarly, most assertions (theses) are meaningless without supporting proof.
15. Penmanship – Beautiful penmanship is a sign of elevated and ordered thoughts. I insisted that Charlotte use neat penmanship to reflect the quality and facility of her thinking and problem solving abilities.
16. Intuition – This can carry a variety of meanings,
but it usually stands for thoughts that are immediately, necessarily, or self-evidently true. Though we didn’t rely much on intuition, some of the mathematical concepts seemed “intuitively” right.
17. Relationship – Forming a relationship with Charlotte propelled her into true knowledge. If I would have insisted that she learn it on her own because I was busy, she would have struggled longer with the task, and she would not have known it as well. The relationship manifested in our activity has implications that are transcendent and eternal. 18. Participation – If I had insisted on looking at the algebra lesson from the outside, from a distant, objective vantage point, and made assertions from my outside perspective without participating as a subject in the activity, I would

not have been able to arrive at a complete and accurate understanding. I would have given answers based solely on my memory, which is fallible and prone to error. I needed to step inside the activity of learning to read the information myself and attempt to solve the problems.
19. Commitment to Universals – We affirmed not only the universal axioms of mathematics, but eternal realities such as truth, goodness, love, and the soul.
20. Deference for Tradition – Mathematics is an old study; we honored its function and role in the universe and in the history of man. We endeavored to participate in the Great Conversation (about mathematics) with the past.
21. Humility – Humility was absolutely essential before we could learn anything. We had to acknowledge how much we did not know. I needed to admit that I had forgotten some of the strategies in solving the equations. Charlotte needed to admit that these new concepts were a challenge and that she needed help.
22. Imagination – Here we emphasize the importance of
the imagination for a fuller, more complete knowledge of ourselves and the world. We affirm the vital relationship between reason and imagination in the activity of knowing. 23. Wisdom – Though my work on the article was set behind, it was wiser for me to invest in the lesson with my daughter because it was the right thing to do. All knowledge has an ethical and spiritual dimension (all Truth is God’s truth). So all knowledge, in some way, relates to wisdom. Time spent with her was the wiser choice for many reasons, but to name two—we are a little closer now, and she is growing in her knowledge of math.
24. Faith – We needed faith in God, and in His eternal mathematical laws. By studying them, we believed that we might come to know reality a little more fully, and through that reality, know something more of Him and ourselves. 25. Love – Because I love Charlotte, and care enough for her to learn algebra, she now understands it. If I had insisted on her reading the pages on her own, as mere facts separated from reality, existence, and relationship, she would not have come to a full knowledge of it.

We shall now consider three salient concepts from above that are vitally important in the activity of knowing: Universals and Truth, Participation, and Language and Imagination. We will begin with universals and truth because they influence and inform the other concepts.

The first slip into modernism might well be located in the figure of William of Occam in the early 14th century. Occam established the doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals and/or abstract objects have any existence or reality. The doctrine suggests that only particular, concrete things are real, and that universal terms and concepts have no existence (other than as mere names for classes of particular things). As Richard Weaver suggests, the issue at stake is whether a source of truth exists that is higher than, and independent of, man. The consequence of nominalism is that it banished reality perceived by the intellect and the spirit, and reduced reality to only what is perceived by the senses. And with this change in the assumption of what
is real, the entire orientation of culture took a turn toward modern empiricism.1

The effect of nominalism is the diminishment, if not the devastation, of our ability to know reality in a more comprehensive way. The denial of universals carries with it the denial of everything transcending sensory experience, and with this, the denial of truth. Astutely, Weaver recalls the story of the witches from Shakepeare’s Macbeth, who tempt Macbeth with the idea that man can realize himself more fully if he will only abandon belief in the existence of transcendentals.2 By denying transcendent reality
and objective truth, the witches spoke delusively and presciently—instead of man realizing himself more fully, he is actually sundered from knowledge and reality. For it is the transcendent entities that complete the fullness of reality and knowledge, giving life and being to all things.

James S. Taylor aptly states that the fullness of knowledge is a kind of natural, everyman’s metaphysics of common experience. It is a way of restoring the definition of reality to mean knowledge of the seen and unseen. Its restoration is essential for reawakening the intuitive nature of human beings who are able to know reality in a profound and intimate way that is prior to, and in a certain sense, superior to reductionistic, empirical knowledge.3

Let us now turn to the vital role of participation in knowledge. In “Meditation in a Toolshed,” C. S. Lewis relays an enlightening experience of standing in a dark toolshed. He says that the sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door, a sunbeam pierced through. Everything else in the shed was pitch black. Particles of dust were floating in the beam. The beam appeared striking and beautiful. Importantly, he was looking at the beam, not seeing things because of the beam.

Then, Lewis moved into the beam so that the beam fell on his eyes. Instantly, he says, “the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, the sun. Looking along
 the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.” The modern method of acquiring knowledge is akin to looking at the beam; but to partake in the fullness of knowledge implies standing in the beam and looking along the beam. Here are two different ways of knowing. Both are valid, yet the second way implies participation inside; it facilitates passage into the glorious realm of universals, the transcendent realities that comprise the fullness of our knowledge, being, and purpose. From mere matter to intellect, spirit, and truth.

Let us conclude with language and imagination. Remember the opening anecdote where I was sitting in the kitchen with the morning sun and my coffee? By the active use of language and imagination, I imbued the experience with meaning. With modern reductionism, it is usually assumed that there is little connection between the physical causes of things and their meaning. But, as Owen Barfield illuminates, the meaning of a process is the inner being which the process expresses.5 And it is language and imagination, through symbol and metaphor, that connect the inner beings of things to their processes and to man.

So then, a thing functions as a symbol when it not only announces, but represents something other than itself.6 We owe the existence of language to this process: memory and imagination convert the forms of the physical world into mental images, images which function not only as signs and reminders of themselves, but as symbols for concepts.
If this were not so, they could never have given rise to words, which make abstract thought possible. If we really think about this, it implies that this symbolic significance is inherent in the forms of the outer world themselves.7

Thus, Barfield reveals, if language is meaningful, then nature is also meaningful. He quotes Emerson, “It is not only words that are emblematic; it is things which are emblematic… Man is placed in the center of beings and a ray of relation passes from every other being to him. And neither can man be understood without these objects, nor these objects without man. It is precisely in this ‘ray of relation’… that the secret of meaning resides.”8

Perhaps it is just this ray of relation dispersing through each other and the world, our experience and our soul—the interaction of coffee, sunlight, algebra, and spirit—the joy of participation and the fullness of knowledge—which grants meaning to all that we hold dear: that which we write, that which we hope to know, and those whom we love.

Classical Education and the Special Nature of Inquiry

At its core, classical education is about asking questions. David Hicks in, Norms and Nobility, states:

Classical education is not, preeminently, of a specific time or place. It stands instead for a spirit of inquiry and a form of instruction concerned
with the development of style through language and of conscience through myth. The key word here is inquiry. Everything springs from the special nature of the inquiry (18).

The Spirit of Inquiry

The special nature of the inquiry is fundamental to classical education. Every educational methodology known to humankind touts inquiry as an essential element, but it is the nature of the inquiry that makes all the difference. In classical education, the order and method of inquiry are crucial. The classical educator asks normative questions first; everything else follows from that.

Hicks divides questions into two basic categories: normative and analytical. Normative questions are questions that direct the inquiry and render value. Hicks offers some examples of normative questions as follows: “What is the meaning and purpose of man’s existence? What are man’s absolute rights and duties? What form of government and what way of life is best? What is good, and what is evil?” These are the kinds of questions that must “precede and sustain analysis” if a student is going to learn anything from his or her experience (Hicks, 64). Normative questions reveal the essence or nature of things and are especially concerned with human nature.

Analytical questions, on the other hand, provide information, but they don’t determine moral value or dictate order for inquiry. Some examples of analytical questions would be questions such as: What color is it? What are the results of the experiment? Who is the main character? What is the theme of the book? What is the sum of 2 + 2? Which army won the war? and What can human beings do? If analytical questions are allowed to lead the inquiry, then education inevitably devolves into relativism and subjectivism. Asking analytical questions may allow people to talk about values, but this line of questioning does not make any binding or absolute claims. Analytical questions are not bad or unimportant questions. In fact, they are necessary, but they do not force students to wrestle with issues that are of ultimate or absolute importance.

Thus, to properly implement classical pedagogy, normative questions need to come first in terms of chronological order and in terms of their importance for inquiry. When normative questions lead the search for learning, then the answers to those questions will guide our analysis of literature, art, math, politics, science, or whatever it is that we are trying to understand. The information that we gain from analytical questions then falls into place and is useful to us in our learning.

The Development of Conscience through Myth

Classical education, then, is a special kind of inquiry in which we ask the right kinds of questions in the right order. So, once we have the right questions, where do we go for the answers? Hicks tells us that we find the best answers in the great myths1 because it is in myths that we find the Ideal Type. The Ideal Type offers the best prescription for how we should live.

The record of man’s study of himself suggests answers falling into two broad categories: the prescriptive and the descriptive. The early record favored a prescriptive understanding of man embodied in myths . . . Myths whether they sang of the exploits of demigods or of heroes, caught in their perpetual flames a unifying vision and standard of man, an Ideal Type striding between the poles of human strength and human frailty (Hicks, 4).

The human condition, as it is described in myths, gives a picture of humans and demigods that are often heroic and courageous, but imperfect. The characters of interest are always flawed and frail in some way. They all have their “Achilles’ heel.” This manifestation of the Ideal Type found in ancient and modern myths provides an ideal that no human being can match and yet an example to which all people can relate. The Ideal Type is resolute in its expression and yet always requires improvement. It is prescriptive rather than merely descriptive. It provides a pattern, an example, a way of living that is desirable for all people in all times and all places. Hicks explains this concept and offers some illustrations of the Ideal Type in this way:

This Ideal Type was at once immutable yet ever in need of refinement. It was the metaphorical incarnation of wisdom and truth, empowered by education to metamorphose the diligent student. Both an elaborate dogma and a man, it defied comparison with any man, yet all men discovered themselves in it. The Ideal Type embraced Gilgamesh’s love for Enkidu and David’s love for Jonathon, Odysseus risking his precarious safety to hurl gratuitous insults at the Cyclops, and Achilles deciding at the dawn of human history to die at the supreme moment of glory rather than to live through the long, wizening, connubial years. What made these stories valuable was not their historical authenticity or experimental demonstrability, but their allegiance to a pattern of truth. Whatever fit this pattern was retained and added to the education of future generations. What fell outside this pattern was judged superfluous to the education of the young (Hicks 4).

Thus, the characters in art and literature that embody this Ideal Type provide a pattern for education because it conforms to the more comprehensive and more important pattern of truth. Their lives, actions, and attitudes provide a template for living that is worthy of imitation.

They show us our potential for greatness and our penchant for weakness and self-indulgence. We are better people when we emulate their strengths, and when we learn from their mistakes and flaws, we avoid trouble and calamity. This pattern of truth is regarded as the heart of classical education. The central concern is how we should live and what we need to know in order to have a good life. In this way, art and literature become the conduit for learning and true education. Hicks describes this phenomenon as follows:

By insisting upon descriptions conforming to a prescriptive pattern of truth, our cultural forebears made art and language the midwives of sound learning, while behaving, to our enlightened eyes, like tribal doctors intent on making the disease match their cure. They never hesitated to prescribe good manners and proscribe bad taste by falsifying the infallible proofs of their five senses. Fabricated descriptions, mere imaginative inventions in homage to the Ideal Type, served the chief aim of their education: imitatio Christi, the incarnation of a metaphor (Hicks, 4-5).

So, we answer normative questions by appealing to myth. We point to the incarnation of a metaphor as an answer to the most important questions that we can ask— questions about the meaning of life, the nature of a human being, the best way to live, and what is good and what
is evil. We find answers to the most important questions we can ask by reading Homer and Vergil and Dante and Dostoyevsky, but our greatest and most definitive resource for answers to these questions is the Bible. It is in Christ, the hero of the Bible, that we find the incarnation of the Logos, who gives our lives new meaning and provides us with perfect concepts of righteousness and justice and humanity. The highest form of education is to imitate Christ, the true Ideal Type, who shows us perfect humanity without the flaws of hubris or self-interest or a vengeful spirit.

This is how classical education is done. We begin with the normative questions. We find answers to these questions in studying, analyzing, and imitating the Ideal Type because this is where normative questions find their best and strongest answers. Then we can go on to ask and answer analytical questions so that our experience may become valuable to us. Once we have rightly answered the first questions, we can fulfill the true purpose of education:

The purpose of education is not the assimilation of facts or the retention of information, but the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows (Hicks 20).

True education helps us to make the connection between knowledge and action. It goes beyond teaching us what we can do to teaching us what we ought to do. True education is not merely descriptive but prescriptive. It insistently and adamantly points us toward imitation of the Ideal Type.

The single greatest problem of modern education is that the hierarchy of questions has been reversed. The analytical questions have been given precedence in progressive education, and they guide how normative questions are answered. The prescriptive understanding
of man, the Ideal Type, is dismissed and tossed aside. The aim of education becomes descriptive, but not prescriptive. Hicks states:

Now, the modern educator is apt to dismiss prevarications told in deference to an Ideal Type, while he condemns the arbitrariness of a prescriptive understanding of man. He presumes to have found a method for replacing it, at least initially, with a descriptive understanding. . . . So without much sober reflection, the early record is quietly dismissed as unscientific—therefore, error- ridden and useless. In its place, the educator erects a sort of science without reason, random induction predicated upon gnomic utterances like those of Marshall McLuhan: ‘Data accumulation leads to pattern recognition’ (Hicks, 5).

The accumulation of information does not constitute a real education. As C.S. Lewis once said, this practice of educating people without prescribing values may have the undesirable effect of creating more clever devils instead of producing people of substance and virtue. The primary problem here is that the link between knowledge and action is severed. There are no guiding principles, no virtues. Information alone does not lead us anywhere without the help of normative inquiry to instill value and to guide our journey. Without knowing where we are starting from and going to, a map does us no good regardless of the level of its detail and accuracy. Only normative inquiry can give us a sense of direction and purpose.

The Development of Style through Language (in the Context of Relationship)

Finally, there is much that can be said about how a classical education can develop a student’s style through language that has to do with the study of language itself—Latin, Greek, Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric and all the rest. However, I will conclude by highlighting a different aspect of this development—personal engagement in the correction and formation of the language of a student. When we are teaching a student how to wisely and eloquently articulate his or her thoughts, whether it is in speech or in writing or in a work of art, it is always most effectively done in the context of a relationship.

Each student brings his or her own unique challenges to a teacher. They do not all share the same favorite story. They do not all enjoy poetry. They do not all see the beauty of math. They do not all find illustrations from sports insightful or revealing. They do not all respond the same way to correction and constructive criticism. For some, lots of red ink on a page challenges them to work harder and dig deeper, for others it makes them want to give up. It is part of the job for a teacher to be judicious in his or her critique and encouragement to bring each student, as much as possible, in line with the Ideal Type.

In a classical education, the special nature of inquiry takes place within a relationship between teacher and student that goes beyond superficiality or perfunctory mechanical delivery. A teacher who is trying to develop style in a student through language will know something about how to motivate and direct that student in the most effective way. The point of common interest, the heart of that relationship between teacher and student, is the inquiry itself and the maieutic process by which a teacher brings a student to a maturity of style and expression as he or she engages the mythology of the Ideal Type.

Classical education is not tied to any particular historical era; its methods are timeless. It is a spirit of inquiry that is concerned first and foremost with normative questions that lead us to wrestle with truths about human nature and virtue. In this quest for meaning, we look to heroes who teach us how best to live our lives. The ultimate and best answers for life are found in Jesus Christ who most completely and prescriptively manifests to us the perfection of our fallen but redeemable selves. It is through the archetype of Christ that we learn how to effectively connect our knowledge to our actions and live with integrity and purpose.

Words and Things

As a theologian, I observe that God has prohibited images in His worship; in large measure because they are non-linguistic. Only language has even a fighting chance of facilitating a correspondence between word and world; image simply cannot do it because images contain no verbs and therefore cannot predicate anything (representative images merely represent what they represent, in varying degrees of precision; they do not and cannot predicate anything about what they represent; a hundred photographs of the Grand Canyon can only approximate, visually, what it looks like when one is present there; they cannot say a word about what they represent).

The digital revolution continues to move from language to image. The original “command line” computers were incapable of image and entirely language- based; later they became semi-capable, and the first GUIs didn’t appear until the mid-1980s, and color editions of these were around by the late 80s/early 90s, after which many “advances” became “advances” in imaging. Almost all (even Kindle, ostensibly a language-intensive device) of the newer digital devices boast improvements in imaging technologies, cameras, and imaging apps. Even cloud computing is largely intended to provide the large amounts of storage that are simply not possible on the devices as the devices themselves become smaller and smaller while the video and photography files become larger and larger. We don’t send a postcard or handwritten note from Scotland, saying, “We had a wonderful evening in the Royal and Ancient with four delightful gentlemen tonight;” we take four or five photos, Tweet or Text them, and expect people to figure out for themselves what happened. So,
at precisely the time when the relation between word and world has become largely dissolved, our technologies also contribute to the same dissolution, by encouraging image and discouraging language (and churches, ordinarily clueless about culture analysis, follow the cultural pattern by expanding their budgets for and uses of, such digital technologies).

Churches (or academic institutions) fairly commonly attempt to “reach the youth” by doing the exact opposite of what they ought to do in our cultural moment. In a moment where there is already a tenuous relation between words and the realities to which they refer, we compose hymns and choruses that ascribe almost nothing to anything else, but merely express how the (so-called) worshiper feels about worshiping. Language is frequently employed in such settings not to say something about Reality, but to say something about how the singer feels. I observed this recently when I evaluated the well-known “In Christ Alone,” which is often regarded as one of the better of the contemporary hymns. When I observed it casually I concurred in the judgment, happy that a hymn had been written about “Christ alone.” On closer reading, I have abandoned my earlier judgment. The hymn is not about “Christ alone;” it is about my being “In Christ Alone.” I had originally thought “what heights of love” referred to Christ’s redemptive love for me, until I read the words that follow: “What heights of love, what depths of peace, when fears are stilled, when strivings cease…” It isn’t Christ’s peace, fears or strivings that are referred to; it is mine.

And therefore, the first expression “what heights of love” probably refers to the love I feel for Christ, not Christ’s love for me. The next three stanzas of the hymn do indeed refer to three important “moments” in the actual life of the Incarnate Christ, summarized by “who took on flesh…‘Til on that cross…bursting forth on glorious day…” But note how rapidly they do so. Previous hymnwriters would have written an entire hymn, with six or seven stanzas about either the Incarnation, or the Passion, or the Resurrection; here, we get just four lines for each. After this, we’re right back to talking about me: “For I am His…bought…No guilt…no fear…This is the power of Christ in me…” The hymn does not sustain any concentrated attention to the work of Christ outside of me; its focus is on my being “In Christ.” The hymn is not heterodox; it says nothing untrue. But, as is true of the culture that produced it, it employs language to talk about subjective feelings rather than to talk about (much) objective reality.

To use medieval language, we have all become “nominalists,” whose words have little to do with world. The theistic refutation of Nominalism is even more important now than ever. Christian Theism is vigorously Realist, and that is so from the very first page of the Bible. Christians refer to Reality as “creation,” reflecting our belief in an intelligent Creator; for us, Reality/Creation reflects or displays the intelligent intention or purpose or meaning of the One who made it: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psa. 19:1).

Further, in some prominent biblical texts that describe the process of creation, this Creator is referred to as Logos (“reason,” “meaning,” “word,” “language”): In the beginning was the Word (ὁ λόγος), and
the Word was with God, and the Word was God (θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος). He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him (πάντα δι ̓ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο), and without him was not any thing (οὐδὲ ἕν) made that was made. (John 1:1-3).

The statement is comprehensive, both positively (πάντα, “all things”) and negatively (οὐδὲ ἕν, literally, “without him, not even one thing was made”). Thus, all that is has been made; and all that has been made, without one exception (οὐδὲ ἕν), is made by this God who, in his Second Person, is entitled ὁ λόγος.

This Creator, who makes all of reality that exists outside of Himself, perceives and names the reality he makes: “And God saw that the light was good…. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night” (v. 5, cf. also vv. 8 and 10). In perceiving and naming what he makes, God recognizes and confirms his creational intent, or meaning. God perceived/saw that “the light was good” before he “called the light Day.” What was (in this case light) preceded his naming it; the reality existed before the name. For the creature made in God’s image, then, the goal of all human perceiving and naming is to approximate, as closely as is humanly possible, the divine perceiving and naming of what is actually there. That is, we are not free to misconstrue God’s creation; to perceive it differently than God does or to name it differently than God does. We are not morally free, for instance, to perceive the darkness as light, or to call it “light.”

We also note that, in the case of God, naming precedes creating; meaning precedes reality: “And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light” (and this pattern recurs through the rest of the creation narrative). Meaning/definition/naming actually precedes the existence of the created thing itself; it is not a mere interpretation after-the-fact. Before a particular aspect of what we call created reality exists, it exists in the mind and speech of God; what it is (light) precedes that it is. Note then the four-part progression: naming–creating–perceiving– naming: “And God said, ‘Let light be’…and there was light…and God saw that the light was good…and God called the light Day.” The meaning-ascribing language brackets the creation of reality itself. Before making, God expresses (verbally/linguistically) what he will make; he then makes it; he perceives that it is “good” (i.e. that it corresponds to his creational purpose), and he calls it what he originally intended it to be (in this case, “light”).

Nominalism reduces this four-part progression to two parts: the existence of something and the naming of it; but Nominalism denies that any meaning precedes existence, and therefore denies any objective truthfulness to the naming that is attached to reality. It is “mere” naming that we attribute to reality; but such naming cannot make any claims of correspondence to the actual nature of reality. For Christian Theistic Realism, by contrast, there is naming/meaning before there is created reality, and naming/meaning after there is created reality; and, in the case of God, the two namings, and the reality they name, correspond. There is a true correspondence, Realism would say, between naming and nature, between language and reality, between word and world. The truthfulness, then, of all human naming/meaning, is dependent on, reflective of, and responsible to, the divine naming/meaning. If God names/describes his creation as orderly, we are not free to name/describe it as disorderly; if God names/describes his creation as harmonious, we are not free to name/describe it as dis-harmonious.

The Christian church could (if she were perceptive enough to do so) provide an alternative view of reality by her liturgy and by the lives of individual disciples. Her liturgy contains lectio continuo, for instance, in which large portions of (linguistic) Scripture are read in consecutive order in the service. The (linguistic) Scriptures are also proclaimed in Word, and in the liturgy of the Eucharist. Her prayers and hymns provide linguistic means by which the congregation replies to God’s offering of Himself in Word and Sacrament. The whole event is highly linguistic, and in the process of being so, the event implicitly declares its confidence in language to address reality (indeed, to address Reality).

Individual disciples of Christ also express confidence in language’s relation to reality when they commit themselves to a lifelong task of understanding and obeying the will of God as disclosed in Holy Scripture. They regard as true even the abstract language communicated by Christ’s apostles, such as in Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there
is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” How could we “think about” (λογίζεσθε) things that have no existence or reality? But, for Christ’s apostle, some things really are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or worthy of praise, and Christ’s disciples concur with Paul’s judgment.

In liturgy, education, and individual life, then, Christians should continue to regard and employ language as a reliable (though often imperfect) guide to reality outside of the subjective experience thereof. We continue, despite all the mystery associated with it, to serve the “true and living God,” who has disclosed Himself supremely when his “Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” Language can indeed be employed to talk about feelings; but in a culture that does little more than this, we are hardly counter-cultural if that is all we employ it for.

God is a “fortress,” regardless of how we feel about His being one (Psa. 46). He created the heavens and the earth, regardless of how we feel about His having done so. He is so holy that only saying it three times catches the weight (Isa. 6), regardless of how we feel about His holiness. His Son will deliver us from the coming wrath (1 Thes. 1:10), regardless of how we feel about that coming wrath or our deliverance therefrom.

For educators, especially, our moment requires a resistance to the various fads, trends, or technologies that obscure the relationship between word and world, between words and things: There are really no “visual learners” or “auditory learners;” there are linguistic learners, who employ all five of their God-given senses, aided by language, to name and perceive reality around them. Images, and the digital technologies that display them, can make no propositional statements about reality; only language can do so. Images may dazzle our students; images may amuse our students; but images simply make no statements about what is real or not, what is virtuous or not; what is beautiful or not; what is worthy of praise or not. “Reflection papers,” that describe a student’s feelings about a matter, cannot rightly replace descriptive or evaluative papers that describe the thing itself and/or evaluate it within a theistic framework.