Why Language Sets Us Free

Oct 10, 2011
Recently, I was sitting in on a teacher training session at a Christian inner-city high school in which an “expert” on SIOP Lesson Plans had been brought in to teach the faculty how to create effective lesson plans. I don’t know what SIOP stands for, but it was something that the Michigan Department of Education was recommending for schools to use, and so the teachers were having a training session about it. I was trying hard to find something useful and pedagogically astute in what we were hearing, but I was failing miserably in this attempt. At one point during the course of the morning, the “expert” asked us to participate in a debate. The given situation was that one of the disciplines at the school was going to be cut from the curriculum. We were supposed to argue with teachers from other disciplines about why our discipline was superior and should not be excluded. This was very counterintuitive to me because it is inherently antithetical to how I think about curriculum development. Nevertheless, I did my best to play along. After some small group discussion, the consensus was that English (and by this was meant basic literacy) was the most important subject that a student could learn. If a student is literate, then every other subject is opened to him or her, but if he or she is not literate at a basic level or at least able to communicate with proficiency, then learning is severely truncated. Playing the devil’s advocate, the principal of the school asked why English is so important. A couple of teachers gave answers about literature and how meaningful it is which he rebuffed with typical answers that a student would give if he or she was planning to go into a trade instead of going on to college. Not being able to keep my mouth shut any longer, I blurted out, “It is important because our ability to think is inextricably tied to our facility with language. If our language is limited, then our thoughts will be limited too.” This was a new and profound thought to many of the teachers there. It is a profound thought, but it isn’t one that I came up with. I don’t know where I heard it or read it, but in classical education circles, it is one that I have heard or read many times. However, it is not a concept that is regularly expressed in the realm of SIOP Lesson Plans. During lunch, one of the other teachers came and talked to me about what I had said, and it made me think more about how important that idea is, especially for the students like the ones that this school was serving who do not have the advantages of literate and educationally supportive parents. Freedom, in large part, is the ability to think our own thoughts. It is the ability to deliberate on a subject and come to a measured judgment that is based on consideration of different sides of an issue. Freedom means that you do not have to take someone else’s thoughts as inexorable Truth; you have the ability to come to your own conclusions because you have enough facility with the language of the arguments to separate truth from falsehood and the good from the bad. The extent to which students are able to participate in a liberal arts education will either limit or expand their ability to be discerning, thoughtful people with the ability to judge well. Perhaps thinking about this in terms of a car breaking-down makes it clearer. If you have ever had the experience of being stranded on the side of the road by a mechanical failure, you know the utter dependence that you have on the honesty of the mechanic who is subsequently taking care of your vehicle. If you are thoroughly ignorant about the mechanical complexities of an internal combustion engine, automobile suspension, and electronic components, then you and your wallet are completely at the mercy of the mechanic’s knowledge and judgment. However, if you know your way around an engine and are handy with a wrench, then you are entirely free to accept the mechanic’s diagnosis and let him or her fix it to save you the time, or you can decide that you want to save some money, and you can fix it yourself. I know a few people who are free to drive utterly unreliable cars because when something goes wrong, they have the ability to get the tools and parts out of the trunk, fix the problem, and continue their trip. How much more important is it that our students are able to participate in the debates that are going on in our culture and in our churches that require careful consideration and sound judgment because the outcomes will affect their lives every day? At an inner-city school there is often a lot of talk about justice. It has caused me to think about the injustice we are perpetrating as teachers if we are not offering our students an education that cultivates wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty by means of the seven liberal arts and the four sciences so that, in Christ, the student is enabled to better know, glorify, and enjoy God. If we are not offering this to our students, then we are leaving them helpless and defenseless in a culture of catch-phrases and ideologies that is battering them with every form of media, every waking minute of the day. Without recourse to discernment, understanding, and judgment, they have no choice, but to let other people do their thinking for them. --- Dr. Peter Vande Brake is a CiRCE Leadership Consultant.

Peter Vande Brake

Dr. Peter Vande Brake went to seminary at Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia and then completed his doctoral work at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids obtaining a Ph.D. in systematic theology in 2000. He completed the Van Lunen Fellows Program for Executive Leadership in July of 2009. He taught, coached, and administrated at North Hills Classical Academy from 1996-2010 and served as the headmaster there beginning in 1998. He is a leadership consultant for the CiRCE Institute and is working in the Mentorship Program at The Potter’s House School in Grand Rapids, MI. He is married and has two daughters.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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I think that your friend makes a very good point. Art and music do sometimes express our hearts' inner voices better than words do. But, I still think that if we are going to articulate what has been done in a piece of music or in a work of art, we run into trouble if we simply produce another piece of music or work of art in response. We still need words to interpret and articulate what we see and hear.

My point is simply that our ability to express what we think or how we feel is limited or expanded by our facility with language. I think that language fails to express many things well, and it does get in the way sometimes, and it is clumsy at other times, but the broader our experience is with language and especially with the ideas that language represents, the better off we will be as human beings trying to understand and express our thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Facility with language will also help us to deal with figuring out what is right and wrong and discovering meaning and purpose.

Our ability to think is not entirely dependent on language, but a good deal of it is.

I'm glad you are clarifying this thought. While I agree that language is hugely important and one of the most important areas our students can learn, for once they are fluent in reading and writing they can communicate and learn way beyond what we can teach them. But I disagree that our ability to * think* is dependent on language.

We can think just fine without language, but our ability to communicate our thoughts to others and read works sharing the thoughts of others is significantly hampered without language. There are other ways - video, audio, in person, etc. to communicate thoughts and share ideas, especially with today's connected technology. The ability or inability to read or write does not impact the ability to thought.

A child or adult who cannot read or write yet still thinks, still takes in ideas, learns, problem solves, and seeks to communicate their thoughts and ideas with others, they just use other methods. Watch any child under the age of 5, any dsylexic child who is not yet reading, a mute person. They can still think and learn.

Once they learn to read, they then take in more information, other's ideas and thoughts, and decide how and what parts to assimilate as their own and how other's writings shape their thoughts. Reading expands knowledge base, opinions, and perspective.

Just as when a person, whatever age, really learns to write, it's when they are sharing their own ideas, thoughts, stories, and perspectives with others. Those things were already there. Writing is an extension of thought. Thoughts put into words for others to assimilate and consider.

As I said, I agree Language is critical to the education of our children. In fact, aside from critical thinking and problem solving, the most important thing our children need to learn. Once they can own their learning process, they can explore any interest, any passion, and option they have before them. Once they can communicate their thoughts, their ideas, they can then share their inspirations, thoughts, stories, and perspectives with others in an unlimited way.

I wonder if you would mind expressing that without words.

So Peter, in response to your statement:

“[O]ur ability to think is inextricably tied to our facility with language. If our language is limited, then our thoughts will be limited too.”

A friend of mine said this:

"Oh I don't know....I think our ability to think CAN lead to language yes, but when there are no words? that's when music and art take flight~true expressions of our hearts' inner voices. Because really, sometimes words get in the way."

What are your thoughts?

"words are consecrated as the vehicle of truth" —Charlotte Mason

Isn't this just common sense? If you can't articulate your thoughts how can you communicate?