Language is Sermonic
“To Write the Truth”
THE endless effort toward refurbishing college composition, with its restless shift of approach, of sequence, of emphasis, arouses suspicion that the most formidable question of all has been begged. A course so firmly entrenched in every curriculum and yet so productive of dissatisfaction must conceal a problem which needs to be set forth in its true nature and proportion.
For this reason I wish to make a certain radical, and probably impolitic, inquiry about objectives. Suppose it were possible to poll every teacher of college composition with reference to its aims; is it likely that any area of unanimous agreement could be found? I am aware of the varied philosophies, but if the question is properly phrased, my surmise is Yes; I cannot imagine anyone’s denying that the aim of a course in composition is to make students more articulate. Every instructor wishes his students to write better, to talk better, and is chagrined if tests cast doubt upon the achievement. He may steal moments to introduce them to the sweetness and light of literature, but his success is measured by how his charges gain facility with their native tongue. That, at least, is the plain implication of syllabuses, course plans, and examinations. I suspect, however, that just here lies the root of our commonly felt frustration; we are not conceiving the real nature of our duty if we stop with making students articulate, even to the point of eloquence.
For at the source of our feeling of restlessness and incomplete achievement is the ignoring of a question necessarily prior: About what do we wish to make men articulate? Admittedly we who instruct in the art of speech are turning loose upon the world a power. Where do we expect the wielders of that power to learn the proper use of it? Now “proper” is, of course, a critical word, and I propose next to examine its possible meanings.
There came a moment in the fourteenth century when teachers of rhetoric and philosophy hesitated between two aims: Was it their duty to teach men vere loqui or recte loqui, in the phrases employed? Obviously a basic question of epistemology was involved. Those who favored the former were metaphysicians; those who favored the latter had come to believe, as Bacon expressed it in the Advancement of Learning, that “the Essential Forms or true differences of things cannot by any human diligence be found out.” Empiricism was gathering strength, and the decision was to teach recte loqui, as one can discover in the manuals of rhetoric of the Renaissance. Once the ontological referents were given up, however, this proved but an intermediate stage, and the course continued until today we can discern on all sides a third aim, which I shall take the liberty of phrasing in a parallel way as utiliter loqui. From speaking truthfully to speaking correctly to speaking usefully – is this not the rhetorician’s easy descent to Avernus?
Yet these changes seem to be symptomatic of a profound trend, and it is to be feared that the course of our civilization is mirrored in the direction they indicate. The teacher of composition today, who thinks he is struggling merely with the ignorance and indifferentism of individuals, is actually trying to hold back the tide which is threatening intellectual life as such. Perhaps the picture seems melodramatic. I think it will seem less so after we have examined the implications of the trend.
Let us begin with our own time and look at utiliter loqui, which is usually described as a potent handmaiden of Success. It is the art of using language to better our position in the world – and heaven knows its objective comports with a great deal that has been said from high places about the aim of education. That knowledge is power has been dinned at us until it appears faintly treasonable to question the pragmatic use of speech. But, in all candor, is it the goal of our instruction in expression, both written and oral, to make men more eloquent about their passions and their interests? It would hardly do to reason from actual practice, for a large part of the teaching of composition facilitates and perhaps encourages such proficiency. From it comes the language of those who study rhetoric with the object of making the worse appear the better cause. In technical and professional schools the aim may be frankly indicated in catalogue descriptions; language is a tool which will enable you to get what you want if you use it well – and well does not mean scrupulously. Says George F. Babbitt to his son Ted, who is having his evening struggle with Comus and Cicero, “Be a good bit better is you took Business English, and learned how to write an ad, or a letter that would pull.” Millions will agree on the point with Babbitt, and plenty would enable them to place eloquence in the service of popularity or profit.
Those who teach English on this level are the modern sophists, as the homely realism of the world seems to recognize. They are doing what the orators were once accused of doing, making speech the harlot of the arts. More specifically, they are using the element of universality in language for purposed which actually set men against one another. They are teaching their students how to prevail with what is, finally, verbal deception.
Now recte loqui, because it teaches a sort of etiquette, appears more respectable; and therein lies its danger. It is the way of those who wish their speech to bear the stamp of conventional correctness. They have their eyes, therefore, upon tradition, or upon the practice of a dominant class, since they desire their style of utterance to indicate that they belong. They are more fearful of a misplaced accent than of an ambiguity, because the former arouses suspicion that they have not been with the right people. This is the language favored by the timid, who live in fear of conventions as a means of self-promotion. Making allowance for those who see an ideal in purism, we can yet say that this is speech which is socially useful, and thus we are not in much better plight if we confine ourselves circumspectly to the teaching of recte loqui. The acceptance of such assignment still leaves the teacher indifferent to truth. He has no standard other than what was done, if he is a traditionalist, or what is being done, if he is a pragmatist. A large body of opinion, of course, believes that this is precisely the teacher’s job; he is paid to be an interpreter and an upholder of established institutions; he initiates the young into the mysteries but does not question them himself. Every teacher has to make this choice between play actor and prophet, and most of them choose the play actor. The public must suspect this hopelessly servile role when it snickers at caricatures of teachers.
Certainly nothing creative and nothing revolutionary (which in the best sense is creative) can come from this dancing of attendance upon fashion in speech. It means in the nature of things a limitation to surfaces; indeed, it leaves one without a real standard of what is right, for the most massive traditions undergo change, and the teacher may at any moment find himself faced with competing old and new ways and without a criterion to judge between them. In sum, recte loqui requires the language of social property. Because it reflects more than anything else a worldliness or satisfaction with existing institutions, it is the speech of pragmatic acquiescence. Whoso stops here confesses that education is only instruction in mores. Is it any wonder that professors have been contemptuously grouped with dancing masters, sleight-of-hand artists, and vendors of patent medicine?
If now we are not resigned to the teaching of sophistry or of etiquette, there remains only the severe and lofty discipline of vere loqui. This means teaching people to speak the truth, which can be done only by giving them the right names of things. We approach here a critical point in the argument, which will determine the possibility of defining what is correct in expression; we come in fact to the relationship of sign and thing signified.
Since this involves the inherent rightness of names, let us consider for a moment the child’s statement: “Pigs are called ‘pigs’ because they are filthy beasts.” The semanticists offer this as an outstanding example of fatuity, but what, I would ask, are the alternatives? They are: “Pigs are called ‘pigs’ because that is what they have been called for a long time,” and “Pigs are called ‘pigs’ because this name gives one a degree of control, as when summoning them to the trough.” After all, there is something to be said for the child’s interpretation. It presents an attachment of thing and concept. The others, in accepting tradition and in seeking utility, offer reasoning which is merely circular. The first says that what is, is; and the second affirms in good pragmatic vein that what works, works. I would not argue that the child has the whole philosophy of the matter; but he appears to be seeking the road to understanding; he is trying to get at the nature of the thing, and such must be the endeavor of all who seek a bridge to the real.
Now every teacher is for his students an Adam. They come to him trusting in his power to bestow the right names on things. “And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air, and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them; and whatever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.” The naming of the beasts and the fowls was one of the most important steps in creation. Adam helped to order the universe when he dealt out these names, and let us not overlook what is implied in the assertion that the names stuck. There is the intimation of divine approval, which would frown upon capricious change. A name is not just an accident; neither is it a convention which can be repealed by majority vote at the next meeting; once a thing has been given a name, it appears to have a certain autonomous right to that name, so that it could not be changed without imperiling the foundations of the world.
If I begin to seem fanciful here, let us recall that Plato was deeply interested in this problem, as one can discover by reading the Cratylus. And he could not accept the view neither that a name is an accident nor that it is a convention which a man or a state may alter at will. For him – and we should wonder why teachers have not pondered this more – a name is “a means of teaching and of separating reality.” The word in the original is didaskalikon. Consequently, he goes on to add, a teacher is one who gives names well, and “well means like a teacher.” Because those who give the names are in unique positions to control, the task is not to be entrusted to just anyone. “Then it is not for everyman, Hermogenes,” he makes Socrates declare, “to give names, but for him who may be called the namemaker; and he, it appears, is the lawgiver, who is of all artisans among men the rarest.” Plato then proceeds to a conclusion that since the namemaker is the lawgiver, he must, if he is to make proper use of this organon didaskalikon, have a dialectician sitting by his side. But thus arranging a philosophical supervision for name-giving is not a task for “trifling and casual persons.” Certainly no one blind to the unities and pluralities of the world can be placed in charge of what things are to be called.
The task now begins to appear serious indeed, for those engaged in separating reality are in effect ordering the universe. The burden of some teachers is in fact heavier than Adam’s, for teaching the names of imponderables is far more difficult and dangerous than teaching those of animals and rocks. The world has to be named for the benefit of each oncoming generation, and who teaches more names than the arbiter of the use of language? With the primer one begins to call the roll of things, and the college essay is but an extended definition.
Suppose a teacher, striving to vitalize his instruction, as the professors of education like to put it, assigns his papers on current topics. What is he to tell students, by way of preparation or correction, that “democracy” is the name of? Does it stand for something existing in the nature of things, something in accordance with “right reason,” or can it be changed overnight to mean dictatorship of the proletariat? And what of “freedom?” Does it stand for an area in which the individual is sovereign, or does it signify some wide function of a centralized government? What sense of direction is carried by the term “progressive?” Consider the immeasurable harm one might do students by telling them that “history” is the name of our recollection of the past adjusted to suit our feelings and aspirations, as some recent historians would have us do.
I am not unaware of the questions which will come crowding in at this point. It will be asked: By what act of arrogance do we imagine that we know what things really are? The answer to this is: By what act of arrogance do we set ourselves up as teachers? There are two postulates basic to our profession: the first is that one man can know more than another, and the second is that such knowledge can be imparted. Whoever cannot accept both should retire from the profession and renounce the intention of teaching anyone anything.
Let those who consider such prerogative unreasonable consider what remains. If we cannot be sure that one person knows better than another the true nature of things, then we should follow the logic of our convictions and choose our teachers as the ancient Greek democracies chose their magistrates, by lot. Let us imagine that on some appointed November day we here in Chicago proceed to Soldiers Field, and there from a huge kettle we draw lots, and those drawing, say, the blue slips become automatically the school staff for the ensuing year. This mode of selection would surely be mandatory under the proposition that one man knows as much truth as another about the things that are to be passed on to the next generation. I do not think the scheme would meet with popular approval. In fact, I suspect that it would be denounced as radical. We should have to go back then and say that whoever is willing to make the most elementary prediction acknowledges thereby that he thinks he possesses some measure of truth. Such people only may be certificated to teach. For those who doubt the existence of truth, there is only what Santayana has called “the unanswerable skepticism of silence”.
There is no escape from this in the plea that, since there are today many competing ideologies, it is usurpation for the teacher to make his own the standard. Such a policy throws us right into the embrace of relativism, which leaves us as helpless as the skepticism outlined above. It is very hard after a century of liberalism, with its necessity of avoiding commitment; to get people to admit the possibility of objective truth, but how can we conceive of allowing anyone to teach anything else? Those who argue that teachers should confine themselves to presenting all sides of every question – in our instance, to giving all the names previously and currently applied to a thing – are tacitly assuming that there are sources closer to the truth than are the schools and that the schools act merely as their agents. It would be interesting to hear what these sources are.
Here is the point at which teachers have to make up their minds as to whether they are the “trifling and casual” persons described by Plato. Either they are going to teach sophistry and etiquette, or they are going to teach names which are indexes to essences. I will grant that the latter course makes teachers of composition philosophers more truly than those who teach the systems of philosophy, but there is no alternative short of that disastrous abdication which says, “Write anything you please as long as you write it well.” This is invocation to the asocial muse. Just anything the uninstructed mind pleases cannot be written well. Even on the most practical level there is no such separation between substance and form of utterance. Anyone who has observed the teaching of composition knows that, regardless of how much latitude of sentiment the instructor gives himself credit for, there will be judgment of idea. When the comment is made that a paper “says something,” it is being valued for recognizing a measure of reality or for being true in its assertions. Ultimately there is no evading the issue of whether any piece of writing predicates something about the world, either literally or imaginatively, and this is why I am arguing that, in teaching students to be articulate, we must hold up the standard of what is true. The man who essays that task is doctor of philosophy in more than title, and he takes on stature.
Perhaps I should visualize for a moment the course I am urging. Here is our teacher, who is charged with the awful responsibility of telling a younger generation the true names of things figuratively sitting with the dialectician at his elbow. What is the use of this counselor? I should say that his chief function is to keep the teacher out of the excluded middle. He is able to define, and he can see contradictions, and he is never going to say that B is only a mode of A. In short, he is going to stand guard against that relativism which has played havoc with so many things and which is now attacking language. He will save those points of reference which are disappearing as we fall into the trap of “infinite-valued orientation.” The dialectician works through logic, which is itself an assurance that the world has order. True enough, there will not be much student-centered education here, and knowledge will take on an authority which some mistake for arrogance. The student will learn, however, that the world is not wholly contingent, but partly predictable, and that, if he will use his mind rightly, it will not lie to him about the world.
Let there be no mistake; this is an invitation to lead the dangerous life. Whoso comes to define comes bearing the sword of division. The teacher will find himself not excluded from the world but related to it in ways that may become trying. But he will regain something that has been lost in the long dilution of education, the standing of one with a mission. He will be able, as he has not been for a long while, to take his pay partly in honor.
It is often thoughtlessly said that the restoration of our broken world lies largely in the hands of the teachers. The statement is true, but the implications are not drawn. The teachers cannot contribute by teaching more disorder. When something has been broken, the repairman fixes it, with his mind not on the broken object but on the form according to which it was originally made. And so we who must repair some names that have fallen into strange distortions must not consult the distorted shapes but rather conceive the archetypes for which they stood.
A prominent educator was recently heard to declare that he hoped for a day when people would point with admiration to a member of the teaching profession and say, “Look, he is a teacher.” We may be sure that day will not dawn until the remark carries the implication, “Look, he is a definer.” For this reason teachers who think they have a part in the redemption of society will have to desert certain primrose paths of dalliance and begin the difficult, the dangerous, work of teaching men to speak and to write the truth.