I know it’s a grandiose claim and that scepticism is the appropriate reaction, but think I may have found The Holy Grail of education. And by “education” I mean liberal education, and by “The Holy Grail” I mean a simple and effective way of showing people how to organize their thoughts and ideas into an intellectually coherent view of the world. Not necessarily the best or truest view of the world, but a view that is both intellectually respectable and personally satisfying—even though it could be quite wrong.
I think it’s a remarkable fact that we learned our mother tongue without it really having been taught to us. We were simply exposed to it as babies and we picked it up in a casual, piecemeal fashion; as far as I remember, the learning process wasn’t organized in any way. What’s more, we acquired it painlessly and efficiently, and it didn’t cost the State a red cent. I’ve taken the liberty of inferring from these facts that the Holy Grail of education is sitting out there in plain sight, just waiting to be recognized for what it is. (There’s an intriguing sentence in a book entitled Mathematics in Fun and in Earnest: ‘It would seem that nothing is more effectively hidden in the farthest recesses of obscurity than the obvious.’)
According to a famous literary theorist, Northrop Frye, the native language takes precedence over every other subject of study; nothing else we learn in or out of school can compare with it in usefulness. Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that there’s such a thing as a language of ideas. The vocabulary of this language consists mainly of maxims, aphorisms, lines from Shakespeare and Scripture, scraps of poetry and verse, vivid quotes and passages. The grammar consists of intellectual principles, some of which sound very dry, such as: not every word can be defined; all explanations come to an end somewhere; you can only find truth with logic if you’ve already found truth without it, and some of which are highly controversial, for example: logic is infallible but reason is error-prone; the closest we can get to impartiality is admitting we’re partial; and here’s one that many people will find hard to swallow: to try to establish the truth of any particular philosophy or world view through purely intellectual processes is absolutely hopeless—and for purely intellectual reasons. And there are a few dozen others. Now the question is: If this hypothetical language actually exists, could it be acquired in a somewhat similar way to the way we acquired English?
Well, over the past year I’ve been putting the theory to the test and I’ve concluded that the answer is YES, though it’s not nearly as easy for two reasons. First reason. The baby sees two large beings looking at it intensely, smiling, moving their lips and making noises. Instinctively the baby senses, ‘These creatures are trying to communicate with me; but what are they trying to communicate?’ Because the baby has the capacity for language, it eventually breaks the code. Later, when it develops a sense of self, the need for self-expression becomes irresistible. However there is no instinctive need to think clearly and to turn our beliefs and opinions into a coherent system of thought, or at any rate, it’s very weak in comparison with the need to understand and the need to communicate.
The second reason has to do with the difficulty of duplicating the intensity of exposure that comes from being surrounded by language. Every day we’re bombarded with words and sentences, probably amounting to 10 or 20 percent of our waking hours. But very few people grow up in an environment where is not uncommon to hear maxims, aphorisms, bits of Shakespeare, etc.—let’s call them idea statements, though I don’t like the term. If you don’t hear idea statements at home, you’re not likely to hear them at school as it’s presently constituted, and even less likely to hear them in your peer group. Therefore the conditions for acquiring the language of ideas either have to be created artificially by highly motivated individuals, or institutional education has to find some way to approximate those conditions.
Whether or not those conditions can be approximated in the classroom I think can only be determined by experiment and by trial and error. Assuming the necessary resources are available—by which I mean a well-chosen set of idea statements organized by subject, and containing a small subset of intellectual principles—one possible way might be for the teacher to offer a wide range of idea statements for discussion and a dozen or so intellectual principles for debate; and to do that fairly intensively so that the students’ minds become saturated with these compressed units of thought. I could be wrong, but I feel that if the student can be convinced that a language of ideas exists, that it can be acquired in much the same way as the native language, and that next to the native language nothing is more useful or more satisfying, then some of the students would be motivated to familiarize themselves with it—and maybe more than you might think.
In conclusion, if a language of ideas exists, then the primary purpose of liberal education is to acquire it.
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