I am currently reading The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams (by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski). About a third through, I get introduced to Owen Barfield who is a lot less familiar to me than the first two. In their description of Barfield, the authors pay particular attention to his love of language, to his belief that words have souls of sorts.
Words, but not just words, sentences, but not just sentences, whole paragraphs are repositories of what is in our souls. Our words may be the only record we leave behind of who we were and what we were thinking. That is just one reason words are so important.
Let me give you another one. When you teach your student what words are and how to use them effectively, you have given him or her a megaphone for communicating with the world.
My youngest son Benjamin — I may have mentioned him before — has Down syndrome, and he has cleft lip and palate as well as a hearing impairment and a severe structural defect in the construction of his mouth and lower jaw. As a result of his intellectual impairment, his hearing impairment, and the structure of his mouth, he struggles to form words intelligibly. He does not pronounce words well because of the structure of his mouth, and the end result is that he is largely unintelligible. — This is an enormous obstacle to social connectivity for him. People do not “get him”. And he not only knows it, his language impairment has — in large part, I believe — been the cause of his additional diagnosis of obsessive compulsive disorder. The world is full of language. Most people speak fast and interact constantly and instantly. Nobody has the time to stop and try to listen to attempt understanding the few things he is able to say, and as a result, he is often shut out. In order to compensate for this social isolation, he has developed self soothing routines surrounding birthdays and other ceremonies where he single-handedly controls circular rituals that most people understand like “My dog has a birthday, he is 969 years old. Let’s sing Happy Birthday to Ben the dog.”
My example above is extreme. But the point remains you need to help your students acquire strong language skills both in read and writing, in speaking (and in listening to others). Language undergirds every other academic pursuit. If you cannot read and understand what others say, you cannot acquire new skills. If you cannot communicate what you have learned and help others benefit from it, you cannot advance academically, nor can you later acquire a job. In short, language arts are core and center in every academic discipline.
Mastery of language is key to a classical education. Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric is all about mastery of language, about learning to read, write, speak (and listen) well. In the classical homeschool (to get back to Owen Barfield above) you commune with souls of the past who left their thoughts and ideas in the form of words that others can read long after they have died.
Our current era has by some been called a post-truth or post-factual era. The Internet is dominating as a major information high way. But there are no checks on this high way. Fake news abounds. Misinformation is a common occurrence. It comes from abroad. Sometimes it comes from some of the highest offices in the land. Our world of instant communication often results in less than well-researched communication, and many times the ‘fake’ news comes about as journalists struggle to be first in bringing the new story to light.
A classical education can offer many occasions for you and yours to slow down, to take the time to write well researched, carefully spelled, attention-to-detail essays and papers that patiently communicate truth, beauty, and goodness. A well-written paper is thorough, patient (perhaps even slow), detailed, and both precise and correct in the data it cites and the claims it makes. Help your students slow down, think carefully, write respectfully, and conclude intelligently.
All that starts with language arts at the center, mastery of the English language, along with patient reading of the authors, philosophers, theologians, and thinkers of the past — those who know our language, have used it well, who can teach us volumes about clear logical thinking and true and beautiful ideas that endure from the past.
With such language skills and with a broadly read mind, we and our students will be able to participate in the human conversation going forward. We may even be able to reach out and talk both with those who agree with us, and more importantly, perhaps also, with those who do not agree with us on very much. We may, with proper communication skills, be able to help (perhaps) heal our divided nation, wherein competing claims to patriotism and truth separate us greatly. We, perhaps more than ever before, need to unite, understand, and connect with our neighbors, our communities, and other nations across this globe — and doing that requires a new generation who can communicate complex ideas that require more than 144 characters to be expressed adequately.