Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Why Teach Literature Stuff: #5 Language Is Power

When I was teaching, and I had extra time on my hands, I would reflect on the work--the whys and hows and whats. So in solidarity with my former colleagues, I'm going to write a series about every English teacher's favorite thing-- teaching literature, and why we do it. There will be some number of posts (I don't have a plan here).

Also, it would be nice to write and read about something positive, and I don't know anything much more positive than what teachers do and why they do it.

Language is power. It is, many times, just as powerful, even more powerful, than the barrel of a gun, because it is language that determines where the barrel of the gun will be aimed.

This is certainly not the only age, maybe not even the worst age, to demonstrate how the power of language can shape arguments, protect the guilty, rain down abuse on the innocent. But the US would certainly be in a different place today if more citizens had well-honed bullshit detectors.

There are always different ways to say things; every statement, observation, sentence, part of a sentence represents a set of choices and, intentionally or not, those choices tell us something about the person who strung those words together. But we have to be good enough at language to see what the person is showing us. And there is only one way to get better at that, and that is to read read read read read.

Ditto for writing. Every time we start stringing words together, we make choices, either deliberate and mindful, or spinning out of habit and instinct. If we want to get a point across, we need to assemble the tools that will do it. I knew a guy back in the day who could perform all manner of juggling and tossing and balancing with a tennis racket, because he was a tennis player and he worked with that racket every single day, knew it so well that it was like an extension of his hand. It was his tool.

Tools are the big thing. My students generally had one of two main problems with writing-- one was not having really thought about what they wanted to say (most writing problems are really thinking problems) , but the other was just not having the language they needed, of only having a word handy that was close, almost, sort of the word they needed.

We know this; it's why most language teachers teach vocabulary, even if we mostly teach it badly. We know that students needs larger vocabularies, but you don't get there with "here's a list to memorize for a test Friday." You build your vocabulary by reading and by-- well, no, it's pretty much by reading. Having someone around who uses the words is a distant second. It's reading. I have never known a good writer who was not also a reader.

Language is power. It lets you shape how people see an issue, think about a situation, even remember events. It lets you shape how they interpret the world. It lets you shape how they see you.

To use it for all these purposes, you have to know it, how it feels, how it works, how it fits, how it gives names to things that people couldn't name before. You get that by reading. You get that by consuming language every day so that you can feel it.

Having this kind of knowledge and control of language means that others have less power over you with their use of language. You can see behind the curtain, unwrap the meanings that they are trying to twist and camouflage. You can spot bullshit when someone throws it at you; maybe you can even see through clearly enough to spot the weaknesses, the fault lines, the vulnerabilities, and then you can exercise some power of your own.

Language is power, and you get better at using it by reading it, day after day, especially the good stuff, and seeing how it's done.

1 comment:

  1. I do value literacy & literature greatly.

    However, the present crisis (actual crises by region) is fueled by a blinding illiteracy in math & science, not only by the idiots in charge at the national and 7 or 8 red-states, but by the f---ing idiots who believe what they say!!!

    People who follow so-called "common-sense" are often wrong, tragically wrong. Understanding basic concepts like graph interpretation, algebra, half-life & other exponential functions along with basic statistics & probability saves lives AND trillions of dollars.