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Why Language Sets Us Free

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.

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