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Writing as a Liberating Art

Further thoughts on teaching the Liberal Arts

Freedom is a great practical thing, not an ideological idea.

When people rule you on the basis of their own authority, you are not a free person. This is just as true in the classroom, the office, or the shop as it is in Washington, DC or London.

But how can that be prevented?

True freedom has everything to do with how behavior, work, and thought are measured. Where do the criteria arise? This is not as obscure a thought as it might seem. Whoever assesses you is your boss. So where do the standards of assessment come from?

From the will of the boss? Then he’s a tyrant.

From the subject? Then he’s not going to be set free, because, frankly, he doesn’t know how.

I’m not addressing freedom as an ideological but a practical commitment.

You need another source for the criteria or standards of assessment, one that comes neither from the authority (he needs a higher authority!) nor from the subject (he has too much too learn) but from something greater than both.

The only valid fountain, the only legitimate source, for criteria is the nature of the things being done or thought.

Take writing for example (and let yourself think about freedom as a practical issue, not an ideological dream).

If there are no standards drawn from the nature of writing, then how does the teacher evaluate the work of the student?

What is writing (i.e.: what is the nature of writing)? At the obvious level, it is the use of language to communicate.

Then to assess writing, one must draw the criteria of assessment from language and communication. If not, where else could they come from?

Some options include: from the writing textbook, from the teacher’s sense of what is right, from the impact of the writing on the audience, from how the writing makes the author feel, and from whether the writing allows the author to express himself.

No doubt there are more.

But let’s look at the textbook to illustrate (since I can’t prove it here) my point:

Suppose I get my criteria from the textbook. The obvious follow-up question is (go ahead and say it:) where does the text book get its criteria? Now, you can work out an infinite regression where it just disappears into nothingness, but at some point, there has to be a foundation for the criteria, or else there is no foundation for the criteria.

And if there is no foundation for the criteria, whoever made them up is a tyrant, no matter how well meaning. What they are saying is that you have to do it this way because they said so. And if they change their minds, which they do, because they are a committee and their members change, both in membership and in beliefs, then the poor student simply has to change with them to get a good grade (and what are the criteria for the grade?)

Let’s suppose, on the other hand, that writing is an art the purpose of which is to lead people to freedom: a liberating art. How could it do so?

First, it would have to set people free as writers, a limited but profound freedom. And how can that be done?

Among other things, it would have to let the author/student know what the criteria are by which writing is assessed so that he can, eventually, function independently of teacher, textbook, etc.

After all, freedom and independence are in some ways the same thing. A person who is not independent, simply as a matter of practice, is to that extent not free.

(I am not engaging in an ideological but a practical discussion, so I’m not addressing questions about a notion of freedom and independence that implies we are capable of existing apart from other beings. I am talking about the practical freedom of an actual person.)

If a writer knows how writing ought to be assessed, and if he can write in a manner that fulfills the criteria, then he does not need an authority to tell him what is right and wrong, fitting or unfitting, just or unjust, etc. He can write freely because he can make his own decisions and know if they are appropriate.

The rub is this: such a genuine, real-world freedom is not something we are born with, contra that movie about lions from the 60’s (Born Free) or Rousseau’s Social Contract.

We are not born free. We are born profoundly dependent on the wisdom and character of those who give us life.

If they don’t know how to write and can’t find people who can, we are not likely ever to become free as writers. We’ll either always need someone to tell us what to do or we just won’t write.

Since this article is ruffling feathers and coming close to matters that mean a lot to everybody, I have to insist again that I have in mind a very practical, non-ideological notion of freedom.

The writer who understands that a subject and predicate have to agree, not because a textbook publishing company said so, but because that is the nature of thinking and communication, and thus of writing, and who is able to ensure that his subjects and predicates do agree, is free to think many wonderful things. He’s internalized this basic form of thought and can do all kinds of things with it.

A person who either can’t effortlessly accomplish a harmony in which what he is thinking about agrees with what he is thinking about it, or who doesn’t know whether he has accomplished it, such a person can not be an effective communicator of his thoughts, perceptions, or insights. He is not free to communicate, partly because he is not free to evaluate and improve his own expression.

If he is in school, he is, when it comes to writing, a slave. He can only do what he is told when he is told as he is told, or he can disobey, or he can be neglected. Now, this is where we all start. But it is a miscarriage of justice to keep a child there.

The last two (disobedience and neglect) are perhaps more common, but the first (doing what he is told) is the worst, unless the teacher uses it as a means to set the student free.

But only a free teacher can set a student free. Only a master of the art of writing understands it well enough to guide a student on the path to freedom in writing. A person is free as a writer when he is able to communicate in writing what he has to communicate and what writing is able to communicate without having continually to go back to laws of grammar (not because he breaks them left and right but because they are part of his trained mind; they are second nature habits) or spelling rules.

Compare it to reading and that might make it more clear. A student who doesn’t know letters can’t read. He can only be read to. To that extent, he is not free. But if he learns letters, he is closer to freedom. But until he can scan the words on the page with virtually no consciousness of the letters themselves, he is not free as a reader.

Consider math. The student who has to calculate on his fingers is not free to do algebra. Learning the tables to the point of not even noting them when you calculate is parallel to reading without noting the letters.

Let me summarize:

If I want to be free as a writer, then I need to learn, not what is fashionable in writing these days (little enslaves more effectively than fashion), but the nature of writing itself.

From the nature of writing, criteria are derived that enable just assessment of my work. If my teacher/authority uses those criteria, she can justly assess my work and, through her assessment, I can grow in my apprehension of the nature of writing and, thus, how to write.

In time, I can internalize those criteria, make them my own, and be set free to fulfill the purpose of writing myself. To internalize the criteria is to (or requires that I) master the skills that fulfill them.

Some criteria include:

  • Harmony between the parts of the sentence, paragraph, whole text, purpose of the text, and, to the extent possible, the audience.
  • Propriety of expression, which means, at first, things as simple as following the rules of grammar and logic, and, in time, a heightened sensitivity to the relations between words, things, people, situations, and ideas.
  • Economy in use of words and expressions. Not parsimoniousness, but economy.
  • Effectiveness of expression. Not manipulation, but successfully effecting the expression of the idea. Truth itself moves the soul, and when it doesn’t, either directly or through its fruit, I don’t see how to justify ornaments or threats.

The easiest ways to start passing on the authority to write to a student author are:

  • Use the most careful language of which you are capable in their presence, either reading, singing, speaking, or a combination.
  • Teach them that a subject and a verb have to agree. Model it, practice it, give feedback. Model, practice, feedback. The younger the better.

Everything in grammar and language follows from this simple rule that subject and predicate must agree.

Which leads me back to my opening point. I’m only using writing to illustrate the broader principle (which I now realize might have been foolish because of how complex language is and how ideologically people think about it) that if the criteria for assessment are drawn from the authority (in this case, the teacher) or the subject (in this case, the student) and not the nature of things, the subject will always be subject to the authority and never free.

The same is true in all the arts and all human behavior. When God Himself gave His ten commandments to the children of Israel, He did not impose an arbitrary rule. Drawing on the principle of propriety, He expressed ten laws that, if they followed them, would lead them to treat things as they ought to be treated (Worship the Lord, honor your parents, leave the neighbors stuff alone, etc.) and, since that is how reality is structured, they could be free. Not just free from Egypt, but free to be His people who knew them and what led to their flourishing. Free to be sons of God. Free to be men and women, blessed, truly prosperous, bearing fruit in season, not withering: because the criteria weren’t drawn from the will of a tyrant or the appetites of the subject, but from the nature of things.

As history has repeatedly shown, that is the only possibility of genuine freedom.

But in a society that does not believe in nature or nature’s God, there are no criteria that are not ultimately arbitrary, drawn either from the will of the ruler or the appetites of the subject, neither of which are compatible with freedom until they subject themselves to the nature of things: ie to reality.

Teach the liberating arts: set your students free.

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