Essay / Misc.

Words, Power, and Education

sayers and mitchell John Mark Reynolds wrote recently about the relationship between education –especially the ability to use words well– and freedom. Verbal fluency is a mighty weapon to enslave or liberate people; it doesn’t take a Marx or a Foucault to spot the way education and miseducation direct the flow of power in a society. I have nothing to add but a couple of great passages on the subject, one from a hard-to-find work by Dorothy Sayers:

We must bring imagination to the task of communicating thought. The task grows harder every day because of the multitude of techniques, because of the proliferation of meaningless verbiage, and also because the younger generations have been steadily deprived of the four great traditional safeguards: formal logic and the Latin Grammar, which were a negative defence against fallacy and slipshod syntax; a dogmatic theology and the habit of good verse, which were a positive education in the handling of the magical images.

— Dorothy Sayers, “Poetry, Language, and Ambiguity,” in The Poetry of Search and the Poetry of Statement, 1957.

and the other from Richard Mitchell, the Underground Grammarian, found in his brilliant, offensive, hilarious first book Less than Words Can Say:

Truncheons are for louts. The great masters of social manipulation use language. They know, furthermore, that the establishment of a flexible and subtle language for the ruling classes is only half of what’s needed. The other half is the perpetuation of an ineffective and minimal language among the subjects. Ordinarily, the second half is assured by man’s natural propensity to bother himself as little as possible, but history occasionally requires that the rulers take some special pains to preserve the ignorance of their subjects.

A fluent command of English cannot exist as an isolated skill, a clever stunt. A person who speaks and writes his native tongue clearly and precisely does so because of many other abilities, and those other abilities themselves grow stronger through the fluent manipulation of language. The simple matter of being logical is a function of language. A million high school graduates capable of fluent English would be a million Americans capable of logical thought. What would we do with them[…] ? You think they’re going to buy those lottery tickets and lamps in the shape of Porky Pig?

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