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    Book Club: Ideas Have Consequences{Chapter 8}

    August 29, 2012 by Brandy Vencel

    This chapter is, I think, one of my favorites so far, probably because the ideas are beginning to coalesce in my mind. This is one of those books that I’m sure I’ll understand much better upon a second {or third} reading. Entitled The Power of the Word, I absolutely adored his defense of language and his acknowledgement of a spiritual component to the words we use. This makes sense, of course, when we consider that those of us who use words are spiritual beings, rather than merely physical.

    As usual, I want to focus on what Weaver said about education, but I think we have to acknowledge that what he says about education later in the chapter is directly tied to what he says about language in its beginning:

    The impulse to dissolve everything into sensation has made powerful assaults against the forms which enable discourse, because these institute a discipline and operate through predications which are themselves fixities…All metaphysical community depends upon the ability of men to understand each other.

    How, might I ask, can education possibly take place if we do not have a unified language with which to understand each other?

    The Beginning of Education

    Weaver begins at the very beginning of education, when God brings the animals to Adam and has him give them names. If you do not initially view this as a form of education–or at least a source of what later becomes education–consider this:

    Having named the animals, he has in a sense ordered them, and what other than a classified catalogue of names is a large part of natural science? To discover what a thing is “called” according to some system is the essential step in knowing, and to say that all education is learning to name rightly, as Adam named the animals, would assert an underlying truth.

    I always remember the tale related by Charlotte Mason:

    Ideas Have Consequences
    by Richard Weaver

    Some of us may have heard the late Dean Farrar describe that lesson he was present at, on ‘How doth the little busy bee’–– the teacher bright, but the children not responsive; they took no interest at all in little busy bees. He suspected the reason, and questioning the class, found that not one of them had ever seen a bee. ‘Had never seen a bee! Think for a moment,’ said he, ‘of how much that implies’; and then we were moved by an eloquent picture of the sad child-life from which bees and birds and flowers are all shut out. But how many children are there who do not live in the slums of London, and yet are unable to distinguish a bee from a wasp, or even a ‘humble’ from a honey-bee!

    The children’s lack of understanding kept them from engaging with a simple poem about the bee. Think of this! We wonder why children do not seem interested in things, and yet a certain amount of vocabulary is required to spark interest. This is why nature study is so important. I was going to say it is important in the early years, but I think it is important always.

    Which is why I keep trying to work away at it even though it doesn’t come naturally to me, I’m neither good at it nor consistent with it {I’m sure the two are connected}, and the lazy side of me would prefer to give it up. Words name things and familiarity with those things solidifies the understanding.

    The Importance of Analogy 

    I distinctly remember the day I first learned the importance of being able to think analagously because I immediately made up a game that I like to play with my children. It’s where we simply try to say that one thing is like another. The other players have to be able to follow the connection, of course, but it can be as outlandish as they like. For instance, yesterday when our goat Charlotte was misbehaving and I never could get her into the shed, which means she wasn’t allowed her grain ration {she must enter the shed to get it}, I came in and said, “That Charlotte was so naughty today. She was as naughty as–“
    And then they needed to fill in the blank. This is not a good example, though, because they always say “as naughty as Son O.” which is actually quite mean of them, don’t you think? {They aren’t allowed to say that in front of Son O., of course, even if he does get himself into a multitude of scrapes.}
    Weaver explains a process in which some sort of researcher was trying to get to the “end” of language by backing his subject into a corner. This corner was wherever a person began to define one thing with another. The example given in the book is defining “space” by “length” and vice versa. Weaver explains:

    He is here frustrated because he cannot find any further analogues to illustrate what he knows.

    He later says:

    Primordial conception is somehow in us; from this we proceed as already noted by analogy, or the process of finding resemblance to one thing in another. 

    Do you recall that Charlotte Mason said that education was the science of relations? This is why.

    Education Requires Language

    This seems a normal enough thing to say, but Weaver discusses it from perhaps a less commonplace angle:

    Language…appears as a great storehouse of universal memory, or it may be said to serve as a net, not imprisoning us but supporting us and aiding us to get at a meaning beyond present meaning through the very fact that it embodies others’ experiences. Words, because of their common currency, acquire a significance greater than can be imparted to them by a single user and greater than can be applied to a single situation.

    If you are new around here, you may not recall my defense of the use of the word “religion” in regard to the Christian faith. Unfortunately, the new gnostic fad in our country {thanks to Tim Keller} is to redefine the word “religion” as referring wholly to pharisasim. I cannot tell you how many times I have sent this article, or versions of it, to various people, in an attempt to defend the traditional meaning of the word–which is to say, that it defines a formal relationship between man and God which may be false or unorthodox but may also be quite true and in line with biblical teaching. Every man has a religion; the concern must be with whether it is the right one.

    But there is this new idea out there that religion is somehow at war with the Gospel, and since the idea has been back by popular teachers like Tullian Tchividjian and the aforementioned Tim Keller, people immediately think this is true without giving it some thought. The fact remains that the word “religion” is what Weaver says–a great storehouse of universal memory. And since it was used with reference to the Christian faith in a positive sense for two thousand years, up until about last Friday, we redefine it and dispose of it at our peril. How can the next generation read anyone from Augustine and Athanasius to C.S. Lewis and John Piper if they have been taught that the word “religion” refers to something that is always and only wrong, bad, and unfaithful to the Gospel?

    Yes, some words change over time. For instance, the word liberal doesn’t mean today what it did at the time of our nation’s founding. That is bad enough. I suppose if Tim Keller wished to redefine the words “worship” or “faith” we should just allow it because he is so much smarter than the rest of us?

    Something to think about.

    The point here, though, is that education stands upon language as, once again, the “storehouse of universal memory.” This is perhaps the best argument for the study of Latin. I love, for instance, that Visual Latin wants to teach Latin not so that we can read Cicero in the original {though that is well and good}, but that we might have access to a thousand years of Christian writings. In other words, Latin was how the Church talked to herself for a millenia.

    Brave Enough to Spend Time on the Trivium

    I’ve noticed a cultural move to what we call STEM studies–science, technology, engineering, and math. Now, I’m not about to discard the quadrivium {arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy}, but there really does seem to be a doubt about the helpfulness of the humanities. Perhaps we should only give our students the most cursory of overviews, that we might spend more time preparing them for professions in which they will exert power over the material world and, incidentally, make a good amount of money in the process?
    Weaver says:

    [I]t is true historically that those who have shown the greatest subtlety with language have shown the greatest power to understand.

    I read a paper once that declared that Hispanic students in the United States were failing in science because the teaching wasn’t in their native tongue. In other words, science requires language ability. Guess what? If we neglect the Trivium, our students won’t be able to think or communicate scientifically when the time comes. In fact, if language is in a sense the foundation of a community, there won’t be a scientific community without the Trivium.

    American universities have found that with few exceptions students who display the greatest mastery of words, as evidenced by vocabulary tests and exercises in writing, make the best scholastic records regardless of the department of study they enter. For physics, for chemistry, for engineering–it matters not how superficially unrelated to language the branch of study may be–command of language will prognosticate aptitude. Facility with words bespeaks a capacity to learn relations and grasp concepts; it is a means of access to the complex reality.

    Language matters everywhere.

    Evidently it is the poet’s unique command of language which gives him his ability to see the potencies in circumstances.

    And if you were thinking about dropping poetry, Weaver throws in this little tidbit:

    If we should compile a list of those who have taught us most of what we ultimately need to know, I imagine that the scientists, for all the fanfare given them today, would occupy a rather humble place and that the dramatic poets would stand near the top.

    Because we need to order our affections more than we need to manipulate the material world.

    Combating the Demise of Language at Home 

    This is hard for me to write because I regularly utilize hyperbole when I speak {to my husband’s great chagrin}. But Weaver, like Charlotte Mason before him, rejects this practice:

    We live in an age that is frightened by the very idea of certitude, and one of its really disturbing outgrowths is the easy divorce between words and the conceptual realities which our right minds know they must stand for. This takes the form especially of looseness and exaggeration. Now exaggeration, it should be realized, is essentially a form of ignorance, one that allows and seems to justify distortion.

    I remember reading once that C.S. Lewis was required at home to say exactly what he meant. Perhaps this is another “game” I ought to introduce in our home…if I am able to play along!

    Language matters. After all, David Bentley Hart recently wrote:

    It is a truth universally acknowledged that it is only a short road that leads from grammatical laxity to cannibalism.

    I’m sure Weaver would say the same thing concerning language. Either that, or he’d accuse Hart of exaggerating.


    I’m running out of time, so this is it for today. Weaver has more to say, however, so I hope to come back and follow up with a second part tomorrow.

    Read More:
    More book club entries linked at Mystie’s blog
    Buy the book and join in the conversation!

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  • Reply Mystie August 30, 2012 at 9:22 pm

    You have a lot of great thoughts here, Brandy!

    I think the redefinition of religion is based not on taking a good word and using it for their own purposes, but on acknowledging that our culture has rejected religion. By redefining religion as phariseeism, they can then say to the modern culture that what they rejected wasn’t God (though it was), but hypocrisy, and they were right to do so. And, further, what we are offering you isn’t the religion you’ve already rejected, but the truth you’re seeking. I agree with you on the word and its historical meaning, and I think we are still at the point where we can defend the word, but I would bet money on it being a losing battle. English has many words that now mean nearly the opposite of what they once meant. So, yes, perhaps the answer is to return again to a dead language — that is, a language that isn’t changing because of popular usage.

    We are definitely losing subtlety in English at a rapid pace, and I do think it’s indicative of losing clarity of thought. The language we command determines the thoughts we can think, much less communicate.

  • Reply Sara August 30, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    So much to think about here! I’m always indebted to you for making me think about things that don’t normally surface. Religion redefined – I love your point.

    I have scheduled Nature Study every Monday from 3 to 4:30. I am including in my daily prayers a plea for the stamina and determination to follow through. (I too waiver and wish, but do not do.)

    We are writing a poem a week. It has been interesting to pursue rhyme and rhythm. We do this as a family to take the pressure off and because we like it, but our daughter, not so much.

    We have a tendency toward drama in our home…which is expressed with hyperbole. To my credit, I have long denounced any sort of easy insult or ignorant use of expletive, requiring instead a more thorough description of the problem. For example, nothing or no person is simply “stupid.” They are lacking in discernment, or frustrating, etc.

    Thanks, again!

  • Reply ...they call me mommy... August 30, 2012 at 12:22 am

    WOW. This is getting INTERESTING. 😉 Oh and don’t get me started on how we speak at home. *cringe*

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