On Language and Liberty

In this digital age of instant gratification and massive virtual experience, the English language suffers dilution, distortion, and degradation as it is chewed up and spit out amid proverbial jowls and howls, replete with tireless jargon, thoughtless platitudes and heartless profanation which ironically render speech more limited and less free. Colloquial acronyms and cliché catch-phrases are common-place culprits, and while they may initially sound clever and delicious to the ear, they ultimately wax stale, vague, and virtually devoid of meaning with constant repetition. Of course, there are proper contexts for the efficiency of acronyms and aphorisms, especially when time is of the essence, as is the case for soldiers in combat where lives and freedoms also hang in the balance. But just as lengthy, thoughtful debate would be a foolish military strategy amid the crossfire on the battlefield, ill-placed and overused jargon and slogans—the verbal equivalents of junk-food—prove hard to stomach as poor substitutes for meaningful conversation and civil discourse.

Truly inspired and inspiring content in the written and spoken word today are gleaned and savored at a premium, mainly because so many students are not inspired to have an enriched, expansive vocabulary which would prepare them to achieve high levels of reading, writing, speaking and critical thinking. There are many reasons for this lack, among them, an epidemic sound-bitten addiction to an increasingly anti-social media feeding upon an ever-shrinking attention-span, resulting in diminished discipline and patience required for sustaining a thoughtful conversation and for reading good books. This heavy dearth in today’s learning and language is both alarming and dangerous, especially when it weighs down our students in institutions of higher learning.

By contrast, when I was in college in the 1980s, I was most fortunate to be assigned to an inspired and exceptional Sewanee professor, Dr. Robert Benson, who told us on our first day of freshman English class that “those who could not master language” would risk becoming “prisoners unto themselves.” Here was an idea that I had not heard before, asserted by a teacher who encouraged originality, clarity and exactitude over platitude and believed that command of the written and the spoken word would give us power to open countless doors. He also daily inspired us to enjoy the literature we were studying. Even now, these lessons resonate rightly with me, wringing me free of any former resistance to the ongoing happy rigor and requisite work in the mastery of reading, writing, and rhetoric, which is its own reward. I knew then that I never wanted to be a prisoner unto myself nor unto anyone else. In a word, I wanted to be free, and it had not occurred to me, until my first class with Dr. Benson, that disciplined mastery of language and freedom at its fullest might be paradoxically and inextricably bound.

American writer, teacher, and Newberry Award winner Madeleine L’Engle echoes this same paradox in A Circle of Quiet, a book which is as lovely as it is deep: “The more limited our language is, the more limited we are; the more limited the literature we give to our children, the more limited their capacity to respond, and therefore, in turn, to create…We do think in words, and the fewer words we know, the more restricted our thoughts. As our vocabulary expands, so does our power to think…The more vocabulary is limited, the less people will be able to think for themselves, the more they can be manipulated…” (Harper Collins, 1972, p.149). These words haunted me then and haunt me still, especially amid the plague of acronyms, platitudes, and slogans presently crowding the airwaves and cybersphere. How many students are hooked on jargon and catch-phrases that feign competence and thoughtful speech, but achieve neither? How many of us are thus subject to manipulation because our language is limited? How many of us are unwitting prisoners unto ourselves?

The problem with constantly reducing and packaging thoughtful discourse into the canned cant of jargon and slogan is that such language is expedient and meant to be accepted, believed, and followed; it is not intended to encourage specific and focused intellectual and moral thoughtfulness necessary to seek and speak truth, to solve problems, to resolve conflicts, to write law, to inspire excellence and to bestow blessing. Such language has already been pared down for parroting, as the feigned poetry of pat-slogans appeals to our innate desires to be clever, profound and wise, while often achieving the opposite – pedestrian, shallow foolishness. Endeavoring to be discerning about what is true, good, and inspiring versus what is deceitful, evil, and degrading is impossible without focused specificity of both language and thought, as wholesale surrender of thoughtful language to mindless cant can lead to surrender of both individual and national freedoms. Is there any more pressing and powerful reason for insisting on a standard of education that delivers the liberating power of language to students?

WILLIAM RANDALL LANCASTER teaches at a high school in Nashville, Tennessee. 

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