Education Opinion

On Broadening the Definition of Language

By Ernest L. Boyer — November 19, 1986 8 min read

Is it possible that after 14 or more years of formal education some of our brightest students will fail to understand that while we are individuals, we are not alone?

Are we, in fact, educating our students toward privatism, toward separatism, toward autonomy, and not reminding them of the interdependent nature of reality?

As I view it, education has two central aims. On the one hand, our task is to see that our students are personally empowered so they can be economically and socially confident of who they are and live a self-fulfilling life. The celebration of diversity and independence is the centerpiece of higher learning--and of the schools as well.

On the other hand, I think there is another urgent side of that equation, and that is to remind students that while we are independent, we are also interconnected. For several decades we have been preoccupied with our individuality and have been neglectful of the community dimensions and the connections that tie us all together.

It is my opinion, then, that we are failing today in much the same way that the early schools and colleges failed, only for quite opposite reasons.

For years, we educated for uniformity. There was a required curriculum for all students. There were no electives. We said to students, “You go through the cookie-cutter requirements--no deviations"; then we got smart.

We discovered that there were individual differences. Psychology taught us a lot. We opened the doors and celebrated diversity. But in the process, we moved too quickly to the other end. We failed to look for the elements of coherence; the realities that bind us together; the points of celebration that bring unity as well as diversity. And if we do not find a balance, we will fail today in our separations, much in the same way as our schools and colleges failed in their closeness and in their almost oppressive uniformity a century ago.

I begin with the obvious fact that we are connected because of our shared use of symbols. It is my opinion that the use of language sets us apart from all other forms of life. Language is that which makes us truly human. And if there is any centerpiece of education, it is empowering our children in the use of the written and the spoken word so they can be personally empowered and civically engaged. And the truth is that language in every culture on the planet Earth is the nucleus that causes individuals to somehow affirm who they are, and become part of a larger community we call culture.

My grandfather was a minister. He lived for 100 years and I do not remember many of his sermons. But I do recall, as I think back, that he liked to talk about the Psalms. And one of his favorite passages was one that read, “Man is a little lower than the angels.” Well, in my boyish mind it all made sense. I saw God up there, and I saw the angels, and then I saw man and woman. We were at the bottom of the heap.

But now that I’ve become older and grayer, and perhaps a dash wiser, I think I had it wrong. The psalmist in saying “a little lower than the angels” was meaning “a little higher than the rest.” There is something of the human spirit that sets us on a pedestal, that crowds us up closer to the angels.

And as I thought about that celebrated vision, it seemed to me that language--our capacity to use symbols, our capacity to capture feelings and ideas--perhaps is one of those exquisite accomplishments imprinted in the genes that puts us on that pedestal above all creation. And I think our children in formal schooling should understand that the first requirement for education is the effective use of symbols, and that carries with it almost a sacred honor and deep obligation.

Lewis Thomas, the great essayist, wrote that childhood is for language. And I, too, think that is the centerpiece of early schooling.

In fact, I hope urgently that our schools will give priority to the early years of education, where the foundation must be laid. And if we can focus on the early years, if we can give centrality to language, if we can empower young children in the use of symbols, I believe the quality of education in this nation will be firmly well-established.

Given one wish for guiding the curriculum toward the year 2000, I would wish that we would organize the first three years of schooling and call it a basic-language school. I would wish that we would break up this nonsense of trying to figure out if a student is in 1st or 2nd or 3rd grade. No one knows what those grades mean. They are artificial. And the development levels are quite uncertain in the first few years.

Let us leave the child free for several years, in terms of the organizational structures we call grading, but let us leave them absolutely saturated in the use of symbols and becoming confident in both the written and the spoken word. Then, with that foundation, they are ready to move on into the core of common learning.

Language is not just another subject; it is the means by which all other subjects are pursued. So, I would like to see future schooling focus on the early years and language as the core.

That saturated language school I call the basic school should prize both the spoken and the written word. I think that children should start writing the first days and weeks of schooling. They should get familiar with putting on paper what they auditorially already have well established.

Children come to school linguistically empowered, and the task of the teacher is not to teach them language; the task is to give them the visual components of a verbal and auditory system already well in place. So, let children begin to pattern on paper through writing their own stories and discover the creativeness of writing at the very beginning of formal education.

I also urge that we broaden our definition of language in the early years. I happen to believe that language includes music and dance and the visual arts. The simple truth is that there are feelings and ideas in the head and the human heart that cannot be adequately conveyed with the gutteral noises we call words. They can only be captured through the expressions of the human spirit--through visual arts and through music--and that is conveying the most exotic experiences and places that are even a little closer to the angels.

In an airport some weeks ago, I was reading an interview in The New York Times with Victor Weiskopf, the renowned physicist. He was talking about the “big bang” theory. Now, I have never understood the big-bang theory very well, so I was reading with relish until I finally came to the punch line: “If you wish to understand the big. bang theory [and I did], listen to the works of Haydn.” Oh, come on! Is that what this article’s about? I thought the newspaper had dropped a line; so I went back, and there it was again. Isn’t it amazing? Here is a world-ranking physicist saying, if you wish to understand this exotic theory, you do not need a Ph.D. in engineering or physics or mathematics. You go off in a comer and listen to the works of Haydn.

He was saying there are some insights that are so profound, so subtle that you have to feel them; you do not just talk them. The explosions, the percussions--something in that--gives a sense of what this notion is all about.

Take the word “hallelujah.” That is an unphonetic word. You speak it and it grates across your vocal chords. I do not think “hallelujah” was to be spoken. But if you take the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and they communicate “hallelujah,” you now have a message. There is a difference between what words can do and what the arts can do.

Children know this fact, early. Young children understand and feel comfortable with the visual symbols we call “the arts.” And if they could start writing and conveying messages, and co-mingle what we call the written and spoken word with the visual and aesthetic, we would be moving from strength, because children are more often capable in the nonverbal symbols than the verbal.

What would I wish for in the year 2000? I would wish a sacred celebration of the essentialness of language. I would wish that it begins in the early years. I would wish that students would start writing and that their speaking would be carefully critiqued. And I would wish also that it would be blended with the arts so that they would understand that language at its fullest is extended, and when we diminish these other forms we go back to pre-civilization and our culture is denied.

One final point: language is not just the forming of words. It essentially, in the end, is conveying ideas and teaches integrity.

We hear a lot about values these days. I do not know what people mean, except “integrity in language.” There is no way for us to get into the interior of teaching values, unless we teach carefulness in the messages we send to one another. The value that I would affirm is integrity and care and respect for the messages we send and a carefulness in the way we listen to the messages of others. That is the central value that will keep us, it seems to me, a civilized society.

Several centuries ago, the Quakers would risk imprisonment and even death, because in court they would not swear to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” The problem with these people was not that they were against swearing--although they were. The larger problem was that they were unwilling to swear that they would tell the truth only in a court of law, suggesting that outside it was an option. When asked to swear to tell the truth, they would look at the judge and say, “Sir, I speak truth.” There are not two levels of credibility: “I speak truth.” I do not think that was a self-serving stance. They were touching something perhaps a little precious in their position, but the principle cannot be denied.

In my judgment, when we teach language to our students, not only is it for self-expression, it is to understand that therein lies the seeds of integrity. And “I speak truth” is, in effect, the centerpiece of a civilized society. I, therefore, would want to put language with all of its richness and subtle· ties at the center of the curriculum in the year 2000 and beyond.

A version of this article appeared in the November 19, 1986 edition of Education Week