The Words We Choose

In 1971 Robert Plant wrote a poem about a lady who was reading a sign on a wall. She was careful about her understanding ’cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.    

About 2,600 years earlier Confucius wrote:

If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.

Some might say that by the time we got to Led Zeppelin, “morals and art” had deteriorated fully. But the English rocker and the Chinese philosopher both understood that without agreement on meaning, we’re all just dazed and confused.

At ICS we attend closely to imparting a coherent, content-rich vocabulary to our young students for exactly this reason. Long ago we permitted our public schools to retreat from an obligation to impart a common understanding of language and culture. Whatever our motives, the result is clear in our children’s lack of academic progress. And the decline of civil discourse.

Many readers of this blog have benefited from an education that included grammar, writing, and literature instruction that laid a foundation for our intellectual progress. Whatever the changing philosophy of education, we made out pretty well. We take our knowledge for granted. Like these guys:

These two young fish are swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

My friend Robert says knowledge and language proficiency is the water the fish swims in.

In our work every day we help kids to​ navigate ​the ​water​​. Someday they may build ​new ​canals, or dykes, or dams or bridges. ​Send the river in a new directions. ​Dive in from 10 meters while flipping three times, or swim 50 meters in 20 seconds.

But they start by understanding the water as it is. If public schools have anything to contribute to the amelioration of the disaster that Confucius foretold, it will begin by our attending to the meaning of words.