Norms and Nobility is a classical education essential, but it’s also a difficult read. Take it in the bite-sized portions provided (the numbered sections), and think about it over the course of a year or two. Better yet, do so with me in this slow-drip series.
Previous: Classical Education’s Map (chapter 2, section I)
Next: Classical Education’s Master (chapter 2, section III) – planned for November 7
In this section, Hicks contrasts two uses of – and two feelings about – language: the ancient and the modern.
“Plato’s sin (and that of all antiquity) is that he tried to think with language.”
Did language itself, by its nature, limit the ancient philosophers? Because myth informed their use of language, even in their logical reasoning, they embraced the metaphorical ability of language and even its ambiguity. Today, using a mathematical paradigm, language appears woefully imprecise and impractical.
“It’s easier for words to grow new meanings than to shed old ones, making language hopelessly conservative.”
Not only is language inherently conservative, it is also more suggestive than precise. It conjures feelings and pictures, but not necessarily the same feelings or pictures for everyone. By it’s nature it is also value-ridden: words do not have mathematical denotations, but rather connotations that convey approbation or disapproval.
Words, each one individually, are like poems, with a depth and range and history of meanings wrapped up in each one.
This is either its strength (according to the classical educator) or its weakness (according to the postmodern).
The modern progressive must
“strip language of its imaginative and supranational attributes or face upon it a material and descriptive role at odds with its normative and mythopoeic character.”
That is – make language more like math, giving words simple, denotative meanings and erasing connotation, preferring words to act like counters for objects rather than communicate ideas.
“Scientific rationalism and its methods of analysis demand a language of pure denotation to explain programs, techniques, and mechanisms.
Yes, connotations and the various ways words such as valor can be used, can be both commended and censured, make meaning difficult to nail down – but that forces us to think, to reason, to come to a fuller, broader understanding.
In the context of mechanics or accounting or even baking, we need precision and clarity with words, but if we are not able to also deal with connotative and value-driven language, we cut ourselves off from history and humanity and are left only with the mechanical and technical.
“A student cannot experience valor through analysis any more than he can a distributor cap through the imagination; hence, the analytical method itself calls into question the utility and reality of such concepts as valor, while affirming that of the distributor cap.”
So by rejecting metaphorical, mythical, literary language in favor of analytical and technical, modern educators close the door on learning virtues and values.
But it is those stories and that metaphoric, connotative use of language that knits people together, anchoring them in a reality outside themselves.
“Moreover, by methodologically excluding myth, modern education can no longer pass on the blessings of social cohesiveness and individual coherence.”
Language is the only vehicle for myth, for meaning in life. Words are essential (after all, The Word created the world through words).
“Without the cultural unity provided by myth, the school shrinks from teaching the transcendent meaning and value of human life and settles instead for an analytical pedagogy that often treats human life and art as a programmed mechanism.”
To keep education human, we must revel in language, even in its ambiguities and its multitudinous metaphoric meanings.