Language represents one of our most uniquely human characteristics, whether mathematical, musical, somatic, or linguistic. It is a human instinct, according to cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, the limits of thought, according to German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the model of higher cognition according to linguist George Lakoff. Language, argues Martin Heidegger, is the very essence of being—where mankind dwells: poetically. Without language, it would be impossible to define or describe who or what we are.
Go back all the way to the golden Hellenic age of the western tradition, it has really been language that distinguishes mankind from the rest of nature, the thing that elevates the mind above the baser urges and appetites of the body. This is why the Greek philosophers devoted so much attention to logos—reason was born of the human construct, what we build civilization out of: laws, genealogies, taxonomies, historical accounts, culture, education. Without language, we could not transmit culture or separate ourselves from our own thoughts. This is why when people have a bad day, they often have to talk through it; to work through, discover, or modify ourselves, good or otherwise, we need language. It is the mirror that allows us to reflect upon ourselves.
Language has also been a marker of class and liberty, meaning that those who acquire and possess it, who can command it, have the luxury of mobility. They are the people who can adapt to an occasion through the power of rhetoric because they know how to read the world, how to connect to others, how to express themselves. To succeed in society requires the ability to communicate effectively, and to do that one must have a firm grasp of the medium of discourse.
More abstractly, we might argue that knowledge is power, and that language is knowledge, which is why the power to name is often a metaphor for the power of authority and possession. This principle is well illustrated by American abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass’s life narrative, where he tells of how reading and writing were forbidden him as a slave (a possession, not a possessor). He suggests that what truly enslaves him is ignorance: being kept in the dark, unable to question or speak for himself. This too is the restriction that has long yoked women in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, where women are to “remain silent,” according to St. Paul. Mexican poet and intellectual Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, like Douglass, was thus forbidden an education as a woman and scolded by her bishop for giving a voice to her thoughts—having created a publicly read text.
Having a say is the very thing that motivated the American revolution: citizens of the colonies demanded that someone speak for their interests. Douglass, being schooled briefly, enough to start down the path toward literacy, devoted himself to it and by this means—the education that language provided—was able to free himself. The lesson he teaches, then as now, is that there is far more to literacy than just some class at school; it is what liberty is founded upon, how an individual becomes independent, resourceful, self-aware.
Language is how we connect to other people, how we learn, how we resolve conflict. It is what has authored constitutions, moral codes, whole libraries of knowledge, revolutions, measurements of the cosmos, and the stories of countless lives. Teaching language, then, is no small act. It is, arguably, the foundation of identity and autonomy, and as such, teaching such an art requires far more than just practicing grammar, punctuation, and naming modes of discourse.
The point of all this epidiectic exposition is not merely to celebrate this discipline over others or to inflate or overestimate the value of English instructors. The point is demonstrative: my teaching philosophy stems from a deep love and investment in the craft I practice, the tradition to which I belong, and the students I am charged with instructing. I believe that what I do, just the same as a math, science, music, dance, or physics teacher, is help students acquire the kind of literacy they will need to own their own life; we are each teaching students different languages, which reflect different modes of thought. However, those language courses belonging to the core are in fact central to performance in all other disciplines, as even criminal justice, chemistry, and engineering books are written and so must be read. Even business management requires a command of verbal and linguistic language. Thus, my job goes beyond teaching students to pick out a topic sentence, where a thesis statement goes, what a supporting detail is compared to a main idea, or why one preposition is more appropriate in a particular context than another. Language teachers are charged with helping students learn how to think using the most important technology humankind has invented: the written and spoken word. In doing so, we have the unique opportunity of empowering students to perform better in all other areas of life because language is not just a tool, but the vehicle and mirror of thought.
Socrates says that thinking is “talking to oneself,” which is exactly what we do when we scribble out a reminder memo, sketch out a idea, or retrace all the places we might have left our car keys, talking it through out loud trying to find the memory and the moment we lost. Learning, remembering, sharing: these all depend on language. My teaching method emerges out of this philosophy, which is also why my classes are built around the Socratic method: the dialogue as a means of learning and discovery—a shared communicative exploration, questioning, not justifying. It is meant to be open ended, where students work their way to a conclusion, debate it out, discover the value of proof and critical investigation, and come to realize that to possess knowledge, we must find the answer ourselves. My job is merely facilitating that journey and keeping them on the right path; I am the guide, and they are the sojourners.
Language is what allows us to make promises, name children, share our secrets, make the two of clubs wild, comfort a friend, tell a tall tale, inquire, inform, bestow, and record. It is how read and write ourselves into the world, to define who and what we are, and to author the futures we want to be our own. It is my job to light the torch so students can learn to navigate through any darkness. Language is the Promethean spark we all inherit, but to appreciate the value of that most ubiquitous stuff of thought, we have to learn to see the thing hardest to look at: the reflective object. However, once shown the trick, it is my hope that each student will learn that words are, as Professor Dumbledore says, “our most inexhaustible form of magic; they have the power to hurt and the power to heal.”
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