Whoever controls the discourse controls the world. One of the great mistakes of education in the past few decades has been to place an absurd emphasis on math, science, and technology. In the 80s and 90s we were inundated with the news that Japanese, Chinese, and other-ese children from all over the world were outscoring American children in both math and science. Couple this with the rise of the internet, the rapid increase in automation, and overall boom in technology, and we had what most educators felt was a crisis that would result in the demise of the American economy if not addressed. As someone who was educated during the 80s and 90s the pressure of this ‘impending crisis’ were nearly palpable. I can recall bragging about my math and science scores on the ACT while being unconcerned with my reading and language scores which were comparatively much lower. I can recall being impressed by hearing that people who had graduated high school before me were in college taking classes in three-dimensional calculus, while thinking that those who studied classical literature were wasting their time. My thoughts on this paralleled so many other students of my generation. We were taught, and I believe that students are still taught, that unlocking the keys of this world lied in a firm grasp of math, science, and technology. In the meantime, the majority of us never read a full book during the duration of our high school education, the more diligent among us would read through the Cliff’s Notes, or Spark Notes, while the rest of us would just B.S. our way through the reading units. Strangely enough this was acceptable, and it was relatively easy function at A or B level by doing the bare minimum. Of course there was no reason for concern, as long as students were beginning to excel in the math and sciences at a higher level than the classes before them.
My contention is that we have been sold a bill of goods, and that we are reaping the rewards of that now. Most of us have an intense struggle to communicate our thoughts in a meaningful way. We read only what can be digested easily, and it seems that most of our conversations don’t rise much above a 2nd grade reading level. Granted we can solve a math problem, as long as it isn’t a story problem. We can balance a check book, but cannot speak coherently about how our spending habits affect our future or the people around us.
The point here is not to minimize the importance of the sciences, but the truth of the matter remains that it is those who understand communication, and who can control discourse, that will be the people who will ultimately assume the power of shaping the future of the world. Just watch the political process play out and you will see this clearly. Most people are in the hands of politicians and media, and because we are incapable of articulating our own thoughts we are stuck repeating the talking points that they have given us. Put it in the context of religion, and we find that most of us are pawns in the hands of those who lead us in matters of faith. Incapable of giving words to our own thoughts, we are stuck with whatever clever oration our pastors give us. We are easily beguiled by 140 character tidbits because our minds have not been fashioned to think in 200 page chunks. Even this blog post has already gotten uncomfortably long for a number of readers, which is just more evidence to my point.
We must recover the study of our own language. If you consider that you develop your own thoughts in the English language, it must follow that the stronger your command of that language, the more able you are to think clearly. This goes beyond simple grammatical syntax, but into thought processes, things like irony and sarcasm, symbolism and foreshadowing. Believe it or not, the collective consciousness of English speaking people has been shaped by Shakespeare, by the King James Bible, by classic works by various authors. You cannot watch a sitcom or TV drama that cannot trace its roots back to classic literature that was written decades, and centuries before. Yet without going back to the source of these narratives you are stuck simply regurgitating the surrounding culture without producing a unique thought process on your own. Yet if you can go back to the head waters of the English speaking culture you are capable of introducing a new ingredient into those waters that will improve (or destroy) much of goes for culture today. People with real and lasting influence are people who can get at those headwaters, and you will never get at them without immersing yourself in good literature.
There are ‘bible-only’ Christians out there who would never crack a work of fiction, and truth be told their sermons, their counsel, and their general discourse is a bore. Worse than that is that their words may be true, but they get nowhere near the headwaters of our culture and have little to no effect on the general discourse of their places of employment, their churches, or within their family. There are also the ‘theological work only’ Christians, who read a million books on Christian living and doctrine, yet have no thought processes that actually touch on the human condition beyond theological talking points. Again, this is a huge mistake.
Personally, I have not arrived at some point where I could pretend to be a good writer, and I am doubtful that I will ever come to a place of respectability in that realm. However I can tell you that over the past 3 years as I have begun to read more and more classic ‘upstream’ stories my own thought processes have become more clear, and more efficient. I have found it easier to not be led around by the current thoughts and trends of the day. Math and science didn’t get me to that point. Even when I was an engineer, I would have had a far better handle on my profession, had I heeded the advice I offer here. Words are the air which ideas breathe, most of our ideas are choking because we refuse to inhale.