There is tremendous need for conscious and vigorous action to shape and reshape our behavior in accordance with virtue, the common good, and God’s Law. What could studying grammar have to do with saving our culture..?

In his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell sounds an almost despairing note:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it…. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

In his 2016 essay, “Exercises in Unreality,” Anthony Esolen echoes Orwell:

The writing of most students is irreparable in the way that aphasia is…. The students make grammatical errors for which there are no names. Their experience of the written language has been formed by junk fiction in school, text messages, blog posts, blather on the airwaves, and  the bureaucratic sludge that they are taught for ‘formal’ writing, and that George Orwell identified and skewered seventy years ago. The best of them are bad writers of English; the others write no language known to man.

Certainly between 1946 and 2016, the English language has suffered, and most college students do not know even basic grammar. But is it true that “we cannot by conscious action do anything about it?” Or is language truly “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes?”

Wyoming Catholic College has been consciously acting to shape our rapidly degenerating discourse for almost a decade now by a sequence of courses called the Trivium, Latin for the “three ways” of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. In the words of the great trivium Master, Sister Miriam Joseph: “Grammar prescribes how to combine words so as to form sentences correctly. Logic prescribes how to combine concepts into judgments and judgments into syllogisms and chains of reasoning so as to achieve truth. Rhetoric prescribes how to combine sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into a whole composition having unity, coherence, and the desired emphasis, as well as clarity, force, and beauty.”

We have heard much about the moral, political, and spiritual corruption of American culture, and certainly there is tremendous need for conscious and vigorous action to shape and reshape our behavior in accordance with virtue, the common good, and God’s Law. What could studying grammar have to do with saving our culture? Well, we are told in John’s Gospel that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Does this passage indicate an intimate connection between language and God, and thus between our words and our spiritual health? As Orwell argued at the end of World War II, the ubiquitous corruption of language in the West was not simply an effect of moral and political corruption, but was, in a profound sense, a cause of it.

In the twelfth century, John of Salisbury wrote that “Those to whom the Trivium has disclosed the significance of all words…do not need the help of a teacher in order to understand the meaning of books and to find the solutions to questions.” What is this “significance”?  Literally, words are signs of reality. But perhaps what Salisbury means to convey is that things themselves, though quite real, are also, and ultimately, multiple signs of Reality. For, is not the created universe an imitation of the uncreated Divine Simplicity of the Father in and through the Son, the eternal Word, the Logos?

Why does Salisbury claim that graduates of the trivium no longer need a human teacher? Of course, humility dictates always sitting at the feet of the wise, but perhaps the profound grasp of and adept use of words that a trivium education provides will enable one to complete anything essential to one’s learning on his own, remaining, of course, until death and after, at the feet of the Incarnate Word.

In our day, when Great Books lie unopened and clicking through ephemera on screens is all but compulsory, when heartfelt questions about existence, God, and the meaning of life are supplanted by the banal curiosities of celebrity romance, money-making schemes, and therapeutic elixirs, we desperately need leaders with a command of logos, who think clearly, rigorously, and creatively, and who write and speak forcefully and elegantly. A Wyoming Catholic College trivium education results in apprentices of the teacher, the Logos, who alone has the words of everlasting life, full of spirit and truth.

Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College’s Weekly Bulletin (September 2016).

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