the language of learning

Social Studies[Cross-posted to]

Mike Reid of has written about the Orwellian manipulation of language in “The Voice of Tyranny.”

As libertarians in the language business, we have both an ideological and very practical attachment to this subject.

In the City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute, Michael Knox Beran has written a fascinating and scary article about the history and ideology behind the school subject of “social studies” — a made-up topic, developed a century ago by progressives to replace the supposedly individualistic study of history with a collectivist focus on community membership, community ownership, and (originally, at least) economic central planning. Beran explains where this mission did and did not take hold, why, and how. I recommend the entire article, but of particular relevance to Invisible Order and other devotees of liberty and language is this passage on the writing style employed in social-studies text books:

Social studies, because it is designed not to waken but to suppress individuality, shuns all but the most rudimentary and uninspiring language. Social studies textbooks descend constantly to the vacuity of passages like this one, from People and Places:

Children all around the world are busy doing the same things. They love to play games and enjoy going to school. They wish for peace. They think that adults should take good care of the Earth. How else do you think these children are like each other? How else do you think they are like you?

The language of social studies is always at the same dead level of inanity. There is no shadow or mystery, no variation in intensity or alteration of pitch—no romance, no refinement, no awe or wonder. A social studies textbook is a desert of linguistic sterility supporting a meager scrub growth of commonplaces about “community,” “neighborhood,” “change,” and “getting involved.” Take the arid prose in Our Communities:

San Antonio, Texas, is a large community. It is home to more than one million people, and it is still growing. People in San Antonio care about their community and want to make it better. To make room for new roads and houses, many old trees must be cut down. People in different neighborhoods get together to fix this by planting.

It might be argued that a richer and more subtle language would be beyond third-graders. Yet in his Third Eclectic Reader, William Holmes McGuffey, a nineteenth-century educator, had eight-year-olds reading Wordsworth and Whittier. His nine-year-olds read the prose of Addison, Dr. Johnson, and Hawthorne and the poetry of Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Southey, and Bryant. His ten-year-olds studied the prose of Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, Sterne, Hazlitt, and Macaulay and the poetry of Pope, Longfellow, Shakespeare, and Milton.

McGuffey adapted to American conditions some of the educational techniques that were first developed by the Greeks. In fifth-century BC Athens, the language of Homer and a handful of other poets formed the core of primary education. With the emergence of Rome, Latin became the principal language of Western culture and for centuries lay at the heart of primary- and grammar-school education. McGuffey had himself received a classical education, but conscious that nineteenth-century America was a post-Latin culture, he revised the content of the old learning even as he preserved its underlying technique of using language as an instrument of cultural initiation and individual self-development. He incorporated, in his Readers, not canonical Latin texts but classic specimens of English prose and poetry.

Because the words of the Readers bit deep—deeper than the words in today’s social studies textbooks do—they awakened individual potential. The writer Hamlin Garland acknowledged his “deep obligation” to McGuffey “for the dignity and literary grace of his selections. From the pages of his readers I learned to know and love the poems of Scott, Byron, Southey, and Words- worth and a long line of the English masters. I got my first taste of Shakespeare from the selected scenes which I read in these books.” Not all, but some children will come away from a course in the old learning stirred to the depths by the language of Blake or Emerson. But no student can feel, after making his way through the groupthink wastelands of a social studies textbook, that he has traveled with Keats in the realms of gold.

It might be objected that primers like the McGuffey Readers were primarily intended to instruct children in reading and writing, something that social studies doesn’t pretend to do. In fact, the Readers, like other primers of the time, were only incidentally language manuals. Their foremost function was cultural: they used language both to introduce children to their cultural heritage and to stimulate their individual self-culture.


2 Responses to the language of learning

  1. Scott Lahti says:

    From Mencken: A Life by Fred Hobson (1994):

    “[Mencken] had plunged into the novels of Dickens when he was nine. and by his early and mid-teens he was reading Chaucer, Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, Herrick, and Pepys, as well as Addison, Steele, Pope, Swift, Johnson, Boswell, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne … the Romantics, as well as Arnold, Macaulay, George Eliot, Tennyson, and Swinburne. But Thackeray, whom he began to read at fourteen, was a greater influence than any of the others. His discovery of Thackeray, Mencken later wrote, ‘completely reorganized my view of literature. Here was richness indeed…. I read the whole of Thackeray in one Winter.’

    “It was not Thackeray, however, so much as two other nineteenth-century English writers who became, along with Mark Twain, Mencken’s early literary idols and models.”

    Dwight Macdonald in politics for April 1945:

    Whatever Became of Addison Sims?
    “The kind of question it might be fruitful to answer is: why was self-education so much more popular several generations ago than it seems to be now? Pelmanism, Chatauqua, the Harvard Classics (‘Fifteen Minutes a Day’), the International Correspondence Schools, the Roth Memory Course (‘Why of course I remember you–Mr. Addison Sims of Seattle!’), Cooper Union–these have become innocent archaisms. At the turn of the century, book agents roamed the country ringing doorbells and selling sets of ‘standard authors’ (Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot) encyclopedias and multi-volume historical works. The book-agent has vanished; people read for amusement, not instruction, and authors are no longer ‘standard’ or sold in sets. Does all this perhaps show the growth of a popular instinct that education is not the golden key to progress which the Victorians thought it was? Is the myth of the self-made man fading? Is the modern world at once so irrational and so totally organized that the mass-man simply gives up, no longer hoping to understand or ‘improve’ his situation?

    “A study of self-education in the last fifty years might be a good way to answer such questions–as Orwell in his ‘Ethics of the Detective Story’ (POLITICS, November 1944) was able to trace in that field the deterioration of ethical standards during the same period. I can’t help feeling that American critics might more profitably concern themselves with such rich and relatively unexplored areas than with trying to find something new to say about Henry James.”

  2. Scott Lahti says:

    From “Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, and Ayn Rand: Three Women Who Inspired the Modern Libertarian Movement“, by Jim Powell, in The Freeman for May 1996:

    “When Lane was four, the family gave up on Dakota and moved to Mansfield, Missouri, which offered better farming prospects. She went to a four-room, red brick schoolhouse that had two shelves of books, and she discovered the wonders of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Edward Gibbon. Her mainstay became the famous Readers compiled by Cincinnati College President William Holmes McGuffey, who imparted moral lessons as he taught the fundamentals of reading and exposed young minds to many great authors of Western civilization.”

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