When it comes to writing these days, style is all about making things easier to read. But when it comes to instruction, reading is like exercise for the mind. The aim is to make the mind more capable of understanding. In this respect, instructing the mind by making things easier to read is like building muscles by making the weights easier to lift. It may be a good place to start, but if it becomes an exclusive preoccupation, the pupil makes little progress beyond that starting point.
The trainer’s goal in training largely depends on its purpose. Training a tennis player requires a different regime than training a Sumo wrestler. In this respect, a society’s general standard for reading must have some relation to the general vocation of the populace. If there is a task all are expected to share equally, then there must be a benchmark that corresponds to the level of proficiency that task requires.
In the United States of America, every adult citizen has a share in the tasks of citizenship. This is what it means to “have the right” to vote. Though it is quite purposely ignored these days, the reference to right has first of all to do with responsibility and obligation. As members of the sovereign body of the people, American citizens bear, each of them, a share of the sovereign’s responsibility to care for the good of the community.
Let’s suppose that you and I agree to care for a jabberwock. We would need instruction. That instruction would probably begin with information about what a jabberwock is: its identifying features; the basic requirements for its existence; relevant details of its background and history; and so forth. If some of this information exists in written form, it would be reasonable for us to read it as part of our preparation for the task.
As members of the sovereign body of the people we each have a share in the task of caring for our nation’s common good. But what is the good in which all Americans have an equal share, partly as citizens and partly as human beings? It cannot be a material good, since material goods can never be shared equally by all. (If, for example, we give everyone a loaf of bread, it is not of equal worth to all, since they differ in their physical constitutions, like Jack Sprat and his wife in the children’s verse.) The common good must therefore be some intangible thing, known not as a material object, but in terms of its effects in and upon the material world.
We meet such intangibles in thought. They are conveyed by words like truth, and right, justice, honor and liberty. We know their meaning from the record of our common experience. We may learn it from one another as we learn the language in which it is conveyed. But in speech there is no permanent record of it, because we are beings subject to decay and death. The written word, though still imperfect, preserves more permanently, a record of the tangible effects associated with their meaning. It preserves as well the usage and explanations left by the people who observed and experienced them.
In this respect, the United States is perhaps the only nation in human history blessed to have an exact written record of the words intended to convey the understanding of the common good that accounted for its inception and birth as a nation. It is not lost in the mists of time. Our access to it is not dependent on the assertions of a privileged class of learned individuals apt (as all of us are) selectively to remember or forget things, as it serves their selfish purposes to do so.
But our access to the written record of our national conception does depend on our ability to understand the language in which it was written, in the way (style) in which it was written. This means that from their earliest years one aim of the education we give to our children must be to make sure that each and every one of them has the opportunity to develop this ability.
For several decades now, we have been willfully and purposely failing to provide this opportunity. In fact, looking at the precepts, materials and results of the pedagogy dominant in our public schools, it is reasonable to conclude that they have been intentionally devised to make the language and style of the nation’s founding era as repugnant and inaccessible as possible. The intended effect is (with apologies to L. P. Hartley) to make the founding era a foreign country, where things are said so differently that we cannot understand them without interpretation.
This is the educational prerequisite for the lying unreason that, for several decades now, has been passed off as constitutional jurisprudence. Americans have more and more become a people accessing the record of their free institutions through elitist interpreters. These interpreters are now so sure of the ignorance of the general public that they boldly reach conclusions clearly at odds with the plain language of the Constitution. They count on the fact that our schools have made the style of the founding documents so repugnant that the general public is instantly turned off by reasoning that relies upon references to them.
In the bleak ages when elitist tyranny prevailed, virtually unchallenged, throughout the earth, it was often unlawful for common folks to touch the weapons of war, except they were in the ranks of forces rigidly disciplined forces by elitist faction control. In their subversion of America’s constitutional self-government, the elitist faction in the United States accurately assessed the true source of the American people’s ability to defend their sovereignty. It was not only in the weapons of war, but in the faithful hearts and common sense intelligence of the people. As that faith is banished; as that shared intelligence is debased, Americans are meekly, ignorantly surrendering their liberty— without war and indeed with little effective resistance of any kind.
People at ease with the poetry of the King James Bible; the applied oratory of the Declaration of Independence; and the carefully orchestrated reasoning of the Federalist Papers would not be thus susceptible to the indolent subversion of their God endowed responsibility for right. Properly handled, language education is literally child’s play, no matter how difficult the language seems to those unaccustomed to wielding it. Neglect it, and you reach a stage when self-serving liars can pretend that the concise and simple language of the U.S. Constitution is somehow incomprehensible. (Ironically, they do so even as the U.S. Congress produces weighty, complex tomes for legislation which, they seriously assert, can be absorbed and approved without being read. Behold, a miracle of 21st century political technology!)
Whenever people ask me what reading I would recommend to someone anxious to improve his understanding of America’s liberty, I usually suggest first of all the three works I just named. It’s not just because they convey the core self-evident truths that define the nation’s existence as such. It’s also because once we are cut off from the parlance of liberty the day will come when we can longer recall its name.