For my yearly Back-to-School post, I would like to republish an article I wrote when I was just a young teacher. It is the first day today for my alma mater, St. Herman of Alaska Christian School, for whom I wrote this article almost 20 years ago. Good strength to all in your September return to learning. God bless your studies in this new school year!
Sunflowers, Autumn 1997
The Weapon of Discernment
by Aaron Friar
Instructor, Grades 3-8
Many parents have felt the wonder of the moment when their child was old enough to utter his first word. Perhaps, equal to excitement is the moment when he begins to read. He sounds out everything in his path All goes well until he decides to exercise his phonics skills on a supermarket tabloid. Words “scandal” and the easier monosyllable “sex” send his impressionable mind reeling as he asks parents a barrage of troubling questions.
In our age of free access to information, it is more important than ever to learn discernment of words. It is not enough for us to set our children free to roam aimlessly in the abyss of choices provided by almost every media imaginable; we must also give them the tools which will enable them to make wise choices. They do not just need to know how to read but what to read. And our greater task as Christian parents and teachers is to enable our children to discern the words they read and hear by the measuring stick of Christ. The world around them is more than what meets the eye or impresses the mind, and we must give them the mastery of words which is necessary to see a bigger and more truthful picture.
Regaining the fuller meaning of a particular word reveals a deeper dimension of life. When advertisers wish to attract a consumer into purchasing a product, they often reduce the meaning of a word to its bare economic utility. For example, the word “value” comes from the Latin verb valere – “to be well or worthy”. We use this verb in school; when I wish the Latin students goodbye I say, “Valete discipuli”, which means, “Farewell students”. Valere bespeaks a wish of soundness or good health. But this noun “value” loses all these connotations when used on a supermarket circular; there, it means merely what is economically profitable. This reduction is what e*ins the most absurd juxtaposition I saw recently in a drug store circular – “Haunting Values”.
Some words become so detached from their original meaning that they actually come to mean something opposite to the original. The word nice comes from the Latin root nescire ‘ “to not know, to be ignorant”. In Middle English, the word nice meant foolish or ignorant. In our modern age of political correctness, the term is used to gloss over any deeper significance in people or events. When we wish to sum up the affability of a man, we call him a “nice guy”. When we wish someone well, instead of the older benediction “Godspeed you”, we utter the more generic “have a nice day”.
But what is the purpose of all this hairsplitting? Must we see a deviation from truth behind every metamorphosis in meaning? No, but as Christians we must learn to see beyond mere appearance to make what our Savior calls, “a right judgement”. At St. Herman’s School, the children learn to see beyond the mere mask of a word by discovering that word’s derivation. A Latin word is read aloud along with its closest direct meaning in English and the children guess English words that are derived from the Latin word. This helps them to see that in translating from one language to another, there is a whole range of meaning which cannot be contained in just one word. Words are rather grouped into families with shades of meaning and variance as rich and as varied as the nations God has created for this world.
In addition to finding a word’s origin in a base language like Latin, the children also find the meaning of a new word by seeing that word the context of a sentence. Because a language is more than the sum total of its parts, we begin our study with what makes a sentence make sense. “It is better that a child begin with a sentence and not with the parts of speech, that is, he should learn a little of what is called sentence analysis before he learns to parse”3.
In reading classical literature, we often stumble on words unfamiliar to our ears and so we use the context to help guide us to the meaning. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Black Arrow is being read aloud to the older children and from this reading they are picking up words like fens, tucket, and obsequious. They determined the meanings of these words from their context since many of the words can no longer be found in the English dictionary. Then, using these same words, they wrote a play about a girl from our own time getting lost in a medieval chapel. A list of the unfamiliar words were posted next to the stage and the younger children in the audience were encouraged to listen for them and try to discern their meaning from the context of the action in the play.
In this information age, mere literacy is not sufficient without mastery. As Christian educator Dorothy Sayers puts it:
“For we have let our young men and women go out unarmed in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the endless battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are prey to words in their emotions instead of being masters of them in their intellects.”
Intellectual mastery of language gives one the weapons necessary to cut through the carefully crafted deceptions of this world and discern a deeper meaning. We need not fall prey to the whims of popular taste when we “take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ”5. Jesus Christ who is Himself the Word sums up in person the deeper meaning of all language Only when we conform our ideas to His can we discern and see the world clearly.
- The philosopher Rene Guenon points out that this degeneration of language is part of a larger movement in our times to reduce all of life to the measure of quantity. In this case, quantity is money. From The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, Sophia Perennis et Universalis: Ghent, NY, 1995, p.137.
- John 7:24
- Mason, Charlotte M., A Philosophy of Education vol. 6 of Original Homeschooling Series, Tyndale House: Wheaton, IL, 1989, p. 209.
- Sayers, Dorothy, “The Lost Tools of learning”, in Recovering the Lost Tools of.learning by Douglas Wilson, Crossway Books, p. 152.
- Il Corinthians 10:5
“I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.” – III John v. 4
Your point about the media on the checkout rack is very good (as you know, we basically never shop there, so I don’t run into this problem), and the quote from Sawyers is excellent. Thank you for the repost.