Friday, August 19, 2011

The power of words

As I am finalizing my major goals for the coming school-year, and revising my syllabi, I've been thinking a lot about what it is that I do as a teacher of the Humanities. One thing that keeps coming to mind is my responsibility to teach my students how to work with words. I've come to realize that this doesn't simply mean that I am teaching the students how to write without making grammatical or punctuation mistakes--in fact, that's little more than polish, an afterthought to my real purpose as a teacher of language.

I have the daunting duty of teaching my students how to use words in a way that displays thoughtfulness, care and integrity. Words are incredibly powerful and depending on how we use them, they can be agents of either healing or pain. One of the first units that I plan to teach during the school year revolves around how we interact with information--both as consumers and as producers. We need to realize that every piece of information that we come into contact with comes from a unique perspective, often with its own presuppositions, biases, limitations and agendas. Basically, we need to be careful and discerning in how we interact with information. We need to be thorough to ensure that we're getting the best information possible. Take the news media, for example: while individual journalists are often taught to strive for fair and balanced reporting, news corporations can be more absorbed in the bottom line--what sort of stories will bring in the most readers and therefore the most money? The sad fact is, bad news sells. So, if we read a newspaper whose editors and publishers have prioritized reporting on tragedies and disasters, we will be left with a skewed, pessimistic view of the world (and the distinct impression that nothing good ever happens).

Advertising is even more grim--ad corporations will do whatever it takes to sell a product. While lying outright is fairly easily detected, there are other ways in which advertisers can use words to bend the truth in ways that are far more subtle, far more insidious. Consider the use of appeals to authority: simply by having a famous actress or singer endorse a skin care product, the advertisers have taken advantage of the public trust ("If so-and-so is endorsing this product, it MUST be good!"). There are, of course, many more rhetorical fallacies at the disposal of advertisers that are used to distort the truth and manipulate audiences (showing a montage of sad looking puppies to encourage people to adopt a pet from their local humane society? That's like a dagger in the heart! Very tough to resist, even for people who have no business owning pets. Or, how about the way in which advertisers utilize veiled threats, or half-truths?)

Recognizing such abuses of language isn't the end-goal. While recognition allows us to be critical consumers, we must also strive to be wise and honest in our own usage of language. The importance of this wisdom was not lost on Solomon, who spoke extensively on the use of language in his collection of proverbs. Consider this advice:

"Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing." (Prov. 12:18)


"The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit." (Prov. 15: 4)

Knowing when language is being used to hurt, to distort, to manipulate... that's only the first step. The second step is to turn that knowledge into self-awareness, to evaluate one's own usage of words. We may not even realize the ways in which we misuse words--think about trying to explain or justify a mistake that you've made when someone confronts you. You may not recognize what you're doing as lying, but that's actually because you're lying to yourself as well. I know because I've done this before... as the old D.C. Talk song says "I am the king of excuses! I've got one for every selfish thing I do." It's much better to own up to our limitations, our biases and our mistakes rather than to cover them up, attempt to justify them, or worst of all, pretend they do not exist. Once we're aware and honest about our shortcomings, we can take steps to fix them.

My students will be writing essays, poetry and research papers, telling stories and delivering presentations. It is my sincere hope that I will model integrity for them in my use of words and that I will do everything that I can to use language to love and care for my students, to guide them and instruct them in forthright, responsible usage of language... that they will know how to uplift, support and encourage one another, to gently correct and instruct one another in what they say and what they do. This is so much harder than simply teaching good grammar, but it is a calling that I'm committed to. It has to start with me being aware of my own relationship with words and using them in a way that is wise... as Solomon prayed, so now I pray for this wisdom.

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