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Philosophical Meanderings

Amerian Education’s Language & Lies Two-Step: Step 1 – Language

In Henry VI, Part 2, we learned that members of Jack Cade’s group had no intention of helping anyone except themselves. If Dick the Butcher been the Secretary of Education instead a conspirator trying to foment a rebellion, perhaps he would have substituted, “The first thing we do, let’s teach them how to speak” for his famous line. I do not suggest his original words have no merit — he was on the right track, but his target was too small.

But for past power struggles we might speak French, Spanish or Portuguese instead of English as our primary language. A common language does bind people together and yet despite this, perhaps even because of this, “what we’ve got here is failure to communicate”.

The transparency of dictionary definitions goes far toward enhancing communication and learning. Some confines of language, however, are not documented as openly. Rules that affect the distribution of power, innocuously called grammar, spelling, vocabulary, pronunciation and the like, set up word-power games.

To avoid a power shift, the educated and powerful do well to either keep those rules out of plain view or to complicate them as much as possible. They show them to their own children and perhaps a select few others who pick up on the subtleties on their own and having thereby demonstrated genius, merit further guidance. Those few must be groomed — their egos will be stroked and they will be co-opted as inductees into a higher status – were they ignored, they might become leaders outside existing power structures.

The rule to use an “i before e except after c” has so many exceptions that one wonders why the rule exists until one sees it used for purposes beyond mere communication (is spelling all that important? – Teaching to the Test). If you cannot spell you fail, and having failed at spelling, you are a failure.

My wife has a question to “axe” me – is she is from an inner-city or from a small town in south-central Kentucky? Is she ‘educated’ ? Does pronunciation matter if we know what is being communicated?

I guess there are stupid questions… Those who do not know the rules and those who refuse or fail to follow them are subject to dismissive treatment . Speak and write this way and use this tone or else… your standing to communicate will be eliminated and you will not be heard. This may involve how words are used. At other times the focus is on pronunciation, enunciation, grammar or spelling. The young, old, rich, religious, areligious, poor, male, female, or ‘other’ male or female voices are all subject to this interplay.

A middle-aged White, middle-class female, a teenaged Hispanic/Latino male and a young child can all use the word “bullshit” in a correct manner. The first speaker has a good chance of being heard, the second may face fear, silence or an angry response and the third may receive a chiding behind a hidden smile.

  1. Do any of us correct all errors or just when we are in a dominant position?
  2. Do students learn about word power or just the power of those who use them?
  3. Do we silence or ignore students and when they fail to follow our language rules?
  4. Do verbal skills and language rules free students or assure their subjugation?

In real-life U.S.A., I see “Freedom of Speech” as less a ‘right’ than a reserved privilege. To be heard one must not only watch what they say, they must mind their lingua franca as well. Not that long ago, Indian Boarding Schools (sometimes referred to as “Industrial” schools in the U.S. and known as Residential Schools in Canada) were used to ‘educate’ certain Natives. This was followed by the Indian Adoption Program (the Scoop in Canada). Some experienced unpleasant, long-term consequences.

I detect vestiges of similar enculturation processes in today’s common schools’ provision of what is loosely called education. It is true some of the ‘underprivileged’ will “beat the odds” no matter their color, sex, gender or religion. Successful women, Blacks, gays, Muslims and Hindus are used as examples to show what happens if an individual goes through the grind and works hard. Most, however, merely undergo adsorption, and left with an exterior coating of Whiteness that renders them fit only to take orders from the verbally competent who have historically held power.

Still, if the shining stars can do it, something must be wrong with those who do not make the grade. Right?

Although many youths drop out of school or “fail” coursework, I don’t believe teachers or “schools” have created the situation in which we hear that “schools are failing our children”. I think Jefferson’s thoughts on public education, and even Dewey’s progressive approach to education (upon analysis of the sociocultural environment he lived in), relate less to students’ learning subject matters that will free them from political oppression, poverty and closed-mindedness than to their learning their place as individuals in a particular social, economic, political and religious setting.

Students learn the lessons they are taught. They learn from teachers, schools, the nation-state, their local community, their family and their peers. They learn to conform to the culture they live in. Few give consideration to their cultural milieu; fully immersed they do not see the water they swim in.

There is something in the water… it is not simple Bullshit — bullshit can be used as fertilizer. What is in the water is a toxin antithetical to living ‘free’ as human beings. We put it there during the second step of the dance.

The Truth, the “reality” of the situation need not be addressed when one can induce mere belief through the clever use of our common language. 

Yeah, I know I’m long-winded, but trust me. I’m an attorney. 🙂


About Brent Snavely

A construct of upbringing and society, holder of a BS and JD and most recently an MA, I have practiced law more than 20 years. It has been said "The Truth shall set you free" -- I believe it will, but only if it is Your Personal Truth. Parrhesia may be humankind's only hope (see,


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