In the beginning are the words: Language and education

One of the most powerful lessons that Tolkien teaches in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is that the things possessed can possess the possessor. This addictive possessiveness, or what might be called crass materialism, is known as the dragon sickness in The Hobbit. It afflicts not only the dragon Smaug but several other characters. In The Lord of the Rings, this dragon sickness manifests itself in the power of the Ring, in which those who covet the Ring’s power become subject to the very power they hope to obtain, possessed by their possessiveness so that they become possessed by their possession of it.

This lesson is a reiteration of the lesson that Christ teaches that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. It is, therefore, important that we learn to desire those treasures which are truly good for our souls, and not those which will imperil them.

One of the most important things that a true and good education must teach is the desire to possess words, the possession of which liberates us from the slavery of ignorance. Words are necessary because they are the very things with which we do out thinking. We can only make sense of the world and our place within it if we have the vocabulary to articulate our thoughts. It’s not simply that we need words to communicate with others, we need words, first and foremost, to communicate with ourselves. If we are unable to make sense of the complexity of our situation because we do not have the words in our mind to articulate what’s going on in our lives, we are doomed to the sort of frustration which leads to despondency and despair—and rage and violence, which is their toxic fruits.

Since this is so, one of the primary goals of education should be the enrichment of the students through their acquisition of words. The goal should be to encourage students to increase their vocabulary or, to employ the language of the Anglo-Saxons, to add to their word-horde. The more words they possess, the more they will be able to understand the goodness, truth, and beauty of reality. And this means that the acquisition of new words should be an integral part of education at all levels, and not merely at the elementary level.

As an illustration of this, a piece of advice I give to those wishing to improve their writing skills is that they should read good books. The fact is that you write as well as you read, not least because good books exhibit a rich and grandiloquent vocabulary, enabling us to acquire the wealth which each new word bestows upon us. And what is true of the ability to write well is true of the ability to think well. It is a fact that we think as well as we read. And since the ability to communicate with others is dependent on the ability to communicate with ourselves through the eloquence of our thoughts, we might also say that we speak as well as we read.

All of the foregoing illustrates that an ongoing part of all education should be the reading of the Great Works in one’s native tongue. For English speakers, this means reading Shakespeare, whose grandiloquence is unequalled, and also other great masters of the language: Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Dr. Johnson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Austen, Newman, Dickens, Hopkins, Chesterton, Belloc, Eliot, and Tolkien, etc. It’s not only the wisdom to be found in these works that will enrich us, but also the gift of new words which we will add to our own personal vocabulary.

Unlike the possession of many things, which may prove perilous to the mind and the soul, the possession of more words only makes us richer. In short and in sum, the wealth that words bestow upon us is the power to better understand who we are and where we fit into the wider scheme of things: our purpose and our place in the cosmos.

To conclude on a metaphysical note, we can say that the beauty of words is that they give us access to the goodness of truth. In the beginning was the Word, and words are the way that the Word can be better understood and communicated. It is for this reason that the learning of words should be at the heart of all true education.

JOSEPH PEARCE is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and editor of its journal. He is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and senior editor at the Augustine Institute. His books include biographical works on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn and Belloc.