Language and Power
Updated: Jul 5, 2021
As an English teacher, I’m always thinking about the power of language. But recently, I’ve been thinking about language and power. How one leads to the other. How one is required to have the other. We reward students that demonstrate the ability to express their ideas clearly, with style and conviction. We find as many ways as we can – rubrics, checklists, PowerPoints - to express what quality writing looks and sounds like and use models, primarily from the greatest writers of all time, and then from our best students. The greatest writing, at least in high school, follows all the rules and gets the highest grade. We demand a command of convention with red ink.
At the same time, we consider the greatest writers – Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, Toni Morrison – the writers that took the most risks and experimented with breaking the rules. William Shakespeare, widely considered the greatest writer of all time, wrote his plays before the standard conventions of the English language even existed. George Orwell, in his essay “Politics and the English Language”, laid out five rules and his main argument for effective writing: “Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.” We all know when writing gets too academic. It tries too hard and fails to be honest.
A student of mine told me a story he heard from a former school counselor – he was in graduate school studying a 1,000-page book of philosophy when his professor highlighted a moment in the text where the philosopher mentioned that reading and academics alone could never lead to enlightenment or wisdom. In a state of dismay, he threw the book down, jumped out the window of the classroom, and took a year off to travel the world.
On the other hand, there’s Frederick Douglass in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, who learned to read and write despite the fact that it was illegal:
“Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read.”
He soon reads “The Columbian Orator” and it moves him to action:
“The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery; but while they relieved me of one difficulty, they brought on another even more painful than the one of which I was relieved. The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers.”
He eventually becomes free, and it started with learning to read.
In this way, language can be the path to success and freedom. But if we set our academic standards too high, schoolwork becomes an impossible obstacle to overcome. Many students check out or give up if they feel like it’s too much work to catch up. If they haven’t been a reader their entire life, catching up might be difficult or impossible. And we often forget that catching up isn’t just about writing – it’s about reading. We often assume that students can read anything that we throw at them. If they don’t read it, they must be lazy. Or is it just too heavy of an intellectual challenge? Do they give up in the way that a beginner basketball player gives up because his opponent is a professional and three feet taller? How many kids never get a fair shot at success because of their poor command of the English language?
I can’t help but think of those kids who struggle with language either because of their childhood environment or because they or their parents immigrated to the United States, and our presidents. How often has the most powerful person in our country and maybe the world botched sentences or failed to provide real evidence for their argument? How many wars have been fought over the years because of one man’s ego and not because of a logical argument? We expect our kids to master the conventions of language and then turn on the television or read social media posts with incomplete sentences and fragments of thoughts.
So perhaps we vote not for the academic powerhouse, but the honest human being that we trust and can relate to. We know wisdom has no connection to academic intelligence. Jonathan Kozol speaks to this in Savage Inequalities where he describes the extreme differences between high- and low-income school districts across America:
“Dr. Lillian Parks, the superintendent of East St. Louis [said that] ‘Gifted children … are everywhere in East St. Louis, but their gifts are lost to poverty … The language that our children speak may not be standard English but there still is wisdom here. Our children have become wise by necessity.’”
Language can set you free or lock you in a cage. In Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the Black narrator tells the story of how he goes from thinking he would deliver an inspiring speech to being blindfolded and thrown into a staged fight in a boxing ring with a bunch of his peers who were also blindfolded and paid a small amount of money. He didn’t know that he was just a puppet in their show:
“On my graduation day I delivered an oration in which I showed that humility was the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress. (Not that I believed this -- how could I, remembering my grandfather? -- I only believed that it worked.) It was a great success. Everyone praised me and I was invited to give the speech at a gathering of the town's leading white citizens. It was a triumph for our whole community. It was in the main ballroom of the leading hotel. When I got there I discovered that it was on the occasion of a smoker, and I was told that since I was to be there anyway I might as well take part in the battle royal to be fought by some of my schoolmates as part of the entertainment. The battle royal came first. All of the town's big shots were there in their tuxedoes, wolfing down the buffet foods, drinking beer and whiskey and smoking black cigars.”
In James Baldwin’s essay “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” he observes, “People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate.”
He describes how language became a symbol of power and domination by colonists and how slaves had even less power because they didn’t share a common language.
There are many questions educators must answer: How can we set high expectations regarding the conventions of language without also making it impossible for some students to succeed? When can we expect excellent academic analysis and when can we allow students to express their authentic voice and articulate the wisdom they’ve gained from their life experiences without worrying as much about convention and taking on an academic tone? How do we get students to read enjoyable novels that will help them become better writers? How do we get students to not give up when they begin to read a challenging text? How can we expect students to master the conventions of language and also teach knowing that the dictionary is a living text that changes with the definitions and pronunciations from everyday conversations? When it comes to grades, what assignments (writing, speaking, note-taking) get the most weight and why? How often do we assign creative assignments like short stories, personal narratives, and podcasts where we feel comfortable grading the idea or the story and not the grammar? When is it okay for our students to break the rules and when is it not okay? Is a grammatical mistake acceptable if it doesn’t get in the way of our understanding the idea?
Brian Wicker in The Story-Shaped World: Fiction and Metaphysics – Some Variations on a Theme, explores the power of language:
“The world I inhabit is conformable to my designs upon it, that it has the meaning I want it to have … Story-tellers the world over, from anonymous myth-makes to modern novelists, employ a vast repertoire of vertically-organized metaphors drawn from the similarities they perceive between men and the other species, to explain or enrich the ‘horizontal’ chain of events, or plot, which they are concerned to unfold to their hearers or readers. Thus Shakespeare will liken the king, who is at the top of the social hierarchy, to an eagle and the whining schoolboy who is at the bottom to a snail, in order to express his Elizabethan concept of the social order; and Evelyn Waugh will use animals that have been dragged out of their natural environment to express his vision of modern social chaos.”
What we do know is that language can transform a world, for better or worse. It can be the way that we help each other see the world more clearly, or it can be a cultural barrier that prevents us from leveling the playing field or finding a common goal. Language can create war or peace. Language can create prosperity or oppression. Language can divide us as much as color has, or it can set us all free. Language can lead us to hate or lead us to love. We have the words of history in us; we are our words.