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An Alternative Spiel (with a proof!)

To avoid getting sidetracked with disputes over the meanings of words and concepts, bear with me for a while by keeping the concept of meaning separate in your mind from the concept of language, and the concept of learning separate from the concept of education. Thus, animals have access to the realm of meaning, just as we do, and animals can learn and be taught, just as we can. But you can’t educate an animal. I beg your indulgence on this point until after I’ve finished making my case.

I can condense my case into twelve sentences, though the first six may seem obvious to the point of banality. Nevertheless:

1)  There’s no education without language.

2)  There’s no liberal education without written language.

3)  All language, written or spoken, at its most basic is nothing but strings of words (such as sentences).

4)  Everyone believes that some strings of words are “better” than other strings—even postmodernists, though they may not admit it.

5)  By “better” I mean truer, wiser, more useful, more aesthetically pleasing—in brief, more important.

6)  Every system of liberal education has taken it for granted that education involves deciding which strings of words are better, and then becoming acquainted with them.

The next six sentences are not self-evident, but I feel confident enough about them to welcome criticism, however energetic:

1)  My claim is that there such a thing as a language of ideas and that one can learn this language quickly and fairly easily if we go beyond acquainting ourselves with the better strings of words and actually acquire them; and that the best way to acquire them is to create conditions that resemble, as closely as possible, the conditions that existed when we acquired our mother tongue.

2)  There are only two conditions: first, the strings of words must enter through the ear and not through text—not via the printed page.

3)  In other words the maxims, aphorisms, lines from Shakespeare and Scripture, scraps of poetry and verse, vivid quotes and passages must be heard or spoken; it’s not enough to read them silently to yourself.

4)  The second condition is “sufficient exposure,” which is to say that these compressed units of thought must be heard often enough to acquire them.

5)  When those two conditions are met, logic and experience assure us that the “magic” of acquisition will occur—and without the disagreeable effort of memorization.

6)  If you still have doubts that there is such a thing as a language of ideas, you need only make a serious attempt to acquire it using the proposed method to put your doubts to rest—but whatever you do, DON’T CRAM!.

A Sort of Proof

Consider the following six topics:

Beauty & Pleasure
Emotions & Feelings
Eros (the love between the sexes)
Work & Leisure

These topics are personal, practical, and of general interest. Now imagine someone—someone highly educated, middle-aged and widely experienced—being asked by a young person, “Based on your experience and your reflection on that experience, what are the two most important or useful things you can tell me about each of those subjects?”

I doubt that many people would be able to come up with much on the spur of the moment that was concise and well-expressed, in spite of all their experience. They would probably ramble.

Now we know that millions of things have been said about those six topics, tens of thousands of which have found their way into books of quotations because the editor thought they were especially true or clever, or because the author was a famous person. Of those, hundreds have become popular and are frequently quoted. If, from that small subset, we decided to acquire twelve of the very best—two for each of the six topics—using our personal experience and judgement to guide us, would we feel confident that we had something of value to offer to our hypothetical young person? I think we would, and I hope to demonstrate it.

How long would it take to acquire those pithy helpful quotes? Well, for purposes of comparison it takes 72 hours to watch the 86 episodes of The Sopranos, 52 hours to watch the 62 episodes of Breaking Bad, 76 hours to watch the 92 episodes of Mad Men, and 108 hours to watch the 156 episodes of The West Wing. That’s a total of 308 hours. However long it would take to acquire 12 quotes (or aphorisms or idea statements or compressed units of thought, whatever you want to call them) that pertain to those six topics—paraphrasing them if necessary and sometimes adding a bit of commentary—I think we can be pretty sure it would be a very small fraction of the time that the average person spends watching TV series. Does that amount to a proof?

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