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The Case for New Education—Yet Again

Suppose you were thrown into a community of people whose language you couldn’t speak a word of. Wouldn’t your first priority be to learn that language? According to Northrop Frye, “The native language takes precedence over every other subject of study. Nothing else can compare with it in usefulness.” To me, that doesn’t seem like a controversial assertion.

Now suppose there’s such a thing as a language of ideas. Though it may strike some as a dubious notion, what I don’t think is open to doubt is that a language of ideas, if it exists, must be contained within the native language; because both are embodied in strings of words—or, if you wish, manifest themselves in strings of words. But since ideas, theories, systems of thought, all imaginative literature, everything we associate with a liberal education, can only be expressed in strings of words, does it not follow that there must be such a thing as a language of ideas?

You may think that this last statement involves a non-demonstrative inference, that is, an inference which is not necessarily valid. If so, I agree. But for the sake of argument let’s assume for the moment that the inference is valid, because if it exists the language of ideas is very probably the second most useful thing we can learn after the native language.

Assuming then that it exists, how can we acquire this language? Often, things that really work are simple, and perhaps this is the case here. At least it’s simple in theory, not quite so simple in practice. The difficulty lies in trying to create conditions that resemble, as closely as possible, the conditions that existed when we acquired our mother tongue.

Based on the results of my experimentation there are only two conditions that have to be satisfied: first, the strings of words must enter through the ear and not through text—not via the printed page. In other words the maxims, aphorisms, lines from Shakespeare and Scripture, scraps of poetry and verse, vivid quotes and passages, arguments and intellectual principles (collectively referred to as aphorisms) must be heard or spoken; it’s not enough to read them silently to yourself.

The second condition is sufficient exposure, which is to say that these compressed units of thought must be heard often enough to acquire them. When those two conditions are met, logic assures us and experience proves—at least my experience has proven—that the “magic” of acquisition will occur. And without the disagreeable effort of memorization, provided you don’t cram. (It took me about twenty years to discover that aphorisms have to be heard rather than silently read and that cramming a bunch of aphorisms is like cramming a bunch of phone numbers.)

The tendency to cram, by the way, is something one constantly has to fight against because our appetite for novelty is insatiable; moreover human nature is impatient and in a rush to get results, to achieve something. But remember, we picked up our mother tongue in a casual piecemeal fashion by being bombarded with words and sentences day after day since the time we were babies. The learning process wasn’t organized in any way until we went to school, by which time we already spoke the language. So, whatever you do, DON’T CRAM! Just let the words and ideas flow over you like water, and when you get bored or fatigued or irritated, stop and do something else.

Now, a single individual might feel self-conscious reciting aphorisms in isolation, partly because the method is somewhat artificial and partly because it might be irritating to anyone within earshot. Whether the method could be happily adapted to a group of two or more has yet to be determined and can only be determined by trial and error. Nevertheless I feel confident that with persistence, and that by concentrating on the aphorisms that appeal most you will find the results well worth the effort—even if you do it on your own. It’s important to always keep in mind, however, that every aphorism is open to discussion and debate and that few aphorisms are universally true or true in every respect. A single string of words can only do so much, but I submit that many strings of words can do a great deal—educationally speaking.

Turning to the maxims, aphorisms, etc., “Selected Samples” might be a good place to start:

Selected Samples

If you find “Selected Samples” helpful, you might want to move on to “Sample Aphorisms,” of which “Selected Samples” is a subset:

Sample Aphorisms

“Sample Aphorisms” is itself a subset of all the material in 89 topics plus the collection of intellectual principles:

All 90 Topics in One Webpage

The topics are listed here, the bolded ones perhaps being the more important:

Topic Names in Alphabetical Order

The opinions of the following people and of many others, famous and not so famous, can be found in the above selections:

Lord Acton, Woody Allen, Aquinas, Aristotle, Matthew Arnold, W. H. Auden, St Augustine, Jane Austen, J. M. Barrie, Hilaire Belloc, Robert Benchley, St Bernard of Clairvaux, Ambrose Bierce, William Blake, Niels Bohr, Jorge Luis Borges, George W. Bush, Samuel Butler, Lord Byron, Albert Camus, Thomas Carlyle, Dale Carnegie, Fidel Castro, Charlie Chaplin, Anton Chekhov, Lord Chesterfield, G. K. Chesterton, Noam Chomsky, Churchill, Cicero, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Confucius, Joan Crawford, Dante, Charles Darwin, Robertson Davies, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Dawson, Descartes, Marlene Dietrich, Benjamin Disraeli, John Donne, Dostoyevsky, Fredrick Douglass, Arthur Conan Doyle, Will Durant, Einstein, George Eliot, T. S. Eliot, Havelock Ellis, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Epictetus, Anatole France, Benjamin Franklin, Freud, Milton Friedman, Eric Fromm, Robert Frost, Northrop Frye, Zsa Zsa Gabor, John Kenneth Galbraith, James Garner, John Gielgud, Goethe, Emma Goldman, Stephen Jay Gould, Gracian, Graham Greene, Germaine Greer, J. B. S. Haldane, Thomas Hardy, Sam Harris, Stephen Hawking, William Hazlitt, Hugh Hefner, Hegel, Ernest Hemingway, Katharine Hepburn, Adolf Hitler, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, A. E. Housman, David Hume, Aldous Huxley, Michael Ignatieff, Ivan Illich, Dean Inge, William James, Thomas Jefferson, Jesus of Nazareth, C. E. M. Joad, Johnson, Carl Jung, John Keats, John F. Kennedy, Maynard Keynes, Kierkegaard, Henry Kissinger, Martin Luther King, C. S. Lewis, Thomas Mann, Sommerset Maugham, Mary McCarthy, Marshall McLuhan, H. L. Mencken, John Stuart Mill, Molière, Montaigne, Mary Tyler Moore, Malcolm Muggeride, Vladimir Nabokov, Napoleon, Jawaharlal Nehru, John Henry Newman, Isaac Newton, Nietzsche, Richard Nixon, Flannery O’Connor, George Orwell, Pascal, M. Scott Peck, Plato, Edgar Allen Poe, Alexander Pope, Pol Pot, Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, Bob Rae, La Rochefoucauld, John Ruskin, Bertrand Russell, Carl Sagan, Schopenhauer, Walter Scott, Seneca, Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Fulton Sheen, Shelley, Adam Smith, Socrates, Herbert Spencer, Spinoza, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jonathan Swift, Publilius Syrus, Mme de Staël, Stendhal, Tacitus, Henry David Thoreau, Alexis de Tocqueville, Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Peter Ustinov, Jean Vanier, W. B Yeats, Gore Vidal, Voltaire, Kurt Vonnegut, Evelyn Waugh, Beatrice Webb, Simone Weil, H. G. Wells, John Wesley, Alfred North Whitehead, Oscar Wilde, Woodrow Wilson, Virginia Woolf, Emile Zola

Click HERE for an organized collection of quotes and aphorisms
from the famous and the not so famous.
For more theory click HERE.