It’s time, yet again, for another installment of “What’s good in the world?” For today’s entry, I’d like everyone to take a moment and stand, please, with one hand on the heart.
Are you standing? No cheating now. If you’re in a public library or something I’ll give you a pass, but otherwise there’s no excuse and you’ll have to be deducted 5 points at the end of the post.
Words are great. I thought about using the term language instead, but language is a dry, boring kind of word. Using language to talk about words is like using math to talk about numbers. No that’s not right, because math, like words, can be beautiful.
Are you feeling the meta yet? Isn’t it awesome? Words are fantastic because they are (nearly) the base unit of meaning. We can’t hardly convey ideas any other way. We can think of ideas in other ways, but we cannot communicate them.
Math is also beautiful, but it’s a different kind of beauty. Math is beautiful because of it’s inescapable logic. Math is certain; one has to push to the very boundaries of mathematics in order to find things that are uncertain and in flux. For most of the rest of math, it operates with near-infinite precision, mapping relationships and ratios, measuring quantities and forces, illustrating logic. Minutephysics has an interesting video about some of the philosophical questions about math, and these are part of the things that make it beautiful. Math is almost separate from reality. In a certain sense, it is the imposition of the intangible ideal upon reality, at least that’s what I remember from geometry.
Words also, get to do this. The struggle of learning to use language well is the struggle to find the words that correctly respond to reality — in many more ways than can be expressed in math.
One of the strange things about words is that sometimes they can not only describe reality — they can make reality. The right word at the right time can change the world — especially when used by the right person. The process of speaking is an intrinsically philosophical act. By engaging another in conversation, we implicitly recognize that both of us exist in a tangible reality, separate from ourselves, and that we can both understand it in the same way. Those who learn how to accurately and effectively describe this reality are those who gain the power to shape it.
This is the real benefit of learning how to read and write in school. When we learn to read, we learn how reality is coded and structured. When we learn to speak and write well, we learn how to change the code and restructure it. By the time we enter high school, we have usually become pretty good at this: from being coded and coding ourselves. We learn the power of single words, labels that gain us entry into select groups, or rockin’ parties.
Just as in science and math, we learn formulas that describe with infallible precision the relationships among things, the sides of a triangle or the structure of water: we learn the word formulas for other things. Poetry is the word formulas for impressions, feelings, ideas. When Hopkins wrote “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” he found the formula for the relationship between nature, human beings, and God.
Sometimes the formulas take more space than any mathematical formula could ever approach. The Sound and the Fury is a formula for sex, religion, death, and family in a certain place and time in the Southern U.S. In writing that novel, Faulkner nailed down reality for a little while so that we can see it, understand it, and understand ourselves in it.
Unlike the reality of Math, which is fixed and ideal, the reality of words is ever changing. That is why we always need poets and poetry. That is why we must always be reading. That is why the goal of education is to make men and women who keep reading.