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a-letter eva brannFor the first time in nearly a decade I again have the great pleasure of teaching a freshman language tutorial. I am myself a believer in the “spirit” of a tutorial, because I am convinced that what happens in class for well or ill is nothing beyond the accumulated effect of the goodness or deficiency of each person in the room. And yet I cannot escape a feeling that a happy genius is presiding over this class, and this glow has inspired me with an immense ambition: I want to cause my students to say what they think, in writing. That they think is already very clear from the papers I have so far received. It is clear even if I discount my natural interest in expressions that I have elicited from people for whose learning I am, in part, responsible. In almost all the papers questions are initiated, formulations are attempted, solutions are thrust forward which I know will be echoed in the books of the next four years. And yet there is a difficulty with these so incipiently interesting papers—an almost universal difficulty.

Almost all of them show the effects of stage fright. The necessity of writing down thought has petrified and diminished it. In conference, when confronted with a stilted, drained sentence out of their papers, students will gladly supply what they really meant but discarded. Why? Because it was too lively, too immediate. Somewhere someone has persuaded my freshmen that a proper intellectual product, signed, sealed, and certified, ought to be formulaic and that one should be a little beside oneself with nervous apprehension in order to write acceptably.

Unfortunately, our present language, as it is spoken by mildly clever people abounds with terms (I cannot bring myself to call them words) which assist this state of affairs. They are safely current, and their function is, I am convinced, not to raise thought but to lay it neatly to rest. They can be used to produce a moon-scape of the mind where one may hover and glide over enormous fixed shapes strewn randomly about:

  • art
  • reality
  • symbol
  • creative
  • concept
  • values
  • general
  • abstract
  • culture
  • verbal communication
  • motivation
  • meaningful
  • Western Civilization
  • The Greeks
  • individual
  • gut-level = intuitive
  • world-view

This is an honest list, well and truly collected from real tutorial life, or it would contain many additional terms. I know I do not have to ask the forgiveness of their original sponsors, who, I have discovered to my comfort, are quite willing to give them up for exposure.

There is a horrible activity called consciousness raising in vogue these days. Much as I despise its method, I have an uncomfortable feeling that I am attempting something slightly similar here. To beg the community, certainly not to proscribe these terms, but to think of them as very like rattlesnakes who can kill them unwary with a flick of tongue and fang. Four years seems to me just the right time to grow wary, to discover what these terms were meant to mean, who used them first, who picked them up, who is now propagating them and with what purpose in mind. And, of course, the answer to these questions is largely to be found in the seminar books.

Books on the topic of this essay may be purchased from The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This excerpt is republished with gracious permission from St. John’s Review (November 1974).

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1 reply to this post
  1. Thank you, Dr. Brann, for your refreshing and enlightened point of view. I am a lover of language and logic. The two are by nature inextricably entangled; however, our society seems bent on disentangling them regardless of the horrendous cost. I have posted in my office a statement regarding our all becoming idioglotts, a word not in the dictionary – yet — but one I believe to be a proper construction based on “idioglossia.” That’s a different subject for another time, and there is a practical pun hiding in there which I’ll not be so bold as to pursue just now.

    Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” Pouring one’s thoughts upon a blank page to be examined accomplishes two of those – it is obviously the exercise of writing, but it is also a conference with one’s self that goes well beyond simple contemplation. It is the process of becoming exact about what is inside one through conference with one’s self. If your students need feel stage fright about looking in the mirror, where, pray God, have we landed?

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