The Subversive Power of Education and Language

You can't argue with elites if they can control how you talk.

Language in the West is increasingly a tool of power for a vapid and anti-human oligarchy. Conservatives cannot reclaim language. They do not even have the power to determine it. Such power derives from control of the mediums of communication and the political and cultural institutions that shape language. Liberals, whether you admit it to yourself or not, own these pieces of real estate, especially the crucial block of education.

In a free society, educational institutions are necessary for the nation to function, as they are the kilns in which citizens are wrought. Editor of the Claremont Review of Books Charles Kesler once summed up its importance as follows: “without citizens, no republic; without republican education, no citizens.” So, while many of these educational institutions still have lots of money in the bank, when it comes to “republican education” they are in shambles, as is our understanding of citizenship. It’s no surprise that people are rejecting what is being proffered by institutions that appear increasingly unserious in their curriculum and unwillingness to ennoble the souls of the young. Of course, these institutions like to lie to themselves (and us) about their actual role and function. If they aren’t merely ignorant and foolish, they are cunning and malicious.

It’s no surprise, then, that even if they can’t quite articulate why, for the first time in our history more than half of Americans do not trust higher education.

Let me suggest that, even outside of the problems that people frequently mention these days, there is a deeper intellectual deficiency at the heart of the education system. From preschool on up, our system fails to teach both how to reason (how to attain the truth the best we can), and how to communicate reason well (how to describe that truth and how we think we attained it to others). Instead, the education system now celebrates prescribed forms of emoting. It cannot teach how the perverse use of reason and perverse forms of communication persuade unjustly while simultaneously running defense for the unjust attainment and abuse of power. The education system today, sadly, prepares students to be subjugated and manipulated by the entrenched elite class.

A central part of this increasingly abusive system is control over language. The power of words is great indeed. Think of it this way: in Genesis, man's first job, as it were, is to name the animals.  Requisite for the existence of man’s first task was language. Even before man was, Scripture held that “In the beginning was the Word.” The Logos. Words generate images in the mind. Words shape perception and sets context for images. Preceding every insight and every movement are words.

Preceding streamed images on Netflix and the like are scripts—and algorithms. Content may be a kind of king, as the saying goes, and surely its curation is now the task of our nobility (all the kids with fancy degrees working for Big Tech)—and it is created, tailored, and distributed in accordance with their ideas. One hopes based on a desire to persuade rather than merely order the audience: will, desire, passion, and emotion severed from reason, logos, or word leads inevitably to violence and the rule of might over right.

Again, consider: to think and to persuade others of thought requires words. To evaluate the thought of others and prevent and counter false thoughts and violent action requires words. Don't tell me you are a visual learner—we all are—but words are how we are best able to first and finally see. This is why for centuries in the West, the trivium: logic, rhetoric, and grammar (or some equivalent in other times and places) were understood as the arts that make human beings truly free. We must set them loose again as practiced arts, adapted to our age, if we wish to set human beings free to think again. In short: we must find a "classical" K-12 or create an equivalent supplement for our kids. We must teach them language in the fullest and deepest sense possible. Such institutions are quietly undergoing a much-needed resurgence, one I will discuss at length in essays to come.

We live in a time of deepening disagreement concerning the most serious of human questions, the sort of questions that we all must answer in at least some provisional sense to the extent that we choose to live a certain way as opposed to others. The only questions, in the end, that matter. It is in directly confronting and reasoning in common—and in a common language—about these matters and expressing our answers, often in the midst of disagreement about what truly is or what ought to be done, that the greatest achievements of humankind have been produced.

In the midst of these deepening, fundamental divisions today, our education system undercuts rather than encourages reasoned deliberation about these very questions. We will not revitalize our civilization if we continue to avoid them. It may only be in small groups at first, but we must recover the words, and formulate new ones, if we are to have any hope of building anew.


Matthew J. Peterson (@docmjp) is Vice President of Education at the Claremont Institute and Editor of The American Mind. He directs Claremont’s annual fellowships and heads our initiative for a new center to support graduate level scholarship.