How Language Arts Teachers Will Save Democracy

Democracy literally means rule by the people. Yet in practice, democracy means that the important decisions within a society are made through public discussions, often among elected representatives. To play a productive role in political discussions, you need a set of skills that do not come naturally, which is why they have traditionally been taught in school. Unfortunately, our public schools in the United States are failing to teach these skills. Many people want to blame the students, the parents, or the teachers for this failure. Yet as I explain in Not Trivial: How Studying the Traditional Liberal Arts Can Set You Free, the public schools have been set up for failure, by policies made at a high level.

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What Does “Therefore” Mean?

Recently, I wrote something that was copyedited by a poorly trained editor. She caught a few typos, for which I was grateful. However, she introduced more errors than she fixed. The most infuriating thing she did was to add the word therefore inappropriately in several places. If I had more than three statements in a paragraph, she’d often stick in therefore at the beginning of the last statement, just as you’d put the word and before the last item in a list that you’ve written out in a sentence. I asked her why she kept adding therefore. She said it was “for flow.” I started to explain why the added therefores made no sense, but then I realized that I was not talking with a Vulcan. It is probably pointless to try to reason with someone who is so illogical that she does not understand what therefore means.
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Once You’ve Mastered Grammar, You Can Start Studying Logic

Logic is the study of arguments. By arguments, I don’t mean bickering. The word argument came from the Latin word argumentum, which meant evidence. An argument was originally the evidence you used to prove or disprove something. Logic is the study of how to use evidence to prove or disprove conclusions.

Before you can study logic, you need to know some basic grammatical concepts. That’s because grammar is the study of the structure of meaningful sentences, and arguments are made up of sentences. Yesterday, I gave a link to an excellent resource for studying English grammar. Today, I’m posting a link to an Internet resource for people who want to study logic. It’s from Lander University in Greenwood, South Carolina. I strongly recommend that people go through the grammar review before they start studying logic!

Why American Political Discussions Are Ugly and Pointless

Most people in the United States were taught that it is impolite to talk about politics, religion, money, or sex in public. As a result, we don’t know how to talk politely about politics. Furthermore, most of our political discussions turn out to be impolite discussions about religion, money, or sex.

After having listened to these impolite political discussions for many years, I think that the problem boils down to a basic failure of our educational system. Our schools are not teaching the skills that one needs in order to participate in rational, productive conversations. Our political conversations get ugly because people have never learned how to “use their words” to find truth and settle conflicts. The disciplines that help people learn how to do this are called the liberal arts. They were called the liberal arts because they were the kinds of skills that were considered appropriate for free people, as opposed to slaves. Slaves could be taught the mechanical arts or the servile arts to make them more valuable as workers. Instead of being taught how to find truth for themselves and advocate on their own behalf, they were given Noble Lies (propaganda) to keep them in line.

In the universities of medieval Europe, the liberal arts curriculum consisted of seven subjects. The first three of them were called the trivium, which literally meant three courses. The trivium consisted of grammar, dialectic (logic), and rhetoric. Grammar is the study of the rules for putting together meaningful sentences. Logic is the study of arguments. Dialectic is the process through which people use arguments to improve their understanding of a subject. Rhetoric is the art of persuasive speech.

The word trivial came from the word trivium. Originally, the word trivial meant that something was so fundamental that you didn’t need to explain it to an educated person. Mathematicians still use the word trivial in this sense. Eventually, however, the word trivial came to mean unimportant. I argue that the studies that made up the medieval trivium are not trivial. They should be central to free public education in any decent society.