An Apology for the English Department

posted in: Literature | 4

By Katelyn Villa

“Without language, one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry, or savour their songs.” ~Nelson Mandela

The essential art of language, so necessary to our daily interactions and cultural connections, has been slowly pushed aside to allow for the “more important” studies, those allowing for instant success. We forget the necessity of language, as the principal means to satisfaction of the basic human need, for contact, for relationship, for community.

Language is our mediator. One of the first tasks given to Adam in the garden was the task of naming. While the other elements of creation experienced organic harmony, man had to establish a different kind of harmony—one more intentional, based not on a mechanical relationship of doing, but on a relationship of being achieved through language. Later, man’s rupture with God took place as a consequence of the misuse of language, as God’s simple commands, in Eve’s conversation with the serpent, became twisted and misrepresented. And even later, the relationship is restored when God reconnects with man through His gift of the Word—and maintains that relationship through the words of the priest, whose speech brings God to earth.

What is true supernaturally is of course reflected in natural forms. Civil societies are based on the words of charters, constitutions, or even on simple oral traditions. Economic relationships are built on treaties and agreements; the life of labor is built on sound contracts. When we look at more intensely inter-personal relationships, relationships of friendship or love, only through language may one probe the mystery of another human identity.

What happens, though, if our words begin to disintegrate? At this point in the development of our language, we have begun to lose the meaning of more complex words. Once, a person could have talked about a reality with simple and definite words; now everything is spoken of in relative, debatable, ambiguous terms. And if nothing can be defined, if everything is based on a personal opinion, if each piece of information changes in the transmission, because the understanding of each word varies so completely between each separate context—between each person—how can we possibly expect to communicate with accuracy and truth, or to be understood, on any level, by any other person?

For example, the word “love” is given as a description of any close relationship between two people; it is either made into something careless and common, or something so rare as never to be found. The understanding of this word is so varied that the use of it is often avoided, and when questioned, a person often will be unable to define it well. The same has happened to the word “freedom”; it is commonly thought of as the condition of not being held down, held back, or being prevented from doing as one likes—in this case, though, when desire is left as the only motive for action, what is left of freedom?

Even in such an important area as catechesis, language is loosening its grip and letting go of its essential precision. These studies often depend on stock phrases, falling back on them when it is easiest to do so. For example, the catechist might explain that “baptism is rebirth,” which gives not even the bare bones definition of what it is, only its result. The catechized student might learn also that conscience is “the little voice in your head that tells right or wrong.” However, many could argue they’ve never heard that voice, because it isn’t a voice—it’s knowledge. The catechist will also teach that “Jesus opened the gates of heaven,” a completely ambiguous idea, simply used as a filler to explain a conception of Jesus’ death. It avoids most of the truth of Jesus’ death—that he died to conquer death, having been satisfied by infinite life, that no other human would have to suffer the true death of both body and spirit. When stock phrases in catechesis are used to avoid the task of explaining a religion of infinite depth, they end up only making the reality of the concept harder to grasp. In the case of this stock phrase, one is left with such questions as what the gates of heaven are, why they weren’t previously open, and various others.

Despite all its modern ambiguity, language remains necessary to the human community, for its welfare and development. Language is the way each of us expresses and understands a reality that we have not experienced, and the way we can communicate an abstract idea with the concrete place-holders of words. We can know of and, to some extent, understand the experience and perspective of another person without directly having had or shared such an experience or perspective. In this manner does language become our bridge to all realities outside of ourselves.

So, if language is lost, our bridge is lost; we have no access to anything but what may be found within ourselves. We have nothing to focus on but ourselves. That which is not part of us, we do not, and cannot, know. We become lost within ourselves, separated from the rest of humanity, completely isolated. Is it possible, then, that if one cannot understand another, one cannot sympathize with the other, and each action of the other becomes a threat to one’s own existence. Is there a connection, then, between our grasp of language and our treatment of others? The relationship is easy to grasp when one remembers the simple truth that at the heart of ethics is the basic ability to recognize the reality of another. However, while language is reduced to texts and tweets, and while every critical comment is prefaced with, “Ya know, I just feel like…. ”—simultaneously we live in the most violent time of history.

I see near the heart of the matter an inability to recognize the reality of otherness—that is, a reality outside of self. It sounds extreme to more or less suggest that the modern mind wouldn’t recognize a barn door if it walked into one; but when a woman wakes up day after day with morning sickness, has swollen breasts, craves all sorts of weird food at weird hours, and has been told in multiple ways that a little someone has moved in and is making demands of her, what then accounts for her ability to walk into the local clinic and request that the little someone be chopped up and thrown out? The baby is not real to her. The baby is even less real to the person who will chop up twenty to thirty little folk on the same day.

This, then, is what we must do. We have to go back to the English departments and make them the center of our curriculums. English departments hang on by a thread, allowed to exist only for the ways in which they can supplement other departments. We read To Kill a Mockingbird in order to understand racism in the South. We read All Quiet on the Western Front to give us more insight to the struggles of the common soldier on the front in WWI. We read poetry as an opportunity for self-expression. Themes and topics are sliced out, and the literature, as literature, the beauty of the word, is the ransacked corpse left on the table.

Katelyn Villa is a freshman at Father Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

4 Responses

  1. Fr Richard Lobert

    Beautiful, dear Katelyn!

  2. Sra. Herrera

    Katelyn, thank you for all your work in writing this article. It is very well written.

  3. David Timm


  4. Kathy Ann Moilanen

    You’ve helped to restore my hope in future generations, Katelyn!
    Impressive insight, content and execution. Much appreciated!