Sunday, November 23, 2008

Using Basic Tools Well

I've been involved in an interesting conversation over the past few days about--of all things--the state of education in the United States specifically as it deals with the use of the English language. I've been both horrified and encouraged by it.

For example, there was an admittedly very young writer who felt the need to criticize the 'Brits' for being 'wrong' in the way they speak/spell the English language. This same young writer is a senior in high school and, according to him, only just now learning syntax. The posts in which he broadcast his opinion were full of spelling, grammatical, punctuation and syntax errors--which obviously were not conducive to his post being taken seriously.

This bothers me on several levels. First, I find the concept that someone could actually think that UK English is wrong. Are you kidding me? Seriously?

Second, what kind of incredible complacency would lead someone to overlook their own inadequacies to dismiss an entire culture's unique and individual use of the language we share?

And third, and the most important, whatever happened to the concept of educating yourself? Hear me out before you get jumpy. I was blessed with some fantastic teachers throughout my life, who taught me the rudiments and sometimes more than I wanted to know about English grammar. Throughout the entire process, however, I was educating myself.

I read every book I could get my hands on. I learned the majority of my grammar and knowledge of the English language from the masters themselves. My greatest teachers were Austen, Alcott, Twain, Faulkner and Hemingway. Every book I read, even if it was something as simple as C.S. Lewis' Narnia novels, taught me something more about the ways to use language to create an imaginary world. It occurs to me that while people are heaping all of the blame for the sad state of American students on our educational system, they are forgetting that education is what you make of it.

You have to educate yourself in cooperation with the education you receive. In the end, every good writer must absorb what they read. Pick up your favorite book and take a look at it. How does the author manipulate language to create a scene? What do they show you? Are they using split infinitives or dangling participles in their prose? No? Why is that, do you think?

*pssssssst--the answer is because there are simpler and correct ways to get the same point across*

Just like an artist selects a medium and learns to use it to create art, so does a writer use language. You have to be familiar with the medium before you become proficient at it. Educate yourself in your chosen craft.

Stop playing the victim and blaming your education for the gaps in your knowledge. Everyone has the ability to learn things on their own. You don't have to be spoonfed by a teacher. Get off your duffs and start learning for yourself.