Today’s Youth Need Standards of Study and of Speaking

Terrence Moore

February 1, 2003

Meet Chrissy, a high school student. She is at her locker talking to her friend about what she will wear to the dance tonight.

"I’ve got like these new jeans, I mean they’re new but they’re way faded. They only come up to like here. They’re like way cool! What about you, Susie?"
"I’m like so bummed. I promised my parents weeks ago I would baby-sit my little brother and like totally forgot about the dance."
"That sucks."
"Hey, Chrissy, don’t you like have a history test in Mr. Matching’s class today or something?"
"Ohhh, I am like so prepared. I studied for half an hour last night. His class is like such a blow-off anyway. There’s the bell. Gotta run."
"You go, girl."

What we find in this dialogue, however amusing, is a complete absence of standards: standards of study, standards of speech, and standards of propriety in dress. We shall deal with the first two in this article. The first standard that must be set is that of study. Chrissy would call herself a student. After all, she goes to school five days a week. The word student, however, derives from the Latin studium, which means zeal, eagerness, application, desire, devotion, employment, occupation, or research. It is plain that Chrissy is eager about some things but certainly not her studies. She forgot to tell her friend that while "studying" for Mr. Matching’s test last night she had her favorite CD playing in the background and took a five-minute break to raid the kitchen. Therefore, in the strictest sense, Chrissy is not a student. Students study, not just enough to get by, but enough to master the material. We should expect devotion and eagerness from them in their pursuit of knowledge. When teachers do not expect students to study then they fail them, whatever grades they may assign for "blow-off" work.

Young people today are particularly in need of standards of speech. Their conversation ranges from the sloppy to the vulgar. In today’s young person’s lexicon, everything is either "cool" or "it sucks." My dog is cool. My car is cool. My mom is cool. I just got into Princeton. "Cool." I just celebrated High Mass with the Pope in Rome. "Cool." "Like" is another source of concern. The word has its proper uses. Yet it should not introduce everything a person means to say or be used as a verbal crutch. This past year I forbade my students from saying "like" while answering questions in class. Some of them could hardly make it through a sentence.

This nation is faced with a growing inarticulateness. The remedy for this disease is a classical education. Since human beings live by communicating, the study of language should be the most important component of a young person’s studies. Everyone can talk, and most everyone learns to read and write on a functional level. A classical education requires more than functional literacy, however. It teaches students correct grammar, precision in word choice, and eloquence. Throughout his education, the classical student is exposed to the highest examples of eloquence attained by the greatest writers in the language.

". . . I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him." Shakespeare

"These are the times that try men’s souls." Paine

These sentences are entirely grammatical. They could just as easily be used to teach grammar as "I come to help Jane, not to hurt her." By preferring Shakespeare to an anonymous "See Jane" sentence we teach four things rather than one. We teach grammar. We teach cultural literacy. We teach beauty. We also teach students the power of words. Our purpose is to introduce students to the masters of the language so they will begin to emulate them. Both Shakespeare’s Antony and Thomas Paine demonstrate the power that words can have on the minds and actions of human beings.

While classical education teaches students to speak standard English, it also teaches young people standards of judgment. The person whose only expressions of approval and disapproval are "that’s cool" and "that sucks" lacks not only a copious vocabulary but also the ability to judge events according to their nature and gravity. To be "classical" means to uphold a standard of excellence. The classical works of Greece and Rome are not great simply because they are old. They are great because they employ harmonious language to depict remarkable human events and to explain the transcendent ideals of human existence.

Were Chrissy taught according to these methods, she might find better ways of expressing herself than by wearing faded, low-rise jeans.

Terrence Moore studied history and political science at The University of Chicago and later earned a Ph.D. in history from The University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Moore served as a Lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps and was an assistant professor of history at Ashland University in Ohio. He is now Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University. .