As much as I get on my soapbox about silence and solitude, I spend my waking hours immersed in words and the noise they create. I swim in an ocean teeming with conversations, podcasts, news, articles, books, movies, music and meetings. I find philology, linguistics and etymology fascinating, and yes, I get excited about a national spelling bee—I assume you too have it on your calendar. (June, if you forgot.)
It’s no surprise, then, that I was drawn to education and teaching, where words are the lifeblood of the learning experience, the sinews of the educational community. What I’ve realized over the years is that the way we learn is less about the quality of the curriculum than it is about the way we talk to one another. And that the way we build relationships depends less on the words and more on the way in which they are used. This dual pursuit, to be both a school for learning and for life, means guiding young people in the way they use words in their engagement.
Over the past several years it’s my sense that public discourse has become, well, coarser, and so of course young people are impacted. Their words and the way they use them are formed and shaped by the norms, boundaries and practices of the ambient culture. And it is a fluid and dynamic culture, so even if the spelling of the words remains constant their import does not. So, it seems to me that we have our work cut out for us.
A little known text written by De La Salle, Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility, while rooted in the 18th century French context, retains its immediacy today. (It would be fascinating, even welcome, to see someone re-articulate these principles in today’s ethos.) He wrote it to help young people to practice civility and decorum among one another in school and in society. His goal was less about inculcating the skills of a refined gentleman and more about honoring others and respecting God in whose presence they are.
In it, there’s a chapter dedicated to “meetings and conversation.” What he offers regarding “sincerity” is still relevant. Its French roots can be traced to the century in which he lived and means pure and unmixed, free from pretense or falsehood. One of our roles then is to help young people to be sincere, not only for the purposes of being truthful but from a desire to ensure that the goal of speech is to promote the common good. Some years ago, Don Miguel Ruiz’ The Four Agreements, proposed another way to promote the common good through speech. He counseled to “be impeccable with your word.” Again, as used in De La Salle’s France, impeccable suggests “without sin,” to speak with the purest and best intention. It’s no less true today: civility and decorum is a way of taking the Gospel to heart.
Encouraging young people to speak with sincerity and impeccability is one of our primary roles, second only to practicing and modeling. When they—we—speak words in these ways, the school becomes a community. Ursula K. LeGuin (d. 2018) gives us an image that speaks to the etymology of that word. In The Wave in the Mind she wrote, “If you mount two clock pendulums side by side on the wall, they will gradually begin to swing together. They synchronise each other by picking up tiny vibrations they each transmit through the wall.” Physicists call this mutual phase locking, or entrainment. And, “Like the two pendulums, though through more complex processes, two people together can mutually phase-lock. Successful human relationship involves entrainment—getting in sync.”
So, in addition to the synchronizing things we do in the school of learning and living—singing, rowing, marching, dancing, praying and playing music—let’s add speaking with sincerity and impeccability to the “curriculum”!
By Brother Timothy Coldwell, FSC