Ed Boyer of Snow College likes to teach biology to undergraduates. He say that students in these general education courses need to learn that it is the life sciences that will solve the problems of the world. He uses a problem-solving approach as students learn about ecological issues and leave his classes with ideas that will save the world.
Boyer's colleague in the physics department, Ted Olson, says that the overriding problem of the world will not be solved by the biologists. His claim is that energy is the issue. If the world does not find alternate energy sources, everything else we discover will be useless.In the English department, we smile at these fierce debates about which discipline will really solve the problems of the world. We smile because we know that no solution is possible without effective communication. It may be, for example, that many of the difficulties in the Utah experiments with cold fusion are communication problems. Researchers from different institutions are obviously not communicating effectively. Researchers are having problems communicating with grantmakers, review panels, university administrators, legislators and the public.
In 1989 writer Vaclav Havel, now president of Czechoslovakia, received the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers Association. As a dissident in his country, he did not dare travel to Germany to claim the prestigious award for fear of not being allowed back into Czechoslovakia. He wrote an acceptance speech that was secreted out of the country and eventually published in The New York Review in January 1990. He clearly understands that words will save the world as he writes on "the mysterious link between words and peace, and in general on the mysterious power of words in human history."
Says Havel, "In the beginning was the Word; so it states on the first page of one of the most important books known to us. What is meant in that book is that the Word of God is the source of all creation. But surely the same could be said, figuratively speaking, of every human action? And indeed, words can be said to be the very source of our being, and in fact the very substance of the cosmic life-form we call Man. Spirit, the human soul, our self-awareness, our ability to generalize and think in concepts, to perceive the world as the world (and not just as our locality), and lastly, our capacity for knowing that we will die - and living in spite of that knowledge: Surely all these are mediated or actually created by words."
Surely Havel is correct about the power of words. "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." The creation of light required only the word of God who also allowed Adam to create by the power of words. After animals were formed God "brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof." Adam was also given the honor of naming his "help meet."
Havel further makes his point about the power of words to create. "If the Word of God is the source of God's entire creation then that part of God's creation which is the human race exists as such only thanks to another of God's miracles - the miracle of human speech. And if this miracle is the key to the history of mankind, then it is also the key to the history of society. Indeed it might well be the former just because it is the latter. For the fact is that if there were not a means of communication between two or more human `I's, then words would probably not exit at all.
"All these things have been known to us - or people have at least suspected them - since time immemorial. There has never been a time when a sense of the importance of words was not present in human consciousness.
"But that is not all: Thanks to the miracle of speech, we know probably better than the other animals that we actually know very little, in other words we are conscious of the existence of mystery. Confronted by mystery - and at the same time aware of the virtually constitutive power of words for us - we have tried incessantly to address that which is concealed by mystery, and influence it with our words. As believers, we pray to God, as magicians we summon up or ward off spirits, using words to intervene in natural or human events. As subjects of modern civilization - whether believers or not - we use words to construct scientific theories and political ideologies with which to tackle or redirect the mysterious course of history - successfully or otherwise."
The power of words then will save the world only if we teach each other to write and speak. Words in themselves are not the power. The power is in those who use words effectively.
- Roger Baker is associate professor of English/education at Snow College. Comments or questions about "Learning Matters" may be addressed to Roger Baker, English Department, Snow College, Ephraim, UT 84627.