The focus of our educational systems on popular culture, political correctness, and the cult of self-esteem has had two consequences for everyday speech. First, young people prefer to remain silent rather than risk an opinion. Secondly, when they do talk, it is in an outpouring, in the belief that one person’s language is as good as any other’s. Bon mots, aphorisms, insightful quotations, nuggets of wisdom, or even ordinary apt remarks form only a tiny part of their conversation.
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Some of the greatest aphorisms are American — notably those of Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary, to whom we owe a definition of the brain (“an apparatus with which we think we think”) that ought to be inscribed above the entrance to every department of neuroscience.
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A degree in the humanities should have something of the ancient study of rhetoric. It should be equipping students to persuade, to use language gracefully and succinctly, and to speak and write with style. Persuasion comes not through statistics and theories, but through the artful aphorism that summarizes, in the heart of the listeners, the things that they suspect but don’t yet know.