Heinen: The power of words

Words have the ability to shape the world we live
Heinen: The power of words
Photo by Nikki Hansen
Neil Heinen

I’ve long known that words have a uniquely powerful ability to shape how we view our lives and the world in which we live. It’s one of the reasons I’ve devoted my life to working with words. We name things to understand them and fear them less. We rely on words to help us absorb the mystery of why we exist. Of course anything as powerful as a word can also be misused or manipulated to obfuscate. That can be annoying. And it is troublesome.

In early August I interviewed Mark Burstein, the president of Lawrence University, for the television version of For The Record. Burstein is proud of the Appleton-based university he leads, and he is passionate about liberal arts education. But he acknowledged that liberal arts colleges have been in decline, and he said one of the causes was the abuse and misuse of the word “liberal.” He said he refers to Lawrence as an “arts and sciences” school. That’s understandable, if not for the fact that currently the next two most maligned words are “arts” and “science.” It does make talking about education somewhat challenging.

How can we address the importance of acquiring knowledge and skills to function as global citizens in 2019 if we can’t agree on the meaning of the word liberal? How can we not see the life force that creates art or the life-sustaining and explaining truths that come from scientific inquiry? We can’t.

A particularly daunting dichotomy for me is the stubborn resistance of climate change deniers to acknowledge the scientific truth of global warming. I know many elected Republican officials are paid handsomely in campaign contributions by those who benefit from befouling our air and water which they value over the future of our planet and the people who live here. But I remember hearing from two speakers at National Conference of Editorial Writers conventions in the last 10 years, both retired military officers who would be expected to tilt to the more conservative end of the political spectrum, who were unequivocal about the implications of climate change on national security. Our failure to prevent further degradation of the natural world and reverse the rate of climate change, they argued, was to court continued political and military turmoil in regions around the world.

So many of these conflicts are about one fundamental element: water. But even that reliably Republican call to support national defense above all else can’t compete with offers of so much campaign cash to persuade politicians to trade their self respect and morality just to pretend to not believe in science.
Merriam-Webster defines science as “the state of knowing: knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding.” It is disturbing that we are unable to agree on general truths as the Amazon is threatened and the measles epidemic looms. And don’t get me started on lawn chemicals.

But the power of words really consumed me during the 72 hours in early August when we were punched in the gut by two more horrific domestic terrorist mass killings (I can’t tell you how frightened I am that there may have since been more massacres as you read this), and the death of one of America’s greatest writers, Toni Morrison. The words we tolerate in our civic and political discourse are fueling mass murders on a scale unimaginable anywhere else in the world. They are words that foment hatred and terror. And they are inevitably followed by now familiar words meant to make us feel better even as they are laughably inadequate and misleading.

No one knew this better than Morrison whose words touched our hearts, sparked our minds and inspired our souls. Morrison’s words were elegant and eloquent and in them we find beauty and truth. It’s hard to imagine right now a return to respect for words as a way to heal our nation. And yet it may be the only way.

Cullen’s DIY Diversity

Tim Cullen, former Wisconsin state senator, state secretary of Health and Human Services, and health care executive, has had a distinguished career and many admirable accomplishments. But it was his time on the Janesville School Board that led to one of his greatest inspirations — increasing teacher diversity. Cullen saw the importance of students of color seeing teachers who looked like them and decided to do something about it. He established a foundation to award scholarships of $5,000 a year for up to five years for Janesville High School seniors who go to college, get their teaching degrees and apply to teach in Janesville. Since 2013 eight teachers of color from the Janesville Multicultural Teacher Scholarship Program are teaching and nine more are on that path. This year Cullen received the National Education Association 2019 President’s Award, NEA’s highest honor, for his work. Cullen’s a humble guy. But this is a big deal for an amazing program.