The Mother Tongue and the Call of Leadership


Dr. David Tubbs teaches Constitutional Law and Civil Rights at The King's College. Photo from Because King’s is located in New York City, students have had the opportunity to witness firsthand the ability languages have to unite people.  On any given day in Gotham, in almost any place, we may hear a great torrent of foreign words and phrases. The words may mean nothing to us, yet we know that every language spoken in this city binds families and friends, colleagues and communities.

There is, however, a surmountable paradox: a common language can also divide people.  Such division can occur because proficiency in a language differs greatly among those who speak it, including native speakers.  And those differences in proficiency may contribute to or reinforce significant divisions in society and the professional world.

If you question this, think about the matter of pronunciation.  Have you ever met a person whose pronunciation and speech immediately indicated a superior education?

Take an example from England. For a long time, something called “the Received Pronunciation” (“RP”) was deemed the most desirable pronunciation for an Englishman to have.  This was the “dialect” spoken at the elite private schools in England, such as Eton and Harrow (incidentally, in England private schools are called “public schools”).  Because so many of the graduates of these schools attended university at Oxford or Cambridge, RP was an indentifying mark, which lasted through university and beyond.

It may be hard to believe that all the leaders in English society had the same accent and sounded equally eloquent when they spoke.  The truth has surely been exaggerated (at least a bit), but this remains a good example of a well-defined group maintaining standards across generations.  When radio and television developed, RP also became known as “BBC English,” a phrase still heard today.

We should realize that RP encompassed more than fastidiousness about pronunciation.  RP was one element of an education that cultivated a great appreciation for the English language and its master works, such as the King James Bible.

Was there a dark side to this?  Some would say that RP and the education linked to it reflected Britain’s aristocratic past and that nation’s acute class consciousness—not easy things for Americans to love.  In fact, RP flourished even after 1911, when the House of Lords lost its last vestige of formal power.  RP will still seem elitist to many persons today, but real leadership is by definition elitist (Christian leadership is still elitist, but it should also be characterized by the virtue of humility).

In the United States, we don’t have anything quite like RP.  At one time, this nation’s best colleges and universities acknowledged that mastery of the English language—our mother tongue—is an essential attribute of leadership.  The overwhelming failure to convey this point to students today is a persisting flaw in higher education; so it’s hardly a surprise that our national political discourse has been so uninspiring for the last few decades.

As a college, King’s aspires to recover valuable things that have been lost in American higher education.  Through well-designed courses and effective teaching, we aim to prepare students for different kinds of leadership.

But earning good grades in courses is only part of what’s needed.  For those who truly aspire to lead, a higher standard is required, especially in the realm of language.  The logical place to begin setting this higher standard is in one’s own work.

Consider a familiar matter:  the resume and cover letter for a job opening.  In this highly competitive market, students need to be confident that their application materials are free of stylistic and grammatical errors.  The ability to spot such errors is an acquired skill, the foundation of which can be laid in coursework.

But more is necessary.  To have confidence that a resume or cover letter is error-free requires an unusually strong commitment to the English language from an undergraduate.

What are the signs of such commitment?  Here is my provisional list: to be steeped in the language, its literature, its poetry; to care deeply about grammar, style and the correct use of words; to engage the discipline of rhetoric; to pay close attention to the sound of words.  Obviously, this is a lifelong project—a project that tomorrow’s leaders should be pursuing today.

For anyone who might think that real leaders don’t worry about the finer points of English usage or grammar, think again.  During the Second World War, as Great Britain was preparing for the invasion of Normandy, Prime Minister Winston Churchill reproved the Director of Military Intelligence for making an error in his report. Churchill asked:

“Why must you write intensive here?  Intense is the right word.  You should read Fowler’s Modern English Usage on the use of the two words.”

In my eight years at King’s, I have met several students who have shown signs of being Churchill-like in the realm of language.  And I hope to meet more.  Indeed, one of my fondest memories outside the classroom is of a student in my office respectfully challenging me on a very subtle point of grammar.  I initially thought that the student was wrong (and told him so), but after checking a few reference works on my shelf—including Fowler’s Modern English Usage—I realized that the student was correct.  It gave me great pleasure to commend him—and thank him.

For students at King’s who would like to make Churchill proud, our courses can provide some of the tools and resources for a greater mastery of the English language.  But students will need to find other resources outside the classroom.

Where to look?  In my next contribution to the EST, I shall discuss one initiative from 2005-07—“The King’s English”—that current students might wish to revive.

David L. Tubbs is Associate Professor of Politics at King’s and Co-Chair of the Program in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. He has taught at King’s since fall 2005.