Homeschooling and the Art of Language — The Journalist and the Homeschooler

The following short article was inspired by this lecture by Robert Fisk on the failings of journalism.


Here is a link to the Youtube video queued up to start at 6:50 (, the point that is relevant to our discussion, and here is the continuation of the video:

Homeschooling and the Art of Language

By K. Titchenell

The journalist and the homeschooler

Some years ago, while searching news sites on the internet for appropriate current material to share with my group of homeschoolers, I discovered an article in a Pakistani newspaper by the renowned journalist, Robert Fisk, and was both stunned and elated to find myself reading material of a literary quality that merited one or more rereadings and prompted me to make a note of his name and subsequently to follow his reports whenever I could find them. I was later to discover that Dr. Fisk is in fact the recipient of more British and international journalism awards than any other foreign correspondent. He gave a lecture at the University of California, Berkeley on September 25, 2008, which was presented in its entirety online, and I eagerly shared excerpts of this with my homeschooling students, for I have frequently found that children tend to be much more easily inspired by the spoken than the written word. Delightful throughout, Dr. Fisk’s address presents some well-conceived insights into the state of modern journalism, and attributes falling circulation to the absence of literary value and style in the writing of many American journalists. Significantly for my homeschooling purposes, the grammar, choice of words, use of metaphor, the language devices he employs in this unscripted speech, serve as a perfect example of spoken formal English – that which is tested for in college entrance exams and demanded of college students – here presented in an accessible, conversational and improvisatory setting.

The renowned journalist fails to take homeschooling into account

Fisk presents and illustrates beautifully his point that American journalism is so often lacking in literary value by contrasting newspaper fare with a remarkable example of personal correspondence, a letter from an American serviceman stationed in Iraq, but does in the process commit one grave journalistic error. This is a common error though, and all too frequently made by those unfamiliar with, or dismissive of the profound role that homeschooling can play in one’s education. In quoting a superbly worded letter from an unnamed officer in Iraq to his father at home — which then elicited a deserved ovation from the audience — and focusing on the fact that his prose was on a level not to be found in the LA Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, nor The Orange County Register, Fisk does fail to provide his awestruck listeners with the most crucial piece of the puzzle.

Fisk quotes from this letter as its author explains the problems encountered trying to encourage self-governance in Ramadi, Iraq:

…The instinct to impose order and command the requisite discipline in the Iraqi leadership must be quelled in order to allow sovereign stewardship to develop at its native pace and in a native form. I fight myself to remain insignificant in the process. I haven’t the nature for passive observation. I share the American fascination with action and it has consistently betrayed us in our foreign policy. Our continued involvement will continue the state of dependency and our eventual departure will leave nothing but cosmetic structure here. Iraq will return to what it is. Our common sense is not common to this people and that understanding must be given proper respect. I do my best but I twitch with an urge for the folly of intrusion.

The mystery revealed

And who would not applaud! The writer of this poignant passage does wield his words with a proficiency and grace which Fisk likens to that of Joseph Conrad and in which any true fan of English writing would exult.

A little Internet research revealed this eloquent unnamed Marine to be one Major Benjamin Busch, and, whereas Fisk is certainly accurate in reporting that Major Busch is not schooled in journalism and is most certainly correct in his assertion that Busch writes far better than do most journalists, this search revealed that he had omitted one highly relevant and significant fact. The seemingly anomalous literary mastery demonstrated by Busch becomes far less baffling when one learns that he is indeed a college graduate, but more significantly, that his father, Frederick Busch, the one to whom the letter was written, was a prolific author, the recipient of a raft of literary awards, and professor emeritus of literature at Colgate University.

Fisk may be pardoned, as unschooling flies under the radar

This uncharacteristic omission by Fisk is really perhaps quite excusable in that the homeschooling factor is not included in, nor regarded as a legitimate entry on one’s resume, particularly if it is informal and merely supplementary to one’s official schooling. He may not have thought to research Busch’s parentage and background, and may have felt that there was no reason to assume it to be relevant. It is not really Fisk’s reporting that is at fault as much as the egregious and erroneous but widely propagated assumption that skills, particularly language skills, can only be acquired in a formal educational environment.

The extent to which Major Busch was influenced by his father is quite evident, not just in his writing, but more clearly and inescapably in the presence of a parental relationship that would occasion the writing of such a considered and well-crafted letter. Indeed, this is not a father to whom a son would send the colloquial, malformed, disconnected ramblings so characteristic of informal American conversational language usage. These words, penned so elegantly for the elder Busch, reflect a standard of verbal communication common to father and son, a beauty of expression which is perhaps far better assimilated through the nurture of unschooling than through any number of formal lecture classes and seminars. Major Busch’s sentences were finely and intricately sculpted for a reader whom he knew to be worthy and appreciative of them.

In the absence of a parent of Professor Busch’s exalted literary stature or one possessing Dr. Fisk’s brilliant narrative and oratory style, where can the homeschool family go to study and acquire more sophisticated language skills?

College bound students often have as much to unlearn as to learn

The College Board, the body responsible for the SAT Exam, has established a specific set of grammar rules which it regards as essential, unassailable and immune from dispute by language academics. Though this list has not evaded controversy entirely, it is a fairly solid set and definitely one deserving of serious study by the college-bound student. These have been compiled in various forms in a number of places. Unfortunately, though mastery of English which follows these rules is essential for the college student, most commonly heard speech violates them consistently, as colloquialisms, syntactic mismatches, mangled idioms, dangling and misplaced modifiers, confused and inconsistent tenses, misused words and unparallel constructs pollute much non-academic (and even academic) informal English so thoroughly that reliable sources of language worthy of emulation can be very hard to find. It is highly disconcerting to listen to television personalities, sports figures, politicians, school administrators and teachers, not to mention English, speech and writing teachers whose spoken language blatantly violates this SAT language rule set with relentless consistency.

Grammar studied in isolation as a theoretical and factitious discipline unrelated to heard and emulated speech, simply does not become the inherent verbal reflex that the scholar seeks to acquire. The study of grammar and writing without the benefit of hearing and speaking tends to be ineffably abstract and artificial. How can a bright and aspiring student hope to sense or feel the right way to express an idea when perpetually subjected to a verbal inundation of ill-formed syntax?

When listening to teachers in class or school meetings televised on community access channels, one is struck by the banality of the language even when the grammar is not irredeemably awful. What hope does the student have whose ears have been so thoroughly steeped in communication contaminated with misusage and largely bereft of any spark of inspired expression? With nothing but flawed and feeble verbal examples, an eloquence vacuum exists that no rules and theory of writing, no discussion of motifs and metaphors, no vocabulary lists can easily fill.

The speech and writing of scholars such as Dr. Fisk may serve as an antidote to mislearning.

The static and silent tome has served scholars well for many centuries but has been failing for nearly as long to move and inspire language in children. Though there are certainly those, even among auditory learners, to whom the book does successfully convey knowledge and language, the child (even the literate reader) acquires much of his/her language art from speech, from hearing dialog, argument, songs, stories – and in the absence of aural input worthy of emulation, the road to facile literacy takes a decidedly uphill turn. It is nonetheless still possible, even without a parental role model such as Professor Busch, to provide children with examples of diction that can ignite the spark of eloquence and serve them well in their academic careers, but to achieve this, the homeschooling family (and perhaps even more critically, the public school family) may be well advised to seek external input – but sources do abound. No longer is the written word the only channel available for education.

Never dreamt of just a few years ago (and still largely mysterious to many), audio and video feeds of everything from audio books, news reports and lectures to debates, discussion, drama, and even formal instruction on every conceivable subject are accessible either freely or at least economically on the Internet, Fisk’s address at U.C. Berkeley being a perfect example. And it behooves the homeschooling parent to find and use these.

Aside from the odd “um” and “er”, Dr. Fisk’s unscripted speech (and that of many other literate sources on the net) is not only inspired, it also adheres very closely to nearly every SAT grammar prescription (with the sole exception of the synesis error, which occurs with such frequency in scholarly works that one must conclude that the SAT is wrong to prohibit it). Speech on this level of formal English may be found abundantly in online fare on nearly every topic, particularly among the multimedia offerings available from universities, author book-tour interviews, public debates, and even sometimes in reports from newscasters and politicians. This is not to advocate allowing children to delve in all the halls, directories and sleazy backwaters of the Internet unsupervised, but, with parents and children working together in a homeschool setting, and with some solid and focused resource guides to follow, Internet audio feeds can be an immense boon to homeschoolers and can augment the verbal curriculum very effectively.

Finding and selecting multimedia material is a burden that can be shared

It is perfectly possible to use language that is entirely understandable to a child of 2, 3, or 4 while adhering to the rules of formal English, and many feel this is the ideal way and time to present it. Collecting and presenting good examples of formal language speech to children can be challenging for many, so a good well-selected library of listening matter is worth finding and using. A collaborative approach with others similarly oriented and dedicated and including input and guidelines from reliable sources can make possible the evaluation, vetting and collection of resources with relatively little effort. Homeschooling classes, both online and traditional, also exist which provide carefully selected resources, discussion and guidance to both parents and students. All of the common criticisms of homeschooling – limited opportunities for socialization, lack of diversity of intellectual role models, and the one treated here, limited exposure to refined and inspired language, can be aptly addressed through collaborative homeschooling.

Some multimedia language resources for homeschooling families

Some university debates and lectures, probably the most reliable source of model language usage, may be outside the comfort zone of many homeschoolers and even parents, but they should not be dismissed too readily, even when younger students are involved. Many of these presentations are popularized and intended to appeal to the general public and it is also important to keep in mind that the homeschooling student pursuing this sort of language study does not aspire to pass a course, nor even to follow closely the message of the lesson; absorbing the grammar, expressive devices and the flow of expertly crafted verbal expression are the goals here and these can be achieved without full understanding of presented material – and may even take place without conscious effort.

A few of the best university sources are listed below.

Princeton online archived lectures

Online courses at Yale University

Harvard @ Home

British Academy Lectures online

Video and audio from the University of Cambridge: Distinguished lectures

Podcasts from the University of Oxford

The British Academy John Locke Lecture Series

The University of Oxford on iTunes U

Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT World

These directories and archives are constantly being augmented with new material.

As Dr. Fisk so aptly explains and illustrates, Major Busch is blessed with an eloquence, a flare for verbal artistry – an artistry which further research revealed to have been largely influenced by a home or unschooling familial environment. This talent is a wonderful gift, one which, in some form, we homeschoolers would very much like to be able to bestow upon our charges – a task made very challenging by the overwhelming prevalence of ill-constructed and uninspired popular language usage. In addition to being in some measure responsible for the falling circulation of newspapers, this ubiquitous surging inarticulacy in common speech and popular media does serve to impede the education of children and to place yet another burden upon the homeschooler. This situation deserves to be remedied, and, given effort, resources and the Internet, remedy is available.

Fur further reading:

Robert Fisk on Wikipedia:

The College Board (SAT resources)

A list of English usage errors tested for on the SAT:

Frederick Busch on Wikipedia:

Benjamin Busch on Wikipedia:

The full text of Major Busch’s letter archived in peace-justice-news

Relevant video excerpts of Dr. Fisk’s speech at U.C. Berkeley together with the transcript:


This is a lecture by Robert Fisk, one of the worlds great journalists, on the subject of journalism. He discusses the state of journalism in the US at counter 6:50. I feel he makes a very good point. The transcript is below. Here is a link to the Youtube video queued up to start at 6:50.
It continues here:

I’m very struck by the way in which, over and over again, American newspaper editors (this happens elsewhere, but particularly here) bemoan the falling circulation of their papers. And when I come here and read your newspapers, I’m not surprised at all. It’s not just because of the pap that they publish about the major crises and the bloodshed. It’s not just that. It’s not even well written. There’s not even a literary style in it. It’s like they don’t care about words.

I bring this up with you for a very specific reason. I’m going to quote now from a letter written home by a US marine major in Ramadi. He’s writing to his dad.

This is a real letter… He’s trying to get the Iraqis to join in with local government, to participate, in the government of Ramadi. I don’t agree with everything he says, but this man speaks with an eloquence worthy of Joseph Conrad. This is an American Marine:

We are trying to empower [the Iraqis]
to walk post instead of Marines but the graft has not yet taken. There is something culturally childish
in their understanding of basic Western governance and management that
will require immeasurable education and probably several generations to
overcome if they find it of any interest. That education is, of course,
a choice that they have to make on their own. They are not our people.
Our understanding of their tribal governance and its relationship to
formal civic management is equally naive and charges our frustration.
The problem now is that their every inconvenience has become our
responsibility. They act as if they can not comprehend our sacrifices
and are thus ungrateful for them. The reality is that they can not,
culturally, comprehend our altruism or believe our stated intentions.
Even though it is not their desire to offend, we are insulted and it
bleeds us of affection and tolerance. Liberation will compete with
invasion as our legacy but locally we are ideologically irrelevant. Our
presence is, mostly, only of interest to those who seek to benefit from
our contracts and donations. It is a region of people making alliances,
business deals, friendships and enemies one day at a time without a
real concept of sustainable services, resources, or trust. No future.
Just daily survival as they know it. Family and tribe. Our
contributions may be counted long after we have withdrawn but they will
not recount the names of the fallen. So many now. Each wound will be
absorbed into the quiet sadness that we allow to pass beneath us as a
people and a country. Our loss will have never even occurred to most
people here.

This guy also has a sense of humor and again, I’m asking: when did you ever read anything like this in an American newspaper? A US marine writes better than

Here’s the same soldier and here I dare you not to laugh, writing about the provisional government in Ramadi. Remember here he’s writing to his dad.


So what news about the new government you may ask. Well the Provisional
Military Governor was replaced by the Transitional Governor who
resigned under threat and was replaced with another Transitional
Governor. He was then replaced by the Emergency Appointed Governor who
was just replaced by the selected Governor chosen by the elected
Provincial Council. He never made a speech or publicized his views,
never debated the other candidates and was not present during the
selection, never making an acceptance speech. He was promptly kidnapped
by a rival tribe while his tribe fought another tribe on the Syrian
border. The recently displaced Emergency Appointed Governor returned in
hopes of regaining the position however, the Deputy Governor is now
serving as the Acting Governor while the actual Selected Governor is in
captivity. But there was an election so democracy is in full bloom I am
to understand.

We are now trying to force the power of decision onto
the elected Provincial Council and the city officials. It is a
difficult thing to keep myself inactive in matters of governance here.
The instinct to impose order and command the requisite discipline in
the Iraqi leadership must be quelled in order to allow sovereign
stewardship to develop at its native pace and in a native form. I fight
myself to remain insignificant in the process. I haven’t the nature for
passive observation. I share the American fascination with action and
it has consistently betrayed us in our foreign policy. Our continued
involvement will continue the state of dependency and our eventual
departure will leave nothing but cosmetic structure here. Iraq will
return to what it is. Our common sense is not common to this people and
that understanding must be given proper respect. I do my best but I
twitch with an urge for the folly of intrusion.

Yes, he deserves your applause, but we journalists don’t write like that! When have you ever read anything like this in the LA Times, in the San Francisco Chronicle, or the Orange Country Register? This is the problem.

However, in lauding the prose of this “unschooled” soldier, Fisk fails to take homeschooling into account. He does not mention (and perhaps did not know) that Major Ben Busch, the soldier writing to his his father, is the son of Frederick Busch — see below. His prose clearly reveals that homeschooling, formal or not, can indeed play a very significant role in the development of such qualities as verbal prowess.

Frederick Busch

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Frederick Busch (August 1, 1941 in Brooklyn, New YorkFebruary 23, 2006 in Manhattan, New York City) was an American writer. Busch was a master of the short story and one of America’s most prolific writers of fiction long and short.

Busch graduated from Muhlenberg College and earned a master’s degree from Columbia. He was professor emeritus of literature at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York from 1966 to 2003. He won numerous awards, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters Fiction Award in 1986 and the PEN/Malamud Award in 1991.

He is the father of actor Benjamin Busch.

Honours and Awards


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