Northrop Frye

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Don't You Think It's Time To Start Thinking

What is the main idea of the essay "Don't You Think It's Time to Start Thinking?" by Northrop Frye?

What is Frye's view on the impact of language in society; is it declining or increasing?

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Northrop Frye's essay entitled "Don't You Think It's Time to Start Thinking?" is a discussion about the connection between the effective use of language and thinking. His thesis is that "there are differ­ences in levels of reading and writing as there are in mathematics between short division and integral calculus." 

Frye argues that our culture uses the word "thinking"  

for everything our minds do, worrying, remembering, day-dreaming, we imagine that think­ing is something that can be achieved without any training. But again it's a matter of practice. How well we can think depends on how much of it we have already done. Most students need to be taught, very carefully and patiently, that there is no such thing as an inarticulate idea waiting to have the right words wrapped around it.

He goes on to argue that "societies like ours" are interested in teaching its citizenry only enough to be complacent and obedient. This means it is interested on our learning to read and think enough that we can follow signs and fill out forms; in all other ways, society would prefer that people are not particularly articulate (which is an indication of intelligence, he says). Being articulate is a sign of individuality, something that is not always appreciated or even desired in a culture. This can create a sense of shame in those who can express themselves well and can encourage people (particularly young people) to use rather cliched or stereotyped language so they will be less conspicuous. 

Frye references George Orwell's use of language, among others, as an example of how power can be maintained by obfuscating language (making it unintelligible) to the citizens. Cliches and stereotyped language can also conceal meaning. If language becomes meaningless (or at least seems meaningless), it also becomes powerless. 

His conclusion is that teachers in the humanities not only have to fight to counteract "a mass of misconceptions and unexamined assumptions," but they must "convert passive acceptance into active, constructive power." These teachers are in a constant battle against illiteracy, meaning inarticulate thinking and speaking.

Clearly Frye believes that society no longer values an articulate, thinking citizenry, and things are getting worse in this regard, not better. He says,

The operation of thinking is the practice of articulating ideas until they are in the right words.

If this is so, thinking is a learned process which requires hard work and practice. Too often young people are afraid to really think--or too content (lazy) not to think any more than is necessary. And perhaps teachers have become discouraged or lazy about teaching these skills.

This essay is an attempt to identify this cultural problem and encourage those who job it is to "fix" it. His assertion is twofold. First, society has begun to accept anything someone happens to think or speak about as true "thinking." Second, being an articulate speaker and listener will make one a powerful force in a society of inarticulate non-thinkers. Frye's title question, "Don't You Think It's Time to Start Thinking?" is actually a challenge, and he ends the essay by reminding us that articulate thinking is a skill which will always have value and will never "become obsolete" once it is learned. 

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