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Column: Learning Matters: Words hold power and can unite those with differing views

I like words. Words guide and prod me. They can comfort me or make me laugh.

Words are part of the reason — the other being melody — I’ve always loved singing hymns in the Methodist tradition founded by John Wesley, who believed in the power of words and music to move people to action, so he and his poetry-writing brother Charles considered their words carefully, and they wanted them sung effectively.

As a lifelong choral singer (not a soloist), I smile with both amusement and deep appreciation at Wesley’s 1791 “Directions for Hymn Singing,” printed in the front of the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal.

“Sing modestly,” Wesley wrote. “Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.”


I see those directions as applicable to speech as well as song.

I’m also fond — and growing fonder — of the old-fashioned words found in the objects and aims of the Philanthropic Educational Organization, known as P.E.O., a sisterhood founded 150 years ago in support of women’s education.

P.E.O. encourages members “to seek growth in charity toward all with whom we associate … and growth in knowledge and in culture. …”

It calls for “self-control, equipoise and symmetry of character, and temperance in opinions, speech and habits.” It encourages “a careful consideration of feeling when speaking.”


Whoever speaks of equipoise? But couldn’t we all use a little more balance in our lives? I realize these words may be read as submissive and antifeminist, but I doubt they were intended that way. In their day, the young women who penned them were bold. I interpret the words as pragmatic guides that can lead to desired results, the way “turning the other cheek” can disarm an opponent.

P.E.O.’s objects and aims have much in common with another set of words spoken regularly by the members of Rotary International.

Considered a moral code for personal and business relationships, Rotary’s four-way test is displayed at every meeting: “Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?” I’m not a Rotarian, but I’m a big fan of their words.

The problem is, in a world where polemics and partisanship are the norm, these old-fashioned-sounding approaches to communication and problem-solving don’t carry too well. Finding common ground sounds to many listeners just like surrender.

In the arena of public education, complex issues such as class size — and its costs relative to other desired objectives — accountability, and the pros and cons of charter schools are regularly described in “us vs. them” and often confusing and less than wholly truthful language.

In one recent example, a front page L.A. Times article seemed to conflate private schools with publicly funded charter schools, as if they were one and the same (“Charter school support shadows 2020 hopefuls,” March 6, 2019).

With reference to one presidential candidate, the Times reporter wrote, “[He] has tamped down his fervor for charter schools. But the zeal with which he pursued school privatization in his hometown threatens to inhibit his potential path to the White House.”

Later, with reference to the same candidate, he quoted UCLA’s education professor Pedro Noguera: “He was only interested in charter schools. There was this antipathy toward public schools,” as if charter schools were not also public schools. I’m bothered by words that oversimplify or muddle an issue.


A few days later, however, I was heartened, as I frequently am, by the work of L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez, who keeps showing his readers the nuances — and the many-sided, on-the-ground realities — of the issues he addresses (“Charters are a villain to some, a hero to others,” March 10, 2019).

Lopez does not bawl, to use Wesley’s words, but he makes himself heard.

I close with a return to the Methodists, and my recent experience seeing how, even within a shared religious tradition, people can read and react to words so differently. I find myself among the majority of Methodists — at least in our western jurisdiction — struggling to come to terms with the world’s widely varying understandings about what it means to be an inclusive community.

The discord in the church reminds me of words from another realm, the motto fastened to a wall of the library at my alma mater, Cowell College, at UC Santa Cruz: “The pursuit of truth in the company of friends.”

Long live the power of words that turn people into friends.

JOYLENE WAGNER is a past member of the Glendale Unified school board, from 2005 to 2013, and currently serves on the boards of Glendale Educational Foundation and other nonprofit organizations. Email her at