Can’t or Cant

Can’t or Cant

Throughout the Corona months one of the small consolations while being home and alone too much is that some of our favorite restaurants have been open. Pieology is one of them, where you can make a pizza any way you want. I stopped in to pick up our favorite personal combination a few weeks ago and smiled as I read through a couple of the encouraging quotations on the wall. They are all about giving back, changing the world for the better, achieving, and serving humanity. Some are humorous and one in particular makes me smile, but not because of the cleverness of it.

I inwardly laugh when I read the supposed words of Samuel Johnson, one of my favorite authors. He was one of the literary giants of the late 18th century, wrote the first English dictionary, and was one Jane Austin’s favorite authors. According to the Pieology wall, Johnson said “clear your mind of can’t.”  That’s hopeful, positive, and perhaps we need to hear it as encouragement occasionally. If you don’t believe you can, chances are you won’t try. The problem is, I cannot imagine Johnson ever saying it.

Johnson did say “clear your mind of cant.” It sounds the same but is almost the opposite. “Cant” is not a word we use too often today, but in the eighteenth century and before it was well known.  It referred to certain kinds of professional jargon, or stock phrases, and assumptions that contain pretensions of goodness and  understanding, even godliness in what we advocate that make us sound wise and on the side of the right, according the Johnson’s dictionary.

Today’s modern cant is to say to our young people “there’s nothing you can’t do.” “You can change the world.” “Follow your passions and don’t let anyone tell you you can’t.”  We hear and read it everywhere. To say “clear  your mind of can’t” is just the kind of “cant” that Johnson encouraged his readers to clear their minds of.

Johnson’s great poem is called “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” In it he brings before his readers the pretensions of human beings, kings, politicians, leaders, thinkers, warriors, theologians and others who called people to sure-to-be great enterprises in the past that were only to fail, cause trouble, chaos, death, loss, upheaval, or simply disappointment. He went on to advocate the wisdom that only comes from humility, experience and understanding of the world and people that might bring about good results. 

“I can and I will” may easily result in conflict and even wars. Our passions blur our understanding and can lead  us to advocacy of false, lost, impossible, harmful, self-interested, and unworthy causes. Being able to discern what might be effective, learning to work with and appreciate people who have different experiences, diverse ideas, and interests, studying the past and how good results have been achieved, studying the effects of social policy and understanding the inevitability of unintended consequences all offer a much better chance of achieving something effective, good, and worthwhile, than encouraging in our modern “cant,” that we should go out, follow our passions, and never say or think “can’t.” Can’t may be a synonym for shouldn’t, unwise, tragic, harmful, and a recipe for things to go awry. Sometimes we should recognize the wisdom of “can’t.”

We are back in the classroom, at least the electronic classroom. I for one hope to clear out of the minds of students a little bit of “cant.” A little bit of wisdom learned, grasping why something happened the way it did, knowing the complexity of the world we live in, and studying those people and ideas that have really have made a positive difference–what they faced, how they achieved, what their effects or results were–seem to me to be the encouragement a student needs to be emboldened to do the same. 

These may not be popular words today. But I will never say it “can’t” be done. And at least they are not cant.

Educated State
Steve Varvis

Steve Varvis

Tagged: Contemporary Culture Liberal Education