The War Against Grammar

[I write the key concepts I've learned from this book here because I cannot stress strongly enough the importance of teaching grammar to the young student. It is very difficult to teach it to the high school student; in fact, the author and I have a shared experience in that neither of us has successfully taught grammar to the student past the middle school years who was studying it for the first time.  It is rather a mystery, but even so, one whose rules we must abide by, the chief of them being, start young! Much of what I express below is directly from Mr. Mulroy's excellent book.  I hope you will purchase and read it.]

This book by Stanford Ph.D. Professor David Mulroy, (available here: Grammar) speaks to the importance of traditional grammar instruction in our education system.  He believes and offers convincing proofs that English teachers must revitalize grammar instruction if we are to produce a generation that can read and write complex texts.

Surprisingly, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has made it their policy through official resolutions to not teach traditional grammar.  Though officially adopted in 1985, the issue of whether or not to teach grammar dates back to 1925 and a doctoral dissertation by Charles Fries.  His name is used frequently by the NCTE, which was founded in 1911, claims 80,000 members, and publishes thirteen separate journals. Fries layed the foundation of modern linguistics and through his book titled, The Structure of English (1952) clearly implied that traditional grammar instruction ought be discouraged.

A study conducted by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) found that adults who were educated prior to 1960 ranked very high in their ability to comprehend connected prose, but those younger adults educated after 1960 ranked much lower.  Perhaps the best evidence lies in the declining SAT scores.  According to Mulroy,

"Both verbal and quantitative scores began to sink in 1963.  The average verbal score dropped over 50 points; the quantitative scored fell from 502 to 466 in 1980.  In 1996, The College Board "recentered" the SAT scores.  The average verbal score for that year, 428, was reported as 505; the quantitative average was changed from 488 to 512.  In 2002, the recentered averages were 504 (verbal) and 516 (mathematics)."
Another indicator of a problem in language arts instruction is the percentage of students studying foreign language at the college level.  In 1965, that number was 16.5% (of college credits earned in foreign language).  In 1977 the average was 7.75% and in 1998 (the last year for which information is available) the percentage was 7.9.  Today, an awful lot of time in foreign language classes is spent on cultural activities at the expense of grammar instruction in the target language.

Grammar's Origins

Who first thought about the grammar of language, the parts of speech?  Not surprisingly, it was the Greeks.  Plato began the analysis of language with his tripartite system: nouns, verbs, and everything else.  Aristotle continued the analysis with a more complete system adding conjunctions, adverbs, and prepositions. He did not distinguish between adjectives and nouns because adjectives are often used as nouns (Home of the Free and the Brave) and nouns can be used as possessive adjectives (The rich man's wealth is his fortress, Prov. 10:15).  The definitive Grammar that was completed, published, and reached the farthest both in geography and time was a treatise by Dionysius in 100 B.C.  The Techne Grammatike is perhaps one of the most influential books ever written. Its influence reaches the grammars of modern European languages.  Hence, it was the Greeks who thought about language and defined the natural order of thinking by naming the parts of speech.

The Romans, being an inclusive culture and recognizing the wisdom of the Greeks, imitated the Greek curriculum of grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, harmony, and astronomy, naming them the artes liberales.  In the early 4th century A.D., a nine-volume work on education was written by Martianus Capella, a Roman living in Carthage.  The title of this allegorical work is De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii ("The Marriage of Philology and Mercury").  It achieved great vogue and endured as an educational classic for centuries.  It conferred a long-lasting prestige to the liberal arts, and even though today there are over a hundred graduate programs available under the title "liberal studies," most have no historical claim to it.

The Liberal Arts

The liberal arts are a direct descendant of alphabetic literacy.  By studying the ancient philosophers' writings, their statements of truths, one could discover the basic patterns of thought which are themselves what bind the seven liberal arts together.  The ancients believed these truths were hard-wired in the individual.  This was exemplified in Plato's The Meno, in which Socrates is depicted leading an uneducated slave boy to the Pythagorean Theorem through a series of questions.  This demonstrated that the rules of the subjects of the seven liberal arts are innate.  They can be drawn out of the student because they follow universal laws.

For this reason, the value of the liberal arts was never challenged (except for rhetoric because it was sometimes misused) and they were considered the ground rules of thought.  But, they were not an end; their value was instrumental.  They made students better learners.  Seneca said  that the student should not be learning the liberal arts, but should have learned them and then moved on to more serious endeavors.

Next up, a little history of the teaching of English grammar through the ages.

The Teaching of the Liberal Arts, and Grammar in Particular, through History

As a practical discipline, grammar has two closely related goals:  it preserves and perfects the understanding of the great literature of the past, and it contributes to eloquent self expression.  It looks to the past, to preserve great literature, and to the future, to produce it.  This is one of the lessons of the European Renaissance which we will look at more closely.

The basic taxonomic groups of language are referred to as parts of speech, whose purpose is practical guidance, not theoretical exactitude.  Critics of grammar instruction posit the argument that the parts of speech do no offer exactitude, but this is like saying the taxonomy of science should not be taught because it stops at the genus level and doesn't classify every living thing down to its specific identity. Mastery of the taxonomy of language was the first step in a liberal arts education.  As Mulroy states, questioning the value of this is like asking whether a farmer should know the names of his crops and animals.  Its value should be accepted with certitude, and historically it was except for a brief period in the late Middle Ages.

Through the ages grammars were written and used with students.  We remember these are based on the work of Dionysius.  In the mid 4th century, Donatus wrote one in the form of a catechism.

How many parts of speech are there?
What are they?
Noun, pronoun, verb, etc.

In the 5th century Priscian produced a more comprehensible grammar that included extensive use of quotes from Greek and Latin authors to illustrate his points.  (Today, Michael Clay Thompson's English and vocabulary studies follows this tradition.)

These two grammars became the foundations of the entire liberal arts curriculum in the Middle Ages.  Throughout the development of Western Civilization beginning in the Hellenistic period, grammar was viewed as the essential academic discipline upon which all others are based.

The accepted date for the Fall of Rome is A.D. 476.  Rome fell to Germanic tribes who did not appreciate the literary achievements of the Romans, and therefore, did not emulate them.  There were two leading scholars of that age; one, Boethius, was executed and the other, Cassiodorus, left government service and founded a monastery where he devoted himself to the study and preservation of ancient learning.  Cassiodorus set the pattern for those wishing to preserve the classical culture.

The Rise of the Monastery and the Carolingian Renaissance

Throughout the next three centuries, monasteries were the leading centers of learning and education.  In general, monks were the only individuals to receive higher education.  Their goal was to preserve knowledge, especially the Bible and the writings of the church fathers.

It wasn't until the late 8th century that the top person in governance became a patron of learning, and that was Charlemagne.  His initiatives led to the Carolingian Renaissance (ca. 780), so named because many of the family members in this dynasty had the name Charles, which in Latin, is Carolus.  The liberal arts remained the basis of education during this period.  It is through this renaissance that a more attractive system of writing emerged, which eventually led to our modern typefaces.  Also, a Carolingian music teacher named Guido d'Arezzo, himself a champion of grammar, invented the mnemonic music scale of "do, re, mi."

Several centuries of economic growth followed, and by the 12th century, Paris emerged as the leading center of education.  It was in this period that universities got their start.  When a group of masters or students obtained legal status as a guild or corporation in the city they resided, a university was formed.  In that day the term university had a meaning closer to "union."  Between 1150 and 1500, a minimum of 79 universities were founded, of which 49 survived into the 20th century.

Factors Contributing to Grammar's Demise

It is right here, the early half the 12th century, that something very interesting happened.  First, a man named Peter Abelard emerged as a brilliant but rebellious logician.  He was constantly at conflict with the masters (scholars/teachers) and the Church.  He stated that it was impossible to simply defer to authority on all issues and made popular disputation.  He emphasized that even the ancient authorities disagreed on some issues making them internally inconsistent.  His greatest work titled, Sic et Non (So and Not So),  was a collection of contradictory opinions on 156 different propositions and became very popular.

Second, universities were competing for students.  As a way of increasing their numbers, many, if not most, changed their educational direction in favor of disputation.  This has been called scholasticism. Traditional questions that were addressed in the classical style of instruction, such as, how to lead a good life, were thought intellectually immature.  Students were jumping straight to dialectics (critical thinking) without having mastered the other subjects of the discipline. By the year 1215, the standard curriculum had no poetry, history, rhetoric, or ethics.  Just logic.

A couple of other growing practices helped speed up grammar's demise.  One was the emphasis on spoken Latin.  Communication was deemed more important than grammar and eloquence.  We see this today in foreign language classrooms across the country.  Another was an attempt to apply scientific principles to every subject, including grammar. This attempt and ultimate failure to formulate grammatical definitions that could never meet science's rigorous standards caused scholars to doubt its importance.

There were two schools that resisted the push to scholasticism (disputation) and continued to emphasize traditional, practical grammar and the close study of classical literature.  These were Orleans and Chartes. We have an interesting account of a man who studied under both systems.

John of Salisbury

John of Salisbury was a British scholar who first studied under Abelard in Paris for two years.  And, although he admired Abelard's brilliance, he was less impressed with his two successors who were the kind of men that could argue something completely ridiculous and make it sound plausible.  They found contradictions in any and every opinion.

From there, John enrolled at Chartes and studied under its traditional curriculum for three years.  Afterwards, describing the state of education and how his two professors/teachers responded to it, he wrote this:

"Later, when popular opinion veered away from the truth, when men preferred to seem, rather than to be, philosophers, and when professors of the arts were promising to impart the whole of philosophy in less than three or even two years, William and Richard were overwhelmed by the onslaught of the ignorant mob, and retired.  Since then, less time and attention have been given to the study of grammar.  As a result, we find men who profess all the arts, liberal and mechanical, but who are ignorant of this very first one, without which it is futile to go on to attempt others."
 This was the period of Scholasticism and it would be a hundred years, the mid-14th century, before a reaction to it would take shape. 

Enter Humanism

It used to be thought that Humanism represented a shift in focus from theological concerns to that of human nature, but that just isn't the case.  Through careful analysis of primary documents (done largely by Paul Oskar Kristeller), the true motivation of Humanism was to revive the studies of grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy.

The movement first took shape in Italy through the poet and scholar Petrarch. Humanists borrowed from Cicero the phrase studia humanitatis to describe their interests, and at the heart of their movement "was the belief that education had no higher goal than to foster ... edifying pleasure."  The ability to share subjective experience.  Petrarch's writings about grief are potent as he lived through the Black Death (1348-50) which took his beloved's life and nearly every other friend of his.  Author Mulroy writes,

"To enjoy great literature, one must understand it.  To apply the balm of self-expression to internal wounds, one must first know the proper use of words. Hence, for both reasons, the humanists' most urgent task was to reform the teaching of Latin grammar."
 In time, new humanist Latin grammars were written, based on the works of Donatus and Priscian.  As these spread across Europe, additional works were inspired that provided glosses and translations of grammatical terms and paradigms. The revival of reading classical texts had begun and the dual role of grammar (preserving and reviving classical literature and creating new works) was underway.

Erasmus and England's Literary Renaissance

Erasmus was responsible for introducing Humanism to England.  He was primarily concerned with reforming grammar instruction, and his Praise of Folly contributed to that end.  In 1509, St. Paul's cathedral school became the first Renaissance grammar school in England.  Not long after, King Henry VIII decreed that the newly written grammar by William Lily was to be used exclusively in all English schools.  This grammar taught students to think about English, as well as Latin, grammatically.

"The promulgation of "one brief, plain, uniform grammar" in British schools occurred on the eve of the English literary Renaissance.  From Chaucer's death in 1400 to the mid-sixteenth century, England did not produce any literary artists of lasting fame.  Then the students who had been raised on Lily's grammar started coming of age:  Edmund Spenser (1552-99), Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Christopher Marlowe (1564-93), John Ford (1568-1639), Ben Johnson (1572-1637), and, of course, William Shakespeare (1564-1616)."

Samuel Johnson said that Shakespeare had enough Latin to grammaticize his English. Although Latin isn't a necessity to write well in English, it's grammatical foundation is.  By studying Latin's grammatical concepts, it lifts them and makes them transportable into English.

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