Freeing the Mind Through Grammar

After 30 years of exclusively undergraduate teaching, I am enjoying the new experience of working with Masters students in the Classical Education program. I admire the grit of these hard-working teachers who are committing time and energy to pour themselves into a demanding program for the sake of perfecting their ability to educate their students better. They are serious about learning as much as they can, which makes teaching them a delight and a challenge. The more questions they ask, the more I need to deepen my  own understanding and ability to express what I think is important.

During last summer’s Trivium course, one student insistently pressed a question about grammar –  why devote so much time to grammar when we speak and write well intuitively and by imitation, practices fostered especially by reading good literature? I have since found that many teachers of English do not believe that grammar should be taught as a subject in its own right. We learn the rules of grammar instinctively, not by training. Formal grammar is difficult to teach; sentence diagramming, the crowning exercise of grammar class, is hated by most students. Grammar provides no measurable help in learning to write, which only progresses through practice. The 1985 rejection of the National Council of Teachers of English is often used to justify the rejection of grammar:

Resolved, that the National Council of Teachers of English affirm the position that the use of isolated grammar and usage exercises not supported by theory and research is a deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing and that, in order to improve both of these, class time at all levels must be devoted to opportunities for meaningful listening, speaking, reading, and writing; and that NCTE urge the discontinuance of testing practices that encourage the teaching of grammar rather than English language arts instruction.

I am personally grateful that this resolution had not yet been passed when I was receiving my parochial school education. I learned sufficient grammar to diagram sentences, and learning diagramming perfect my understanding of grammar. I’ll admit that diagramming did not help in teaching me to write, but then I don’t recall ever really being taught the craft of writing in school. I was told to write, but that was by high school teachers who were more focused on teaching about the research process than about writing effectively. When I did finally need to learn to write, I found that my detailed grammatical knowledge helped to learn from and apply quickly the lessons taught in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. As a college teacher, I have to read and comment on many student papers. I can’t imagine trying to help students who struggle with writing if I couldn’t presuppose that they understood grammatical terms like “fragmentary sentence”, “subordinate clause”, “prepositional phrase”, and “parallel construction”.

But formal grammar did not develop for the sake of teaching writing or even for teaching foreign languages. It developed because it reveals the elements and structure of language, one of the astounding creations of the human mind and the mind’s most intimate too. JRR Tolkien wrote of the intimate connection between mind and language:

The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval.  The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass.  But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective:  no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent.   

A  NCTE 2002 position paper (seemingly at odds with the much more frequently cited 1985 resolution) agrees:
As human beings, we can put sentences together even as children — we can all do grammar. But to be able to talk about how sentences are built, about the types of words and word groups that make up sentences — that is knowing about grammar. And knowing about grammar offers a window into the human mind and into our amazingly complex mental capacity. Some Questions About Grammar

Though I didn’t put it to myself this way at the time, learning that sentences had an intelligible order, one that I could recognize and master, gave me some confidence that I lived in an ordered, intelligible world, in a world to be discovered. This was a little island of stability in the unsettling world of complete relativism.

It also made me realize that clarity and precision was not simply the province of mathematics. John Henry Cardinal Newman believed that a chief goal of all education is “to give the mind clearness, accuracy, precision; to enable it to use words aright, to understand what it says, to conceive justly what it thinks about, what it thinks about, to abstract, compare, analyze, divide, define, and reason, correctly.”

In his 19th century world, mastery of grammar, particularly Latin and Greek grammar, was the essential requirement for entering university. The college entrance examination (an oral affair) aimed to ascertain whether he knows Etymology and Syntax, the two principal departments of the science of language,—whether he understands how the separate portions of a sentence hang together, how they form a whole, how each has its own place in the government of it, what are the peculiarities of construction or the idiomatic expressions in it proper to the language in which it is written, what is the precise meaning of its terms, and what the history of their formation.

Newman had little hope for the well-read youth of inaccurate mind who detested the demands of careful grammatical accounting. But he also felt pity for them, believing that often they had been allowed to linger in an immature state by their educators.

Because of the intimate connection between thought and language, and because of the powerful formative influence that training in grammatical analysis and synthesis provides, grammar was traditionally considered one of the essential liberating arts, and one of the most necessary accomplishments of the educated person. It also prepares the young to pursue wisdom through close careful reading of the great works of philosophy, sacred texts, and theology.

Because of its abstract, reflexive character, grammar is not the easiest subject to teach, and is rarely successful with all students. Yet much the same could be said for subjects such as algebra and chemistry. One teacher of writing respected in homeschool circles apologized to her former students for forcing them to learn diagramming, something she enjoyed herself but they hated, and which she determined to be practically useless. But as Andrew Pudewa, founder of the Institute for Excellence in Writing says:

Competence should be the goal, not affinity. When we try to teach solely by enthusiasm and encouragement, we are in danger of failing in our teaching and failing our students. However, if we try to teach toward competency, we get students whose experience then translates to confidence—a confidence much more meaningful than that prompted by the cheerleading of a parent or coach.

Parents and public decision makers who, aroused by the blatant use of publicly-funded schools for radical social indoctrination, are looking for serious change, they must face a burning question: “We know what we don’t want, but what should we do?” How shall they choose a school for their children, or a curriculum for their community’s children? Look at the literature, look at the libraries, but also look to see if grammar and diagramming have a privileged place.