Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Rogue Scholars (I)

            When we speak of the “criminal classes” we ordinarily include college faculties only by way of metaphor, but the erudite malefactor is by no means missing from the annals of crime. 

            One of Dr. Johnson’s frequently quoted—and perhaps yet more frequently misquoted—aphorisms is this: “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully”*.   It was not merely a theoretical speculation, but arose from Johnson’s empirical experience of counseling his fawning admirer, the Reverend Doctor William Dodd, who was convicted of forgery and hanged at Tyburn on June 27, 1777. 

            Dodd (born 1729) rose from modest origins to become a very successful society preacher in London.  He was known as the “Macaroni Parson”—the word macaroni here having its old meaning (as in the early American song “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) of ostentatious foppishness of manner and dress.  Along with his social pretensions and aspirations, Dodd had considerable erudition and affected even more.  Doctoral degrees didn’t always mean too much in those days either, but he had one.  There are some two hundred titles under his name in the catalogues of large libraries.  He was an editor of Shakespeare, and the compiler of a best seller called The Beauties of Shakespeare.

            In earlier times Dodd had earned his bread as a tutor to the rich and famous, especially the youthful Lord Chesterfield: but he always needed more bread, and he didn’t have tenure.  Later, when an attempt to bribe his way into a lucrative post was exposed, he fled to the Continent and lay low for a couple of years.  He now got a new nickname—“Doctor Simony”.  Returning to London and needing to clear his debts he borrowed £4000 (about a million dollars in today’s money) from his old student Chesterfield.  The only trouble was that he didn’t tell Chesterfield about it, finding it more expeditious to write the check himself.  When the old schoolboy did find out about it, by mere chance, the noble lord was not amused.  Even less forgiving was King George III. 

            No American is likely to praise this monarch, but I shall try.  True enough he was a blockhead even before going mad.  But he was actually something of a stickler for public morality, and a sincere one.  In particular he took the view that in a country that prospered by trade no vows could be more sacred than those involved in credit and banking.  Since the broad social consensus of the age agreed that hanging a man for stealing a sheep was just, Doctor Dodd was in deep doodoo.  The mores of the time are perhaps also suggested by the fact that a young man scheduled to die with Dodd was being punished for a failed attempt at suicide!  Medieval “benefit of clergy”, though still not totally abolished, was so weakened as to offer Dodd no comfort.

            He did have friends and supporters.  They wrote letters, and they signed petitions.  Pundits like Dr. Johnson lamented the prospective loss to the Republic of Letters.  Some of the more practically minded among his friends put together a considerable purse with the thought of bribing one of his jailers to allow him to escape, but the Death Machine was not to be so easily defeated.  His cell at Newgate was triple guarded.  So they designed a new tactic.  Dr. Dodd would hang, but he would not die.

            The plan was this.  Though they could not effectively corrupt the prison guards, they hoped for better results with the actual executioner—generally known as “Jack Ketch” in honor of the celebrated hangman of the previous century who had established the gold standard of barbarism in his line of work.  They would pay this man a hefty sum not to let the body long dangle from the rope.  Instead, he was quickly to relieve the dead weight, so to speak, from the tension of gravity and then to join with others in moving the body as expeditiously as possible to a waiting coach.  That was Phase One of the Plan.  Phase Two, of which Jack Ketch had no knowledge, was to rush the body by cab from Tyburn to certain rooms in Goodge Street where a team of Resurrectionists would be awaiting it.  This was a group of medical men, hardly more crackpot than most of their professional peers, who thought that with the help of salves, ointments, an experimental air-pump, and perhaps a particularly adroit application of the Heimlich Maneuver, they might be able to revive the Unfortunate Doctor Dodd (his last nickname, and the one that stuck.)

 The Tyburn "Tree"

           Forget the fact that Phase Two was nutty to begin with.  Unfortunately, it could not be implemented in any event on account of the intervention of Fleming’s Second Historical Law: Nothing fails like success.  The learned William Dodd eschewed the role of the cloistered scholar.  He sought fame in the public arena, and lots of it.  For his final gig he enjoyed a success beyond his wildest dreams.  People used to turn out in significant numbers to listen to his sermons or his lectures on Shakespeare, but those crowds were as nothing compared with the throng that turned out to watch him swing.  You can easily grasp the problem presented by thousands of milling Doddheads.  The hearse was supposed to make its way swiftly from Tyburn (roughly where March Arch is today) to a place near today’s British Museum, moving through streets approximately as clogged as Times Square on New Year’s Eve.  The plan might have been cool, but unfortunately Dr. Dodd’s body was even cooler.

 *Boswell's Life of Johnson (Oxford English Classics, 1826), under September 19, 1777 (vol. 4, p. 150)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Picked Up from the Grapevine

Cora and Lulu, in Concord

One of the nicer biblical prophecies of the Peaceable Kingdom, from Micah, proclaims that “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid.”  I like to apply this thought to my pleasant state of retirement.  As a student of literature, I know the difference between the literal and the metaphoric.  Nonetheless I have tried on numerous occasions to cultivate my own fig tree.  They do grow around here, and I have even seen a few flourishing ones.  My friend and former GP, Genuino Nazzaro, who lives hardly half a mile from here, has one sufficiently fecund to supply me, from time to time, with a luscious compote whipped up by his wife Dina.  I, however, don’t seem to have the knack; over the years I have murdered, by slow torture, a small orchard of fig saplings.  I’ve done considerably better on the grapevine front, however.

            Our first abode in Princeton was in the high-rise Hibben Apartments nestled in the corner formed by Lake Carnegie and the railroad tracks.  This was one of two large boxes—the other being Magie—in which most of the junior faculty of the Princeton of the Sixties resided.  As there were nearly two hundred units, our numerous fellow apartment-dwellers included quite a few destined for academic fame.  We lived on the seventh floor at the top of the ventilation shaft that on the first floor passed through the apartment of the Giamattis.  Bart Giamatti would later become the President of Yale and later still the Commissioner of Baseball.  We used to pick up the aroma of the Giamattis’ cooking (mainly Italian) and the distant discontents of their baby, now the actor Paul Giamatti.   Quite apart from such olfactory brushes with greatness, some of our life-long friendships date from that era.

            Hibben and Magie were recently torn down.  On the lakeside site a whole little village of townhouses, now nearing completion, will replace them.  Buildings do come and go around here.  The Music Building was built, torn down, and magnificently replaced all during the continuing tenure of my 1990 Toyota!  Still, there goes yet another fugitive monument of material flemingiana.

            Sometime shortly after we moved out and into a real house, roughly in the middle of the Age of Aquarius, some apartment dwellers founded a large communal vegetable garden in the waste land beside the tracks.  Enthusiasm waned all too soon, alas, and it was abandoned.  About a decade later the garden site was bulldozed to make room for yet more cars.  Of course all this had been foretold by the prophetess Joni Mitchell: They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.  Knocking around this destruction site one day with one of my kids, we found that the dozer had savaged and broken up various rooted fragments of what must have been a substantial Concord grape vine.  We tossed a few into the back of the truck. 

            The rest is history, because two of these mangled uvial disjecta membra, when reverently buried in my garden, sprang into life the following spring.  They became the matriarchs of a veritable woodland vineyard surrounding my property.  I decided then and there that my gardening skills were probably better suited to a plant that could be cultivated by road grader than one so apparently temperamental as the fig.  Thus I bagged the idea of the fig tree, settling for multiple grapevines instead. One of the offspring of the original detritus now covers and softens my garden shed.  Another two vines, while I was not watching, climbed up large conifers, challenging them to mortal combat.  Several others, more carefully managed, have created a screen replacing three holly trees destroyed by a hurricane. 

            Now of course one hopes that a grapevine might produce grapes.  Mine have been pretty prolific, but in a wild and wasteful way.  The ones on the shed roof either get eaten by birds or shriveled against the hot roofing.  Most of the others dangle in clumps twenty or thirty feet above my head.   This year, however, things have been different.  The first of what I imagine as a rather elaborate network of bamboo trellises has supported and protected the grapes.  One of the huge old conifers, broken in half by the wind two years ago, has become a kind of volunteer trellis, with some of its grapes, at least, now in reach.

            Under these circumstances I invited the two resident granddaughters to help me with the harvest, and if they wished, to report, as guest bloguistas, on their activities.  On account of the generational trope, working with my granddaughters amid the vines was particularly satisfying for me.  If you think about the medieval artistic motif of the “Tree of Jesse,” the tree is after all really a vine.  Lulu is into poetry at the moment.  So she penned a postmodern effort that begins “Jeepers!  Jumping jars of jovial jam!”  Jesuitical jihadists!  This poem rather strays from the point in its attempt to preserve the rhythms of Piers Plowman; so I omit the rest.  However Bloguista Cora offers the following sober and accurate account in prose.

            Every summer, the grapes in Grandad’s front yard are ripe.  This year, there was the biggest amount of grapes growing that there had been for years (according to Grandad.)  One day, Grandad invited my sister and me to help pick the grapes and make grape jelly with him.  Of course, my sister and I agreed.  So that afternoon I was in the front yard with Grandad and a bucket in my hand.  Most of that afternoon we picked the grapes, removed them from their stems, and put them all in one big bucket.  After a search for his jelly strainer, Grandad got to work on making the famous grape jelly.

            After the jelly was finished we took a muffin, split it into three, and spread the butter and the homemade jelly on the muffin.  The three of us bit into our muffins in triumph.  The grape jelly was delicious, definitely a 5 star Jelly.  We made enough jelly to last us until Christmas but because it was delicious, I think it will probably only last about 11/2 weeks.
                                                                                         Cora Louise Fleming-Benite

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Few Credits Shy

 Senator John Walsh

It would be an exaggeration to say that the week’s news has consisted of nothing but major disasters.  Simply by moving away from the front page of the New York Times I was able to find some minor ones, including the fact that Senator John Walsh of Montana has plausibly been accused of plagiarism.  Walsh, a “decorated war veteran” who was appointed to fill out the term of Max Baucus, who resigned the Senate to become our ambassador in Beijing, was already facing a difficult contest in the upcoming November election.  He now faces possible ignominy greater than his probable political defeat.  United States senators are not required to write term papers, but when they do, they ought not to cheat.  His excuse is at least novel.  He does not claim that the dog ate the paper.  Instead he suggests that PTSD “may have been a factor” in inhibiting his recourse to quotation marks and footnotes.  “My head was not in a place very conducive to a classroom and an academic environment.”

            Walsh is a Democrat, and since the balance of party power in Congress is very much an issue of interest at the moment, the partisan angle has been prominent in the news coverage.  That is not my angle, however.  There is perhaps not much that is truly bipartisan in our current political life except the political sleaze.  I am less offended by what Walsh has said about it than by the judgment of his fellow Montana senator, Jon Tester.  “…I don’t think it’s that big a deal, I really don’t.  Look, Walsh is a soldier, he’s not an academic…”

            Really?  Plagiarism, which combines theft with lying, is a quintessential violation of fair dealing just as stock market fraud, embezzlement, and scamming little old ladies with unneeded roof repairs are violations of fair dealing.  All too frequently we discover a major league embezzler in an academic institution.  Ordinarily the response is not “This is no big deal…Schnackenfuss is an academic, not a banker…”  It is hardly the case that academic credentials accrue no material gain.  As a matter of fact Walsh is not a soldier but a politician who once was a soldier and apparently once considered an advanced academic degree sufficiently important or valuable to invest time and effort in its pursuit.

            I have a couple of professional reactions to the situation.  The medievalist in me first scorns, then pities the post-romantic cult of the ego that makes plagiarism possible and commonplace.  Medieval plagiarism was abundant, but it was of a completely different sort.  The idea was to pass off your work as somebody’s else’s, not vice versa.  Nobody knew who Schnackenfuss was, but if Augustine wrote it, it must be good.  If somebody wrote some great mystical theology in Greek, it must have been Dionysius the Aereopagite (see Acts 17:34).
 Pseudo-Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, taking a dim view of the proceedings

            My other reaction is slightly more severe.  The occasion of the alleged plagiarism was Walsh’s master’s paper—it has also been called a “thesis”—at the United States Army War College in Carlisle, PA.  The paper is fourteen pages long and apparently contains “several” unacknowledged borrowings from various sources, some of them verbatim.  One of the things that is making egregious plagiarism of this sort less common than it once was is that it is so easy to spot.  Anybody who has a reasonable familiarity with the scholarly literature in a field and knows how to do a Google search can expose it in five minutes.  But it appears that nobody at the War College questioned the paper in 2007.  That role was perhaps reserved for an “opposition researcher” in a political campaign seven years later.

            What is the “War College”?  One might be curious to know more about an institution where a master’s thesis can be fourteen pages long.  If you visit the institutional website you will learn that it is a fully accredited institution of higher education.  American higher education is somewhat peculiar in its system of “voluntary” accreditation.  It is not some government bureaucracy that licenses colleges and universities, at least not directly.  It is instead one of the several autonomous regional accrediting agencies that have developed over many years.  For several years I served as one of the members of the Commission on Higher Education of one of the largest of them—Middle States—covering a geographical area including the seaboard states from New York to Maryland, plus Washington, D. C. and Puerto Rico.  That last venue was particularly useful for Commission meetings.

            One of the glories of American higher education is its amazing variety.  We have colleges with 50 students and universities with 50,000.  There are professional and trade schools of every kind.  The system of two-year junior colleges is vast, and has served as a conveyor belt toward social improvement for millions.  I happen to remember very well discussions concerning the War College.  While it would not be proper to tell tales out of school, you can perhaps imagine that even in a context of toleration and inclusiveness at least one commissioner might have found the educational mission of the U. S. Army War College a little elusive.  Anyway, the institution is now undertaking a "thorough" investigation of the senatorial term paper.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Past and Present

What is archaeological is not necessarily ancient.  I learned that years ago on our farmstead in the Arkansas Ozarks.  That area of the country was still essentially wilderness at the time of the Civil War, and wasn’t effectively divided into quarter sections (160 acres) until about the time of the First World War.  But in the Twenties and early Thirties certain counties of northern Arkansas and southern Missouri had significant rural populations living on hardscrabble forty- or eighty-acre plots.  The cost of such land was generally fifty cents an acre.  Practically all of these subsistence farms were wiped out in the Depression.  All that was left in the Fifties were traces, barely discernible, of old wagon paths, perhaps the ghost of a cabin foundation, and an old galvanized bucket or two.  One would stumble upon such places lost in the deep woods.  The galvanized bucket, used to haul water from a more or less distant spring, had been built to resist rust.  So here were archaeological sites not a quarter-century old.  The vehemence with which an uncontested forest reasserts itself is awesome.  I could easily understand how great temples could be lost for centuries in the jungles of the Yucatan.
            The sizeable tracts of cultivated and wooded land owned by Princeton University are ever shrinking as the institution expands inexorably to the south.  Wild areas in which I used to knock about with my young children have now been enclosed by chain-link fences to protect manicured soccer fields and a vast solar farm.  But this Ivy League institution still dedicates at least a quarter section of land to agricultural use, the cultivation of feed corn and soybeans, undoubtedly exploiting some tax boondoggle dreamed up with other beneficiaries in mind by the Iowa congressional delegation.  Amid these acres is an old cemetery, enclosed within a square of stone wall.  For many years it was a de facto poison ivy farm and so derelict that the gravestones were mostly covered in roots, vines, and tree sprouts.  When I first chanced upon it about forty years ago, it was barely visible.  Under three successive Princeton administrations I lobbied to have this burial ground reclaimed and tended; but most administrators didn’t even know it existed, and the matter was neither curricular nor linked to an obvious fund-raising possibility.   My eccentric pleas fell on deaf ears.

            I had not been in those remote parts for at least five years, but in my berry-gathering mania (reported last week) I was there a few days ago.  To my delight, I discovered that the burial ground has recently been cleaned out and spruced up.  The only serious vegetation still there is entirely fitting: a sacred grove of three handsome oaks.  As many headstones as could be rescued have been cleared and re-erected. 

            I congratulated the Director of Buildings and Grounds on a work of beautification that was also an act of piety.  Now I needed some serious historical information, and I knew where to turn: to Wanda Gunning, a fellow parishioner, a civic leader, and the dean of local historians.  She knew the place well, identifying it as “the Schenck-Covenhoven Burial Grounds”, and gave me the crucial bibliographical reference.*
Schenck Corner

            The Schencks and the Covenhovens were two prominent related Dutch colonial families who in the early part of the eighteenth century moved from their farms on Long Island to central Jersey, where they had bought from the heirs of William Penn a modest tract of 6500 acres.  Owning all of Pennsylvania was apparently insufficient for Penn.  He had diversified.  (The nearby swath of land along Route 1, the original and mainly unpleasant superhighway that disfigures our landscape for 2369 miles from the Canadian border to Key West, is still called “Penn’s Neck”.)  The cemetery was established at a point where the two family properties came together.  The first known burial was in 1746, the last as recent as 1941.  The grounds were enclosed by a handsome stone wall in 1876.  Throughout our country proud citizens marked the national Centenary with similar restoration projects.
"She stood in tears amid the alien corn…"

            In general the Dutch Reformed pioneers of New York and New Jersey seem to have paid special heed to the injunction of Genesis 1:28: Be fruitful and multiply.   Both the Schencks and the Covenhovens (also spelled Couvenhoven, Kovenhowen, etc.) were very numerous, and their names are widely spread upon the annals of New Jersey colonial history.  Both Schencks and Covenhovens distinguished themselves in the War of Independence.  One of the many John Covenhovens was a colorful patriot partisan.  He fought with the “regulars” under Washington at the battles of Trenton and Princeton, but spent most of the war engaged in the entrepreneurial (and often nasty) guerrilla activities that typified the conflict between revolutionaries and loyalists along the Jersey seabord.  He was one of the drafters of the long memorandum sent to Washington detailing the Tory lynching of Joshua Huddy, the captured American officer who had been in charge of defending the blockhouse at Tom’s River.  Legend has it that as Covenhoven was actually being married to Mercy Kelsey in February, 1778, Hessian troops searching for him invaded the church and disrupted the ceremony.  The swashbuckling ranger escaped via a window, and was able to reclaim his startled bride only several hours later when the soldiers had moved on.  Whether according to Calvinist theology they were validly married I cannot say, but they escaped successfully across the Delaware into Pennsylvania, where they increased and multiplied with the best of them.

*The Genealogical Magazine of New Jersey, 57 (1982): 22-25.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Jam Session

 1. Find a bush

I try to convince myself that the explanation lies in a rural childhood, with all its harvesting and milking and hunting and fishing and fruit pie church socials, but in my heart I know it is deeper than that.  Only a buried atavism, the repressed memories of the chronic semi-starvation that characterized some ancient ancestral community of the later Stone Age, can account for my unbounded enthusiasm for Nature’s Bounty in the form of freebie food.

            I love to gather anything edible growing in the wild.  My healthy habit of eating lots of salad perhaps had its origins in my mother’s fondness for tender dandelion leaves.  In the old days, when we sometimes vacationed in Maine, I loved clamming, gathering mussels, and of course foraging for blueberries—with or without Sal. 

            In France these days you run across references to a generation of “Sixty-Eighters”—aging hippies and one-time political radicals, most of whom now seem to be retired civil servants—who broke a lot of plate glass and put up a lot of cool graffiti in 1968.  Pouvoir à l’imagination!  Well, in 1968 we were living with two young children in the country in the south of France, where I was ostensibly writing a book with the help of the resources of the Musée Calvet in Avignon.  The Revolution came, and everything stopped.  There was no gas, no bus to put the gas into, and no library for the bus to take me to anyway.  It was the grève of grèves, the Mother of All Strikes. Under these circumstances I became an expert in gathering and preparing gastronomic snails—with raw materials easily found around the trunks of the great plane trees that lined the now empty roads.  The process is complex, also slightly disgusting, but I went into it on an industrial scale, earning the local nickname of “Grandi, le Roi des Escargots”.  Edible snails are a phenomenon rather than a food, and with careful preparation (lots of butter, garlic, and breadcrumbs), they can really taste great—sort of like butter, garlic, and breadcrumbs.  A few years ago, with friends in Michigan, I gathered ramps (alium tricoccum) with gusto.  I’d describe a ramp as the vegetable version of a snail.  Cook up a mess with bacon and blue cheese, and it tastes like bacon and blue cheese, delicious.

 2.  Find the berries on the bush

            Leaving your garden to tend itself during a crucial month of early summer growth is hardly exemplary horticulture, and I am paying for my frolic in Paris.  The price—somewhat stringy tomato vines—is not excessive.  That the tomatoes were growing at all is testimony to what must have been quite a lot of rainfall, and there will be some Ramapos to contest with the groundhogs.  But the rain—if it indeed fell—did something different and more marvelous.  It seems to have created, for the first time in a decade, a really terrific crop of wild raspberries.

 3.  Put picked berries in a pot

            Once you get beyond the abundant road-kill, suburban New Jersey might not seem like the hottest bet for Found Food.  It regularly gets an eight out of ten for fungi, however, and this year I would have to rate the raspberries at least a nine.  They are almost everywhere in abandoned or poorly tended fields, including those of the Gray Farm, where I live, and on much of the abundant undeveloped land belonging to the University.  There is a non-pecuniary price to be paid, since they thrive in conditions hospitable as well to poison ivy.

   4.  Heat and mash the berries
           The sexual extravagance of the raspberry is alarming.  A small bush can easily produce a hundred berries, each berry some dozens of seeds.  The berries fall to the ground, get washed away through gullies, are carried off and ingested by birds or college professors.  It’s a wonder the raspberry has not taken over the world.

   5.  Stir in lots of sugar and boil like mad        

           During the past week I did some fairly serious berry-picking.  At first I stuck to patches an easy walk from my house—such as twenty yards--but then, in more ambitious mode, I got in the truck and drove a few blocks to the real jungle, where I did battle with serious brambles.  Joan made a scrumptious yoghurt-based raspberry fool, but that only whetted the appetite.  Over the past three days I made and bottled two sizable batches of raspberry jam.  The berries are so sweet this year that I risked using a recipe that calls for no additional pectin—simply mashed berries and obscene amounts of sugar.  The result is a jam that is slightly runnier than most, but absolutely sensational for the clarity of the fruity, raspberry taste.  The chompiness of the seeds gives you the illusion of serious protein--and a reminder to floss.  The season is approaching its end, but I’m hoping to be able to do one more batch with the girls, who will be arriving home from Europe within a few days.

  6.  Admire some of the results


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Trivial Pursuits?

Others mistrust and say, "But time escapes:  Live now or never!"
He said, "What's time? Leave Now for dogs and apes! Man has Forever."
Back to his book then: deeper drooped his head: Calculus racked him:
Leaden before, his eyes grew dross of lead: Tussis attacked him.
                        from “The Grammarian’s Funeral,” by Robert Browning

On many days, when we get back from the gym about eight o’clock, Joan and I share a most pleasant quarter of an hour over the breakfast table reading aloud to each other from the Times.  Our material usually comes from the Op-Ed pages, and often enough from the letters to the editor.  On Monday four letters, headed “How to Teach Reading and Writing”, responded to an earlier article (which we had not read) entitled “The Fallacy of ‘Balanced Literacy’,” by Alexander Nazaryan. 

            I had never before encountered the phrase “balanced literacy,” and I have found no very precise explanation of its meaning.   I take it that what is being “balanced” is some formal instruction by a teacher and a variety of more free-form activities undertaken by individual learners.   I will not condemn what I know so little about.  It is easy for a college professor to pontificate about what is going on in our schools, and I know, as I have said several times on this blog, the fundamental problem in our contemporary classrooms is not necessarily in the classroom.  A schoolteacher not supported adequately by a student’s home environment, has   little hope of success.   Still I do think that elementary teachers need to teach rather than to “facilitate”, especially as I know from long experience that the skills of literacy are among the things that actually can be taught.  Sharing with young people my ideas about the meaning of the whale in Moby Dick may or may not prove useful to them; but if I can teach a student to read I know I have done something.  Reading and writing really are special.

There are many ways of differentiating human life from the rest of the animal kingdom, but surely the most fundamental and obvious is the very rich development of human language, which in spoken forms makes possible social transactions of considerable complexity, and in its written forms has allowed us to make a vast storehouse of the practical and theoretical knowledge achieved or posited by our human ancestors.  Our Western educational practices, for all their variety and trendiness, are still mostly related to a few classical ideas about two thousand years old.  They are designed to teach, and then to exploit, the fundamental skills of literacy—the uses of language.

The language in which our educational theories developed was Latin.  A place where three roads (tres viae) met was in Latin called a trivium; so this was the term used by medieval school teachers to denote the three fundamental “language arts” leading to learning: grammar, rhetoric, and logic.   Grammar explained the structure of language and the rules governing its use.  Rhetoric was the science of writing and speaking effectively.  Logic was the art of probable argument.  What was “trivial” to the old Romans was not what was unimportant but what was commonplace.   Anybody claiming to know anything had to command the trivium before doing anything else.  That is why “grammar school” was once the universal term for “elementary school”.

Ms. Grammatica: Not an Easy Grader

            Latin has long since been effaced by the modern European vernaculars, but a contemporary command of grammar remains indispensable, in my view, for an educated person of the twenty-first century.  Americans, whose national language is English, for now and for the foreseeable future the greatest of world languages, have a particular privilege, but also a cultural responsibility.            If that is too ethereal or too pompous a claim, just consider the advantages of being reasonably well spoken in trying to get a job today. 

            From the historical point of view widespread literacy is a novelty.  The vast majority of men and women who have ever lived, including hundreds of millions today, have done so entirely without any formal training in their native tongue.  But just because it is perhaps possible to subsist on a diet of roots and berries does not render such a diet ideal.  It strikes me as bizarre that some “educationists” should congratulate themselves on having removed grammar from grammar school.  Some of them seem honestly to believe that an innocence of knowledge of the parts of speech, the construction of a functional sentence or paragraph, the effective uses of the marks of punctuation, the norms of correct pronunciation and spelling, leave the young mind free and unfettered to pursue “independent” and “critical” thought.

            The English language, especially American English, is a vital, robust, and dynamic tongue.  There is not the slightest danger of its being emasculated or pollarded by dry-as-dust grammarians.  But in general people are comparatively good or less good at using complex systems in direct proportion to the degree to which they understand their structures.  English grammar is the detailed description of the complex (and fascinating) system called the English language.  And just as childhood is the ideal time to learn a second language, it is the ideal time to master the grammar of a first language.
Anyone who has known young children in a domestic situation must recognize their love of, and capacity for, expertise, detail, distinction, and classification.   Certainly the manufacturers of baseball cards, Barbie dolls, and Pokemon figures recognize it, to their considerable material profit.  Surely you have met an eight-year-old who knows more about dinosaurs than Warren Buffett knows about the stock market.  I don’t actually remember all that much, specifically, about my early schooldays, but I do remember how I loved diagramming sentences.  Do American children even diagram sentences any more?  You want to do some real critical thinking?  Diagram the sentences of the “Gettysburg Address”.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014


Many of my weekly essays arise from the confluence of fortuitous circumstances.  Three and a half have come together this week.  They are (1) the celebration of the national holiday on July 4; (2) the political ruckus triggered among the punditocracy by the decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Burwell vs Hobby Lobby Stores; and (3) the publication of Our Declaration by Danielle Allen of the Institute for Advanced Study.  The half circumstance—the catalyst that supervised the interaction of the three came from a brief sermon I heard on Sunday at All Saints’ Church in Princeton.

            What I was taught in school is that our country had been founded by Europeans who came to North America in search of “a better life.”   That statement was, I think, unexceptional and true; and as a child I didn’t think too deeply about it, not even to the extent of asking myself “better than what”?  Throughout the nineteenth century there was a fairly constant flow of European immigration to this country, at times a mighty river.  The earlier European immigrants to North America were roughly divided between religious refugees and economic adventurers, but it is not always easy to distinguish between the two.   The migrants’ motivations were generally related to complex local conditions in which religious profession and economic possibility were inextricably mixed.  If you look at such groups as Huguenot artisans, Eastern European Jewry, or the Irish peasantry you can see some of the different formulas in which religious and economic oppression could be blended.

            One of the incidental pleasures of teaching at a distinguished institution is that you inevitably meet distinguished students.  Around 1990 one of the student leaders of Wilson College, of which I was then the Master, was a young woman named Danielle Allen.   She went on to become eminent as a classical scholar, a political theorist, a leading advocate for humanistic study, and now a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study.  A few days ago on the “PBS New Hour” I watched Jeffrey Brown interview Danielle Allen concerning her new book about the Declaration of Independence.  Ms. Allen was exhorting her fellow citizens to “claim ownership” of the document, to recognize it as ours, and exploit its “empowering” potential.  I immediately took her advice by re-reading the document.  What a masterpiece!

            I may be one of few people in the country who had never heard of the Hobby Lobby stores before the last two weeks, but like everybody else I’ve heard plenty recently.  Depending upon your pundit the Supreme Court’s decision is either a great blow for limited government or an invitation to theocracy.  I do not always agree with the Court’s closely divided decisions, but the very fact of them does not scandalize me.  Were the meaning of the Constitution as “clear” or “obvious” as pundits insist, there would be no need for it.

            As the Fourth of July is a religious holiday in the calendar of the Episcopal Church, it is not surprising that it should be the subject of a priest’s sermon.  What was surprising, at least to me, was her principal ancillary text: The Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Most Americans who have children or who were ever children themselves know her series of books about her pioneer childhood.  I myself had actually written a little about Laura’s remarkable daughter Rose in The Anti-Communist Manifestos.   In Little Town Laura Wilder describes her experience, at about the age of fifteen in 1881, of the civic celebration of the Fourth in the brand-new hamlet of De Smet, Dakota Territory, which included the reading of the Declaration.  Laura and Carrie knew the Declaration by heart, of course…”  Think about that sentence for a minute as you ponder the present state of American public education.  My own school-marm grandmother had made memorizing the Declaration a requirement for admission to the high school in Salida, Colorado.

            Swelling with patriotism young Laura Ingalls reports the following meditation on the Declaration of Independence:  “She thought: Americans won’t obey any king on earth.  Americans are free.  That means they have to obey their own consciences.  No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself…Her whole mind seemed to be lighted up by that thought.  This is what it means to be free.  It means, you have to be good.  ‘Our fathers’ God, author of liberty—’ The laws of Nature and of Nature’s God endow you with a right to life and liberty.  Then you have to keep the laws of God, for God’s law is the only thing that gives you a right to be free.”

            That is what religious liberty meant to one particularly intelligent and sensitive American girl in 1881.  There are, of course other points of view.  If you lived and worked in an academic setting a hundred years later you might have a different perspective.  The first thought concerning religious liberty that many of today’s intellectual elites would seem to have is one of self-congratulation upon having liberated themselves from religion, closely followed by a second—a bemused or impatient realization that some other people haven’t.

            But both as a citizen and a literature professor I myself have to credit that young girl of 1881 with a very accurate understanding of an historical document written according to the canons of classical eighteenth-century rhetorical doctrine.  No part of the Declaration can be more important than its emphatic conclusion in which the entire project of independence is justified by religious principle: “…appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions…  with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

            I don’t much care whether or not our coins bear the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST.”  But I wonder whether those clamoring for its removal on the grounds of a strange and novel interpretation of a phrase in the First Amendment (“establishment of religion”) will be consistent enough to argue for the bowdlerization of the Declaration of Independence as well.