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”.