Grammar: An Ode (sort of)

The only feeling I get from this article is concern. 

And of course, my concern is for the children. But not as children, please understand. Children as children have people to care for them. But when those children grow up and haven’t learned how to function, the fear and the loneliness and the despair that they will feel will make the worst insult a child has ever heard feel like a feather under the chin.

Like everything else in life, the matter is complicated. But like everything else in education, the irreducible bloating of the structures have made solutions impossible. I get the impression from this article that Otis Mathis is truly a good man, honorable, and even worth following. I praise Otis Mathis for his diligence and persistance in attaining such a high position.

That moral excellence, however, doesn’t qualify him to be the head of the Detroit Public Schools. If, when he was a child, he had not been educated on the false assumptions of Progressive theory, he could probably have become a great school leader, a model of academic excellence.

I have to be careful. I don’t want to say more than the evidence warrants. I don’t want to be a bull seeing red. Here is my simple contention (and no more than this):

The failure to teach the current DPS president correct English grammar when he was a child has undercut his ability to lead the Detroit Public Schools as an adult.

Contained in that contention are subordinate beliefs, such as the importance of grammar, the ability of almost every child to learn it when properly taught, the need to teach young children formal grammar (though not necessarily to teach it formally – the difference is significant), and the value of every language skill in the minds of those who lead.

When he was in third and fourth grade, I have no doubt that teachers were asking, “How is grammar relevent to his life?”

Now, perhaps, they know.

But I am not going to draw any conclusions. I wish Mr (Dr?) Mathes well and I hope he is able to reform the Detroit schools in such a way that teachers are 1. set free to teach, 2. equipped to teach, 3. required to teach, and that students are 1. required to learn, 2. equipped to learn, and 3. set free to learn.

God bless you Otis Mathes. You have overcome much. Please see that Detroit’s students have less to overcome, at least when it comes to writing.

Organic vs. Mechanical art

Works of art are created by artists who execute an art, thus producing an artifact.

The artistic process is without doubt one of the greatest mysteries of existence, even in this 21st century: the Age of Reductionist Explanations.

I quoted Samuel Taylor Coleridge a couple weeks ago in a passage where he mentioned two different approaches to creativity: the mechanical and the organic. This passage resonated with me for a lot of reasons, among them my life-long desire to understand creativity and my long-held conviction that education has become hopelessly confused by imposing mechanistic metaphors on the minds of educators.

Many years ago, in a moment of ecstacy, an idea was conceived in my mind. When I read the Coleridge passage, the period of gestation came to term and my mind began to dilate.

Last Friday, the baby crowned. And Saturday, with the midwifery of my Plato’s Republic dialogue participants, a new idea was born from my mind.

I named my new child, “Art.”

Let me describe him for you. Art is a process, but not a mechanical process. Art is an organic process. Its mysteries can never be exhausted, but in outline it works like this:

There is soil. There is a seed. The sower takes the seed and plants it in the soil.

The seed is buried. It sits alone in the darkness, apparently forgotten, neglected. Yet it is not neglected. The weight of the soil puts pressure on the seed. The sun keeps the soil warm and the seed protected in that warmth. The rain works on the seed coat, pressuring it and feeding the embryo within the seed.

After a time the seed does one of two things: either it spends itself on nothingness, or it dies. If it dies, the seed coat wells and softens, the embryo sends a radical downward and a shoot upward.

The radical beomes the root and the shoot the plant. And here a second area of the mystery of creativity is revealed. First, the seed is planted, and an apple seed can only become an apple tree, a sunflower seed only a sunflower. If they try to become something else they will die. That seed contains the whole idea of the full grown plant!

Everything the plant will ever be is contained in that tiny seed. All, that is, but the matter.

 That is the first mytery of creativity.

The second is perhaps as great. The apple tree can never become anything other than an apple tree. But how does it manifest itself as an apple tree? By eating dirt.

And water.

And light.

The shoot absorbs soil and water into itself and turns the dirt and water into an apple tree. The root does the same, reaching further and further into the soil, instinctively seeking out what will help it realize itself.  

Whatever it can, it absorbs into itself and it grows into a trunk, and from a trunk it breathes out branches, and from the branches it sends out leaves, and in the shelter of the leaves it generates a blossom, and from that blossom there blooms a fruit, and in the fruit the tree bears seed to beget an apple orchard of the same kind.

As it grows, it adapts to its environment, since that is all it has to transform into itself. It turns to the sun; it bends with the wind; it joys in the rain.

If it is well tended or fortunate in its environment, it bears extraordinary fruit, feeding multitudes.

I find it miraculous to think of all the life of a free being pre-determined by the seed, but not inflexible – not mechanically stamped in.

An apple tree is not a wax tablet pressed by an iron stamp. When such a stamp is used, everything is predetermined. The exact shape and dimensions of the seal are determined ahead of time. The maker has complete control over the outcome, or if it does not come out as it should have he can dispose of it. Outliers are destroyed.

With organic growth, the outcome is unpredictable and, perhaps most crucially, cannot be forced.

Everything that matters is a work of art including our own lives. We degrade ourselves when we reduce them to something mechanical.

The product of a work of art is the fully realized tree. Somehow, at some time, a seed is planted in the soul of the artist. There it is kept warm by the light of truth. Eventually, the seed dies. The soul of the artist will have a profound effect on the health and integrity of the expression of the idea, more even than the environment has on a tree, but he cannot make it other than what it is.

Everything turns on the aesthetic health, that is to say, the readiness of the soul of the artist.

And yet it is not to the artist, but to the idea that we must attend, at least once it has been conceived. The artist’s role is not to express himself, but to shepherd the idea to its full realization. Of course he will learn a great deal about himself as the tree grows, and hopefully this will compel him to tend the soul of his own soul as it seems to have done eventually for example in Oscar Wilde’s case.

But if the artist asserts mastery over the idea, then he will interfere with it.

This frequently happens in two ways: impressionistically and expressionistically.

In the first case, the idea is represented not for its own sake but for the sake of the impression it will have on its audience.

In the second case, the idea is embodied not for its own intrinsic beauty but for the self-expression of the artist.

A work of art is the embodiment of an idea – the incarnation of a logos. As such it serves as  a mediator between the soul of the artist and that of the audience. Only when both submit to the glory of the logos contained within and through and under and around the work of art can it realize itself and fulfill its function of mediator.

The idea or logos embodied in the artifact (work of art) is the principle of unity in the activity of the artist. What I mean by that is actually rather obvious. Why have I not written anything about dolphins in this post until now? Simply put, because as my roots were searching out the soil for healthy nutrients that I could transform into my tree, my roots didn’t come across any dolphins until now.

They might have, I admit. Let’s say I had this brilliant idea about dolphins chasing sea-horses into a cave where they hid behind the throne of Poseidon and Poseidon had to persuade the dolphins that they should direct their rage and that abominable Odysseus instead of at the gentle, tame sea-horses. How would I know if I should bring that into my post?

Quite simply. I would ask, is this part of my tree? Is it an organical development of the idea I am trying to express? If not, it will be either self-indulgently expressive or it will impressionistic. Or it could be utterly pointless and stupid, unskilled, foolish. But even those characteristics are summed up in self-indulgence.

Please note that the plant is not my creation. It is my stewardship. Once it has been formed in me, I have no more authority to do as I wish with it than a mother has over the child in her womb. She bears the authority that arises from her duty to nourish it and no more. She is bound to the well-being of that child and has no right whatsoever ever to harm it in any way.

In just such a way, the artist is bound to his work of art. He has authority because the idea has been given to him and not to others. But he has no authority to subject the idea to his own whims or even interpretation.

This was, in general, the understanding under which artists of the Renaissance labored, and it would seem to be the understanding of the prophets and tabernacle builders of the Old Covenant. It’s loss, apparently under Kant’s influence over the arts in the 19th century, represents an overthrow of the arts at the very moment when artists have been most free to produce whatever they are given to produce – especially, teachers.