The Lost Tools of Birthing

Between Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales who died in 1400, and Edmund Spenser, who published The Sheapherd’s Calendar in 1576, you will scan your anthologies of English verse in vain for a renowned poet.
Why did English literature blossom in the 14th century only to enter an aesthetic dark age until Spenser? And why did the late 16th century, the Elizabethan age, experience a flowering that many students of English literature still consider a golden age? How did nearly 200 obscure years disappear in the radiance of Spencer, Sidney, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Donne, and so many great poets, writers, explorers, and scientists?
Grammar and rhetoric.
In 1540, King Henry VIII issued an Executive Order that every school throughout the realm should teach a uniform grammar. In the 1544 version, the following “letter to the reader” explains why he issued his history-altering decree:
“His majesty considering the great encumbrance and confusion of the young and tender wits, by reason of the diversity of grammar rules and teachings (for heretofore every master had his grammar, and every school diverse teachings, and changing of masters and schools did many times utterly dull and undo good wits) hath appointed certain learned men meet for such a purpose, to compile one brief, plain, and uniform grammar, which only (all others set apart) for the more speediness, and less trouble of young wits, his highness hath commanded all schoolmasters and teachers of grammar within this his realm, and other his dominions, to teach their scholars.”
Every English school child in Elizabethan England memorized this famous “Lily’s Grammar.” Even earlier, Dean Colet had re-founded St. Paul’s school in London, where he implemented a curriculum and text books written and assisted by his friend, Erasmus. By the time Shakespeare reached the Stratford Grammar School in 1571, the curriculum and methods of St. Paul’s had spread throughout England. Sister Miriam Joseph describes the manner of teaching:
“The method prescribed unremitting exercise in grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Grammar dominated the lower forms, logic and rhetoric the upper. In all forms the order was first to learn precepts, then to employ them as a tool of analysis in reading, and finally to use them as a guide in composition…. The boy must first be grounded in the topics of logic through Cicero’s Topica before he could properly understand the one hundred and thirty-two figures of speech defined and illustrated in Susenbrotus’ Epitome Troporum ac schematum et grammaticorum et rhetoricorum”
The assumption behind this Renaissance curriculum is the same assumption that an athlete or a painter or a dancer makes when he seeks excellence: virtue requires “unremitting exercise,” which is to say, disciplined mastery of the craft.
The Lost Tools of Writing is a shadow of the curriculum Erasmus and Lily established in 16th century England. It is hoped that this shadow, learned by eager students and taught by humble teachers, can plant the seeds of a thousand individual Renaissancen.
The Lost Tools of Writing rests on the conviction that our world is populated by geniuses and intelligent people who fail to realize their genius or fulfill their intelligence for lack of disciplined training in the craft of writing. When the insights and epiphanies come, the unprepared mind has no vessel to preserve it.
The more intelligent the student, the more frustrating the experience.
Perhaps it strains the point to insist that writing is a craft with tools that empower the craftsman through practice, that writing produces artifacts that can be objectively assessed for their consistency with the principles of the art, and that the goal of instruction is for the student to attain self-mastery, which is synonymous with freedom.
If American education is going to be reborn, if the United States are going to experience a much-needed rebirth of freedom, it will only occur through a wide-spread commitment to the verbal arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

The Place of Logic and the Place of Philosophy

My pocket Aristotle includes these words in the introduction by Justin Kaplan:

[Aristotle] devoted his life to codifying and rationalizing what was then the sum of human knowledge.

Kaplan goes on to list some of Aristotle’s accomplishments and the obstacles he had to overcome to achieve them. Then this:

And underlying all these achievements was this: he was a logician of subtlety and strength, and a searcher after the knowledge that transcends and exists independent of all other knowledge. He called this knowledge “first philosophy” or “wisdom.”

May I draw your attention to two words in the quotations above? First, quotation one: the word “rationalization.” Then in quotation two, the word “and.”

I hope the word rationalization continues to maintain the meaning it expresses in Kaplan’s sentence in the days to come, because it is a hint to an ancient meaning that is more authentic than the modern meaning. To “rationalize the sum of… human knowledge,” is an impressive goal, but it does actually mean something.

Aristotle was attempting to bring all the knowledge he had access to into a harmony, a whole in which every part had its place and in which the place of every part served for the flourishing of every other part. His vision of reality was musical. Discord argued for error. How different from what we think of as “cold rationalism” today.

Aristotle saw truth as flames of fire enlightening the soul.

Thus my highlighting the word “and” in the second quotation. I was afraid, when I read the first clause, that it would be followed by a period, that Kaplan would suggest that the underlying force of Aristotle’s thought was his logical power.

And indeed, Aristotle was a logical genius of the first rank. His development of the syllogism (which Kaplan argues “now has little real function”) and his Organon make up the earliest sustainable handbooks for thinking the world ever saw. They remain unmatched in their breadth and depth.

But Aristotle was not a mere logician. He was a seeker after wisdom, a philosopher. The difference is significant.

Here is how I would seek to express the difference between a logician and a philosopher:

The philosopher seeks to PERCEIVE the essence of things, to know them according to their natures, and to treat them appropriately. He seeks, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, to rightly order and to appropriately judge. For the philosopher everything turns on what Plotinus, at least, and I think Plato and Aristotle as well, called “intelligible form.”

The form of a thing is its essence, the fishness of fish, the redness of red, the justice of justice, etc.. “Intelligible” means understandable, but much more than that in Aristotle. It means that the form or essence of the thing is perceivable by what came to be called “the mind’s eye.”

But the logician, inasmuch as he is a logician and not a philosopher, only has the tools of logic to work with. These tools support philosophy and assist the philosopher, but logic is not philosophy and can only deal with what it is given. Logic, in this sense, is not the same as reason either.

Logic looks for consistency in the statements or propositions with which it is dealing. It is valuable only insofar as the statements carry truth. Logic seeks validity in an argument, not truth itself.

In a way, logic is like a game. Or maybe it would be better to say, logic is the rules of the game. But then, a game is defined by its rules, so to say it is a game, is to say it is the rules of the game. Even so, baseball is a game defined by its rules.

But logic is not about perception. Sensory perception (what we see with our eyes, touch with our hands, etc.) is a starting point for logic, but by no means all it has to work with. Intellectual perception can also provide material to the logician, but this comes from an experience higher than the rules of the game of logic.

In short, logic is not the highest authority on reality, just a tool to help us think about it consistently.

That is why I can constuct logical nonsense, such as:

All Puddleglums are blue things
All blue things are foxtrots
Therefore all puddleglums are fox trots

Logical, yes, but meaningless except as the form itself carries meaning.

So while the philosopher’s foundational concept is intelligible form, for the logician that foundational concept is the universal.

While the form is perceived by the mind’s eye, the universal is more like a chess piece or a counter in a game. “All Puddleglums” is merely a thought. So is “all Rhinoscopes.” In fact, you could even say that “all foxes” is merely a concept in the head of the thinker.

But this is precisely where the great historical argument between the philosopher and the logician breaks out. The philosopher says, “Yes, all foxes may be merely a concept in the head of the thinker, but foxness itself is not. “Fox” is the form of every fox and is what makes the fox a fox.”

The logician, since as logician he cannot perceive forms or essences of things, says, “No, there is no essence of fox. Fox is a name we give to all the things that share the same characteristics because it is convenient and helpful for us to do so.”

This argument is often described as the argument over universals. I would suggest that that is a misnomer, almost certainly coined by someone who takes the side of the logician. It isn’t the argument over universals, but over form vs. logic.

And it only becomes an argument when logic attempts to do more than it is able to do, that is, to do philosophy or theology. Logic is a vice-regent with vast power. But it cannot be the emperor for the simple reason that it cannot see far enough.

Ironic things arise from the uprising of logic (which took place in the middle ages, especially under Peter Abelard and William of Ockham (Occam if you prefer)) including the rise of nominalism, the obsession with the particular that gave rise to empiricism and the scientific revolt, the breakdown of thought into disparate specialized subjects, and the neglect of philosophy and theology.

It’s strange, because the philosopher is a formalist who believes in a knowable reality within which men can be free and powers can be limited, but the logician rapidly bows to the empiricist or the rationalist who always ends up believing that reality is not knowable, there is no law above the state, and freedom is an illusion that they are unable to see.

This distinction between philosophy and logic is very difficult and precise, but very important. Had the logician never exalted himself so far, we wouldn’t have to climb up to remind him of his place. We could rejoice in the ability of the common man to see truth (the essence of things) because his soul is attuned to it (he usually calls it common sense) and he knows what freedom and justice are before his teacher comes and clouds his perceptions.

Teach logic and teach it well. Enable your students to learn its powers and its limitations. Just remember that it doesn’t see forms, it analyzes universals. It may well be the child who sees forms the best, so the philosopher is always trying to become like a little child.

Which Comes First?

The point for the liberal arts teacher to keep in mind is that the trivium and quadrivium were established before the pragmatic advantages of those disciplines appeared, developed out of the natural desire of man to know, not because they were immediately practical.

Marion Montgomery The Truth of Things: Liberal Arts and the Recovery of Reality, P. 62

Inside, Outside, Upside Down

You can live from the inside, or you can live from the outside.

You can think from the inside, or you can think from the outside.

You can read from the inside, or you can read from the outside.

You can teach from the inside – but only if you live, think, and read from the inside.

To live, think, and read from the inside you must enter into the thing you live with, the thought you are thinking about, the text you are reading.

To live, think, and read from the outside, you only need to look at it.

Most living, thinking, reading, and teaching are done from the outside.

The greatness of the great teacher is the ability to get inside and lead his students there.

Things can only be loved on the inside, where they cannot be measured.

Things can only be measured on the outside, where they cannot be known.

By living on the outside, we have turned education and our civilization upside down.

Truth, Tradition, and Trajedy

In general, three approaches have dominated education from the beginning of time and I’m not sure there can be any more that are not combinations, parts, or permutations of these three.

The sophist does not believe in a knowable universe, so he focuses on adapting to change. The modern version of this approach is progressivism.

The traditionalist believes that knowledge is embodied in a tradition, so he focuses on absorbing and perpetuating that tradition. Many variations of this approach are followed in contemporary schools, but the best of the traditional theorists is probably ED Hirsch with his Core Knowledge approach.

The classicist believes in a knowable world in which knowledge is perception and relationship.

Individual Christians hold to any of these views, though Christianity is obviously a tradition in that its truths reside, not in the discoveries of the student, but in the wisdom of the fathers.

I find that Christian teachers trained in conventional colleges are strongly influenced by Progressive approaches, which discourage, by their nature, philosophical reflection on what you are doing.

For the most part, accepting these Progressive approaches without reflection undercuts the work and claims of the Christian school.

I don’t believe any of these approaches aligns with the teachings of scripture at a high level except for the classical approach.

At the root of the classical approach is a commitment to the belief that things have a nature and that we can know them according to their natures and treat them in ways fitting to their natures.

In addition, things have a purpose, and love enables its object to fulfill both its purpose and its nature.

In the classical tradition, the object of a science is to know the nature of a thing. The object of an art is to refine one’s ability to know the nature of things.

The sophist or Progressive educator does not believe we can know anything.

The traditionalist believes that we can know only through the tradition.

The classicist believes that we can perceive the nature of things and relate to them according to their natures.

What does your teaching lead your students to? That will tell you which of these theories you hold.


Why Formal?

Maybe I’ve already addressed this but I know it’s a big question and one that needs to be thought about as completely as possible.

Why teach formal grammar? Why not just teach it as it comes up, as the need arises?

I want to be sure to not create a disagreement where none exists. I think you should teach grammar when the need arises. I even think it is extremely effective to do so and very possibly more effective than at other times.

So I do agree with anybody who says that we should teach grammar informally in response to needs.

If there is a disagreement I would have to hold fast over, it would be with anybody who went to the extreme of suggesting that we should only teach grammar informally, perhaps even only according to “felt need.”

We aren’t trying to sell it to the students, we are trying to teach them.

I am simply contending that grammar needs to be taught formally, not that it shouldn’t be taught informally.

So why teach it formally?

From what I can tell, people seem to hold to two general motivations: we should teach formal grammar because it is practical and/or we should teach formal grammar because it is sound.

On the practical side, there seem to be three advantages to learning formal grammar:

  1. It gives a person more control over his language, and thus enables him to communicate better (more intelligently, more effectively, and more consistently or logically). This applies to writing and speaking as well as reading and listening.
  2. It enables a person to learn a foreign language more easily. For the most part, the differences between languages are in the words and their patterns. But at the root of every language are the parts of speech and how we use them. So by learning what languages have in common, we can more easily learn where they are different.
  3. It enables a person to do well on a test, such as the SAT or the Civil Service Exams.

Each of these is a fine reason to use grammar under most circumstances, though none are a necessary good in itself. They show us that grammar offers many advantages, but they don’t tell us about her own unique excellences.

If you enjoy her for her own sake, she’ll give you these benefits. If you demand the benefits but dishonor her, you’ll eventually lose the benefits.

Grammar, in my view, should be taught for her own sake.

Because it isn’t, the benefits she offers are rarely gained.

When they are, she gives them humbly, so the recipient often can’t trace them back to her. Consequently, Grammar has many more beneficiaries than votaries.

When you teach grammar for her own sake, you keep the benefits and also gain her blessings, many of which are simply unpredictable.

When a child learns formal grammar, he becomes her intimate acquaintance and they flourish in a symbiotic relationship like a cherished governess or mother.

She forms his mind to its own nature. She empowers the child to think.

Form itself becomes a mental habit – if the soil is ready. You come to realize that things have structures. You start looking for the structures of things like language, poetry, literature, natural objects (e.g. trees, bodies, the cosmos), and knowledge itself.

By recognizing structure and order you come to perceive the relationships between things and you realize that the life of the thing is embodied in its structure.

You come to love order.

But you don’t make it the end of your observations. It is always a foundation, a skeleton, and never the spirit.

I can imagine some readers hearing the words form, structure, and order and deriving a very different connotation than the one I hear.

Perhaps you hear constraint and limitation. And you think that limitation binds and enslaves us.

And indeed, that would be true if we were infinite beings who could exist without form. However, anything that is not infinite can be what it is only within the constraints that make it what it is. These define (set limits to) its nature.

You can only be a free human being if you accept what a human being is. To chafe at the limits of our human nature is, practically speaking, to hate human beings.

A word also has a definition. That definition limits what the word means. If the word means everything, then it means nothing.

A sentence uses form and words to express a limited meaning.

As Wendell Berry put it so perfectly, “The sentence is both the opportunity and the limitation of thought.”

Thought cannot think about everything. To try to do so is irresponsible.

A word cannot mean everything.

A sentence cannot think everything.

A government cannot rule everything.

And when a young child learns the form of grammar, he develops two habits of mind that are essential to self-governance and freedom:

  • He learns to limit what he is saying to what he is trying to say – he learns to think with limits and therefore to think about something
  • And he learns to insist that others mean something when they speak and limit themselves when they rule

So learn grammar for all the practical reasons you want to learn it. But love her for herself too. She’ll give you rewards you couldn’t have imagined before you fell in love.

When and How to Teach Grammar: II – Reflections on studying a foreign language

For two thousand years, no one in the western tradition challenged the notion that education should be based on the liberal arts, starting with grammar… It was not until the beginning of the twentieth century in America that a full-fledged revolt against the liberal arts occurred.

David Mulroy
The War Against Grammar

The goal in teaching grammar is to attain “second nature” competence. For some reason, in modern teaching theories this second nature element of language seems to go largely unrecognized (in the classical tradition it was a big deal. Aristotle used and, I think, coined the term), at least when it comes to language study.

For example, virtually every foreign language program these days markets itself as informal and immediately useful. They boast about the speed with which the student will be able to speak and even think in the foreign language.

Of course, what they mean is that the student will be able to ask for food or a cigarette as soon as they disembark.

The assumption seems to be that if you learn a language conversationally then you can say you know that language. So they talk about how you will learn a second language the same way you learned your own language and they think that is a virtue.

But have you ever stopped to think how hard you had to work to learn your own language? I have five children and I watched them do it. It took years, with an astounding number of models and corrections and suggestions and experiments.

The way you learn your first language is a great way to learn your first language, since it is the only way you can learn a first language and since the human mind is created to excel at that sort of learning between about 15 months and about five years.

But its a horrible way to have to learn a foreign language, especially if the speaker of the foreign language isn’t utterly fluent in that language.

But we seem to have an oven-burner aversion to formal instruction. It may be nothing more than intellectual laziness, but only an individual can look at himself to know that.

What I mean is that, formal instruction rests on the assertion of the will.

When you are learning “naturally,” as they sometimes call it, you don’t really have to assert your will. You pay attention and let the lesson carry you, like a TV show would, but you don’t have to demand much of yourself.

I will only note here, without indulging the temptation to fall down a rabbit hole, that the training of the will stands outside the consideration of most modern pedagogy for the simple reason that much post-Darwinian thought does not believe in a will the way the classical and Christian thinkers did.

What I’m saying about the point at hand is that contemporary educators and text book developers tend to avoid formal instruction, and this is certainly true of foreign language instruction, because of an aversion to formality. They think you can learn grammar and a foreign language on the fly.

And there’s an element of truth to what they do that would be neglected to our loss. Anytime you learn any skill, you need the informal element. Like anything, you can see this best in the physical realm. If you want to learn how to play basketball, you’ll want to play a lot of pick up ball. If you want to learn how to skate, you’ll want to tie those skates on and head to the park.

But in neither case can you attain mastery without formal instruction. I am proof of that with baseball, basketball, soccer, and football. I played all four of those games constantly as a boy. My best game was baseball, which I tried to play 24/7/365. But I was never systematically coached at it because every summer I went to camp for a week or two and it never entered my mind that I’d be allowed to miss that time.

So I became a decent baseball player who could field a ground ball off the gravel, but I never learned the fine points that would have made me a good baseball player.

So it is for so many of us when it comes to language.

We take it a step further and resent the notion that there is a right way to speak or write. “Who are you to impose your grammar and vocabulary on a subgroup?” we ask, thereby excluding members of these subgroups from political or social involvement that requires refined language, and setting them up as victims of petty demagogues.

But language does have a form and that form is rooted in the nature of the world and of the human mind. Thus, in a way that might seem ironic to some, the best shortcut you can take to learning a foreign language is to study it formally.

For example, I still want to learn Latin, even though I know that apart from a miracle of providential grace I’ll never be able to do so properly. So I try to pick up the Latin Grammar for a few minutes every day. I’ll review endings or read up on prepositions or remind myself how adjectives work. By doing so, I learn the form of Latin.

Vocabulary is the least challenging part of a foreign language. In fact, if I were teaching people who had an internal motivation to learn a foreign language so they didn’t need any short term cheaper satisfactions, I would hardly teach vocabulary at all for the first few lessons. I’d teach them three or four verbs and then show them a bunch of things you can do with them. In other words, I’d teach them the forms of the verb in that language.

Then I’d teach them how to form nouns, using three or four nouns.

It would lead to conceptually boring sentences, but so would any other option. You can’t write many interesting sentences for the first bit of a language program.

So why bother trying? Teach them how verbs and nouns behave while they don’t need to be distracted by also trying to figure out what the words mean. Then add a few more words as they get more and more effective at forming them.

Approaching it this way has less practical value, in the sense that you couldn’t go to Italy and ask for a coffee in good crisp Italian. But if that’s my goal, then I should just go to Italy for two weeks and send the kids on walking tours by themselves. Necessity, Plato taught us, is the mother of invention.

But it has much more practical value if the goal is to learn the language very well over the long term, to learn how to think, to learn how language works, to learn their own language better, and to learn grammar.

Ironically, the biggest problem I encounter when I study the forms of Latin is when I don’t know the meaning of terms like participle, modifier, voice, mood, clause, reflexive, and others, which I would never have any trouble with if, in my middle school years, I had learned English grammar.

Blogs are hard to keep disciplined, so I hope I haven’t wandered around so much as to be incomprehensible. My point in this post is to say that we should teach grammar formally, not just “naturally” so called and not just “practically.”

Knowledge is a good thing, good for its own sake. It doesn’t need a practical justification. People like knowing things. Children like knowing grammar. So teach them.

To make that point, I have reflected a bit on my encounters with foreign langauge study. My argument is that almost every contemporary foreign language program errs by being too practical and too informal. As a result, children might well learn the foreign language they are studying, but that’s pretty much all they’ll learn.

They could have also learned about the structure of their souls, the order of reality, the form of thought, and how things fit together – though they would not have learned much of that directly and not all of them ever would have learned it.

So to the immediate, practical questions of when and how to teach grammar, I’ll add this:

  • Informal language study is best in the preschool years. I wish every preschool child could be bilingual, at least. I could not care less what foreign language they learn at that age.
  • Formal English grammar should be taught very simply, systematically, and gradually beginning in second grade.
  • In K and 1 children should be taught about verbs and nouns and some basic modifiers, but not so much with technical language. The crucial point for this age is that the teachers MUST speak with excellent grammar and diction and they must know the technical side of grammar well enough to know how and when to correct children (and yes, K and 1 students should be corrected for incorrect grammar!)
  • In the middle school years, every student should study grammar and composition intensively. Fail to teach formal grammar in these years and the golden age of grammar instruction has been lost. You can and must still learn formal grammar if you want to be educated, but it will be more difficult the older you get. There is just something about these “logic” stage years that makes kids pick up formal grammar (which is really a logical study) quite readily.
  • In high school, students should be writing constantly and, assuming they have learned what they should have learned by this stage, they should be required to use sound grammar in all of their writing for every class. In addition, they should go on to learn the finer points of grammar during these years. Until their senior year they should not be allowed to break the rules of grammar for rhetorical purposes unless they can explicitly and formally defend their actions.
  • The instruction I am referring to in this bullet point list refers to formal training in one’s own language. But their is no better way to drive home grammar lessons than learning to translate into and out of your own language. Therefore, in third grade, I recommend commencing the formal study of Latin Grammar – slowly, systematically, gradually.
  • I also recommend the memorization of Latin and Greek passages from great literature as early as possible. Age doesn’t matter here. If you want, you can also translate.

You probably can see that I think language is important. Is anything in school more important?

Indeed, everything else depends on it. Give her back her place.

And here’s the thing: close attention to formal grammar accelerates the process by which grammar becomes second nature. Just as, for most students, formal instruction in phonetics accelerates the pace by which decoding becomes second nature and the child can get on with reading, and formal instruction in the math tables accelerates the pace by which adding and subtracting become second nature and students can get on with fractions, geometry, algebra and the hidden mysteries of math, and formal instruction in dance accelerates (yea, makes possible) the pace by which a ballerina can dance en pointe, and formal instruction in painting accelerates the pace by which a painter can express the hidden mysteries of the universe in a smile.

Systematic formal instruction, in other words, saves the child from having to learn a foreign language the way he had to learn his own. That requires that he learn the form of his own language.

When and How to Teach Grammar: Beginning Reflections

Since grammar is so important, the question becomes, “when and how should I teach it?”

Happily, the first question is pretty easy, so I’ll deal with it first.

“When should I teach grammar?”


Or let me be a little more specific: any time you do anything that involves language or thinking.

I’ll remind my readers that the thinking part is just as important, because grammar is not ultimately rooted in language, which is a structured collection of symbols, but in thought itself, which uses those symbols to perform its task.

And I’ll push it a step further and say that grammar is not ultimately rooted even in thinking, but in reality itself. Nothing can exist without something “predicable” of it – i.e. something that you can say or think about it.

Thus grammar goes beyond language to thinking and thinking goes beyond words to reality – to things that exist.

But I can push a step further still and argue that grammar is ultimately rooted in God Himself. I might develop this thought further in a later post, but when Moses asked God whom he should tell the Egyptians and Israelites has sent him, God answered, “I am.”

That’s a pretty profound statement when we come to thinking about the world around us, the soul within, the people among us, and the God above us.

Which may explain why Nietzsche, that famous atheist, famously stated, “We will not be rid of God until we are rid of grammar.”


So that maybe answers the question why a Christian would want to study grammar – so we don’t get “rid of God.”

But it also lays a foundation for the answer to the question “When should I teach grammar?”

We must not think about grammar as an academic study. Life is not for school; school is for life. We should always teach grammar for the simple reason that we always do teach grammar.

If you are speaking to another person, you are helping form the pattern of that person’s thinking. You are contributing to his vocabulary (maybe that’s more obvious), and you are also contributing to the structure of his thought.

If you constantly speak to your two or three year old child in one and two word sentences, that is how your child will tend to think. And that’s more or less OK with a one year old, less so with a two year old, and horrible with a three year old.

Maybe it would help to draw a distinction between formal and informal instruction. But the two overlap a great deal, so don’t let the lines between the two grow too thick.

You are always teaching grammar informally, because you are always setting patterns for imitation for those around you.

To reverse the movement: If you listen to sermons with sloppy grammar, you will make a space in your soul for that pattern. If you like the person giving the sermon, you might even come up with (irrelevant) defenses for that sloppy grammar.

If you are a pastor or preacher, may I entreat on behalf of the God who gave us His written word and is the Living Word, please attend to your grammar.

If you listen to friends use sloppy grammar, you will find it much more difficult to resist the inclination to pattern your minds on the way they are speaking. Friends can literally make each other dumber or smarter.

As a mother, you should do everything in your power to form words correctly and to form sentences even more correctly. If you are not confident in your own grammar, read to your children, but only from books with sound grammar.

And don’t be discouraged. I’ve indicated my need to refine my grammar, which is one reason I keep writing about it when I ought to be working on other things. But this is that important; income or no. Part of rebuilding our civilization is rebuilding our grammar, so we can think and communicate and know better.

So when should I teach grammar? Always.

But a caution: don’t be burdened and don’t make it a burden. As adults trying to learn what we didn’t learn as children, it can be a terrible nuisance because we’ve formed habits. So many of mine arise from late 70’s adolescent cool tones.

I remember as a teenager, about 15 or 16, having a spiritual experience. One strange thing that came out of it was a recognition that the way I spoke was ungodly. I didn’t swear and all that, not very much, but I said “man” all the time.

That really bothered me, so I tried to cut back on it. When I mentioned it to Christian friends, they thought I had a hang-up. That unsettled me a bit, but not anymore. It wasn’t a hang-up; it was a spiritually perceived realization that language matters and that I was using it in self-indulgent, ego-driven ways.

There’s more subtlety to James’s words about the tongue than might be evident on the surface!

We all have habits that we need to break. It’s hard to do so as an adult.

That’s why we should start teaching grammar to our children as early as we possibly can.

But the question arises as to when we should begin to teach it formally.

This also is a more complicated question than we might wish. If you know grammar very well, you might never have to teach it formally. You might be so attuned to it that every time you speak you express it well and every time you hear someone else speak you can guide them to grammatical glory.

But the people who could do that left us when the east coast elite women left the classroom for the boardroom. Thanks a lot…

What about the rest of us? When should we start teaching grammar?

Here we can be intimidated by the ocean of complexity and detail that overwhelms us. It is because of this detail and complexity, combined with our formal ignorance, that text books are needed.

So now we have to add to our questions, “When should I start?” and “How should I teach it?” a third question, “What text book should I use?”

Let’s catch our breath. So far, I’ve tried to convince you that grammar is a wonderful and powerful thing so your students/children will benefit enormously from learning it and God will be glorified.

I’ve also argued that children are learning grammar constantly from the environment in which they live, the pond in which they swim.

Furthermore, I’ve recognized the extraordinary challenge we all face because very few of us were taught grammar rigorously when we were children – even those of us who can look back to the 60’s and earlier.

But my basic point in all of this remains and I’ll argue for it with passion: we absolutely need to teach our children correct, formal grammar until it becomes second nature for them.

Now, I’ve dropped a few hints and comments about how we need to start teaching grammar informally as early as when the child is in the womb for the simple reason that we do start teaching it that soon. What I mean is this: since we do it anyway, let’s do it consciously.

Or even this: since we do it anyway, we are morally bound to do it consciously and correctly.

The discussion about the informal teaching of grammar could last forever because you teach this way in response to circumstances and events. It’s an on-the-fly mode of teaching.

You can only teach what you know that way.

I was fortunate in this area, because my mother grew up in Potsdam (as I have only recently learned) in Germany. She left at the end of WWII when she was in her late teens.

German, therefore, was her first language, and that, from what I can tell, a rather formal version of German.

When she came to the states and tried to raise four barbarian sons, she was not at all hesitant about correcting our speech. I don’t know if we consciously listened to her corrections and made an effort to implement them, but we lived under her voice and with her corrections as part of the water we swam in.

She spoke with a pretty thick Prussian accent, but she used good structure and I have no doubt that my ears were attuned to the rhythms of her speech.

As I recall, she spoke clearly. She used to make up stories for us when we would drive hither and yon (I kept getting drowned in them for some reason!) and in my memory the sentences were crisp and clear.

And an important point: the fact that she corrected our grammar breathed into our souls the idea that grammar mattered, even if only to mom. I could have taken the rebellious path and determined that I would deny her values, but my desire to know what the Bible meant sort of pinned me in.

My mother could teach grammar on the fly – but not technically, as far as I can recall. I don’t remember her ever naming the parts and forms we were supposed to use. I just remember that she told us we were supposed to use them.

So we went to school – the Milwaukee Public Schools for the most part, though we spent a year and a half at a Lutheran school. I learned enough there by third grade to get me comfortably into fifth in the public school.

In fact, I received more than just content there, and I don’t think I’ve ever thought about this since then because my bottom reminds me what an unpleasant time I had there. But the instruction at least included a formal element that not only gives the mind things to think about but sets patterns for the mind to move in when it thinks.

And that leads to the question of how to teach grammar formally.

However, nobody can stand any more of this in a single blog post, so I’ll stop for now and pick that up in a later post.

This much I’ll say: formal grammatical instruction is one of the five foundations of all learning and you literally CANNOT be educated without it.

Thanks for stopping by!

Your theory of writing

People of a more practical bent will sometimes suggest they don’t have a theory. Others argue that theory is a distraction or isn’t important.

Those positions (each a caricature in itself) hold a view of theory that arises from a reaction to the overly academic approach we take to writing. The great temptation for any teacher or school is to isolate what happens in the school or classroom from the rest of life and then to exalt it over things outside the school or classroom.

When schools do that, people outside the schools can overreact the other way and deny the importance of what happens in the school. And to the extent that the school overvalued itself, the anti-school people will be right.

The only value of education is what it actually accomplishes in the soul and for the life of the student.

All of which is preamble to indicate the unnecessary tension between theory and practice that I pointed to in my previous post.

My thesis here is simple: since, as we have perhaps already established, we all have a writing theory, that theory forms our expectations and practices as writers and teachers. 

The cosequence of my thesis is that the theory we hold, therefore, effects the quality of our instruction and the degree of our mastery of the art.

For example, if a student thinks that writing is a great mystery, a gift descending from the gods, he will practice accordingly. He may pray a lot if he wants to write well, but he won’t try to exercise a discipline he doesn’t believe exists.

Put in that caricature, that position might seem absurd, but that caricature expresses rather nicely the unconscious presupposition I held as a high school student. It’s easy to see why, because to this day the achievements of the great poets leave me breathless and, to be perfectly honest, often envious.

How was Shakespeare able to write the way he did? How could Chaucer so continually throw out lines with such grace and subtlety? How could John Donne hide so many, many layers of meaning in the 14 lines of a sonnet.

It’s no wonder that Homer begins his epics with the words “Sing goddess…” and Milton, “Sing heavenly muse.”

And both were, I’m certain, quite genuine in their appeal. Their theory of poetry led them to call for divine help.

So does mine.

Shakespeare seems not to have held such a theory. He was, one might say, a more secular poet, certainly than Homer or Milton, if not Virgil (Arms and the man I sing).

Behind those prayers lay a theology and a cosmology and an anthropology that inform every line of the poets’ work.

The absence of such lines in contemporary poetry indicate a different theology, cosmology, and anthropology.

When a person writes, he comes to the task with beliefs about how important writing is, the source of the power to do it, and how one practices it. Writing workshops and classes are not the place to teach such things. They already embody them in their modes and structures.

For example, the typical school class assumes that writing is taught by a text book through exercises and that pretty well anybody can teach it with the right text book. Administrative structures and assessment expectations pretty well demand this theory, if it isn’t in place ahead of time.

What I mean is that, given how we run our schools and hold them accountable, we need to believe that writing, like everything else in school, simply needs to be administered to the student in the right dosage. Then a standardized test can take our temperature – it can tell us whether we succeeded.

A workshop, on the other hand, will recognize the need for judgment and direct feedback.

At CiRCE, for example, we believe that writing can be learned only through an apprenticeship. Writing is a craft, and a craft can only be learned through coaching by a master. That is why we put so much emphasis on the need for the teacher to understand the ideas taught in our Lost Tools of Writing program.

Writing, like every art, requires judgment. That is why people often say, “There are no rules.”

They are almost right. The one rule is propriety. This directs the teacher’s and students’ attention away from rules to purpose and nature, because propriety is determined by the nature and the purpose of the act, the actor, and the other participants in the act.

And propriety requires judgment.

And judgment takes awareness of principles, understanding of the nature of the act, process, and artifact, knowledge of the thing represented in the writing, wisdom, and clarity of purpose.

Writing needs to be taught practically – it’s a craft.

And you can never develop the judgment writing requires if you don’t thoroughly understand the rules of normal writing.

Practical writing, therefore, is always taught within a theoretical framework, a paradigm if you like. The failure to teach children spelling, grammar, and usage in the contemporary school arises from a theory of human nature, of education, and of writing that undercuts all three, as reflected in the growing inability and unwillingness of the people to communicate with any care or depth over the past few generations.

So to become a great writer or to help your students become one, you’ll want to do what you can to clarify your theory. The good news is that that clarification begins with common sense observations.

More good news: there are plenty of sources available to develop your theory of writing in dialogue with others. But be careful. If you read what other people say, you might not be looking at what writers do and how children learn. The value of what others say comes in the rather obvious fact that they’ll see things you can’t see and if they’ve written something it almost certainly has been thought about for a while. But if the theory is bad, the thought will only make it worse.

Some sources:

  • Aristotle: Poetics (short read, worth reading a lot over the years. This still drives most movie writing)
  • Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Read his comments to the players in Acts 2 and 3 (if my memory is on)
  • Wendell Berry: Standing By Words (simply incredible)
  • Anything about theory by Ezra Pound. Watch out for his politics.
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biologia Literaria (probably the hardest of these to read – don’t start with this)
  • Louis Markos, Teaching Company series on the History of literary criticism. Very nice introduction to theories over time, (though I think he misunderstood Plato’s point in the Republic).

I’ll leave it there for now. Those will do for one or two lifetimes anyway.

What About the Great Books

I believe the author of the blog Quid Est bears the name Jennifer, and she generously quoted an earlier post from a blog I had written while adding some of her own refreshingly thoughtful reflections.

Here’s what she quoted from my earlier blog:

“Are there any schools that self-consciously regard themselves as carriers of that tradition, who deliberately set aside the relative trivia of the modern curriulum, and who teach their children deeply to contemplate those few masterpieces that sustain civilization and nourish our souls?

What am I dreaming about? A school that teaches its students only a few books and teaches them how to read them with all their hearts and souls and minds and strength. They read them, they translate them, they discuss them, they imitate them, they write about them, they live in their wisdom.”

And here’s how she replied:

Here Kern addresses the question of canon and “Great Books,” about which I have mixed feelings.

To me, setting up a select few works as “great” literature involves claiming an absolute standard that is, in its relationship to literature, vague and imprecise. Like it or not, these definitions are also closely linked to systems of power, and focus almost exclusively on the literature of the western world.

It seems to me that if great literature is based on great truth, that truth will not emerge only in the West, or, to quote the cliche, in the writings of “dead white males.”

On the other hand, without some judgment of what is true and valuable, meaning becomes generic, nothing more than an arbitrary construct; and I find that conclusion no more satisfying than the first.

I wonder if there is a place for acknowledging the presence (and absence) of quality writing, truth, and beauty in literature without categorically eliminating works that range outside the traditional canon.

As usual, my next question is, if so, what would that look like?

 I love a reply like that because it opens up so many avenues for discussion, each one I’m sorely tempted to go down. But I have to preprare for my trip to TX next week with Andrew Pudewa, so I need to discipline myself and indulge only in what time and duty permit.

So why not start by addressing the suggestion that I have addressed the question of the great books.

She’s right; I have.

I didn’t mean to, actually, but I did.

I said that some masterpieces sustain civilization and nourish our souls, and the implication is that there are great books that we should read.

However, I am thinking about this question of the great books in what I believe to be a significantly different way from the way I normally hear it addressed.

For one thing, I’m suggesting we think about requiring kids to read a lot fewer books.

In my opinion, we tend to read out of curiosity or the teacher’s fetish or the curriculum producer’s priorities, or some other inadequate reason for presuming to control what enters a child’s mind.

For the ancient Greeks, to some extent the Romans, and completely to the Christians, literature was directed to the nurturing of the soul. It was Paideia.

For us, it is oriented toward specializing in literature. God save us.

I want young children to never hear that Dick ran or that Jane stumbled or whatever they did.

I want them to hear that Pinochio became a boy when he loved and obeyed his father, that the princess couldn’t sleep because a pea seventeen mattresses down disturbed her, that Rumpelstiltskin ripped himself apart because he was found out and because that’s just the kind of person he was.

I want the needs of the soul to be attended to again; not just the most superficial productive activities of the mind.

So I’d like to see younger children read a decent number of really excellent, psychologically healthy (unlike, say, Barney or Veggie Tales) fairy tales, folk tales, fables, myths, etc.

I want their imaginations stored with morally useful metaphors.

I’m not contending for a closed canon. I’m contending that our age is so decadent that only by sheer grace will anything arise from it that is worth preserving for our children for the long term.

Also, now that I’m on children’s literature, I don’t believe that great children’s literature can be developed by an individual. It takes time, retelling, and a genius to summarize it. My bias, therefore, in children’s literature, will always be away from anything contemporary and toward things ancient and refined.

But my earlier post wasn’t so much about children’s literature as about what students start reading around, say, 6th grade.

Here my contention needs to be understood in the context I set. I said:

Literature, in the classical tradition, never had a class of its own and it certainly was never taught as a historical phenomenon. Both the class and the historical approach seem to have developed during the 19th century in Germany, where the modern school was born and nurtured in the short-lived incestuous relationship of Enlightenment and Romanticism.

In the Christian classical tradition, children were taught grammar, which was a rich vein for the intellect.

Grammar comes from grammatikos: letters. It included what we mean by grammar, but that was considered a rather small, though foundational and important, portion of it. However, the word literature itself, which comes from the Latin litera: letters, is probably a better translation of what they meant by grammar.

My blog was about the use of the word grammar and where it came from originally. And my argument was that it is an “art” not a “subject.”

This makes all the difference in the world. If it’s a subject, then I would seem to be contending for a conventional great books curriculum.

If it’s an art, that point becomes somewhat irrelevent. What I want is for the students to master the art.

That means finding a few models that they imitate and translate and paraphrase, etc. etc.

It doesn’t close the curriculum to the west or to the works of dead white men, like, say, George Eliot or Jane Austen, Booker T. Washington or Confucius.

It also means that the teacher has to be a master.

So what do I think of the Great Books Program?

I like that people are reading Plato and Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. I’m disappointed that people are corrupting their souls with Hobbes and Machiavelli and Rousseau. I wouldn’t burn them, but as long as their ideas are welcomed into people’s minds, civilization will be that much harder to renew.

I don’t like its more or less Hegelian approach to literature as primarily a historical phenomenon with no essence of its own (which is what the art would focus on).

I don’t like that most of the books selected are from the 16th century onward, that there is nothing from the eastern Empire, that they don’t include any of the works of Athanasius or the Cappadocian fathers (whose historical importance transcends almost everything else in the set they publish), and a lot of other stuff.

I don’t accept the neutral approach it seems to think it has taken.

I don’t think it will help people become great writers because they use pretty rotten translations sometimes, people tend to want to read the whole set or to be overwhelmed by its size s0 they don’t imitate the masters, and the books selected are only occasionally well-written.

So it seems I would entirely agree with she whose name I believe to be Jennifer! I have mixed feelings.

The idea of a closed canon would be ridiculous, but I don’t know of anybody outside of the caricatures who would argue for that.

My concern in this discussion is practical: I want children to follow the path that will lead them to greatness as writers.

To be a great writer one must have a great soul.

A great soul is perceptive, silent, receptive, appropriate.

None of these qualities can be developed without nourishing the child’s soul on the true, the good, and the beautiful.

But what about this question of a standard for greatness?

Jennifer (I think) rightly points out that such a standard would be imprecise. That is such a great point that I’m going to simply state it here and stew on it for awhile. I’ll write about it tomorrow or later if I should get a chance.

In sum, Jennifer, if you should ever stop by this blog again to read this one, and if you are in fact Jennifer, let me commend you for your wonderfully thoughtful post. I can’t wait to read more of your thoughts on your blog and I can’t wait to reflect more on this one.