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.