A book saved!

Having moved my office, I am overcrowded and looking for books that I should get rid of. The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English, third Canadian Edition, published in 1979, seemed like a prime candidate. Then I came across these marvelous words:

Good writers recognize that not all ideas merit equal rank.

Oh how I would love to know if you can find that phrase in the current edition. It’s so thoroughly judgmental, so hierarchical. I cannot imagine the masters of language during the 90’s could possibly have allowed this phrase to survive.

But I still have it! You cannot take it away from me. In fact, now I have broadcast it to the reading masses.

The fundamental principle of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, the basis of all sound thinking, has been preserved.

I shall keep this book, humbly and reverentially. I shall give it an honored place on my shelf next to The Holt Handbook, also third edition, 1992. It expresses the idea a bit more sheepishly, more concretely, less in your face. But the authors at least admit the obvious:

When you want to indicate that one idea is less important than another, you subordinate the secondary idea to the primary one.

Now, having let the cat out of the bag, the authors get a little carried away. Watch this:

Independent clauses can stand alone as sentences.

Followed, after a couple examples, by this:

Dependent clauses, introduced by subordinating conjunctions or relative pronouns, cannot stand alone.

They must be out of their MINDS! Who do they think they are suggesting that some things are dependent and others independent, that some things are more important than others (ironically, I might contend this phrasing, but we’ll leave that aside for now). Do they not recognize that the very structure of language is tyrannical, hierarchical, judgmental?

Do they not know the only cure to these plagues?

What is the cure, you ask?

Stop teaching people how to think coherent thoughts.


Since I’ve been going on over the comma for the past week or so, I suppose it’s time to draw back and get down to foundations. What purpose does the comma serve? She seems so insignificant and so picky – so anal-retentive. Consider:

The purpose of the comma is to serve as a modest symbol of the structure of the thought expressed, thus of perception and its relation to reality.

Do not imagine that “modest” has inserted herself for ornamental purposes. She is of the essence of the meaning of a comma. The comma, like the phonogram, is modest. It is iconic. It does not desire you to gaze on her, as we are now. She is embarrassed by this attention and has told me so in no uncertain terms threating in fact to leave my blog entirely if I continue to talk about her so much. So I have promised her that I will discuss her only when fitting expression of the idea (her beloved) requires it.

It is important that we note this modesty, because, for the most part, conventional thought disregards the modest, having been conditioned and trained to note what appeals to the senses and to neglect the things that appeal to the intellect.

You can see that preference played out both in the neglect of grammar/punctuation and in the neglect of phonics. Both should be attended to only long enough to enable us not to notice them anymore. If we do not attend to them early, we will attend to them unduly late.

So we must allow the comma her modesty, but not to deprive her of her role.

And that role, remember, is to articulate the structure of the thought expressed. She does not do it alone, nor would she want to, but she plays an essential role.

She enables us to coordinate independent clauses, elements in a series, adjectives that modify the same noun equally, contrasted elements, introductory elements, and absolute phrases. onessential elements.

She allows us to set off nonrestrictive phrases or claues, parenthetical ideas, vocatives, and words in apposition.

She helps us to identify direct quotations, to give honor due by separating names and titles, to clarify dates and addresses, to mark salutations and closings, and to distinguish hundreds from thousands, hundred thousands from millions, hundred millions from billions, and so on, and so on, and so on.

Sometimes she simply helps prevent misreading by indicating omissions and separating repeated words.

She does not shoulder the power of a period or a colon, but how very gracefully she does her work, if only we allow her to do so.

Let me conclude my rhapsody to the comma by quoting from the McGraw-Hill Handbook Of English that I mentioned the other day:

This mark of punctuation, more than any other, helps to clarify the meaning of writing. But its overuse and misuse also obscure meaning more than the misapplication of any of the other marks.

Here are three important facts about the comma that you should keep in mind:

  1. It is a relatively weak mark compared to the period, semi-colon, and colon.
  2. It is always used within a sentence.
  3. It has three primary purposes: (a) to separate sentence elements that might be misread; (b) to enclose or set off constructions within a sentence that act as interrupters; (c) to set off certain introductory sentence elements.

Let us praise her modesty, but let us not neglect her or abuse on account of her virtue.

One last thought. If you are well-acquainted with the comma and do not teach writing, you have probably long ago forgotten exactly why you use the comma the way you do.

I write this, not to distress people who seek to honor the comma and use her rightly, but to enable us to someday live in a world where all but the technicians have forgotten why they use the comma as they do, yet all use her rightly; a world where every child holds up his thesis before the whole human race and proudly acknowledges that he has fulfilled his debt to language and to mankind, that he has structured his thoughts coherently and fittingly and, if called upon to defend his actions, can venerate the holy comma for the truth she has pointed him to.


A Delicious Four Course Sentence

I lighted on this sentence in the November, 1963 edition of Horizon Magazine (which happens to be my birth month). Here is the very type of a long sentence that could not be shortened and still say the same thing.

Here is why I love and demand long sentences and why people who cannot read or write long sentences are suffering half-lives:

It was wholly natural that the visitor who approached the holy city of Constantinople from across the dolphin-torn silvery blue of the Sea of Marmara, and rounded the promontory to enter the Golden Horn, saw rising on the spacious platform of the headland–over the masts of the merchantmen and the roofs of the warehouses, over the Hippodrome and the Senate House and the Great Imperial Palace, over the public square of the Augustaeum with its armor-clad statue of the Emperor on his enormous column–the huge domed mass of Hagia Sophia.

My stylistic puritanism is a little distracted by the “dolphin-torn silvery blue,” but I suspect others will love that phrase and I confess that it carries apt information in a tight purse – so I’ll not criticise it much.

I’ll congratulate him for taking a risk that seems to have worked. Blue might have been enough. Silvery might be the word that worries me most. Dolphin-torn belongs, but maybe is just a little jealous of the attention silvery takes from it. But let it stand. Besides, if you take out silvery, the rhythm is broken.

Look at that marvelous structure and notice how the structure is the story.

He (Philip Sherrard) wanted the reader to see the glory of perhaps the greatest building of the middle ages, the largest building on earth for over 1000 years. But he can’t just tell us of its magnitude. A scientific, quantitative description would render the description vacuous. So he puts us there.

We are the visitor. We know the city we are drawing near to is the “holy city of Constantinople.” To get there we cross the silvery blue sea of Marmara, occasionally, perhaps even frequently, in any case, characteristically torn by the unforgettable grace of the dolphins.

We come round the promontory to approach and then enter the harbor of the Golden Horn and we see – “rising on the spacious platform of the headland” – ah but what we see is too great simply to mention. It is majesty. Entering our vision, it is preceded by its royal attendants – each more magnificent than the other.

First, the common people parade before us under their masts and on their warehouse roofs. But higher still is the object of our wonder.

Next, over the gathering place of  the empire, where games are played and emperors sit with their people – even over the 400,000 seat hippodrome, the splendour of our vision rises.

And still, the senate house, meeting-place of Lords, the Imperial palace, the “armour clad statue of the Emperor” towering atop an enormous ten-drum column of porphyry -a hundred feet high or more – all are dwarfed by the incomparable dome that draws our eyes, and with them our souls, to the “transcendent reality” it embodied.

Vividly, concisely, without a wasted syllable, Philip Sherrard brings us into the presence of a lost glory, through the structure of one glorious sentence.

The visitor approaches.

The visitor sees: over, over, over – the huge domed mass of Holy Wisdom.

Notice too the proportion of the three overs, the single conjunction in the first, the double in the second, the absence in the third.

OK, I can’t justify the adjectives in the “dolphin-torn silvery blue” passage. But I’m here to praise the structure of this magnificent edifice, not its color. By holding the dome to the last clause, and by preceding that final clause with a whole series of properly arranged details, he demonstrates the essential skill of the artist, who, as Wendell Berry so aptly expressed it, is one who “knows what to put where, and when to put it.”

Even our ability to enjoy beauty is diminished by the absence of long sentences.

What is Literature Anyway?

When we teach literature, if we must, our students should not encounter a general, bewildering sampling of all the types of writing, their philosophical roots, their representative masters, and their characteristic obstacles.

Such an approach teaches literary relativism. (I suppose the act of having a literature class probably already assumes a literary relativism, or at least that literature has a relative place in the curriculum.)

Instead, students should learn the nature of literature from a given philosophy or theory of literature. Even if that theory is wrong it will be better than this mythical neutrality and expertise that the textbook pretends to.

Let me press this just a little further. 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.

So that would seem to be a direct contradiction of what I said earlier.

It seems that way because our minds are so fragmented, especially in the matter of languages.

Grammar was the close examination of literary texts.

There was the practical school of the Alexandrians, who developed what we think of as grammar precisely because people were unable to read Homer and they wanted to ensure that children could make the adaptations.

Then there was the more philosophical school of, for example, the Stoics, who believed that language was rooted in nature and therefore there was an ideal form that language should take.

They seemed to believe that Homer and possibly Plato had approached that form quite closely.

In both cases, when they approached grammar or literature (both mean “letters”), their purpose was to give the student a profound encounter with a great text.

They didn’t study very many texts. For example, one of my favorite educators, Vittorino de Feltre, took years to teach his students only a few books, such as Homer, Virgil, and a couple others. But they didn’t need to study very many texts for their purposes.

Their goal was to become “men of letters,” by which they did not mean that they had read lots and lots of “letters” by other people but that they were masters of their use. Such a goal requires a close analysis of a few texts, not a shallow introduction to a multitude of texts.

They placed a much higher value on intellectual skills (liberal ARTS) and the deep experiences that arise from close, sustained consideration of an idea than on a superficial acquaintance with a vast array of content.

They would have been puzzled by the compulsion to “get through the material.”

 But they were in a tradition, and I think this might be the critical point. They recognized that some texts were out of this world, came from another world, were works of heartbreaking genius and merited everybody’s attention and reverence.

As a result, they could feed on those texts for their whole lives without missing anything that mattered. Indeed, some of them could go on to produce their own works of immeasurable genius.

Since then, the tradition has been broken. 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? Are there any schools filled with teachers who simply teach their students to contemplate beautiful and good things?

The worst of it is that once a tradition is lost, much of it can never be regained.

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.

They do not demean literature by reading a bunch of novels because Shakespeare is too hard. And they recognize the full wealth of grammatikos, litera, letters, grammar.

This is what the president of Yale refered to in the 19th century when he said that the goal of eduation is to read Homer in the original.

Aristotle, Rhetoric, and Freedom

I’ve been arguing for some time through this blog that we cannot be free people if we don’t master the arts of freedom, which were known historically as the liberal arts (not the modern evasion often called “general studies”). To Aristotle, freedom depended on people’s ability to communicate freely and effectively. So he wrote a handbook on rhetoric, which begins like this:

Rhetoric is the counterpart of Dialectic. Both alike are concerned with such things as come, more or less, within the general ken of all men and belong to no definite science. Accordingly all men make use, more or less, of both; for to a certain extent all men attempt to discuss statements and to maintain them, to defend themselves and to attack others.

The other day I quoted Adler to the effect that everybody is a citizen and a philosopher. I would add that to the extent we deny these roles, we are slaves.

If we do not participate in the governance of ourselves, our families, and our communities, we cannot be free people.

If we do not learn to think with our own minds, making decisions based on sound principles and seeking truth because it is good, we belong to the people who do this thinking for us.

Aristotle underscores this truth by emphasizing that rhetoric (our civic faculty) and dialectic (our philosophical faculty) are universal arts. We are all responsible for our use of them. If we neglect them, we are not free people and frankly don’t deserve to be free people.

It follows that a great way to eliminate freedom is to involve people so deeply in their work, school, or voluntary associations (that just triggered a really disturbing page I read in a book about Bolshevism – I’ll try to find and post it tomorrow) that they have no time to participate in government or philosophy.

If you love freedom, please devote yourself to the study of Greek so you can remind us about what we’ve lost. Odysseus poked out my eye and I’m afraid I’ve gone from no perspective all the way to blind.

Kern on Gamble on Clement on Anaxarchus on Sovereignty

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Anaxarchus the Eudaemonist wrote well in his book On Sovereignty: Wide learning is both of great advantage and great disadvantage to its possessor. It benefits the person of skill, it damages the person who lightly says anything in any company. You must know the limits of the appropriate moment. That is the definition of wisdom. Those who make speeches at the wrong moment, even if they are full of sense, are not counted wise and have a reputation for folly.”

Quoted by Clement of Alexandria in the Stromateis, selected by Richard Gamble in The Great Tradition.

The Great Tradition

The Great Tradition

Assessment and Feedback for a Written Composition

The Teacher’s guide for level II of The Lost Tools of Writing has been demanding an inordinate amount of my time these past few weeks so it’s been difficult to enter any sort of a lengthy post in here (to the relief of many of you, I’m sure). In particular, I’ve been writing about assessment this week – inventing, ordering, reordering, drafting, reordering again, redrafting, inventing some more.

It’s such a huge issue, assessment is. To begin with, assessment is not the same thing as grading. In the guide for level II you’ll see a distinction between evaluating, correcting, and grading. Evaluating is on-going and done by multiple people: the writer himself, his peers, perhaps parents and others, and the teacher. Evaluation is far, far more important than grading. So is correcting.

One rather common practice that jumped out at me is the way teachers often wait until after the students have received their grades to have them do corrections. To me, that is unkind at best and seems to involve a loss of clarity on the teacher’s role.

Writing is a skill. The teacher, therefore, is a coach. As coach, the teacher looks good when his “athlete” performs well. The downside of this formula is that some teachers get mad at students for not doing well and use the grade to punish the students.

The upside is that the teacher who realizes her role as coach will coach and not manipulate or engage in other arbitrary, tyrannical behavior.

So rather than wait until the time arrives to grade students papers to tell the poor kids what they did wrong, the coach/teacher is instructing them every step of the way. It doesn’t take very long. Glance at their invention materials while they are working on them. 20 seconds would be more than enough to determine the quality of most inventions. 1 or 2 would assess the quantity just fine (depending on the quality of your glasses).

Students should receive ongoing feedback throughout the writing process. In my opinion, virtually every essay or narrative that students hand in should have been reviewed and challenged and corrected enough times that they will all score in the 90’s on the grading rubric.

So in level II we go into quite a bit of detail about how to go about assessing students work. Keep it objective. Assess virtues, not gifts (though you should certainly acknowledge the latter). Make sure your students understand your feedback, whether it be evaluation, correcting, or grading. Make sure the grade is no surprise. Make sure you don’t grade anything for which you haven’t prepared your students. Make sure both you and your students know what you are looking for when you assess.

All of these will prevent you from being that foolish coach who waited until his team lost the game before he told them how to play.

Why You Need The Lost Tools of Writing

The Lost Tools of Writing, being a modern version of classical rhetoric and an application of the “Organon” (tool – these are the “lost tools” Dorothy Sayers was writing about) of Aristotle, is the foundation of everything you will study with the possible exception of mathematics.

It is the trivium.

LTW is, by far, the most efficient and the most essential curriculum material you will ever use.

  • It is the foundation for traditional, formal logic, because it teaches material logic.
  • It is the foundation for science, because it teaches scientific reasoning.
  • It is the foundation for literature, because it teaches how to read and imitate great writing.
  • It is the foundation for philosophy, because it teaches how to think through issues and gives the tools for doing philosophy.
  • It is the foundation for historical studies because it teaches how to read and respond to historical texts.

Let me push it a step further and say what I really think.

The Lost Tools of Writing provides tools for students without which they are not really educated.

And on top of all that, every teacher needs it because teaching is a rhetorical and thinking activity. Every teacher.

Give us a call and we’ll let you know how your school or home can plunge even more deeply into the glories of Christian classical education. (704) 786-9684.

Incarnational Teaching in Kindergarten

I am increasingly amazed at the power of classical modes of instruction to enable students and even teachers to better understand ideas.

During yesterday’s apprenticeship phone call, Buck Holler, an apprentice from Geneva School of Manhatten, described how a kindergarten teacher applied the mimetic mode to guide her kindergarten students to understand what a polygon is.

He said that when the lesson was over, the kids understood it so well they didn’t need to do a worksheet.

That launched my thoughts into a comparison of modern math programs with the classical approach. The differences are too vast to explore deeply here, but one in particular stood out to me.

As always, the difference is rooted in the priority given to ideas and therefore to thinking.

One popular math teacher, for example, stated very clearly that  he developed his math program to improve student scores on standardized tests – not, by implication, so they would be able to think better mathematically. As a result, low scoring schools have consistently found that if they switch to this program, their test scores improve.

But unless they have mathematically and pedagogically sound teachers, schools using this program have not produced a vast quantity of students who can think mathematically.

I believe the reason for this is in the developer’s approach to teaching math. His pedagogy is rooted firmly in the behavioral sciences, so he sees learning as a stimulus-response activity.

If you stimulate the mind to perform an operation and then reward it when it does it the correct way, then eventually it will perform that operation whenever confronted with a similar context. Of course, it becomes very elaborate, being the human mind and all, but that’s the fundamental idea behind this program’s techniques and its why it uses a cyclical approach. More on that in a moment.

In the classical tradition, by contrast, mathematics was treated as a contemplative activity. In other words, the students were not treated to a series of intellectual stimuli when they were taught. Instead, they were presented with types of the idea to be learned and they learned how to think by attending to those types. That probably sounds scary to an unfamiliar modern teacher, but in fact it is gloriously simple.

If the idea is polygons, then the teacher presents multiple examples of polygons to the students. The students describe them in as much detail as they can to aid their attentive perception. Then they compare them with each other. In a very short time, they will have learned what a polygon is.

If the student is being taught an algebraic principle, they are shown that principle at work in various contexts. They attend perceptively to each individual type. Then they compare the types with each other. Pretty soon, through the teacher’s guidance, they come to see for themselves, to perceive, the idea that has been embodied in the types.

The same principle applies in a literature or history class, though the ideas will be less precisely defined. For example, if a school wants a student to understand and appreciate justice, then it will ensure that students spend many years contemplating types of justice – i.e. just people, just actions, and just events: stories.

Aesop’s Fables provide priceless instances of justice embodied, which is why Martin Luther, for one instance, regarded them as priceless. “Needless to say”, the perfection of justice is embodied in Christ Himself, so the school that hopes to bear the spiritual fruit of just students will spend a great deal of time contemplating the words and actions of our Lord.

The main reason this approach to teaching has been dropped seems to be that, since Dewey, education is rooted in a behavioral psychology (even before Skinner developed the dogmas of behaviorism) in which experience is the dominant mode of learning and ideas are at best words and at worst meaningless. Combine that with the need to appear to teach large classes of students and there seems to be no motivation for contemplating ideas. Thus the cyclical approach, in which the stimulus-response sequence is stretched over time, but the students are never deliberately guided to contemplate the idea for its own sake.

This is why I often argue that, while the stages of a subject and of a child’s development are powerful concepts, the real glory of the trivium as three stages is in the individual lesson: grammar – present types; logic – compare types; rhetoric – express and apply the idea.

But when we stop contemplating ideas, we may be doing a lot of things, but one thing we are not doing is providing a classical education. Nor are we wisely leading children on the path to wisdom. So thanks, Buck, for reminding us how much children love ideas and how easily they can absorb them when we teach them the way God teaches us: incarnating what we want them to understand.

Judgment, Introductions, and Audiences

We’re on lunch break and the five journeymen are outside sitting at a picnic table in the moist warmth of a Houston January day with the sound of the Wrobleske’s pool in the background and the sun joining them for a quiet meal.

We’ve just completed a pretty intense couple hours discussing how to teach paragraph development and introductions in level 2. The challenge in the first case arises from the need for second year students to exercise a great deal more judment than they were required to exercise in level I of LTW. That makes it harder for the teacher because, while it is pretty easy to know whether a person can duplicate a process, it’s much harder to assess how much judgment they are capable of exercising and how much they have exercised. So we’ve identified some principles of a good paragraph and some ways to make sure the students can think about them.

The introduction (exordium) challenge arises from the need to take your argument (the part level I focuses on most) and relate it effectively to the audience and the circumstances (which level II attends to much more closely). The Ad Herennium gives a series of questions you can ask to develop your introduction, but they’re very concise and not altogether consistent, so that led to some heated discussions around the planning table. Years ago I developed some exercise templates based on my best understanding of the Ad Herennium, but I couldn’t find them this morning so I hope they are in my old computer or at least that I have hard copies in my office.

Now I need to take a moment to review Aristotle on Rhetoric to see what he has to say about the introduction. You’ll see the fruit of our labour in Level II of The Lost Tools of Writing.

See you soon