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.

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.