When I was a boy in “grammar school,” grammar was not learning rules by rote or pedantically delineated on the board by teachers more bored by the subject than their students. First of all, grammar is and can be interesting in the classroom. When we studied it, it was not detached from rhetoric. Even matters of style, which rhetoric does not cover entirely, or at least in the way a discussion of style proper would, was also included. I know how old fashioned this might sound to too many who have been subsumed by a contempo-centrism which is the most virulent and overarching and debilitating of any centrism any people anywhere could assume? Yes, now is not exactly the best of times, but Now just might be the worst of times and it is our contemporaneity that believes itself to be the first to recognize and articulate all the ills of history it so less than eloquently defines . . . or so I say because i have seen it, felt it, heard it, listened to it, discussed it, talked about it, argued over it or against it, explicated one rebuttal after another where refutation could not or needed not be pronounced; that is, in the academy and elsewhere from those who have been formed by the Academy over the last thirty years or so, give or take either way, less or more . . . whatever have you in other words than mine to say that we have been calling shit a rose for so long that we cannot smell roses without contempt for how they do not smell like shit . . .and if that does not show something of what publishing has become and what thinking has amounted to in the degraded sense we have that randomly passing images in the mind is enough . . . never mind. How true.
Grammatical competence was the ability to know how to, and when to, use language effectively, even if only for specialized communication, although the imagined necessities in the future were not as pragmatically limited as they seem to be today. Nonetheless, even if the kind of instruction I am talking about here was never severed from its millennial connections to literacy and the literary, we were also taught to write business letters for a number of occasions most likely to occur for anyone in our high school classes later in life when they were heads of their future households.
Teaching grammar thus included an understanding of rhetoric and style, something we have disbanded with today as a by-product of a by-gone sexist and racist age. We were schooled in the ability to know when to use language in writing effectively; when, for instance, to use narrative, but mostly how to in a variety of circumstances. The categories of dramatic writing, expository writing and narrative writing were all delineated with boundaries drawn and the zoology recorded.Writing, then, was never severed from reading; they were complementary endeavors. And yes, we were taught to read, not put in groups to divine meaning with imagined divining rods.
Shakespeare was the center of the Canon, and the Canon was the center of culture for reasons other than most of the authors being white and male. We did not throw cats out with the flea bath water. In Junior High and in High School literature was still the traditional literature; we had yet to sub-divide the Canon in conjunction with publishing subdividing the market to increase its profits. Dramatic literature of the canonical variety was part of the curriculum; only canonical literature was held as the literary yardstick. We were taught the uses of dialogue, how to cut and paste quotes to their best effect when actually defending an argument in writing on another’s writing. We understood the purposes of dramatic discourse and narrative discourse as well as expository discourse.
We were taught how to read, and how to read deeply, critically, but then we were taught to think critically as well because this was the firmest foundation of civil liberty, at least in Madison’s conception.I understand that not everyone needs to go to universty, and that most high school students are expected to fulfill a liberal arts education, although a very degraded one if I may be allowed an opinion here. I do question the numbers of high schoolers who graduate reading below grade without any instruction or preparation in a skilled trade.
The systematic undereducation of most high schoolers is a problem, but blue collar has shrunk in America, and we underpay other people around the world to produce for us.Nobody expects bus drivers to be master’s candidates, but there was a time when most bus drivers read on the 12th grade, when most of them today read on 10th or the 9th or the 8th, the latter the level the federal government sets as functionally literate. Yes, you once could not graduate NYC High Schools without reading on grade and you couldn’t get a civil service job without at least high school. Yes, cops and bus drivers and bureaucratic functionaries were more literate when I was a kid than they are today. Simple then; simpletons today.
We used writing and reading in any inquiry because writing best reflected thinking when it was engaged at its highest; and we could still use highest without fear that we might be too male or too white or too categorical, thus in some imaginations, too authoritarian.It seems my son’s teachers load work on work piling assignment on assignment in an effort to teach best, or to give the illusion that teaching is being done because most of the masses will be impressed with the amount of homework given thinking in their degraded critical capacities that longer linearly is best. But critical thinking, or the ability to write critically, is disappearing from our universities because any articulate, literate critical populus is just that, more critical and thus more demanding. This would bode differently politically, but it’s a long time in returning. I never get the impression that any of my son’s instructors have ever thought out the assignments they give as end-of-cycle projects.
When I was in grammar school teachers would not be able to get away with doing less as a means of appearing to do more; they would not get away with, hypothetically, making kids prove the theory of relativity using algebra rather than teaching them calculus. You can translate the calculus of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity into algebra, it just would be about 800 pages longer. This is where teaching is stuck; linear, linear, linear; nothing exponential. Let’s do 800 pages of algebra rather than 40 pages of calculus.Of course, you would first need to master algebra in order to take the steps to calculus. However, my son’s math teacher loads the class with too many problems in replication, rather than fix a lesser number of problems collated with more reading of the text. He does not assign the reading. Reading the text is relegated to the category of self-initiative rather than being reinforced as the norm for all.
Grammar comes from the Latin grammaticus, which had everything to do with literary expression. A grammaticus was a teacher of literature, and one was not a teacher of literature without being a practitioner; perhaps the closest we have to the ancient grammaticus are our contemporary MFAs in our graduate writing programs, that is if they have not become cookie cutter schools, how to work in the assembly line of publishing; the later narrowing its designs for profit in itself profit in itself the only good.
Conglomerate owned publishing and other print media, newspapers and magazines included, as well as corporate television and radio are the greatest threats to the First Amendment next to the liberal educated politically correct elite in the American University–and this is not a call to become more conservative than American-liberals have become since a Friedmanesque Neo-liberalism subsumed both the Democrats and Republicans, making out of Bill Clinton the greatest sledge hammer against the working poor and middle-class (what we call middle class–really, middle-income, whatever that might refer to, so do not get all wiggy on me for not specifying here exactly the limits of this . . . everyone(?) has a different bracket for this) in the history of the Oval Office?
However, nonetheless, nevertheless, moreover, grammar was never cut off from communicating in the world I was educated in, never displaced from an understanding of what to say, when to say it, but most importantly how to say it; or what options could be chosen from to express one’s Self.To say otherwise about grammar for me would be revisionist about how we were taught when in what we called grammar school, and I find this distasteful enough, but understandable when neo-resenters in any teaching forum seek to establish a new hegemony. Control is the principle motive in all revisions, although presented as making all forums more liberated, more free, if you will. Confucius said that if you want to reform society, begin by reforming language, only this is applicable for better or for worse. Our society has been reformed in a debilitated understanding of language, a pathetic place in our historical continuum where I can hear an African-American woman moderator of a discussion on Free Speech and whether violence is an acceptable response to speech one or some do not agree with actually say: We have to rethink these old laws that do not pertain to today, to what’s going on today. She was talking about the First Amendment, actually calling for a revision of the Four Freedoms to make them more topical, more situational, thus ???? shallower, narrower, less far reaching, more easily limited, subverted, undermined, removed!!!! The semiliteracy that goes into that thinking is too much for me to handle without experiencing severe mental pain. I have nothing left to say about the American Left, a group that only appears liberal because it is less conservative than the American Right.
No one becomes a better writer by learning grammar as pure analysis. Writing is the way to learn to write, and grammar that grows out of needs exhibited in the writing has always been best. Compositions were used when I was in grammar school and later in Freshman Composition classes in university. The thing about the anti-grammar un-grammarians in our schools among teachers has been the conspicuous absenting of writing in the classes. I cannot tell you how little students actually write and do visual projects instead of writing. So, yes,. grammar in itself grammar will not teach you to be a better writer, but neither will not writing. Grammar as analysis only without synthesis is like a person being able to take a car engine apart but not put it back together or in a way that functions. But then an auto mechanic can perform analysis and synthesis to merge with thesis, the latter being the functioning car.