The Critical Importance of Grammar

It is widely believed that we are engaged in a war for our culture. More accurately, we are in the middle of a battle in a war that has been raging since Socrates challenged the sophists. As Christian classical educators, our enemies are the radical relativists. To the radical relativists, there is no law of nature to govern human conduct because there is no such thing as a constant form of human nature.

Radical relativism is the belief that everything we do, think, and even feel arises from the customs and conventions of the group of which we are members. Individuals cannot perceive the way things actually are, because we have been conditioned by our communities to experience things a certain way. We are always wearing glasses, colored by our unavoidable, individual perspectives. There is no universal nature or essence of things, and, even if there is, we can’t know it.

This revolution against objective ideas entered our schools early in the 20th century. Its leader was John Dewey, who watered down the radical relativism of Friederich Nietzsche and called it Progressivism. Dewey’s teachings were widely misunderstood and accepted by those anxious to pretend their schools were founded on scientific principles.

I’ll not mince words: radical relativism is the enemy of humanity and civilized society. Like a colony of termites, it eats away at everything it inhabits. We educators must know what radical relativism is, and we must be prepared to resist it.

How does radical relativism affect grammar? How do convention and custom overthrow nature in the teaching of grammar? Let me turn these questions a little bit: How does a radical relativist determine correct grammar? He argues that correct grammar arises entirely from usage, convention, or custom. This position, however, doesn’t stand up to close observation. Linguists have studied virtually every language group on earth and discovered that there is a universal foundation to every grammar. Grammar is rooted in nature, not in conventions.

What does that mean? Take a close look at human nature by watching yourself think. You can simplify the act by focusing on one thing: say, a fish.

Notice, first, that you cannot think without thinking about something. We call that something the “subject.” Perhaps you saw the fish in your mind. If you did, it had properties (color, shape, etc.), and it was somewhere (in the water, floating on black, etc.). When we think, we always think something about the thing about which we are thinking. We cannot think about a fish without thinking something about the fish. We call that the “predicate” (from pre, about, and dico, I say or tell). We think about subjects when we predicate something about them. All grammar is rooted in this simple notion.

In short, we think this way because it is our nature to think this way. Therefore, the rules of grammar arise from human nature and they help us to know the world we live in. If we allow grammar to degenerate, we diminish our capacity to know and love the world around us, the one over which God has made us stewards.

Furthermore, we live in community. By converting thoughts into sentences, we enable others to think with us, and others enable us to think with them. We are able to communicate. Therefore, if we allow grammar to degenerate, we diminish our capacity to know and love the people around us.

Amazingly, we can also stand outside ourselves and watch ourselves think (like you did above)! We can analyze our thoughts and behavior, holding them up to standards (including the rules of grammar). No other creature can do that. Therefore, if we allow grammar to degenerate, we diminish our capacity to know and love ourselves!

Without doubt, the sentence—that simple skeleton with a head (subject), abdomen (predicate), and many attachable limbs (the other parts of speech)—is one of the wonders of the world. Think of the enormous flexibility, the power to move, and the ability to bless and to curse!

We have been given the capacity to use language (and to teach our students) to bless others through the almost infinite power that words possess when structured on sound grammar.

And when we lose the power to bless, we lose the culture war. No wonder they don’t want us to teach our children grammar.

Worthless, Difficult and Old

Why study Latin? All of us in classical, Christian education have asked the question. Rather than spout statistics proving that Latin comes in handy on the SAT’s, we might focus on three less practical reasons for the study of Latin. Latin contributes to our classical values because it is worthless, difficult, and old.

First, Latin is practically worthless, but I don’t mean that in quite the way it might sound. Language is the most common means of communication. Until the final, or “rhetoric” stage, however, the classical educator is not so much concerned with the student’s ability to communicate ideas, but rather with his capacity to receive them. In fact, we are convinced that the latter must precede the former.

Language is also the mechanism that drives thought, and as the scope and depth of our language shrivels, so does our capacity for deep and significant thought. The student of rhetoric cannot speak well until he has first learned to listen and to think. It is the “listening” rather than the “speaking” nature of Latin study that makes it so valuable. Because of the conversational emphasis, the study of a modern language cannot serve the same purpose. So, one learns Latin, not to speak with Cicero or with Augustine, but to sit at their feet, to receive and understand their thoughts.

Second, Latin is difficult. If language is the mechanism of thought, translation is thought itself. The student is presented with a thought contained in a puzzle; he extracts the meaning, and then reinterprets and represents the thought. This is hard work, but only in this way does the student learn to own the ideas. The earlier we foster this complex skill in our students, the easier they will translate any text at more demanding stages of their careers.

Beyond worthlessness and difficulty, Latin has the additional advantage of being old. The act of translation itself is valuable, but Latin texts are also of great intellectual value. As a student bears through the slow, difficult years of mastering Latin grammar, he has the opportunity to practice the newly acquired art of translation on the philosophy and politics of Cicero, the history of Caesar, and the poetry of Virgil. This provides an unmatched entrance into the ancient world—the world into which Christianity was born, a world which the Gospel conquered and eventually adopted.

In the end we hope that; in whatever language or media our students confront a thought—political debate, newspaper article, poetry, or advertising; their study of Latin will provide the discipline and insight necessary to discern the meaning of the message, and to articulate an appropriate response.

Peeing in the Bushes

The female teacher burst into my office and said, “I need a man to speak to one of the first grade boys.” I complied, and as we emerged toward the confrontation she told me about the boy she caught peeing in the bushes on the edge of the playground. What was he thinking? How could he be so crude? The teacher did not know what to make of it.

“If you come up on him quickly, you will scare him,” she announced. I peeked around the corner from my office. The boy was visibly shaking—he had never been to the principal’s office before.

Walking up to him, I grabbed a football and said firmly but welcomingly, “Follow me outside, Jon.” We made our way to the center of the playground far from others’ ears and threw the ball for a couple of minutes. When I felt that he was breathing again, I said, as I threw the ball, “Been peeing in the bushes, huh?”

Amazingly, he caught the ball, then sheepishly answered, “Yes, sir.”

“Hmm,” I intoned with undetectable meaning, and we kept throwing the ball. “Did anyone see you?”

With wide eyes he said, “I hope not! I tried to get behind the bushes.” Passing the ball for another minute, I asked him, “If you hadn’t gone in the bushes would you have made it back to the bathroom without having an accident?”

“No, I really had to go.” He held the ball to see what was next.

“As odd as this sounds, Jon,” I replied, “it seems to me you made the right call. Good job.” He smiled. I suggested, “How about we go find the bathroom, so that you know where it is? And you promise to go the bathroom on your way to recess every day, so that this doesn’t happen again.”

As we walked back toward the buildings, we were two men with a secret agreement about manhood that seemed to make sense to both of us.

Secrets of a Classical Classroom

The fourth graders were learning about the American Civil War and the Gettysburg Address. The exercise on the day I observed had students re-writing Lincoln’s immortal speech in their own words. A simple, common assignment, but something about it didn’t sit well with me.

After a few minutes, I realized that in learning the speech by re-writing it, the students were losing Lincoln’s words. The ideas in the “Gettysburg Address” are not original. It is a eulogy. I could have written that eulogy, any fourth grader could have written it, if our only concern was to get some ideas across—the sorrow of loss, the hope of a united nation, the symbolic struggle for freedom.

But the Gettysburg Address is beautiful. The words and the way Lincoln strung them together are even beatific. And that’s the point.

The classical classroom is oriented around big ideas and important events. But this is only our starting point. Our focus extends from important content—Who was Abraham Lincoln? What was he doing at Gettysburg?—to the importance of how the ideas that shape events are captured by the great statesmen and poets in our tradition. To lose Lincoln’s words in a flurry of fourth grade paraphrases is to undermine the real educational value of his speech.

In the movie Broadcast News, Holly Hunter’s journalist character recalls how her father developed the habit in her of looking for a better word, a better way to say everything. In the movie character, the constant pursuit of a better word produced neuroses that made her interesting to movie goers. In our students, however, the search for better words, for more beautiful words, is the mark of a classical education.

Next time you read a famous work by a famous person with your students, ask the question: Why is this work famous? Examine the words, and lead your students in a discussion of the beauty of the words and the choices that the author made in order to make them lovely.

The heart of classical learning is eloquence, and the heart of a classical classroom is learning to recognize and use beautiful words.

Built for Stories

I love a good story. Nothing beats an adventure with intrigue, plot twists and tension. Humans are built for stories of epic heroes. And the greatest of all epic stories really happened. Last year, before the release of the final Harry Potter novel, I discusses the various options for the book’s outcome with a group of middle school students. Would Harry kill Voldemort? Would Voldemort kill Harry? Would Harry kill Voldemort, and then die from his wounds? Or, better yet, maybe the school’s headmaster Dumbledore never really died, and he will return, Gandalf-like, to join Harry in a final battle.

We argued over the various options for several minutes, then one said, “What if Harry kills Voldemort, then dies. Later, though, Harry rises from the dead – that would be awesome!”

Jesus is the ultimate epic hero. His is the story we were all designed to love. Any other adventure that grabs our imagination ultimately glimmers with the truth of our redemption— Christ’s victory over evil and the grave.

“Do you think Rowling would do this?” I queried.

She should. It would be the greatest story ever—but I don’t think it will happen.”

I asked, “Has any other book ended this way?”

After a few seconds they exclaimed enthusiastically, “No. It would be too great!” We all agreed.

This conversation became the link the next week in chapel to a challenge I made to the assembled students and faculty: Take the time to read the Gospel of Mark through in one sitting. If you read it like the story it is, the first chapter alone will send chills down your spine and make the hairs on your neck stand up. Jesus is the ultimate epic hero. His is the story we were all designed to love. Any other adventure that grabs our imagination ultimately glimmers with the truth of our redemption – Christ’s victory over evil and the grave.

That’s an epic that even Harry Potter can’t stand up to.

Non Sequiturs

While working as a principal at a small, private school, one of my duties was to present the end-of-the-year certificates. These certificates were given for honor roll, conduct, and perfect attendance. I always checked and double-checked the lists to ensure I didn’t leave someone out. Immediately after the awards assembly, a mom raced into my office. She said, “My daughter was so disappointed when you didn’t give her a Perfect Attendance award.”

I immediately began to apologize and said I didn’t realize her child had perfect attendance.

She said, “Oh, she was absent twice, but I don’t think they should have to be here every, single day to get a Perfect Attendance award!”

___________________

I had sent a short note to the parents of a fifth grader explaining my concerns that he seemed very disorganized and his work was often messy or incomplete. I requested a parent conference to discuss possible remedies.

The very next day the boy, Rusty, handed me a note from his mother. It was written on a piece of cardboard torn off a cigarette carton. I sensed we might have a clue to the problem.

Later that week, Mom came in to talk about solutions. I explained that sometimes when a boy of Rusty’s age didn’t assume responsibility for his own work, parents saw the same behaviors at home. I asked what chores Rusty was required to do at home. She shook her head and said that he really didn’t have any chores. Then she sighed loudly and said, “I’ve told my husband and told my husband, we should make Rusty sleep in his own bed!”

True Confessions

I have a confession to make. I just finished reading The Golden Compass to my 5th and 7th grade sons. They had seen the movie trailer and wistfully hoped to be allowed to read the book, knowing that would be my prerequisite to seeing the movie. I had heard the brouhaha over the atheist author with an agenda and had three choices: 1) ban the book based on third party recommendations (something I avoid); 2) read the book myself before approving it for the boys (unrealistic, given the thirty plus volumes already on my nightstand); or 3) read it out loud together, discuss it as we go, and see if their classical education would bear fruit.

It turns out that I now owe a great debt to Philip Pullman. Compass is a clever children’s adventure story with a few instances of oddly amoral violence, a tacked on diatribe about the concept of sin, and a bit of disturbingly violent sexual attraction in the final chapter. Our reading triggered some amazingly deep conversations. The boys readily spotted misquotes from the Bible. The physical manifestation of the characters’ souls as animal “daemons” led to a discussion about the impact of the theory of evolution on people who see themselves as highly evolved animals rather than specially created in the image of God.

But none of these things, as great as they were, indebted me to Pullman.

I owe The Golden Compass because we, my preteen boys and I, discovered that we like reading together. This may seem an obvious, anti-climatic conclusion to some, but here’s confession number two: it was news to us.

It’s not the first time we had read out loud as a family together. We dutifully read through the entire Chronicles of Narnia when the boys were much younger. Since then, we had dabbled in other works by Lewis and a Sherlock Holmes story or two, but the habit hadn’t stuck. In fact it was one in the long list of parental “shoulds”—like family devotions, family dinners, eating fruits and vegetables—that we sporadically attempted but unsuccessfully incorporated into our routine. Reading together had turned into a chore.

So what was different this time? Quite simply, we were all new to the book. I was no more aware of what twists and turns lay ahead than the boys, so we were companions, fellow explorers.

By mutual decision, we passed on the other books in Pullman’s series and declined The Golden Compass movie. Instead, we’ve moved on to an equally unclassical and even more exciting adventure series, Artemis Fowl. We never watched much TV, but we now watch almost none. Not because of any big family resolution, but because we just can’t wait to find out what will happen next to our favorite child genius/master thief. In fact, the only family rule that has emerged is that no one is allowed to read ahead of the group.

Confession number three: I’ve already broken the rule.

Reading Toward Greatness

I love books! I love the feel of them, the smell of them, the way they look on the shelf, and, most of all, the joy of learning something that feeds my mind and soul. Before I married and acquired a mortgage, I spent a ridiculous amount of money on books. I adopted the philosophy of Erasmus: “When I get a little money I buy books;and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” I had a quote in my class- “ room by Samuel Davies, “The venerable dead are waiting in my library to entertain me and relieve me from the nonsense of the surviving mortals.”

Beyond my personal love for reading I am very cognizant of the central role that reading plays in education. Mortimer Adler, editor of Britannica’s Great Books, was distressed that reading for understanding is not taught in schools. “There is nothing more important that our schools could do,” he said, “if our schools have as their main function the preparation of young people to go on with a life of adult learning after they have left school.”

Neil Postman, in his famous book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, demonstrates the educational, social, and epistemological implications of moving from a text-based culture to an image-based culture. Text-based communication, the primary means of communication before television, requires reading. And reading requires deliberation, contemplation, reflection, and reason. It primarily engages the mind, as opposed to images, which target the emotions. Reading also requires that one be quiet and methodical. Images demand little, if anything, from us intellectually. In fact, Postman says, images are predominantly meant for entertainment and not for instruction, which is why they are literally killing us intellectually.

Reading is also educationally valuable in that it requires activity and skill from the reader. Adler says, “… the most important thing about reading, as about learning generally, is that it must be active, not passive.” To use an analogy from Adler, reading is like tunneling. Imagine yourself on one side of a mountain and the author on the other. You both work hard to meet in the middle to find understanding.

The Great Books are over everyone’s head. That is one reason why they are great. Do not expect to breeze through Milton or Dante. Reading many books is not the point. Thomas Hobbes once said “If I read as many books as most men do, I would be as dull-witted as they are.” Reading well is better than reading swiftly.

And there is, of course, great spiritual value in reading. Paul told Timothy that study is the path to legitimate spiritual leadership. Reading is not just about schooling. It is theological. Cultivating a love for reading in children is perhaps the most important thing one can do to induce lifelong learning. Our efforts may bloom into a love for reading that leads to a skilled, passionate ransacking of the Bible.

Rewarding Reading

In educated circles, we hear a lot of doom and gloom about literacy and literature. When I log on to Amazon or browse through Borders, however, there is no lack of books, new and old, popular and esoteric. I’m more often overwhelmed by the choices than discouraged about the decline of the publishing industry.

So, in the interest of great reading, here are some tips that may help you make rewarding choices this summer.

Permit Yourself

A friend of mine grew up in a home in which readers were considered lazy. Even though she loves to read, it took years to overcome the feeling that reading for pleasure was a waste of time. This may be an extreme case, but we all face competition for our time. Newsletters, journals, and magazines scream at us from the coffee table and kitchen counter that we are falling behind on current events or professional development. Ninety minutes with Jane Austen or Steven King can seem like a luxury to which we are not entitled.

Move Away from the Screens

Most of us are educators and therefore more aware than many of the huge amounts of time wasted by our students in front of televisions, video games, and the internet. Still, I am surprised by the amount of time that I can lose watching late-night re-runs or jumping from link to link on the internet (not to mention the occasional Guitar Hero binge). No matter who is in the room, screen time is not really family time. They won’t miss you if you sit in the next room reading while they watch a bald guy with an earring try to give away a million dollars.

Read Interesting Things

Last year I bought the latest, critically acclaimed translation of Don Quixote, determined to read it through for the first time. About 300 pages in, I felt trapped. Despite the charming and historic qualities of the book, I was losing interest— and I felt guilty. It surely reflects my lack of taste and intelligence to bail out halfway through a masterpiece. We need to remind ourselves that some reading is required. When we read for leisure or for improvement, it’s okay to read books that truly interest us.

Use Your Friends

One of my closest friends is a voracious bookstore browser and reader. He’ll buy anything and try it. So, I often rely on him to steer me to authors and books that I might enjoy. Whether friends or an internet chat room or a book club, spending time with others who love to read is one of the best ways to find the books that we will find most rewarding.

Electronically Disconnected

In response to being often accused by my adoring school community of hating technology, I recently catalogued the technological contents of our home. Gregg and I own 11 phones, 7 TVs, 5 VCRs, 2 DVDs, 2 TiVos, 2 component stereos, 2 compact stereos, and several computers with flat screen monitors.

I do not hate technology, but I am disturbed by the impact technology has upon relationships. While we are to be about the business of loving God and others, technology often interferes, infringing on necessary time and attention.

Text messaging and instant messaging are hindrances to authentic conversation. In a World Magazine article, Janie B. Cheaney wondered, “Why do people say things to each other online that they would never say face to face? Perhaps because faces communicate hurt, anger and sorrow – all difficult emotions we try to avoid.” Voiceless, faceless communication enables duplicity and o en leads to speaking without thinking.

Electronic communication also exposes our students to dangerous predators. This is a risk that should not be taken lightly. Young people have a tendency to trust and can be easily manipulated. Email is a wonderful tool to communicate with family members or close friends who know our hearts, but artificial, distant relationships can eclipse the healthy authentic relations with the people around us.

The constant availability of entertainment also undermines relationships. A friend recently observed two couples sizing down for dinner accompanied by a young girl. The group ordered their food then the child opened a laptop and began watching a movie while the adults talked. How sad! One of the best ways for children to learn is to listen to adults talk.

IPods are a problem for several reasons. One must wonder why we need to listen to music every- where we go and, worse, listen to it on our own private equipment. iPods also enable students to download any music or videos they choose, and they make the monitoring of downloaded media nearly impossible. There is no CD cover to view, no lyrics to read.

In light of these things we all know, these recommendations may help teachers and families resist the anti-relational effects of technology:

1. Forget iPods.

2. Find a regular social or physical activity that your family can do together.
3. Eat supper together—at a table with the TV off.

4. Resist the pressure to place a TV in your child’s room.
5. Block inappropriate channels on the TV. (MTV comes to mind.)
6. Purchase a DVR and give up commercials for- ever.
7. Give your child a cell phone when he or she receives a driver’s license, but not before. Monitor the bill carefully, and don’t purchase text messaging.
8. Allow the use of the internet ONLY in a room where supervision is always available.
9. Password protect and filter the internet, periodically checking every web site your child visits.
10. Turn off the phone in the car with your children. Talk, listen to a book, or listen to music you all enjoy.