Phillip J. Donnelly argues that a thorough grounding in grammar in a Christian Classical context prepares a student for the modern multiversity.
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What should Christian Classical schools do in order to prepare students most effectively for higher education? At one level, the answers are obvious and have already been given many times. Classical schools often, for example, have staff dedicated to helping students negotiate the college application process. Similarly, there are many resources available for those hoping to do well on standardized tests. As necessary as these kinds of practical considerations can be, however, Classical educators are not satisfied with such answers because we are concerned to help students flourish as whole persons. In order to answer this question in a fuller way, we first need to consider the character of what is commonly referred to as “higher education.” We can then begin to understand how a Classical education, based on the liberal arts, provides arguably the best preparation for the challenges that follow high school. Ultimately, if Classical schools aim to form students who cooperate with God’s redemptive purposes in the world, teachers need to ensure that the practices that constitute the liberal arts are transformed in the light of Christ.

What do people typically mean by “higher education”? Depending on the speaker and the context, the phrase can have at least four distinct meanings. Sometimes, “higher education” refers specifically to undergraduate training in research at a research university. In other contexts, however, the term may refer to undergraduate technical or professional training. Such education may involve a four-year degree, or a shorter program, but the assumed purpose is to train professionals for a specific set of tasks, based on a shared body of knowledge, whether medical care, pastoral care, civil engineering, or social work. Beyond an emphasis on either research or professional training, there is also a third possible meaning for “higher education”: it can refer to a four-year liberal arts degree, whether in the context of a faith-based university or a secular institution. Even when this third sense of higher education is invoked, however, there is also often a further goal in view, a goal which indicates an additional meaning for “higher education”: that is, post-graduate professional training. This fourth sense includes graduate research degrees, but also training in the applications of research, whether at medical schools, law schools, or seminaries. Despite the variety of curricula, institutions, and purposes named by “higher education,” I suggest that all four senses of the term involve a deeper set of assumptions: 1) that education consists of learning how to discover “knowledge” about the world or to apply such knowledge to the world— regardless of whether that knowledge takes human or non-human nature as its object of inquiry; 2) that such “knowledge” consists of information about neutral objects that make up the world, the value of which depends on human purposes; 3) that the ultimate purpose of education is reducible to job training—regardless of whether that job is oriented toward research or the professional application of others’ discoveries.1 As we shall see, these shared assumptions suggest that the term, “multiversity,” rather than “university” or “college,” more accurately names the educational context of most students who study beyond high school.

The political philosopher, George Grant, uses the term, “multiversity,” to name the institutions embodying the belief that knowledge consists of discrete facts about objects that make up the world.2 We shall consider below exactly what such a view of knowledge involves, but we should note here that the attempt to construe the world as a set of neutral objects whose value depends on human purposes is uniquely modern. The evident success and power of that vision appears in the technological triumphs that surround us daily. We need to appreciate, however, that the common complaint about how specialization has fragmented the academic disciplines (because no one can master the volume of information) is a sign of the success of that vision, not its failure. The lack of integration in modern education more generally, of which the multiversity is the highest expression, reveals the “success” of this modern treatment of the world as neutral objects. Why is the character of higher education as a “multiversity” important to understand? It implies that a student who attends a small liberal arts college, or a Bible college, or a local community college, or a vocational institute, even if that student never attends a so-called “research university,” may still be participating in the larger institutional reality of the multiversity.

The multiversity embodies, in institutional form, three widely shared educational assumptions: 1) that education is reducible to the acquisition of information and analytic skills; 2) that the purpose of education is to learn things that are “useful”—that is, to master neutral objects in the world; 3) that such knowledge (“information”) can be had without personal participation—that is, without engaging the affections or relying on an assumed good. In regard to this last point, obviously many teachers, over several decades, have explicitly addressed the problem of student engagement. These attempts to improve student engagement are, however, a response to an underlying assumption that remains in effect today: the belief that “real learning” is reducible to information that does not necessarily include either “values” (any particular notion of an assumed good) or any beauty that would evoke desire. When we construe the world—whether plants or other people—as “objects” that are “held away from us for our questioning,” we participate in a version of truth that is disconnected from goodness and beauty.3

How then can students be formed so that they go on to participate in the practices of the multiversity in a manner that reorients those practices toward a union of truth, goodness, and beauty? The difficulty is that modern Classical educators sometimes reduce “grammar” to “information.” In doing so, we risk reinforcing the assumption that the world consists of neutral objects
for human disposing. I suggest that teachers can best help students prepare for multiversity by giving them a thorough formation in grammar, understood as a liberal art and in the light of Christ.

As many teachers in classical schools can testify, an education based on the verbal arts of the trivium and the mathematical arts of the quadrivium is simply the most complete preparation for any version of higher education.4 We can appreciate the benefits of these arts more fully, however, if we consider one of them in more detail. What does it mean to understand “grammar” as a liberal art? An “art” consists of knowledge regarding how to make something.5 An art is “liberal” if it is concerned with intellectual things (such as words or numbers) rather than tangible things (such as wood, metal, or paint). Grammar, in this strict sense, as a liberal art, consists of knowledge regarding how to arrange words in order to make appropriate statements and how those statements refer to reality. The term “appropriate” includes appropriate to the topic, the occasion, the audience, and the purpose of any given utterance. By “statements” I mean not only propositions, but all manner of language use, from single- word imperatives to questions. In the same way, the term “refer” includes not only indicative gestures but all the indirect ways that reality is susceptible to being construed by words. The crucial feature of mature grammatical formation is careful attention to the explicit and implicit ways in which words relate to reality.

The root issue in teaching the grammar of any discipline is for both the teacher and student to recognize that grammar is ultimately about faithfulness to reality— specifically, whether our words are faithful to reality (created and uncreated). Students formed in this way, will have little difficulty handling any new subjects or modes of inquiry that they face in the multiversity—they will be in the habit of asking questions such as, “What are the assumed definitions in this text (or speech, or lab report)?” or, “What ethical purposes are implied by this word?” More accomplished students of grammar will also ask about the purposes of a given discourse or a mode of inquiry—whether those purposes are explicit or implicit. Such questions also obviously involve logic and rhetoric; however, the grammatical training is never left behind— in effect, every decision regarding a particular word also involves a range of logical definitions and connotations that shape persuasive effect. The key point for teachers at all levels to appreciate is that students form the ability for such advanced understanding when they form the habit of considering the manner in which words refer to reality.

Such grammatical formation may, by itself, enable a student to be an effective participant in the multiversity, but it may still limit that participation to the cycle of information production and consumption. Such grammatical skills need to be formed also in the light of Christ. I suggest that, apart from the Gospel, grammar tends in one of two directions: either presumption or despair—specifically regarding the capacity for words to get at reality. Some people tend toward unwarranted optimism about what language can do—presuming a direct connection or a necessary relation between words and reality. In practice, this typically involves reducing reality to our words, rather than using them to reveal some aspect of a reality greater than our words. By contrast, other people may be inclined to see language as only equivocal or ambiguous. In effect, they are tempted to despair of any meaning for language that would be greater than ourselves. For Christians, the Incarnation of God’s living Word in the person of Christ means that human language does have some capacity to get at reality (created and uncreated). At the same time, however, the Christian insistence upon the ongoing effects of creaturely finitude and fallenness means that our verbal accounts of reality will always be partial and incomplete. Thus, Christian revelation transforms grammar—that is, our assumptions regarding how words relate to and participate in reality—by providing warrant for both humility and hope.

What difference do those virtues make to the way in which grammar shapes the intellectual life of students? If students are formed by grammar in the light of Christ, rather than by a grammar reduced to information, they will have the following distinctive qualities: 1) they will be in the habit of using words to think well about reality— neither forgetting the distinction between words and reality (presumption) nor dismissing the connection (despair); 2) they will have a clear sense of how to discern the implicit purposes for any given discipline—that is, the good implied by the persuasive ethos in its use of language; 3) the will understand each academic discipline as a tradition of inquiry, including specific practices and language use.
By contrast, if students are in the habit of reducing their studies to information they will tend: to mistake the words of human inquiry for the reality being studied, to ignore questions regarding the non-instrumental purpose for
their studies, and to forget the inherited character of the languages and academic disciplines that they use. In other words, teaching the grammar of any discipline in the light of Christ will lead students out of themselves, whereas reducing studies to information simply reinforces the tendency to ethical egoism that dominates our culture. In his conclusion to The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis proposes what he calls a “regenerate science”—that is, a manner of knowing that “would not even do to minerals and vegetables” what the construal of the world as objects does to human beings.6 Lewis proposes, in effect, that, if the realities in the world were construed as having worth and beauty in themselves, rather than as neutral objects for human disposing, we would change the investigative means by which we seek to understand the world. Students who are grammatically prepared to discern the unity of truth, goodness, and beauty in the person of Christ and to bring that discernment to the practices of any given intellectual inquiry will be uniquely prepared to undertake such a challenge in the disciplinary contexts of the multiversity.