The Essentials of a True Writing Program: Part 2

Terrence O. Moore concludes his explanation of how to teach writing.

Having labored to establish the ends and means of good writing in the last issue, I should very quickly be able to show how a classical education answers them in every particular. Classical education by its very nature invites students to have “points” to make on matters of great moment. The method of Socratic discussion employed in all subjects, but particularly in literature, requires students to answer questions such as “Was Julius Caesar a great man or a tyrant?” “Did Robinson Crusoe learn to be more human by being away from human beings?” “Would we find ourselves more alien or at home in Huxley’s brave new world?” “Does Dostoyevsky show through Raskolnikov’s turmoil that religious faith is the only true antidote to the will to power?” Now compare these questions to the thoughtless ones being asked of students in regular public schools. Is it any wonder why our students are engaged (nihil humanum mihi alienum est) and typical students are bored and completely alienated from the inquiry into the human condition? Our students are having to figure out who they are, where they have come from, and how they must act in the world. Wishy-washy answers to inane questions, the routine of the regular public schools, won’t do.

The points that our students have to make are not based on their untutored “feelings” and reflex opinions as at other schools. The constant refrain of progressive education is “how does this make you feel?” rather than “what do you know?” A classical education demands students to know things: many, many things as it turns out. Students cannot offer glib commentary on how the world works without having a deep knowledge (or at least beginning to have one) of the people and events that have shaped and continue to shape that world. Initially, our students speak and write on topics that are confined to a particular text or experiment or historical moment. By the time they graduate, however, they are able to marshal these discreet articles of knowledge to make sense, with some more advanced study, of almost any problem or challenge that comes their way. These basic facts are precisely the pieces of evidence that their less-informed fellow students and colleagues will neglect, still relying, as Plato’s prisoners, on the shadows of the cave.

To write well, as we have said, the writer must know grammar. Students in classical schools typically study grammar formally in every grade K-9 and continue to encounter grammar either in foreign languages or in the comments they receive on their papers in grades 10-12. Many schools ease into grammar by devices that set sentence structure to nursery rhymes or jingles, but students are ready to start more formal methods even in the early elementary grades. In addition, teachers in all grades and in all subjects should vigilantly police their students’ bad usage by correcting incorrect or substandard speech in class, no matter the subject under discussion at the moment. “Me and Johnny need to go to the bathroom” is unacceptable. By the fourth grade, if not earlier, students should be knee- deep in sentence diagramming, just as Churchill was as a boy. Further, students at classical schools will generally take at least three years of Latin, starting in the later elementary grades or the middle school. To the progressive “educator,” and to the ultra-utilitarian singing his chorus of “job skills for a twenty-first-century work force,” Latin is anathema.

“Why would you waste time on dead languages with so much new technology and information out there?” (The world “out there,” you see, is very scary!) These whiz-bang progressives forget the basic Aristotelian insight that human beings are the creatures that use language, and language— whether texted or tweeted or faxed or e-mailed or sent in Morse Code or still yet written down with quill and ink—still has a basic structure that anyone must acquire to express himself logically, vividly, and forcefully. While students are often awfully casual about the grammar of their own language, they cannot afford to be so in Latin class. Even if they make it all the way through grade
five without learning how to employ the parts of speech, the various forms of the past tense, the indicative and the subjunctive moods, and all the other hard facts of grammar, they cannot escape them through three or four or more years of Latin. Latin was in the past and remains today the boot camp of ordered expression.

Words are the meat and potatoes of a classical education. A student has no excuse for graduating from a classical school with anything short of an immense vocabulary, a ready “stock of words” in Franklin’s phrase, and an ability to choose the right word on the right occasion. Both the academic program and the atmosphere of a classical school encourage students to become masters of words. In the first place, a classical headmaster should be hiring only articulate teachers: in every grade and in every subject. Second, the teachers in classical schools do not “talk down” to students but encourage students to come up to their level. Children are emulative beings. They follow the verbal patterns to which they are exposed. For this reason, the greatest of classical schoolmasters, Quintilian, urged mothers to spend time with their infants rather than passing them off to servants. Even in the crib, babies would become accustomed to the standard speech of their well-spoken mothers rather than pick up the bad grammar of the uneducated, according to Quintilian. In every class in a classical school, therefore, two levels of instruction are taking place: first, in the particular subject matter at hand and, second, in the form of civilized speech through which subjects are discussed and explained to students. Though nominally a teacher of history, the more time I spend in the classroom, the more I consider myself a teacher of language. Consider for a moment the many words that must be understood to have a meaningful discussion about our political history: liberty, equality, sovereignty, faction, justice, rights, inalienable, happiness, limited, government, federalism, and so on. Not only are such words misunderstood or only vaguely grasped by today’s young men and women. Such is the impoverished language of today’s culture and schools that often students have not even encountered these words. Every year I am surprised by a word that whole classes of freshmen in college have never encountered or cannot define. A few years ago it was the word bicameral. How can students who have supposedly taken years of American history and in most cases a semester
of government in high school not know the word bicameral? To what extent did the American Founders think that their liberties depended upon the principle of bicameralism? The different outcomes of the American and French Revolutions are one measure of the importance of the matter.

All is not left to osmosis and chance in the imparting of the meaning of words in a classical school. From the first day of kindergarten, students are taught the meaning of words. At some point, one hopes, the students will learn the meaning of the words of the Pledge of Allegiance which are by no means easy (allegiance, liberty, justice), but ought to be understood nonetheless. Students are required to look up words they encounter in the rich literature they read from the second grade onward. At least by the fourth grade, students learn “word histories” by being introduced formally to Greek and Latin roots. At some point in the upper elementary or middle school students formally study Latin, the language which accounts for about 60% of English word origins. Should a girl be praised for her “pulchritude” or a boy for his “pecuniary prescience”? A proper Latin student will not even have to look those words up. Finally, even in the higher studies of literature, science, history, and other subjects, students continue to discover the precious treasures found in the words of the English language. In a moral philosophy class I used to teach to high school students we would spend a lot of time on the differences between happiness and fun as found in some of the texts. The word history is instructive. “Fun” seems to have come from the Middle English
fon, the word for fool. The “fool” or jester in a medieval court was always the character cutting up and making light of everything. The individual who pursues fun, then, in contrast to Jefferson’s (or Aristotle’s) happiness, takes nothing in life seriously. The consequences of such a life can be easily seen in Jane Austen’s Lydia, the character in Pride and Prejudice who speaks of nothing but fun (and uses bad grammar to boot). Language, then, is not mere ornament. It is nothing less than the medium through which we govern ourselves, express our souls, and live out our lives. We cannot afford to be sloppy or unknowing about language.

A classical school also requires the student to write logically and with coherence. It is often said by classical schoolmasters that “the logic stage” of learning trains the young mind to make logical distinctions about complex subjects so as to gain understanding. At the same time, it is not easy to explain what exactly “logical distinctions” are. In terms of writing, however, the issue is a little clearer. Logic usually refers to the marshalling and ordering of evidence so as to make a compelling argument based, we hope, on truth. The untutored student will often say, “I know what I want to say, but I just can’t say it.” As a result, he will often resort just to his feelings or a jumbled assemblage of platitudes. The classically-trained student, who will have read, among other things, The Declaration of Independence and the Lincoln- Douglas debates—models of logical expression— will be able to deploy quotations, historical events, the actions and decisions of men and women in history or characters in literature, the results of scientific experiments, plausible theories of human nature, and, of course, the meaning of actual words, in order to prove his case. To this end, the classical student will be able to handle more than the silly, trivial, or ho-hum essay questions required on state standardized tests, the most popular being, “Tell us who your hero is and why,” with the standard response being incoherent ramblings about my dad or Beyoncé or the current champion cage fighter. Rather, the student will be able to take on questions such as, “Was Washington really the ‘indispensable man’?” or “To become human, were Adam and Eve bound to fall?” Such questions require much work in the grammar of history or philosophy, to be sure. What did George Washington do, exactly? How precisely did the story of the Garden unfold? Yet such probing questions also demand the strenuous exercise of a logical mind. What might constitute a single man in history being indispensable? Could the Revolution have been successful without Washington? Can we imagine a Revolution without a Madison, a Jefferson, an Adams, or even a Franklin, yet not without Washington? Might America have become something very different had the Founding Father acted differently, even in a single moment? (Newburgh, perhaps?). In what respects were Adam and Eve “human” before the Fall? In what respects were they not? What does it mean to be human? Is knowledge opposed to happiness or to human goodness? Is freedom the opposite of obedience? Were there fallacies in the serpent’s argument? Was it in any sense—at least technically—true? Did the original couple have the mental capacity to beat the serpent’s argument?

Should they have entered into the discussion in the first place? And so on. The thinking to ask these kinds of questions, the answering them, and the ordering of them into a coherent and convincing thesis is a logical undertaking of no small degree. And such an intellectual enterprise sure beats the “critical thinking skills” so much talked about and so little demonstrated by the prevailing education regime. The logician might even be prone to ask whether there can be thinking that is not critical or whether thinking is an art or a discipline rather than a skill.

A classical education also seeks to impart style in the writer. Style, admittedly, does not come without great effort on the part of the student. Yet for any student who knocks, the door will be opened. Just as Franklin worked hard to acquire an elegant English style by internalizing the essays of Addison, so students at any classical school read, analyze, and—above all—enjoy the best that has been written and said in our great language: from Shakespeare to Milton to The Federalist authors to Burke to Emerson. Style, like dress, is an emulative fashion. The classical school does not leave students’ style to drift in the winds of popular culture or to be further truncated by the high-tech grunting of the text or the tweet. Nor does the school only count on the influence of the teachers’ verbal habits, though that, too, as we have said, is of consequence. At the classical school, the young keep company—we dare not say “hang out”—with the most celebrated writers who ever put quill or pen to paper. The masters of the language are our students’ private tutors in the elements of style. For hours every day students of the classics consider, to be sure, the great writers’ aims, examine their evidence, follow their logic, learn their words, and wrestle with their insights into the human condition. Even so, our task would not be done if the students failed to appreciate—and to imitate—the finest style of the finest writers. The student truly ambitious of becoming a “tolerable English writer” cannot falter in that noble, some would say that noblest, art. One more thing. True art only comes with practice. I am told that learning a musical instrument requires two hours of practice every day. To become a virtuoso takes more. The craft of writing is no different. Writers write. They spend a fair portion of their day writing. Even when not writing, they often look at the world as they would write about it. Students at classical schools have to write. Their teachers compel them to write often, and then those teachers correct that writing with considerable attention to the elements of good writing. Those teachers are not reticent with red ink. If my intelligence is accurate, students at classical schools write about four to five times more than do their counterparts at regular public schools. Whether so much time spent writing is warranted can be seen in simply asking the question, In what field of endeavor does four times more practice not produce better results?

We began this subject by asking whether classical schools have a better approach to writing than the canned “programs” of the typical school. We ask that question again: Who has the real writing program, them or us? Consider two football teams, the players being of equal size and speed. One coach was a solid player in his day and became a great student of the game. He has mastered the playbooks of Lombardi, Shula, Landry, and Walsh. The other is a ham-and-egger. He was never a first- string player himself and has spent no time with
the great luminaries of the game. The first team has an elaborate playbook, but it is based upon the fundamentals. It is also tailored to the strengths of his players. From this playbook, the coach carefully chooses the plays that make up a distinct game-plan aimed at the weaknesses and strengths of every opposing team. The coach knows which play to call on which down. The second team has a limited and predictable playbook that the coach bought from a profitable publishing company called Step Up to Football. The book consists of a couple of running and a couple of passing plays. Its method is straightforward. First down: run up the middle. Second down: run up the middle. Third down: pass in desperation. Finally, the first team practices several hours a day, five days a week. The practices are extremely orderly and comprehensive. The second team practices once a week; their practices seem more like an unorganized pick-up game than a real practice. After practices, the first team watches films of their previous game and goes over and over the mistakes they made. They also watch the films of the team they will play in the next game to know what they are up against and to learn how they will approach their adversary. The second team watches a lot of films, to be sure, but nothing to do with football. Which of these two teams will be the most prepared on game day? Which team has the better “football program”?

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