Grammar
 
	 

The trivial arts are, first and foremost, intellectual skills, as Dorothy Sayers 
reminded her audience in a lecture she gave on “The Lost Tools of Learning” at 
Oxford in 1947. 

She complained that “although we often succeed in teaching our pupils subjects, we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning.” Grammar is the art of reading. It is a skill that, despite all of the best efforts of reformers in America in the 20th and now the 21st century, including the ambitious federal program “No Child Left Behind,” apparently continues to elude our collective grasp.
Straight A’s: Public Education Policy and Progress: Volume 8, No. 1
According to some of the most recent analyses, America’s children “are reading less and reading less well.” And it is not just in elementary school and high school, but at the university level that American students demonstrate an increasing inability to master this basic skill. The Association of Departments of English, an organization for college teachers of English, has devoted a large section of its most recent bulletin (vol. 145, 2008) to “learning to read.”
Dorothy Sayers was a medievalist and, not surprisingly, she recommended Latin as the ideal vehicle for the study of grammar, because it is so highly inflected and also because it is “the key to the vocabulary and structure of all the Teutonic languages, as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences and to the literature of the entire Mediterranean civilization, together with all its historical documents.” Sayers acknowledged that there were many other texts and subjects that students could learn to read at this stage in their development when “observation and memory are the faculty most lively.” It is not just the occasional crabbed medievalist, however, who recommends Latin these days. Latin is one of the core elements in the curriculum of a newly established charter school in west Philadelphia. A recent article in The Philadelphia Weekly about the charter school’s success raves as follows:
“David Hardy, 57, Philadelphia Boys’ Latin’s CEO, says he chose Latin as the foundation for his new school because students who study it consistently score higher on SATs and do better in other subjects because it holds them to high standards that public schools can’t hold them to. Studying the Latin language, according to the school’s statement, also helps students learn other languages faster—especially romance languages—while aiding in the acquisition of non-romance languages. Additionally, Latin’s differing structures and sentence order “help develop observant, analytical and logical students,” according to the school’s website and promotional pamphlets.” This presentation will not go so far as to argue that we should require every student in America to learn Latin, or even to suggest that it play as an important role in the college preparatory curriculum as it used to in the 1950s and early 1960s.
It was partly in light of the Soviet success with Sputnik in 1957, that the movement to replace Latin in the high school curriculum to make room for more math and science coursework was justified. If the goal was to turn America into a nation of budding mathematicians or scientists, the experiment has certainly been a failure! It turns out that our students are not any better at reading, either. By “reading,” of course, we mean much more than basic literacy. As any mature reader knows, reading is an inexhaustible art that can be developed and enjoyed for one’s entire life long. Gaining new vocabulary, understanding figures of speech and thought, analyzing the structure of sentences and paragraphs, these are not just techniques good readers master as children and then coast thereafter. But the early teen-age years are a very good stage to start to master these foundational abilities, once the rudiments are firmly in place. Quintilian, in his Elements of Oratory 1.4.1-5, observes that the curriculum to be taught by the grammaticus should be “divided...into two main subjects: the art of speaking correctly and the interpretation of poetry.”
While Roman students in their later teens would go on to work with a rhetor to polish the art of speaking persuasively, Quintilian points out that it is important for them to have learned to speak grammatically correctly first. Some of the work at this level can be repetitive, but the Romans believed that “repetition was the mother of learning” (repetitio mater studiorum est). Is it possible that the Romans were on to something and that more rote work, more memorization, more recitation, painful as that may be, is one of the keys to mastering a skill as complex as this? The second item identified by Quintilian is the study of poetry, the most sophisticated and complex expression of human language. Students at this early stage of intellectual development were expected to memorize lots of poetry and even to write their own, often not only in their own tongue but in Latin and Greek. That these poetic exercises were not always joyful experiences for student or teacher, we can gather from the many criticisms of the practice, and the apologies for its continuation. What is the possible utility of memorizing, interpreting, and producing poetry? Consider how Edward Copleston, provost of Oriel College, Oxford, answered the charges leveled against Oxford’s traditional literary curriculum by the editors of the practical minded Edinburgh Review. Copleston’s spirited defense of the value of poetry and its careful study is memorable: “It is not that we seek to stock the world with new poems, but to give play in the most effectual manner to the poetic faculty, which exists to a certain degree in all minds, and which, like every other faculty, ought to lie wholly uncultivated in none. At least it is an irreparable injury to young minds, if it be entirely neglected. They may still be useful members in the mechanism of society, if the powers of reasoning and calculation only be encouraged: but they lose that intellectual charm, from which life borrows its loveliest graces; they lose, in a refined age, the means of recommending Virtue herself, if taste and elegance be not found in her train”(Gamble, see above, p. 507). Against the objection that instruction in the technical fields should take precedence in the curriculum, Copleston argues that such an education may produce “a skillful agriculturist, an improver of manufactures, a useful inspector of roads, mines, and canals: but all that distinguishing grace, which a liberal education imparts, he foregoes for ever.” He writes that such an education represents “a cruel experiment,” whose result would be: “not only a moral blank, but an intellectual barrenness--a poverty of fancy and invention, a dearth of historical and poetical illustration, a want of all those ideas which decorate and enliven truth, which enable us to live over again the times that are past, to combine the produce of widely distant ages, and to multiply into one another the component parts of each” (Gamble, see above, p. 513). Lest one argue that such interest in poetry could perhaps be justified in the elite and genteel milieu of 19th century “Oxbridge,” we should remind ourselves of just how important poetry was to one of one of our most popular presidents, Abraham Lincoln, who grew up on what was then the American frontier and had very little formal education. While he did not have the library that Thomas Jefferson did, Lincoln read the books that he was able to get his hands on (e.g. The King James Bible, Aesop’s Fables, the Lives of Plutarch, Shakespeare), voraciously. (See Douglas Wilson, “What Jefferson and Lincoln Read,” The Atlantic Monthly, 267.1 ([1991]: 51-62.) Jefferson was a extensive reader; Lincoln was intensive. He did not read nearly as much as Jefferson, but what he read he practically knew by heart. Then, as now, such activities were not encouraged or considered practical by parents and friends. Dennis Hanks, his step-father observed: “He was always reading—scribbling—writing—ciphering— writing poetry.” Neighbors complained that the young Lincoln was reluctant “to pitch in at work like killing snakes.” (See David Donald’s 1995 biography of Lincoln, p. 33.)
That Lincoln was actually hard at work as he read and wrote and memorized poetry, work that would really matter for himself and for all Americans, his family and neighbors could obviously not conceive. It may be that there are still some in America whose appreciation for reading and its ultimate usefulness is as low as it was on the 19th century American frontier, but it would certainly be a shame if we educators were reduced to agreeing with them.
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