When I was a boy in “grammar school,” grammar was not learning rules by rote, nor was it pedantically delineating them on the board by teachers more bored by the subject than their students. Grammar is not in itself interesting nor is it in itself boring. Grammar can be interesting in the classroom, but that is dependent on the teacher which is in turn more dependent on the teacher knowing the subject than we would like to accept.
By knowing I am referring to something we used to understand in the university as Platonic. There were aspects of Platonic epistemology that were still relevant to us and informative in our decisions concerning pedagogy; but then states requiring teachers to know their subjects as opposed to becoming certified by the bureaucracy in the teaching of a subject were two never again to meet. State sponsored education is never going to ensure that its students are educated above the perfunctory level of socialization, nor that literacy of an advanced level is re-enforced.
If we wanted educated students capable of negotiating literacy at an advanced level, no one who was to become a High School English teacher would be allowed to get a certificate with a B- in their major or a C overall average; in fact, a High School English teacher should have to get a Masters Degree in English, not in Pedagogy. Instead, his remote B- as an undergraduate is what informs his teaching of language and literature. The horror; the horror–how much greater inflation of our educational currency exchange can we endure?
To know something was to be able to teach it, but then to be able to teach a subject– that ability was predicated on knowledge, the kind judged by criteria we no longer believe are necessary and have concluded were only enforced out of elitist considerations or racist imperatives or white-centered mandates that were exclusive of non-white needs. To know today is akin to how the Scare crow in The Wizard of Oz satirically becomes brilliant once he is handed a diploma, a diploma, by the way, he did nothing to earn. The satire there is lost on us. We are turning students into scare-crows not scare-crows into geniuses, which in the magical realism of Oz, the scare-crow is transformed.
When we studied grammar in Grammar School (and, yes, it was still called Grammar School when I was a boy), 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. What grammar represented in Roman antiquity was quite different than the subject misused, misunderstood, undermined and abused by teachers, pedagogues and critical pundits today. We were taught in a way that reinforced the notion that all language begins as poetry, and that we were poets before we were grammarians or teachers or philosophers or priests or rabbis (the latter itself meaning ‘teacher’ or master, the later present in Romance languages for teacher, maestro in Italian, or maitre in French for just two of several examples).
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. Do we imagine that interest rates on credit cards would ever have gotten as high as they have if we were taught to negotiate in letters and were educated to be a population that could write and were supposed to write letters?
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.
The great horror is how we manage schools in inner-city neighborhoods, as if they do not need to be as educated or literate, giving second class education (often enforced by members of the community themselves) because as long as there is affirmative action, we need to make sure there are enough under-achievers to support the bureaucracy. If all inner-city kids were allowed to get or that a different enculturation would allow them to seek into getting the same education as those who do achieve–and I am not saying that Public Education is good enough anywhere except for the cream that they expect will rise to the top–if we did educate the ways we should and not in the ways that undermines, there would be no need for affirmative action. But so long as we have affirmative action, we will continue to under educate large swaths of our population.
Writing, then, when I was in school, the last time Public Education was near good enough, 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 as one Deputy Chair person had suggested to a friend of mine who was teaching at a local community college in their remedial English classes.
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. I still do not understand how reading and writing, as mutual and contingent and reciprocal as I know they are, can be separated in exclusive categories for the purposes of understanding how to manage teaching them, especially in the area of remediation in the Community Colleges. This, of course, is another essay.
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. Relevance in education grew like mildew throughout pedagogy, and the Canon of literature–even the revised Canon, of which I had no objections–received accusations of irrelevancy. White authors became irrelevant to African-American students; in this turn of reasoning, Toni Morrison must be irrelevant to me because I am neither African-American nor a woman.
I understand that not everyone needs to go to university, 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 under education 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 do not see how systematic under education affects us, affects citizen and police, yet we watch cities burn. Yes, most civil servants are reading at grade levels lower than they were fifty years ago, perhaps even twenty, maybe only ten. The decrease is increasing. I watched CUNY change its writing placement exam, from the WAT to the ACT, the latter which was an easier exam to complete. I also over years of teaching remedial English in CUNY, watched the norming sessions for grading the exam shift its level of acceptance, that is, change the level at which an essay received a passing score. The essays would be read by two readers and an essay needed a score of 4 from both to pass. The essays were graded numerically fro 6 to 1. In my final days in CUNY I had seen papers that would have gotten 3s or maybe even 2s receive 4s. I had the models of scoring from a decade earlier and it was obvious to me. The fact, though, that was most disturbing, was that still only around 35 to 40% passed the exam.
The shift in scoring was to insure CUNY’s received idea on what an acceptable passing rate was. 35 to 40% insured everyone had jobs, that there was a demand for this remediation, which had become a Community College industry, Community Colleges having already taken the place of High School. And everyone scoffed at Giuliani when he wanted to require police officers get at least an Associates Degree. I applauded him for it. We would have more literate cops which would go a long way in changing how we police our communities–I hold this truth to be self-evident. I am not interested in debating it.
In university, when I was attending, 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 geometry teacher loads them 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 geometry 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 latter 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. Freedom and political coreectness do not by necessity walk hand in hand. The first great politically correct state was the Soviet Union. We are becoming more like what this complementary super state was as the years roll by, something my Soviet raised wife has noted and said now for over a decade.
We do mistakenly imagine that we can bureaucratically correct former social ills. We have deferred to state mandates on social interaction and proprieties where we once engaged in organic human interaction. I am not saying that government intervention is never necessary in correcting social ills or that it was not necessary in our past. I am only noting how we have abdicated our personal responsibilities toward and for civil liberty and freedom in favor of a bureaucratically managed and mandated civility which will always be co-opted by the media in the latter’s links with state authority.
Nonetheless, 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 we were attending 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; we must, though, understand that this applicability is for better or for worse. Our society has been reformed in a debilitated understanding of language. The consequences are dire, have become so. Chickens are coming home to roost.