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1e11d336969d4aa235605298e7fdc170The modern system of public education has been, for the most part, a miserable failure. Our current educational crisis has been eroding the moral and intellectual fabric of the American Experiment for too many generations to count. Yet the occupiers of the Ivory Towers openly aver that our public schools are doing a fantastic job, and our fainthearted counterparts in the elementary schools usually concur en masse. Perhaps a cursory look at two root problems concerning the modern educational crisis will have a sobering effect on some who have been taken in by the swindlers selling defunct, secular-humanist education to unwitting customers.

The fact that the public schools increasingly emphasize the hard sciences means there has been a shift from universal notions of being to particular notions of doing. The inversion of the scientific method from the deductive to the inductive approach instituted by Sir Francis Bacon has precipitated a great many inversions in public and private life concerning the order of the cosmos, philosophy, science, morality, and education–particularly concerning how we know what we know. The inversion of the intellectual hierarchy has made empirical science, that least of the intellectual servants, supreme over intellectual apprehension and above the astounding revealed truths available to us mere mortals. The relationship between human being and human doing has also been inverted.

There are many stumbling blocks for those who wish to engage intelligently and morally in the debate on education. Two foundational issues are an understanding of the nature of grammar and the problem of being vs. doing. By clarifying these two vital educational considerations, one is better equipped to understand what has so confused the world concerning education and human learning.


The word “grammar” is an extremely important word coming from the Greek “grammatikí̱” (γραμματική) meaning “the art of letters,” but in its deepest sense it signifies literacy or the right reading of things. It is both an art and a science. It is complicated to master literacy and all its guiding principles. The Ancients left us records of men who called themselves grammarians. They mastered the arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric if they were to be worthy of their title. If we compare what the grammarians considered grammar in ages past with what people call grammar today, we are astounded by the difference between the two.

Dionysius_Thrax._Grammar._Davidson._1874._PortadaDionysios Thrax, an ancient Greek grammarian, outlined the hierarchical structure of grammar from the least to the greatest. He began with prosody, followed by an understanding of literary devices, followed by considerations of phraseology enhanced by etymology. At the upper reaches of grammar we find analogy and metaphor, followed by the highest aspect of grammar: the art of exegesis. Exegesis has its etymological roots in a word that means “to demand”; we demand from a written work what it is most deeply trying to convey considering its origins, the author’s intentions, the validity and value of its assertions, as well as the range, breadth, and depth of its knowledge. This complete understanding of grammar has long since been abandoned.

Grammar has suffered the same fate as theology and philosophy in this reductive age. Grammar has been cut off from its transcendent and philosophical roots. Grammar ought to embody the rules for the structure of language, which intend to reflect the hierarchical structure of the Cosmos. The lowest level of grammatical concern for the ancients has become the highest in the modern school. Prosody has gone under the knife of dissection to the point that literacy has become a sort of pseudo-linguistic analysis of the written word.

Prosody generally means “the defining feature of expressive reading which comprises all of the variables of timing, phrasing, emphasis, and intonation.” The ancient grammarians’ concerns have been replaced by the constituent parts undergirding prosody, which we now call morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, phonology, and phonetics. Added to these considerations are superficial nods to various parts of speech and reduced versions of some of the Ancient grammarian’s categories. Grammar, like the frog, lies dissected in the laboratory of the modern school empirically mapped out, but dead to its vital concerns.

A recovery of the true nature of grammar is hardly likely, but let it suffice here to remind us that grammar has its roots in eternity, and its arrangement of categories signifies the rules of existence as well as words can. In identifying the grammar of human existence there are two primary considerations: that of space and that of time, which correlate to our two categories of being and doing. Being and doing are reflected by the speech categories that we call nouns and verbs. In the entirety of language we can notice that all our linguistic constructions revolve around articulating things and what they do (nouns and verbs). Just so, we understand our lives in terms of being and doing, correlated to space and time. All our considerations revolve around what we are and what we do. It is of primary importance in living out our Christian vocations to know the nature of what we are, to understand the moral implications of what we do, and how these two categories are inextricably related. It is the philosophical problem of our age that we have abandoned a proper understanding of this relationship and it has obscured our understanding of how we ought to educate our children.

The Problem of Being

We are created beings born into time and space. We are made in the image and likeness of God and gifted an intellect and free will and thereby we are impelled to act. These facts point to the most basic aspects of the human condition, being and doing. We are all beings and we all do things. But because we are rational and moral creatures, what we do requires knowledge and consideration. In order to act rightly in accord with our proper ends, it is necessary to discover the nature of our being. No longer do we rely on revelation and metaphysics to inform us about our being, but a recovery of these two sciences is vital for a rediscovery of the nature of being.

Ontology is a branch of metaphysics that studies what there is, the most general features of being and how universal principles correspond to speculative understanding of what really is. This age has narrowed its focus so tightly it has excluded the immateriality comprising the universal and unchanging principles of being. Instead, we focus almost exclusively on what is merely physical, knowable through the five senses and by its material nature constantly changing. But is there more than the material world? More than what we can perceive with the five senses? Many in education would say “no,” but the great philosophers like Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas would say yes! Metaphysics is the subject which is beyond-physics. Metaphysics is an exercise that begins with the senses but goes far beyond it to the proper use the intellect in a philosophical discipline known to the ancients as speculative rational science.

Metaphysics used to be called the “first philosophy.” It seeks to understand the permanent, immaterial and universal things pertaining to the nature of being. Many false beliefs follow the above-described philosophical stumbling blocks. We have come to believe that there are no universal truths about the nature of being. Everything physical is in flux, and since we focus almost solely on the physical, we are apt to conclude by our simple observations that everything and everyone is different. Universals are no longer held to be applicable to being. From this error we can make neither truthful, nor accurate statements about the nature of being nor how such an understanding calls us to educate our children. Without universal truths, we become the arbiters of our own truths and the makers of our own rules. If we no longer admit of divine and natural law, we will have to become our own lawmakers.

57e32c9ef9e65a8c3b03fbb6ee685497We have mistakenly come to believe that what we do determines who we are. We have come to label ourselves by the things we do. People today refer to themselves as the thing they do. We have tried to change the definition of the human person from a human being to a human doing. This has had catastrophic results. The logical end of this error is to see people as means to be used (doing), not as ends to be cherished (being).

Finally we have mistakenly come to believe that doing precedes being. If we don’t recognize that the universal principles of being apply to all humans at all times, then we are inclined to invert the order of being and doing. Universal principles of being are meant to guide our actions. Without them we have had to turn elsewhere for guidance. We have replaced universal truths of being with regimens of action we believe will determine what we become. This is abundantly apparent in modern educational pedagogy. This is a grave error. In the order of reality it is precisely our habits of being both moral and intellectual which comprise the range of possible valid acts to which we have the potential to commit, not the other way around. We are apt to think in this confused age that what we do will determine what we become, when in reality, it is who we are that will determine what we do.

In the educational world today, we ask the wrong question about how students are to become educated. Instead of asking what they should do, we should ask how students ought to be. In other words, in order to recover a sense of a true education, we must recover an authentic understanding of the nature of grammar, especially where it applies to the grammar of human existence.

By putting things back into their proper ontological order, we avail ourselves of an opportunity to remediate the dismal state of modern education. If we continue to operate by the current inverted paradigms, it is only reasonable to expect our current educational crisis to worsen.

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Published: Aug 12, 2015
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. A convert to Catholicism, he is a catechist, a school teacher, and a writer and speaker on matters of faith, culture, and education. He holds a degree in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Steven is a member of the Teacher Advisory Board and writer of curriculum at the Sophia Institute for Teachers, a contributor to the Integrated Catholic Life, Crisis Magazine, The Civilized Reader, The Standard Bearers, Catholic Exchange, and a founding member of the Brinklings Literary Club.
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11 replies to this post
  1. >>”The fact that the public schools increasingly emphasize the hard sciences means there has been a shift from universal notions of being to particular notions of doing. The inversion of the scientific method from the deductive to the inductive approach instituted by Sir Francis Bacon has precipitated a great many inversions in public and private life concerning the order of the cosmos, philosophy, science, morality, and education–particularly concerning how we know what we know.”<<

    Bravo– our young people are drafted into a project of sifting through the products of God's creation, trying to rework them into our own creation. It is a foolish and doomed project, even less in touch with God and nature than a shaman dancing around a fire.

  2. Who, exactly, are these Ivory Tower occupiers saying our our public schools are doing a fantastic job?

    Whether conservative or liberal, and no matter their preferred solutions, the people saying such are few and far between.

    • I worked in the public schools for 23 years and the professors in education departments regularly came to train teachers and there was a constant touting of the newest latest thing, so I am contending that many professors in education departments across this country are supportive of worthless programs like state standards and common core, not to mention all the other horrible ideas which have populated the public schools for the last 40 years. Other professors are not so deluded, they easily see the caliber of the new arrivals to their universities declining year by year and the swindlers answer with more and more remedial programs- When I testified against the common core at an education committee convened by the GA house of Representatives, there were two education professors from Georgia College in Milledgeville who sang the praises of common core and it is a matter of public record. Perhaps I should have qualified my statement, but professors of education are propagandists for things like common core, I don’t know where all the other professors stand, but I am sure many of them support the public schools in ideological theory- If you have evidence to the contrary please present it. If you contend that these education professors are lying, I wouldn’t doubt it, but I have no evidence of that.

      • Thanks for the added info. Perhaps I’m overly persnickety, but when folks make generalizations without any supporting references, it always raises red flags with me. The experience you supplied above helps fill things out.

        I might still argue the proponents (or propagandists) of common core aren’t so much arguing things are great with our public schools, but that common core is the panacea for what’s wrong. Of that I’m skeptical as I am of most top-down “comprehensive” solutions.

        Incidentally, my daughter is pursuing her doctorate in mathematics at a large public university and the stories she tells about the incoming underclass she teaches are quite comedic (or horrific, depending on one’s perspective, I suppose).

  3. Andy, thanks! You were right to call me on it, and it requires much further examination and clarification than time or space permit- Surely, Common Core is being touted as the next panacea, but so has every other silly program foisted upon the public schools for the last several generations, like whole language, the new math, and countless more anti-human schemes- they all have the common denominator that they are OBE which is a scientifically reduced method incapable of treating the intellect and soul of students- so bound to fail no matter how much we convince ourselves or other of invisible efficacy. I am sure I would enjoy your daughters stories and I have countless myself- after we get done laughing we would probably cry. We in the teaching class have a lot to answer for concerning the last 150 years of the American demise.

  4. P.S. Andy, I don’t consider my experience to be any kind of convincing evidence, but the trends in our nation are self-evident and the very fact that the public schools still exist is a far greater sign that teachers and education professors are not appropriately horrified by the current state of affairs. Where is the outcry against the public schools? It seems we are never told how really devastating modern pedagogy and methodology really are to the human intellect and will. I still hear people say “I got a good education at…………” They never seem able to articulate what they mean by “good education.” (again my experience is not much to go on, but ask a few folks yourself.) America is in the process of being dumbed down for too many generations now, I doubt there is a path to recovery.

  5. This post is better than perfect. Thank you. And, please forgive the length of my comment.
    My opinion is that the dumbing down is deliberate and intense. The supporters of public education, as it is now, and shall be in the future, if not addressed and changed, is intended to usher in and convert an entire nation to socialism. You and I will not see this in our time, but we are watching in horror as the changes take place…

    Have you ever read The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli? There is a very interesting and timely sentence on p. 23 ( don’t know if the pages are the same in all the different versions of the book ): “…This explains how it happened that there were so many insurrections against the Romans in Spain, France, and Greece resulting from the numerous principalities into which those states had been divided. As long as the memory of these principalities survived, the Romans remained insecure in their possessions. Not until the enduring power of the empire had effaced all memory of them did the Romans become safely entrenched. …”

    There is a forceful, intense ideology trying to assume power in these United States. It is intent on erasing our Constitution, our religious freedoms and traditional family values, in order to insert supreme authority.

    The public education system, CORE, is just another way to speed up the process. It is doable, because States like California are already on the way to being Socialist. This is a way to double down on the process.

    I see this entire event as a nightmare come to life. I have four grandchildren and they live here, in California. The nightmare is: will my daughter and son-in-law have enough strength and moral fiber to be able to see the incremental changes in our State and school system, to circumvent them as they arise.

    I am going to put you on my Prayer List, Sir. This Nation needs all the help it can get!

    • Dear Trailbee, I am most grateful to be put on your prayer list! Thank you! I very much appreciate your long comment as well, although I may disagree with you a little about how quickly things are descending- Born and raised in California, I think it may be going a little quicker that you suggest, but I am only guessing. I fear your daughter and son in law are powerless to circumvent the catastrophic effects of our public schools, even good folks who faithfully home school are inundated by the prolific work of public education which has formed all sectors of public life and infected most of private life. Nonetheless, please keep fighting the good fight!

      Yours in Christ, SJ

  6. Mr. Masty,

    That is a good question I am unable to answer at the moment, but I have been thinking about it since you asked it. I believe our appetites have been topsy turvey since the fall. I think the real questions are about self-government and the cultivation of virtue, a thing increasingly eschewed by modern man. I will get back to you if I figure anything out. Thanks!

  7. I’m pleased to find your article. I’m currently homeschooling my son and we’re currently focused on the Trivium. While learning English grammar, your article helped suggest we were on the right path! Thank you!

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