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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…

Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg as he explores how the abandoning of grammar has contributed to the demise of education. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher

educationThe 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 too 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.

Grammar

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.

Dionysios 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 a 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.

We 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.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreOne of our “Timeless Essays,” it was first published here in August 2015. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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Published: Apr 23, 2017
Author
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and holds a degree in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara. A school teacher, he is also a writer and speaker on matters of faith, culture, and education. Mr. Rummelsburg 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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6 replies to this post
  1. Although Mr. Rummelsburg makes a solid case for his premises, in my 50+ years in education I cannot think of a single practicing educator who could read his writing with understanding and put it into practice. Sadly, teachers have themselves experienced the hollowed out education that they are now putting into practice. At best, the intelligence ones are so steeped in a mindless constructivism that they eschew knowledge and limit their arsenal to skill development accompanied by Google searches and video games. I hope that my comments can be proven wrong, but most likely they will stand as representative of the sorry state of today’s schooling.

    • bbcllc2013,

      I very much appreciate your comments and I agreed with you long before I wrote this. I have been fortunate enough to meet one or two teachers who do understand these basic tenants of educatio and are in the process of learning how to carry out a properly ordered mission to lead the little ones out of darkness, but the vast majority of all my acquaintances perfectly match your characterization.

      I am on the verge of accusing of penning the Auguste comment and if you did, I extend a hearty congratulations for an excellent exposition of the point you were trying to make. We ourselves have been given the hollowest of educations and ironically, everyone I meet fancies themselves an expert on the subject. I am not hopeful at all for our public schools and I believe comment will bear out to the bitter end.

      I would be very grateful to learn more about your insights after 50 years of experience in this vapid field. Let me know if there is a way that can happen.

  2. Judging from the title, I thought I would read an essay about grammar, not such a lofty defense of wedding ontology and pedagogy. While I appreciate learning the history of grammar in the ancient world and the philosophical implications of a grammar-less world, I think a better argument for teaching grammar would be that it simply gives control and understanding over language. It may not be necessary to know the principles medicine and nutrition to be healthy, it certainly helps; similarly, one can write well without knowing grammatical rules, but it is much easier to do so when he does know them.

    As an English teacher, I’ve tried different ways to fit in grammar, without much success. I think there’s a place for it, but not in a typical English class. Rather, I’d propose it be a class of its own, much like English teachers learn it in college or on their own. Grammar cannot be taught halfway, or else it’s pretty much useless. Only a rigorous comprehensive treatment will help in opening up a person’s expression and comprehension. A watered-down treatment reduces grammar to something trivial and onerous. I would even go further and propose reserving a grammar class for advanced students who stand to gain from it. Regular students might benefit from basic proofreading lessons that could be fit into their English classes.

    Like the case for reintroducing classical languages into schools, I think a practical argument will ultimately be more persuasive for educators and parents than an argument rooted in the profundities of metaphysics.

  3. The book at the top of my list that reveals the most important grammarians of history is The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time – Marshall McLuhan.

    This was McLuhan’s PhD thesis. His thesis advisor wrote Marshall, saying he had learned more from that thesis, than from anything else he’d read in his lifetime.

  4. So, how should we teach grammar to our elementary students? Is there any place which we can find more about it? Thank you!

    • Nanda, that is a big and important question- Goethe correctly said that we don’t know about our first language until we see it from the perspective of our second. C/S. Lewis explains in Miracles that knowing the grammar of our own language is like striving to understand the eye- we see through the eye and don’t give it much thought, just so we know the grammar of our own language without having to give it much thought. I believe a great place to start is with Latin. To study Latin to proficiency is a way to discover many truths about English grammar and grammar in general, but it is only a start if we look at what the ancient grammarians had to say about it. The real danger today is that our considerations of grammar, just like about every other subject, are materially reduced and what is called “grammar instruction” is little more than watered down pseudo-linguistics. So I recommend a recovery of the cosmic origins of the true liberal art of grammar which flows through the philosophical meaning of grammar and manifests itself in the concrete use of words and finally meets its death in the cold hard solitude of the written page. The world does just the opposite, it assumes the cosmic origins and and philosophical meanings of grammar are dead and the written word can be something like a “living document.” So first, if we can discover why this perspective is so dreadfully misguided then maybe we can begin to talk about a sensible recovery of a proper understanding of grammar (a most vital liberal art) which corresponds to the first act of the mind we call apprehension. To see what a thing truly is and to recognize its universal attributes and its accidents and to give them their proper weights is a good first step. I will try to discover what book you might acquire that could be helpful. If you want to have a conversation about this out of the combox let me know.

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