David Mulroy, grammar hero, debunker of anti-grammarian myths

One of the great joys of reading is finding a writer who expresses one’s cherished beliefs, one who writes about them with such meticulous authority that one wants to jump from one’s chair, run into the street brandishing the book, and shout, “See? See?”

That’s how I feel about “The War Against Grammar” by David Mulroy.

Mulroy, who has taught classics at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee since 1973, published this slim volume seven years ago. In it, he debunks the many myths used in the past few decades to all but eliminate the teaching of grammar in America’s public schools. (Used by whom? The main culprit, according to Mulroy, is the National Council of Teachers of English, which sets standards for English instruction from kindergarten through college.)

Mulroy outlines the history of grammar instruction, starting with its place of high honor among the Greeks, who named it first among the seven liberal arts.

Wait a minute. I thought the liberal arts, as in a “liberal-arts education” at a “liberal-arts college,” were subjects in the humanities and the sciences: psychology, French literature, biology and so on. But no! The seven liberal arts handed down from antiquity are grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, harmony [music] and astronomy. How come I didn’t know this? I bet you didn’t, either. As Mulroy puts it: “The liberal arts are the ground rules of thought, not its end … They are not speculative disciplines, aimed at learning ultimate truths, but practical ones designed to serve ulterior purposes.” (And isn’t that a beautifully written passage? Not one needless word. Every word is precise, necessary, perfect. Well, except, I would argue, for “ulterior,” which connotes underhandedness, a meaning not implied here.) I suppose the idea of a liberal-arts education at a liberal-arts college grew out of the classical definition: A student who has mastered the seven classical liberal arts, perhaps with elementary physics replacing astronomy, is equipped to study what we think of today as the liberal arts, the humanities and the sciences.

Mulroy examines the scholasticism of the Middle Ages, when enthusiasm for logic and disputation supplanted the study of more reflective disciplines, such as history and poetry. (He makes an important reference to  Kant’s “determinate” and “reflective” judgments, the former being those based on rules and definitions, the latter those “that cannot be settled by consulting rule books,” and describes how styles of learning in different ages relied on one more than the other.) In medieval times, when scholars sought to establish the first principles from which all knowledge derived, grammarians, too, applied logic to their studies, trying to make of grammar a science that would reveal ultimate truths rather than a tool for practical learning. He draws parallels between this “speculative grammar” and Noam Chomsky’s transformational grammar, which unintentionally helped displace traditional grammar instruction in the second half of the 20th century.

Mulroy cheers the return of grammar to its rightful pedagogical place during the Renaissance, when humanism superseded the dry dialectics of medieval cloisters and grammar instruction reverted from theory to practicality. “Humanism,” he writes, “represented disillusionment with scientific thinking as a panacea [sic] and the consequent rediscovery of the uses of tradition and common sense.” Moving to the 20th century, he rips into “progressive” education and the studies that leaders in “language arts” education have used to argue that formal instruction in grammar actually hinders students’ ability to learn to write:

“[These studies] concern the short-term effects of instruction in formal grammar on the work of relatively mature students. … The question to be asked then is whether a foundation of grammatical concepts laid slowly and systematically in the early grades is beneficial to students later in their academic careers. Instead of addressing that question, the research projects … ask what happens when you insert some grammar into the curriculum at various spots along the way. This is like trying to insert partial foundations beneath half-finished houses and concluding from the ensuing debacles that foundations are useless.”

In his closing chapter, Mulroy argues passionately for the benefits of properly produced Standard Written English. While medieval Europe “was a patchwork of mutually unintelligible and rapidly evolving dialects,” today, a document written in Standard Written English can be understood by people from every corner of the world. “Standard languages,” Mulroy writes, “are a blessing.”

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