Posts Tagged ‘ pedagogy ’

Hero worship: Musings on Mulroy’s “War Against Grammar”

My previous post outlined David Mulroy’s incisive brief for formal instruction in punctuation, grammar and syntax, “The War Against Grammar.” Here’s why Mulroy’s 2003 book made me so happy.

First, his fierceness. Mulroy gives the anti-grammarian contingent no quarter. His attack on the studies educators have used for decades to argue that formal grammar instruction hinders students’ ability to learn to write demolishes those arguments, arguments that seem on their face, to me, to anyone who knows grammar, to anyone born before 1960, say, idiotic. He shows that these studies did not set out to answer the question at hand or used mature rather than youthful subjects. He reveals the sophism, the deceptiveness (unwitting, we’ll say, giving the benefit of the doubt) behind the earnestness of the “language arts” crowd. When did literature, reading and writing become “language arts,” anyway? When people make specific things vague, I gnash my teeth.

Second, Mulroy’s book beautifully articulates ideas that I’ve had in my head for years, ideas I’ve talked about with colleagues and friends and written about a little but never backed up with the kind of research Mulroy undertook on this side project; he’s been a classics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee since 1973. For instance: the idea that grammar helps make us human. I formulated this idea in a reverie and later dismissed it as overblown. But in his third chapter, which surveys the decline of grammar instruction in the age of medieval scholasticism and its renewal with the rise of Renaissance humanism, he gets at exactly this point. “Grammar’s dual role, preserving or reviving the appreciation of literary classics and creating new eloquence, was never illustrated more dramatically,” he writes, referring to the “flowering of vernacular literature” from Dante and Petrarch to Shakespeare. Literature helps us understand ourselves and others as people more directly than philosophy. Understanding grammar is essential to understanding literature, a point Mulroy illustrates with examples including a Shakespearean sonnet (“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” in which the main clause doesn’t appear until the ninth line of the poem) and the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence. When he asks his students to restate the point of that great American sentence (“When in the course of human events…” in case you were wondering), few can. For example: “‘People must have true facts to back up their thoughts on a god if they are different from the thoughts of the majority.'” Mulroy calls this “a higher kind of illiteracy,” one that, as the students can write and speak English adequately, “boils down to an ignorance of grammar.”

Third, he digs into grammar ignorance in a way that reveals just how barren of this knowledge many college students are today. Few really know what it means to conjugate a verb. Worse, few know what “verb” means. I’ve had a student tell me that the verb in a sentence is “that.” Mulroy writes that it was a watershed event in his career when he realized “that few of my students knew what I meant by ‘the verb to be.’ They thought I was referring to a word that was destined to become a verb.” Continue reading

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? Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: