From Trivium to Triviality

Whenever I teach English composition, I give a grammar quiz. I ask the students to identify the subject, predicate, nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, preposition, and prepositional phrase in the following sentence: “The brown fox jumped quickly over the lazy dog.” I do not record a grade. Rather, I use this quiz to demonstrate to my students their ignorance of even the basics of writing, since I know that most of my students will fail. They have never disappointed me.

I give this quiz before the week-long lesson on grammar. Considering the outcome of the grammar quiz, you would think I would spend more than a week teaching grammar. Were it up to me, I would. However, I have been told by the department chair at a community college where I taught last year that I should not teach grammar for more than a week. Of course, even if I gave the quiz after their week of grammar, there would likely be little change in the quiz grade.

There’s not much one can learn in a week, but a week is the standard length of time teachers spend on grammar after about the sixth grade. That conclusion is based on an informal poll of my composition classes and on my own experience, as I have taught not only college composition, but middle and high school English. In each case I was not allowed to spend more than a week on grammar.

Now suppose the last time students received more than a week refresher in math was in the sixth grade. They still had to learn physics and chemistry, but the math they knew was essentially what they had learned back then. What math competency would they have? Would they be able to learn much physics and chemistry? The answer is obvious.

Why, then, do we think students can learn how to read and write if they don’t understand the basic rules of language? As I tell my students, one’s ability to recognize symbols and turn them into sounds doesn’t mean you really know how to read. You have to understand what you read. The better you know grammar, the better your ability to understand and the better your writing will be. Most of my native- born, native English-speaking students are no better (and some are much worse) than my foreign students who learned English only upon coming to America.

Grammar is the network of rules that govern language. If you really want to learn how to do something well, you have to understand the rules. People are born knowing grammar—or else we could not speak at all—so for practical purposes the point of learning grammar is learning the “language of language.” How can you explain to a student why a sentence he or she has written doesn’t make any sense, if you do not share a language with which to discuss the problem? Knowing the rules in a more explicit fashion allows you to understand what makes a good sentence and what makes a bad sentence—and why. The better one knows the rules, the better one can play the language game. It is the difference between the play of someone who knows how to move chess pieces and the play of a chess master.

Frankly, there is another reason for grammar. Normative grammar allows students to demonstrate their education—to show others that they do indeed know how to communicate clearly and logically.

So what, then, am I teaching in my composition classes? Rhetoric. I am supposed to teach students how to write arguments—but with only a week or two of logic. So, with only the barest of bones of grammar and logic, what can I teach them? Style. But it is a style without the basics.

Teaching writing without grammar and argument without logic is like teaching art without drawing. In both cases, all that students can engage in is abstract expressionism. Doing abstract expressionism if you have demonstrated your ability to paint and draw photorealism is one thing; doing abstract expressionism because you can’t paint or draw anything at all is quite another.

Sure, composition also introduces other elements of writing: “ethos” and “pathos” (they each get their own week).  But what can one teach about these in a week? Students who have never been taught ethics are told to appear ethical in their papers. About all they are prepared to do is use pathos—precisely because their prior writing experience has been concentrated on expressing themselves.

There is little doubt that this state of affairs has come about because of the notion that imposing rules stifles creativity. That is utter nonsense. My creativity is not stifled by writing sonnets—rather, my creativity is released by having rules (in this case, meter, rhyme, developmental structure) to follow.

College composition today teaches students next to nothing. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric—what was once called the Trivium—have been reduced to mere shadows of themselves, if they get taught at all. Even the one that is left—rhetoric –has been watered down by the failure to teach poetics, which includes such things as formalism, symbolism, the nature of metaphor, etc. (Most poetry classes no longer teach poetics, so why would we expect rhetoric classes to do so?).

Students need to be taught grammar all the way through high school, and they need at least one semester of college grammar. One learns through repetition. By the end of high school, students should be able to construct any kind of sentence—declarative, exclamatory, compound, etc.—that you can name to them on the spot. That’s the level of grammar mastery they should have. That is the only way they will be able to write better than they speak.

Also, students need to be taught formal logic all the way through high school, and they need at least one semester of logic in college. My experience is that most students are overwhelmed by even the slightest hint of a logical argument—and they don’t know how to deal with illogical ones.

Finally, students need to be taught formal poetics/rhetoric throughout high school, and they need at least one semester of poetics in college. Every student should be able to write an iambic pentameter line, to understand metaphor, symbolism, imagery, the use of pathos and ethos (so they also need ethics), syntax, style, etc. That knowledge adds meaning to their writing—and to their thinking. More, it opens up much more writing to them, allowing them to understand and, thus, enjoy more written works.

Are we surprised that so many do not read, either textbooks or on their own? Reading and understanding long, complex texts is a difficult skill. To acquire it, one has to have the basics of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Students need the Trivium if they are to become adept in writing their own language.