Salvaging Grammar Instruction

I begin with a confession: reading Freddie DeBoer’s post on the poor outcomes of teaching grammar initially left me feeling despondent and ready to join the narrator of Melville’s Moby-Dick in deliberately stepping into the streets and methodically knocking people’s hats off.  I’d long heard rumors of the failure of grammar instruction, but like an isolated and perfectly comfortable hobbit of the Shire, I little heeded these whispers of far away troubles.  That the forthright Freddie was sounding the arm bells drew my attention.  I might as well as seen a Nazg├╗l on the road to Bag End.  My fearful thoughts echoed the old Gaffer: “Shit. Maybe there’s something to this.”

Freddie begins with a warning that his post will probably be boring to many.  Not to me.  I pored over it with an excitement equal to what I’d feel hearing news that Joss Whedon was creating a new television show.  How big of a language arts nerd am I?  If I ever come across the words “Eliza Dushku” and “dangling participle” in the same sentence, I’ll be able to die happy. 

A little personal history: I was once an evil English teacher.  After grad school I got a job at a private college preparatory school teaching grammar, literature, and composition to middle school and high school students.  Good times.  Despite having studied English as an undergraduate, I had at that time not yet diagrammed a sentence.  So when I cracked open the Warriner’s textbook to prepare my year’s lesson plans, I was introduced to the art of diagramming and had to teach myself this obscure technique of mapping the structure of a sentence.  And what fun it was!  The idea of diagramming made perfect sense to me, and by the start of school my sappy infatuation with the practice had blossomed into true love. 

You will not be surprised to hear that I required my students to diagram a lot of sentences.  I liked to throw in subtly difficult ones such as “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.”  I wanted my students to understand the concepts of grammar and to appreciate that grammar is the structure by which we understand reality.  We covered definitions, of course, but I really stressed identification and application.  My students needed to do more than repeat definitions.  I expected them to identify the parts of speech in a sentence and to compose sentences that included particular grammatical parts and structures.   When one day, to my surprise and with no prompting, my eighth grade class rose from their desks, stood at attention, saluted me and said, “All hail Darth Linguist,” I knew I’d done good.

Freddie tells of studies apparently showing that my dearly beloved grammar instruction doesn’t achieve the outcomes it’s supposed to achieve; it doesn’t result in better reading and writing habits or even a better grasp of grammar.  While my first inclination upon reading about this was to complain to myself that these studies never examined my outstanding classroom-renowned teaching methods—and, for the record, they didn’t—a little coffee-aided reflection has lead me see that Freddie may be right, and most likely right about the reason. He says his experience “is that the people who learn descriptive and prescriptive grammar are those who already have facility in functional grammar.”

Diagramming made sense to me because I already had a practical frame of reference from which to understand it.  I knew how to speak and write with proper grammar.  I wasn’t approaching diagramming as a student might hesitantly take a first step toward conceptualizing the Id, elasticity of demand, or imaginary numbers.  Diagramming helped me visualize all the possible structural variations of a sentence.  I grew more conscious of these structures and how best to employ them in discourse, but I doubt diagramming would have improved my language skills if I didn’t already get grammar at a practical level and know by heart the rules of the road.   It may instead have confused and frustrated me. 

Did diagramming sentence help my students?  I hope it did.  A lot of them were really good at it; some could diagram any sentence I threw at them.  Nevertheless, I can’t prove that diagramming or my other methods of teaching grammar made them better readers or writers.  Those who quickly figured out prescriptive grammar may have succeeded for the same reason I latched on to diagramming: they already had the necessary foundation to build upon.

Grammar nerd that I am, I cannot avoid or dismiss the problem that Freddie has highlighted here.  Like him, I see a grave need for pedagogical innovation.  And yet I just can’t quit my devotion to traditional grammar instruction.  If I returned to the classroom, I’d teach diagramming, the parts of speech, the difference between the gerund and participle.  I’d cover clauses and phrases, subjects and predicates.  I’d explain passionately why the predicate nominative should be in the nominative case.

If it’s true that teaching prescriptive grammar does not lead to better reading and writing outcomes, then why would I bother with it?  Three main reasons.  First, while the detailed study of grammar may not typically help students develop the fundamental functional grammar skills needed for reading and writing, it does in my experience help students already somewhat proficient at reading, writing, and functional grammar improve their proficiency with the language arts.  Second, grammar is the structure in which people think and by which they understand reality.  The study of grammar, especially diagramming, makes one conscious of this structure and how it frames thought and understanding.  These are things worth knowing.  Third, there’s grammar-related humor to be enjoyed!




(Cross-posted at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen)

This Sign Belongs in My House

In each and every room.


Image via Funny Signs. H/T: Sully

A Solemn Party

Jonathan looked out the car window and saw fog like rumpled down blankets slumbering upon the grassy hills of a ranch north of his home and richly illuminated by the fully risen face of dawn. His school’s tardy bell would soon be ringing, and he worried about being late for his kindergarten class, asking repeatedly if he would get in trouble. He needn’t have been anxious. His absence this morning would be excused: he was going to his sister’s birthday party.

When the car came to a stop a few minutes later, Jonathan politely asked to carry the birthday balloon and newly cut flowers to his sister. He climbed out of his car seat, took the gifts from his mom, overtook his moseying dad on the sidewalk, and lead the way cheerfully to the stone under which his sister lay. The cemetery glowed all around him. He felt the chill wind and warm sun competing for his attention, but he paid them no mind.

Kneeling before the gravestone, Jonathan helped his mom replace the flowers and position the balloon in the middle of them. When the lively arrangement was to their liking, he sat on the blue blanket his dad had just placed upon the concrete walkway. Candles were lit and placed on the cake, they sang “Happy Birthday” to Vivian, and Jonathan blew out the candles for the baby girl who two years ago had breathed her last. He thought of the sister he could no longer see or hold, told her he missed her, drank his juice, ate his cake, and shared the morning’s hope with his mom, dad, and his baby sister Mirielle.

It was serenely quiet but for the family’s softly spoken words, the singing of birds, the whistling of a nearby train, and the laughs from Mirielle as she grasped and pulled the still dewy grass. In a few moments they would rise, say a few closing prayers, gather the party items they had brought, and return to the demands of the day. This sad present moment they took to celebrate, reflect, and remember.

Though still very young, Jonathan knew from years of experience the rituals surrounding death. Only time would tell how witnessing the passing of his newborn sister and celebrating her short life would ultimately shape his perspective, imagination, and disposition; but even now it was clear that love and loss had given his life special meaning. They were prevalent and important themes of his story because Vivian, his departed sister, would always remain for him a character vital and beloved.   


Natural Law and the Construction of Human Nature


Philosopher Jacques Maritain took a no-nonsense approach to accepting the reality of human nature and the natural law.  In his book The Rights of Man and Natural Law, he wrote, “Since I have not space here to discuss nonsense (you can always find very intelligent philosophers to defend it most brilliantly), I am taking it for granted that you admit there is a human nature and that this human nature is the same in all men.”  Maritain went on to say that “since man is endowed with intelligence and determines his own ends, it is up to him to put himself in tune with the ends necessarily demanded by his nature.”  By “very virtue of human nature,” there is “an order or disposition which human reason can discover and to which the human will must act in order to attune itself to the necessary ends of the human being.”  This order or disposition Maritain called the natural law.

In my previous post on the subject of natural law, I argued that the ethical theory assumes but fails to make evident a logical progression from nature to the good to how one ought to act.   In this post, I wish to draw attention to a problem posed to natural law ethics by the elusiveness of human nature.  Maritain, whom I quoted above, might have called this problem nonsense, but unlike him, I always reserve some space in my writing for a serious grappling with the nonsensical.  Besides, I’m not going to cross the line into absolutely denying there’s such a thing as human nature.   I may however get uncomfortably close.

Okay. So what is this “human nature” Maritain was so sure exists and I’m pretty sure eludes our understanding?  To keep the definition simple, permit me to say that human nature is that which distinguishes a human being as a human being.  It is that which is true of human beings as such, regardless of time, place and circumstance; if not always in actuality, at least always in potentiality.  That the human being is a rational animal doesn’t mean that a human being is less human because of some defect in his or her rationality or animality.  We’re looking at distinguishing qualities, features, aspects, traits and so forth.

So that’s what I mean by “human nature,” and the definition seems simple enough, doesn’t it?  It doesn’t seem like it would be too difficult for reason to discover human nature.  After all, we don’t typically have much trouble distinguishing between humans and other animals.  So what’s the problem?  Why do I insist human nature is elusive and poses a problem for natural law theory?

Short answer: we can’t actually know “that which is true of human beings as such, regardless of time, place and circumstance; if not always in actuality, at least always in potentiality.”  We cannot know human nature as such, in itself, as it actually is.  What we can know is a conception of human nature.   The conception of human nature is what the mind comes to know—what reason forms and takes hold of when seeking to discover that which is true of human beings as human beings.

The conception of human nature is something formed because it is the result of a productive, creative, and mediating process of signification—in a word, of discourse.  When human nature is approached as an object of thought, the mind makes use of language and forms a conception by which it understands human nature.

This conception is the result of production because meaning is produced by the use and arrangement of words and sentences.  It is the result of creativity because metaphors, similes, and other figurative constructs are employed to formulate the abstract in concrete terms.  It is the result of mediation because language is a system of signs that stands in place of what it points to—we know (and perceive) reality not immediately, but by way of a system of signs.  We perceive and know something as such and such, as it fits into a linguistic field.

Now the conception, as something made of language, has what philosophers call sense and reference.  The referent is what the conception refers to, like the town to which a sign outside its borders points.  The referent is outside and disclosed by the conception.  The sense is the meaning contained in the conception, which establishes the way it refers to the referent.  The sense is the charting of the course; the referent is the destination.

Above I said that human nature is elusive—here I can qualify that it is elusive as a referent.  How so?  If human nature, as a referent, is that which is true of human beings as such, regardless of time, place and circumstance; if not always in actuality, at least always in potentiality, then it would seem that human nature is one thing.  We may say many things about human nature and identify multiple qualities, aspects, characteristics, or traits of human nature, but together they are one.  As Maritain wrote, human nature is the same in all human beings.  It is one.

Except, for human thought, it isn’t.

Because a conception of human nature, however true to the referent, results from a productive, creative, and mediating process of signification, there cannot be only one conception to match the one referent.  While human nature may be the same in all human beings, each conception of human nature will differ depending on the particular ways in which it was produced and created and thus mediates passage to the referent.  Human nature itself, as the referent, cannot be pinned down, captured, encapsulated, or exhausted by any one conception or even the sum total of all true conceptions.  I therefore call it elusive.

It is to this elusive referent that natural law is supposedly related, and I dare say this presents a problem for natural law.  If, as Maritain said, natural law is “an order or disposition which human reason can discover,” then natural law must, like human nature, be approach as an object of thought, as a conception resulting from a productive, creative, and mediating process of signification.  To know natural law (if there is such a thing) is to know a conception of it, which would be not ultimately one, but one of many.  Furthermore, any conception of natural law would be related not to human nature itself, but to a conception of human nature.  Someone’s conception, but whose?  To whose conceptions of human nature and natural law should we attune ourselves?   Natural law has no answer to this question because within its framework the question is nonsensical: human nature and natural law can each be known as one.  But to hold this view is to deny the way all conceptions are pursued, conceived, and constructed as objects of thought.

(Cross-posted at Vox Nova)

Deconstructing Natural Law Ethics

“Morality is governed by a law built into the nature of man and knowable by reason. Man can know, through the use of his reason, what is in accord with his nature and therefore good.”  So writes Charles Rice, summarizing the idea of the natural law.  It’s his word “therefore” that I wish to focus on in this post, and by “focus on,” I mean call into question.  In natural law ethics, good is that which is in accord with nature, so for me to call into question the connection between the two is to call into question natural law ethics itself.

So we’re clear: this is my aim.  I’ll be arguing that natural law ethics doesn’t really work as an ethics because its foundational premises are not as evident as the ethical theory claims and needs them to be.

Arguably the best explanation of natural law was given by St. Thomas Aquinas in his work, the Summa Theologiae, and so I will limit my criticism in this post to his thought on the matter.  According to Aquinas, “good” is “the first thing that falls under the apprehension of the practical reason, which is directed to action, since every agent acts for an end under the aspect of good.”  Aquinas conceptualizes “good” within a teleological framework: “good is that which all things seek after.”   What do all things seek after?  Their purpose or end according to their nature.

Aquinas’s conception of good makes sense within the teleological framework he’s laid out, but what is not evident (self-evident or otherwise) is that this framework provides the only way or best way or even the right way to understand the meaning of “good.”  Even if we follow Aquinas in asserting that every agent acts for an end under the aspect of good, we are led only to one of many possible understandings of “good,” and perhaps one that only loosely corresponds to the real thing, if there is such a thing.

At the core of natural law theory is a principle that is not at all evident: because something is a certain way, it ought to be that way.   His theory of natural law assumes this connection between the “is” and the “ought,” but it cannot demonstrate it.  The step from “is” to “ought” is assumed at the start as a truth apprehended by practical reason, and yet this step hardly seems necessary or inevitable.  It’s not at all clear that because something is a certain way it ought to be that way, especially given the fact that what we call something’s way of being—its nature—is something arrived at through an evolutionary process of realized possibilities.

It seems, then, that natural law ethics applies (so far as we know) only to a limited field presupposing certain assumptions about nature having a norm-establishing telos, assumptions that can be accounted for only by reference to something supposedly apprehended and indemonstrable but also highly questionable.   If you happen to see the world the way that natural law ethicists see it, then the “ought” of natural inclination may seem reasonable.  If, on the other hand, you don’t apprehend as Aquinas apprehends, you’re not given conclusive reason to conform your actions to this alleged “ought.”

One could offer support for natural law’s “is-ought” connection by citing as evidence a revelation-claim that God designed nature with a specific purpose that human beings should know and conform their actions to, but this route undermines the purpose of natural law ethics itself.  Natural law ethics presupposes that moral truth can be known by reason unaided by revelation.  If natural law requires revelation-claims to support it, then it falls apart on its own terms.

To be sure, nothing I’ve said rules out the possibility that there is such a thing as a natural law; my criticism is epistemological.  However, I have to admit that an ethical theory based on a dubious assumption makes for a bad ethical theory.  I expect ethics not only to provide a basis for acting one way instead of another, but also to give epistemological grounding to this basis.  With ethics, I want to do the right thing and know I’m doing the right thing.

Next up: I’ll be looking at Jacques Maritain’s argument for natural law and raising some hermeneutic problems with his conception of nature. (VN)

Religious Discomforts


Well, who'd have thunk it?  I agree with something Amanda Marcotte says about religion.  She denies alleged truism, used to defend religious belief even if it’s false, that religion on the whole gives comfort.   “It's far more likely to give people irrational fears and make them think uncharitable things by suggesting that it's ‘god’ that told them so,” she writes.  There are those possibilities, yes, but I hasten to add another reason for denial courtesy of Jacques Derrida. 

“Religion is responsibility or it is nothing at all,” wrote the father of deconstruction in The Gift of Death.  Religion means a response to the wholly other, to the unknown and unseen, to the unexpected.  Such a response comes with the fear and trembling that can make one sweat blood, the biblical writers tell us, not with soothing comfort that slows one’s blood flow.  Ask Abraham if he felt comfort when the Almighty demanded he sacrifice his beloved son. 

Derrida went so far as to say that “there is no responsibility without a dissident and inventive rupture with respect to tradition, authority, orthodoxy, rule, or doctrine.”  Responsibility ain’t about playing it safe and by the book.  It entails risk, interpretation in the face of insurmountable ambiguity, acting without why, taking a step in the dark onto ground that may disintegrate under the slightest pressure.  Give away everything you have and follow me, says the Lord.  Responsibility also involves guilt, argued Derrida, because one is never responsible enough. 

Awe.  Anguish.  Love.  Guilt.  These are the emotions that most accompany religious responsibility.  Can one find comfort in religion, in, say, the hope of again seeing a departed loved one?  Sure, but if one’s comfort here isn’t drowned by the discomforts of responsibility, then one may be religious merely akin to the way a drug user is high, which, the atheist Derrida might say, is no way to be religious.  (VN)

Cheerleading Violence

For a long time I've struggled with how violence can be justified, and over time I've tended to move closer to pacifism, though not to an all out rejection of any and all violence.  I quite rightly pass for a peacenik, but I still recognize the particular virtue and heroism of the soldier.  My favorite archetypical literary character remains the saintly bad-ass.  Think Aragorn.  I can respect the standpoint that leans toward violence as a typically just response to evil.  I get why others support war, the death penalty, and (though I vehemently disagree) torture.  What I cannot respect in the least is enthusiastic cheerleading for violence.  I have nothing but disdain for the raising and pounding of fists in anticipation of a war, the gleeful celebration of some alleged terrorist being killed, or the whistling and applauding this evening at the mention of Rick Perry having executed more people than any other governor in modern times. Violence should break the heart, not propel it toward the heights of enthusiasm. (VN)

Boy Theologian

At the dinner table yesterday, as his mother brought over the evening meal and I paced around the living room holding the baby, our son, intent upon a Lego starfighter he had just constructed, unexpectedly inquired into why God made human beings.

My wife, having spent almost half a decade in a Franciscan monastery, would typically have jumped at the occasion to answer such a question, but an intense cold and the exhaustion that babies and busyness bring had robbed her of her mental energy at that exact moment. So she said, “Ask your Dad.”

“What was the question?” I asked, having not heard the boy’s question.

He repeated the inquiry, and I explained something to the effect of God being love and wanting to share love with others.

“It’s all about love,” I concluded.

The boy, sounding disappointed while flying around his starfighter, said, “Why can’t it all be about battles?”