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The War Against Grammar

Every now and then I come across a book that addresses a ridiculously important issue and does it with a clarity and grace – and knowledge – that drives me to urge the book on others. Lately, I am pretty sure I’ve discovered such a book. It’s called The War Against Grammar, by David Mulroy.

I have mentioned it before and have read portions in the past, but reading it again in short snatches over the last few days has compelled me to draw it to your attention. First, because the issue of grammar is so astoundingly important at every level of our existence. Second, because he provides insight and perspective that help us think more intelligently about the matter.

May I say that at a certain level I don’t even care if he is right in his contentions. What I appreciate is that he enables me, by the way he writes, to think more intelligently about the matter.

But I do hope somebody is right about the issues he deals with, because grammar is so astoundingly important at every level of our existence.

In chapter one, Mulroy describes the present situation, one that he was both experienced and observed as a professor of classics at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. College students simply don’t know grammar anymore. This most educated people in the history of the world, as I think President Obama called us, has not mounted the first rung of the educational ladder.

The second chapter describes in a few rapid pages the development of the seven liberal arts from the development of the alphabet around 800 BC (and he explains why what the Greeks developed as an alphabet was fundamentally different from all the previous prototypical alphabets, such as the Phoenician and Hebrew systems, from which the Greeks borrowed a great deal – they didn’t invent the alphabet out of thin air. He also shows how that alphabet led to the explosion of Greek learning).

In chapter three he suggests something very, very compelling about which I need to think some more. He suggests that the rise of the university in the middle ages led to the decline of grammar because, having rediscovered the final bits of Aristotle’s logic, they put logic on such an exalted pedestal that the other arts paled in their minds. In a way, I can see why they would do that. But it was still a mistake and it rests close to the heart of all the errors of subsequent western philosophy.

The humanists of the 14th-17th century revived grammar and produced writers like Dante, Shakespeare, and Erasmus and Mulroy shows how that happened and who was responsible for it.

Then comes chapter four, perhaps the climax of the book. He opens it with these fateful words:

For two thousand years, no one in the western tradition challenged the notion that education should be based on the liberal arts, starting with grammar… It was not until the beginning of the twentieth century in America that a full-fledged revolt against the liberal arts occurred. This happened under the banner of “progressive education.”

Dewey sought a balance, Mulroy suggests, but when Kilpatrick came along the extremism of contemporary Progressive theory (which dominates the teachers colleges and unions) was unleashed. This chapter gets only more and more interesting as he continues, for he treats the Progressives with appropriate respect and understands their arguments and positions. He sees what they got right.

As he proceeds, he describes what he calls “the return of speculative grammar” in the 1950’s, and develops the theme that the modern era has a great deal more in common with the medieval era during which the university came into being than it might want to admit. He proceeds to discuss Chomsky’s theories and his support for the teaching of traditional grammar, the place of diagramming, and what he calls “the scandal of prescriptivism.”

Having jumped the trenches and engaged the enemy in hand to hand combat, Mulroy raises his banner on the other side and offers some counsel for this already fable-ized third millenium in the fifth chapter. I love the opening section: Where are despots when you really need them. Maybe those who are busily expanding the totalitarianism of our own government will be overly sensitive to the language through their own guilt, but those of us whose spirits are free find the irony quite tasteful.

Because the great problem of 20th century civilization was its yearning to discover a freedom that didn’t mean anything, a freedom not of self-governance nor of natural perfection but of freedom from restraint and pain – an abstract freedom.

Grammar serves as the locus for the battle over whose freedom will govern society and our minds: the freedom of those who believe in the glory of human nature and yearn to see it perfected, who recognize the tendency of tyrants to disable the mind through confusion and instability, who see discipline as the foundation for both freedom and creativity, and who hold language and therefore grammar in an exalted place – or the freedom of those who believe that human beings are chemically and environmentally determined and can be altered according to the will of the ruling powers through social experimentation, who project their tyrannical ambitions onto their opponents so that they can unhinge the minds of young people by denying them awareness of their own nature and the nature of their thought processes (e.g. and i.e. that every thought has a subject and a predicate and so does every existing thing), and who, therefore, cry loudly that instruction in grammar, the first step to freedom of thought, is a tyrannical imposition by cultural tyrannists.

Make no mistake. The future of the human race turns on whether we teach proper grammar to our children.

I don’t know if Mulroy would follow me all the way to that final claim, but I’m pretty confident he’d like to see our children learn grammar anyway. It would make it so much easier for him to grade their papers.

Get his book (which I hope to add to the CiRCE store in the near future) at this link:

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