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Back to November Ed Reporter

Education Reporter
NUMBER 214 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS NOVEMBER 2003

 
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The War Against Grammar, David Mulroy, Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc., CrossCurrents Series, 2003, 119 pps, $20

This slim, readable volume not only diagnoses the problem of grammatical illiteracy, but also gives a historical overview of how we got here, from the ancient Greeks to the present, together with recommendations for a cure.

A classics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee since 1973, David Mulroy has noticed a grievous decline in grammatical knowledge among his students. It is hardly their fault; the National Council of Teachers of English has opposed grammar instruction for decades. The consequence is students who score lower on the verbal SAT and lack the basic tools to write in English or to master a foreign language.

Grammar was one of the seven liberal arts glorified by the ancient Greeks and Romans and subsequently by the medieval universities. After the Greeks invented the world's first real alphabet, which facilitated an astonishing burst of literary, scientific and philosophical creativity, Aristotle sketched the outlines of sentence structure, and others classified the parts of speech which still form the basis of grammatical pedagogy.

Except for a period of confusion in the late Middle Ages, grammar's importance to the understanding of great literature, self-expression, and the clarity and uniformity of language was never seriously questioned until the late 20th century. Even Shakespeare's verbal genius, Mulroy argues, can be traced to Renaissance educational reforms applying Latin grammar to the mastery of English; it is no accident that English literature promptly flowered with the likes of Spenser, Bacon, Marlowe and Jonson as well as the Bard of Avon.

Beginning in the 1960s several studies purported to find that grammatical instruction does not help and actually harms writing ability. Mulroy demolishes them, observing that they generally involved short-term instruction of mature students. He believes grammar must be taught systematically to grade-school students in order to be effective.

The author sees reason for optimism in Great Britain and in the current movement for national educational standards and accountability in the U.S. He also finds "oases of humanism" in a few American schools that still teach grammar, with impressive results.

' While the author's obsession with diagramming sentences may seem excessive, The War Against Grammar is a valuable contribution to the debate about curricular content. www.boyntoncook.com.


 
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