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The War Against Grammar

Mulroy discusses decline in writing ability

By Phyllis Morris Lotchin

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November 14, 2005

The War Against Grammar, by David Mulroy, Boynton/Cook Publishers, 2003, 118 pages

Professor David Mulroy has taught classics at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee since 1973. This academic specialty gives him a unique platform from which to write about what he calls the “war against grammar,” waged by American schoolteachers and their professional leaders in the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Like all of us who have spent long careers teaching English, Prof. Mulroy has noted with dismay his students’ decline in their ability to read and write well.

Until 1996, when he attended a hearing to set academic standards for Wisconsin public schools, he had not suspected that anyone questioned the value of knowing the rules of grammar. It was at this time that he was directed to the NCTE website, which stated that “decades of research” have shown that instruction in “formal grammar” does not accomplish any positive goals and is actually counter productive because it takes time away from more “profitable activities” (xii). Sensing a serious problem, he set about to write this book “to persuade the reader that formal instruction in grammar ought to be emphasized in K-12 education, especially in the middle grades” (xiii). He accomplishes this task effectively by assessing the problem, reviewing the historical development of grammar and its place in the liberal arts, speculating on the reasons the teaching of grammar has fallen out of favor, and offering some hope for the future.

Calling chapter one “America the Grammarless,” the author contends that the campaign to de-emphasize grammar became fashionable in the 1960s. Students who have come of age since then have very little grasp of grammar, and now many teachers could not teach grammar even if they chose to. He cites an NCTE report issued in 1963, which stated that teaching formal grammar has a deleterious effect on composition. In 1985 an official resolution adopted by this organization proclaimed that the value of grammar exercises is not supported by theory and research (a claim Prof. Mulroy would refute) and is a “deterrent” to the improvement of speaking and writing (6). The 1991 NCTE-issued Handbook on Research on Teaching the English Language Arts declared that teaching traditional grammar is “not just useless but pernicious” (6). Although a few voices were raised in protest, the NCTE’s views were repeated endlessly without the benefit of research or authority.

The results have been disastrous. American students now test as “mediocre” in reading abilities in relation to other wealthy nations. Prof. Mulroy argues strongly that an understanding of how the language works is necessary to read complex texts with understanding. Verbal SAT scores began to sink in 1963 with fewer students showing outstanding verbal ability. In 1996, the College Board “recentered” the SAT scores to camouflage this trend (10).
In colleges and universities, this lack of grammar instruction has had several unfortunate results. Fewer American students now study a foreign language. Too, remedial courses in reading and writing have multiplied, with some universities placing up to a fourth of their freshmen in remedial courses (14). Students are handicapped in both writing and reading. In reading complex texts, Prof. Mulroy argues, we discover literal meanings by “applying the rules of lexicography and grammar” (16).

A unique feature of this book grows out of Prof. Mulroy’s training as a classics scholar. A large part of the text traces the history of the study of grammar, beginning with the ancient Greeks, a time in which “grammar entered education in the West as the first and most important of the seven liberal arts” (28). Classical scholars such as Aristotle argued that grammar perfects the understanding of literature and contributes to eloquent self-expression. The Romans adapted this canon to their own educational needs. After the fall of Rome in 476 A. D., the monasteries and Charlemagne’s cathedral schools were the leading institutions of learning in Western Europe, both based on the seven liberal arts. Since preserving the ancient texts was a primary goal, the study of grammar was critical. And as the medieval centuries brought prosperity and travel, universities were organized in cities. There were at least 79 universities founded in Europe between 1150 and 1500, all based on a liberal arts curriculum, with grammar foremost (45). The Renaissance elevated the study of the liberal arts to new heights. Based on the curriculum of St. Paul’s Cathedral School, such literary giants as Shakespeare were well educated in classical literature and philosophy, with the study of grammar giving them the mastery of the English language that we revere.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the twentieth century in America that a “full-fledged revolt against the liberal arts occurred” (60). It happened under the banner of John Dewey’s “progressive education” (60). With more students entering high school, the progressives thought education should be more “practical”—training young people for vocations and the challenges of adult life (61). Although these educators did not present a unified disregard of “common essentials,” they disliked “formalism.” This included the study of grammar, in which there are definite and predetermined answers for all questions. The problems “stemmed from the institutionalizing of pedagogical research in schools of education” (64). This situation created a market for new theories and rewarded those researchers, such as William Kilpatrick at Columbia, who continuously promoted new and divergent directions in theory and curriculum. Formal instruction in grammar was one of the casualties of this stance, and this position has not evolved.

Yet times are changing. Happily for those who hold that grammar taught systematically in the early grades is beneficial to students in their later academic careers, both research and practice are coming around to support their view. Educational leaders at the federal level, model schools across the country, and others have been spearheading efforts to revive the formal instruction of grammar, concluding that “poor knowledge of grammar and punctuation” are contributing to problems in teaching writing (104). With the same intention, Britain, too, is reforming the teaching of the language arts. While the NCTE is still not promoting “hard-edged standards in grammar,” it has declared that teachers need to “know about” traditional grammar (115).

As one who has been teaching literature and writing at the college level for many years, I have found The War on Grammar to be right on target. We all bemoan the fact that too many of our students simply do not come to us with an understanding of how our language works. As Prof. Mulroy argues, we cannot expect this lack of understanding to abate until the systematic study of formal grammar is returned to the middle grades, where research tells us it is most effectively learned. This excellent book is both needed and useful. Its historical overview presents a powerful and little known rationale for grammar study. Well written, clear, and persuasive, it is an effective twenty-first century counter to decades of wrong direction in language arts education.

Phyllis Morris Lotchin is Associate Professor of English at North Carolina Central University.

 


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