The Political Challenges Inherent in Solving English Language Instruction and the Push for Latin as a Tool to Instruct Children in Learning Grammar
This essay is in part in reply to an article Pamela wrote concerning her frequent use of the present active participle. I was struck by the way in which American society at present rarely discusses grammar and the way in which grammar is taught today. Originally, I had planned on writing only about how Latin might better teach children grammar in English, but my thoughts soon turned to the larger problem of NCLB and the way in which English is taught to children today.
I read your article on the present active participle (that you posted some time ago), and I wanted you to know I enjoyed it. We as a society rarely discuss grammar, and it's good to know someone appreciates it as much as I do! Maybe we could reverse this trend if we brought Latin back into the curriculum, but that's a hard sell these days, though for what it's worth I was a colloquium a few years ago at U of I and the chair of the classics department at Indiana was going on and on about how Latin and foreign language in general are so effective at teaching kids grammar in English. I would surmise this is likely because our English grammar was adapted from Latin (and later French as well) and as such is not very intuition-friendly. Once the grammar has been established in another language, however, the student "translates" the grammar he or she knows from that language to English, just as the original grammarians did.
Yet, despite the common sense conclusion of the above stipulation, there is little reason to believe that school districts are going to start implementing Latin into their curricula at any time in the near future. There are a number of reasons for this, mostly rooted in the fact that school districts must educate students in such a way so that they pass state standardized testing requirements at the end of the year. These requirements, set forth in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, serve as a metric for which to judge school performance. Schools that fail to make “adequate yearly progress” in consecutive years may be forced to close, and states that fail to meet guidelines may lose federal funding. So in response to the need to meet these requirements school districts across the country have implemented curricula that place emphasis on the material covered in these tests to such a degree that a standard curriculum has been adapted to meet the very language of the test, often to the detriment of the education the child actually receives. A good example here is the use of the term “magnitude” for “absolute value” in mathematics education. Even though the term “absolute value” is used across the board in higher education mathematics and the academic world in general, because someone decided that the term “magnitude” was more palatable this is the term used to educate students.
The situation is no better in the reading and writing curriculum which, instead of nurturing a desire to read and an appreciation for language via grammatical instruction, forces children to memorize the differences between, for example, the “main idea” and “supporting details” in very boring passages so that they can pass the tests the state needs them to pass in order to receive federal funds. Forget diagramming sentences, which have almost entirely gone by the wayside; the push now is to develop only those ideas which are tested at the state level. This is a tragedy, students are denied the best tools to develop actual comprehension, teachers are denied the autonomy they need in order to teach effectively, and those who develop a curriculum must tailor it in ways to meet the standards set forth by the states at the expense of what actually works. Yes, there is presently a “dumbing down” in curriculum development, and almost everybody is losing.
--Which is why it is all the more difficult to argue for changes such as the implementation of Latin and French as instructional tools in teaching effective grammar skills. The blowback that academics who push for this change undeniably face (if they are heard at all) is perfectly well understood because in many cases there simply is no space for these ideas in the curriculum. Where there is space, educators are hard at work implementing their own ideas and might not be receptive to what they perceive to be little more that elitist academic suggestions.
This is unfortunate, to say the least. Elitist or not, it is simply a fact that English grammar was shaped by Latin and that grammarians who taught English historically understood that language as well. There is no good reason not to teach English in such a way in that it “makes sense” to the students, especially those who come from backgrounds where English is not a first language or where the English spoken as home differs significantly from the English as it is taught in the schools. Latin allows for the implementation of grammatical rules that do make sense, that teach subject and object, imperfect and perfect tense, and the relative pronoun in such a way as that it is abstracted from the politics of the English language; no matter what variety of the English is spoken at home, the rules learned from Latin carry over and comprehension is improved.
I think eventually we will come to terms with NCLB and the way in which education is disseminated in America, but it may well be years down the road when we realize that the standardized testing–driven approach to education is counterproductive. When that occurs, we will look more seriously at the arguments made by academics and educators to implement a better English curriculum, and we will undoubtedly find arguments to return to sentence diagramming, the teaching of Latin, and also the teaching of foreign language not just as a tool to understand another language but to better understand our own.
Despite the fact that I am pessimistic about change in the near future, I am not willing to capitulate, because if there is no push from those of us who are aware of the benefits of teaching English in this way, then we will most certainly lose. Maybe the solution is a push from the nonprofit sector to implement more "Language Arts" (a nebulous phrase as we rarely use the term "arts" in that sense any more) and incorporate some Latin into the curriculum--in other words, taking an entirely gradualist approach. At present that's not where the money is, but once is case is made to the right people, in the right way (i.e. not just expecting people to adapt their curriculum because we are right and they are wrong), perhaps it will be.
We also have to be aware of the politics at play and be sensitive to the fact that many individuals have their hearts in the right places and really are doing what they can to educate students. I'm not on vanguard here (yet), but I do recognize that this push must come from people from different walks of life, not just academics who are known to shout angrily into the wind on occasion.
In any event, it’s a long, tough road ahead.
- Matthew Case
B.A., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Master’s in Public Administration candidate, 2013,
Master’s in Public Administration candidate, 2013,
University of Illinois at Springfield
P.S. Monday, April 30: For another view and response to Matthew's position, see Ben Wetherbee's blog post here.