Thursday, December 18, 2008

From Pāṇini to a Musing on Grammar in Education

summary: just a rant about the need to teach grammar, likely riddled with grammatical errors.



One of the rough generalizations common to average thinking is that Western thought tends to be regimented and drained of color, whereas Eastern approaches are open-ended, mystical, and more colorful. Such a hasty generalization has little merit, and only serves to gloss over many great Western philosophers and also exclude the work of many great Eastern thinkers.

Take, for instance, Pāṇini. The formal study of linguistics is credited to his work, though he himself often noted previous works of grammar in relation to his language, Sanskrit. Regardless, Pāṇini's Ashtadhyayi is one of the earliest works of grammar, and features a systematic and scholarly approach to the venerable language. The esteemed modern linguists Ferdinand de Saussure and Noam Chomsky credit him as a father of the study of structural and generative grammar. Additionally, the work of this grammarian from the 4th century BCE has inspired a great deal of innovation in the world of computer languages.

Why is grammar not taught formally in many educational models? I stumbled across a blog post by one Y. H. Chen where he posts this very question.

I recognize that students learn in many different ways. I myself am a text-based reader. As a student, I could be given a book and time to read it and I could master many subjects on my own. I would occasionally grow frustrated at the pace of lectures. I recall a few college courses that didn't require attendance that I simply skipped in their near-entirety, showing up only for tests. I still managed to do very well in those courses.

However, part of the process of my education was to learn the other modes of expression and acquisition of knowledge. In my logic class, I try to implement many different styles.

When teaching the Square of Opposition, I try to approach it from many angles.



Some students can simply memorize the information. Hearing that "All S are P" implies "Some S are P" immediately clicks for them. For others, the visual provides the clues. Others master the concept just from seeing complete statements. They quickly realize that Every cat is a mammal implies that Many cats are mammals, even before converting to standard categorical form. Other students benefit from seeing set diagrams. I draw a circle to represent "mammals." I draw a smaller one inside to represent "cats." I then put a few dots inside of the "cats" circle to represents a few individual cats. That visual helps them understand - for the students who are better served by text, it does little, or they often cannot fathom why a student needs the visuals. However, just as I make the visual learners read and write, I make the text-based or abstract reasoners craft visuals.

This is not to claim that the students who can learn simply by hearing or reading are of superior intellect. One of my most brilliant logic students (he could have taught himself the course) was the one who inspired me to augment the meager text with set diagrams. As a lover of written languages, it was natural for him to draw circles and boxes to represent relationships. To explain invalid and valid arguments, he would draw boxes on his paper as opposed to relying to the formal rules.

However, I would assert that each student benefited from having to see and test the information from an angle not naturally suited to their natural process of learning. Likewise, if students are not geared toward breaking down sentences, all the better. The rigor of the process will craft minds that can process sentences, owning the information by breaking it down and then reconstituting. And as they use that process to hone their critical thinking, they will also be gaining a practical skill: a mastery of the expression of their language.

I think my view of education breaks here from that of many others, though I am by no means in a historical or contemporary minority, persecuted or marginalized. I and many others do not see education as simply accommodating individual learners in order to help them acquire facts or particular skills through the lens of their particular intellectual bent. I want them to gain understanding, which includes the rigorous process of overcoming their natural learning styles in order to see a process from many angles. Students who are singularly mathematically-minded ought to be challenged to read, appreciate, and write poetry. Students who excel at digesting literature need to master algebra, geometry, and calculus so their understanding of the world at large is bigger than just characters and plot points.

I teach history as well as logic, and I find that some students resist having to entertain theories of history as opposed to merely memorizing basic facts. However, my most engaged learners (who are not necessarily A+ students) seem to appreciate the process. I explained to my class recently the basics of meme theory, and explained how I view it as a reliable model for explaining historical trends. On the other hand, while I am not comfortable with all of the approaches of the Great Man theory of history, I do see the value in organizing historical topics around leading figures, even if I reject the notion that understanding the main figures of an era should be the main thrust of historical topics. My goal is to craft students with understanding, and that requires approaching history both with basic facts (dates, maps, major figures), comparisons and contrasts (differences between cultures, understanding what a culture recorded vs. what occurred), and making predictions about how the lessons of history can be used in their own lives. Much of this comes from tracing the lineage of thought to understand the nature of humanity, which is why I am thankful to be teaching the Ancient Near East this year before beginning the Greco-Roman world. You cannot truly understand Athens and Rome until you understand the nations whose shadow loomed over them. Imagine a scholar of American history with no grasp of European history. Sadly, this is what the study of the Classics occasionally becomes: the great thoughts of the Greco-Roman world in isolation, divorced from the world that produced and provided a haven for those empires in their earliest stages.

As I teach ancient history, we watch DVD programs. I bring in artifacts. I do extensive lectures (it's curious that while students vocally prefer watching the DVD, they perform better on quizzes given after a lecture). I bring in spices when we discuss the spice trade. I have the students in groups write activities with third-graders in mind in order to explain Plato's Allegory of the Cave and Solomon's Allegory of the Marketplace Woman. We also do extensive readings of primary documents. We also cover general topics, such as economics, magick & superstition, burial customs, etc. We study the major figures of history whose names are immediately familiar to our modern culture, as well as those figures and cultures whose fame has dimmed though their impact still was pivotal to our society.

This approach is applauded. I rarely hear educational theorists complain when a history teacher does such things. Yet, I have discussed the teaching of formal grammar beyond the grade school level and have encountered many shocked expressions. When I switched to a public school, the English language classes I took were simply reading books and writing responses to those books. And these were the advanced classes. There was no formal study of grammar, the theory seeming to be that we would learn by doing. However, we weren't really learning English. The assumption, I presume, was that we had mastered our language and now could dig into the literature. However, one look at the majority of my classmates' papers testified that the middle schools in the area had not equipped them with basic skills of expressing their ideas in easily-readable prose.

However, I do not want to remove literature from English classes. There is a value to experiential learning. For instance, I've begun making bath salts. I find the activity relaxing while also stimulating. Part of the fun is simply experimenting, placing herbs in the mortar & pestle and combining the result with essential oils, colorants, salts. However, I've found that while I can often stumble onto worthy combinations, I also have benefited from reading detailed explanations from others. Not all of my experiments end up usable. The benefit of simply doing without having instruction seems to be the realization that I need instruction. Even the experimentation that had successful results came from having a basic framework provided by someone else: how to produce basic bath salts. I had to learn what essential oils were and how to use them carefully, for one. Even my phase of experiential learning required a basic framework.

I did predict many successful strategies (strategemata salis) on my own, but the advanced procedures that I had wanted to perform all along came from learning from others. While trying to combine citric acid and baking soda in my bath salts, I found my results all over the map until I sat down and read an expert's take.

This analogy may seem weak, but I've found that while some of my students can stumble onto proper writing, most make it to high school with horrendous habits of spelling and grammar. One might attribute this to teachers who cannot impart grammatical knowledge solely through experiential learning, but I suspect that a teacher who can do such thing is rare, and to hope that one can teach such a core element of language-based reasoning from one angle is naive and overall, destructive to education.

In attempting to accommodate different learning styles, many theories of education often settle on one approach that is so broad and ethereal, it ends up only benefiting a small segment - which was the very problem that inspired the new approach! I'd rather have an over-rigorous education system that forces students outside of their natural inclinations than one that ends up frustrating the majority. However, I'd really prefer to have another option: a model that accomodates many learning styles while training each student to learn how to acquire knowledge through many different processes.

Perhaps the idea of enforcing standards of writing, and resisting the idea to call poor education "intuitional education," is radical, but I doubt it. I think many scholars far beyond my achievements understand the need to be aggressive with grammar and composition instruction.

Grammatical care is inherently important to logic. In logic, there is an informal fallacy called an amphiboly. This refers to an argument with vague or unclear grammar. Much humor is derived from this fallacy. Students always enjoy this headline:

Grandmother of eight makes hole in one

Obviously, the implication is a local woman, notable for her age, made an impressive shot in golf. But read casually, it almost seems like she did something questionable to a grandchild!

Likewise, students chortled over this one that I devised:

Visiting clown entertains children with diseases

The students immediately picked up that "Children with diseases entertained by visiting clown" would reduce the ambiguity. The clown is attempting to cheer up ill children; he's not somehow presenting horrible diseases as a source of humor (imagine the kids who would find diseases entertaining! They must grow up to be Dane Cook fans).

Yet, I tell students that the fallacy can arise with no humor resulting. If a student says "The dog and the cat were fighting, so I pushed it off the couch," that pronoun it is problematic. It is unclear who it refers to - the dog or the cat. In fiction or non-fiction writer must manage their pronouns so the noun being replaced is clear. Overall, a writer must convey clearly her or his points - and what is grammar but the set of rules by which a writer can learn to express clearly?

It is perhaps only a coincidental curiosity that grammar shares a root with grimoire. A grimoire is a textbook of magick. All throughout human history, magick and language have been tied together. From Norse runes being both means of communication and divination to the Cherokee people regarding the alphabet of Sequoyah (George Gist) as both practical yet magical, the two disciplines have had many points of intersection.

But grammar doesn't have to be regarded as mystical or mysterious. Pāṇini's contribution to the great conversation was the idea that grammar has useful boundaries that can facilitate better communication by creating a universal standard. John Zerzan might rail against the dogmatic dominance this creates, but it is language that unites large groups of people. Language speeds up the process of economic exchange (the view of history in light of peaceful economic exchange is another favorite of mine), of peaceful resolution to conflicts, of the recording and appreciation of art, etc. This is not to say that language doesn't have destructive abilities, but certainly mankind was at each other's throats long before the first set of pictograms were crafted.

I taught a chimera class one year where several topics were jumbled into one: Homer, Greco-Roman history, a smattering of Latin vocab, and English grammar. Never again will I submit to such experiments in Classical learning! That said, I could see immediately that students were benefiting from the clear yet rigorous English grammar component a colleague had written. Before they could master Latin grammar, she had reasoned, why not remind them of English grammar. All of the sing-song grammar chants of their grade school years had long since departed, so it was almost as if they were learning English grammar for the first time - and they excelled when given no other option beyond failing the class. The English language was not a maelstrom to be navigated - it was seen as what it was: an evolved (and thus occasionally contradictory) set of artificial symbols and sounds that could express an infinity of ideas, especially when its basic structure was mastered.

I have been engaging in discussions with my bosses and with my colleagues about what "Classical education" is. I am part of the Classical education community, so I have a major stake in the issue. As with many discussions, the question is "Which X do you mean?" When someone extols the Greek concept of arete, I tend to ask: "Which arete? Plato's? Aristotle's? Homer's? Paul's?"

However, I dispute greatly that Classical education is a philosophy. It is more a methodology, but further: it is an ethos. That discussion will have to be tabled for now, but I would assert that the formal study of grammar provides a framework for the exercise of creative, critical thinking. Grammar is not the lower school gateway to logic and then rhetoric, any more than mathematics ends with fifth grade. Grammar should be a companion, tool, and challenge given to students each step of the way.

We threw the ball against the wall.

A student who has not taken grammar may be able to rewrite this sentence any number of ways, but I suspect a student who has had grammar would more readily take on the task. They could make it passive, they could move the prepositional phrase around, they could do several things and still express the basic idea.

The Spanish courses I took at public school were very focused on teaching us how to converse in Spanish. Yet I often found myself corrected by my Spanish speaking cohorts. They didn't know English, so Spanish was our only way to converse. By being taught phrases and vocab instead of the rules of Spanish, I ran into many situations where I could not easily express myself, or I used too stiff or too loose sentences to do so.

There are many schools, both public and private, that teach grammar at the high school level. I applaud them. As a student's mind matures in regards to critical thinking, grammar can be there each step of the way. At a young age, they can take on the basics: breaking a sentence down into its basic parts. As they grow older, heading toward their teenage years, they can learn to diagram those sentences in order to provide a picture of how sentences work. Additionally, they can begin to learn and apply the idea of tense, voice and other essentials. At the high school level, they can take on more complex sentences and grammar in context of both prose and poetry while also learning theories of grammar, such as Chomsky's.

Which brings us back to Pāṇini. It's important to note that Indian schools of grammar and logic evolved much in the same way as the Greek schools: debate of spiritual and ethical matters.

In our modern Western culture, "metaphysical" topics are often restricted to the colorful: philosophical paradoxes, musings on art, religious mysticism, etc. Yet, to the ancients the rigid study of grammar, the meaning of words, the formal study of the acquisition of knowledge: these were essential to approaching discussions of what was true, what was beautiful, and what was ethical.

Students learn in mathematics and physics that reality is not beholden to our whims. There are laws to existence. Despite the fact that language is an artifical construct, it is one designed to allow instruction and interaction in a world of constants.

Pāṇini's thousands upon thousands of rules to Sanskrit may seem excessive, but no one objects to a biologist discovering further and further species, or a sociologist augmenting the understanding of the many factors in society. Grammar is built on the Law of Identity: language does its job best when it is presented consistently.

If language is, as I speculated in previous posts, the system of symbolized expressions that allows both description and expectation for the goal of categorizing reality so we can do as Lao Tzu noted and truly know reality as opposed to merely experience it, then studying grammar is really just a process of mastering reality, as far as it can be mastered. That is one massive run-on sentence.

x Peregrinus

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