It’s going to be a struggle to get through this. Partly, that’s because it is so dense; but also, because it is so out of fashion. And it brings to mind an unsettling reality that few people grapple with: nobody teaches grammar any more. I have a Bachelor’s degree in English, mind you, and the last time anybody taught me any grammar – any at all – was in Seventh Grade. I had a couple of composition courses in college, one linguistics course (where we mainly played with cognates or with speculative stuff like Transformational Grammar – which isn’t anything you would recognize as grammar), and all the rest were literature courses. So the last time I wrestled with parts of speech or verb inflections – in English – was in junior high. Oh sure, I learned some English grammar by learning Latin, then German, then Greek. I learned more (self-taught) when I was tutoring in the ISU Writing Center. But it still boggles my mind that I could earn an English degree and two advanced degrees and still have not had any instruction in English grammar since I was twelve years old.
The fact of the matter is, we do a lousy job of teaching our native tongue to our children. The mechanics of the language are considered dull, and not just by students. Many of the English majors I have known – and English teachers and professors – were bored by grammar, syntax, punctuation, even vocabulary. They want to talk about ideas, about content. They teach English the way Art and Music teachers teach Art Appreciation or Music Appreciation, and not the way Art and Music teachers teach perspective or composition. The result is, they can pass along an official canon of “great literature,” but they can’t tell you much about the language it’s written in.
The irony in talking about an official canon of “great literature,” of course, is that most English teachers sheep-like follow the politically correct bellwether in decrying the existence of such a canon and belittling its greatness, only to exalt an alternative canon whose greatness lies not in its expression but in its allegiance to certain ideologies or to the grievances of various victim groups. Tom Shippey , in an essay based upon a 2002 lecture*, said,
In the USA, the number of students majoring in humanities has fallen precipitously, to little more than a third of what it might have been expected to be if the humanities had held on to the same proportion of students they attracted in the year of Tolkien’s death. The fall is just as great in English Studies, and here there is a potential for even greater future disaster. University departments of English in the USA depend for their budgets on large numbers of students taking ‘core courses’ on how to write, usually called ‘Rhetoric and Composition.’ But the weak point of almost all courses on ‘Rhetoric and Composition’ is that the graduate students who teach it – all of them products of undergraduate courses in English – know nothing useful about language, whether historical language or modern language. They spend much time on inculcating essentially eighteenth-century notions of ‘proper English,’ with rules about not beginning sentences with a conjunction and not ending them with a preposition, and so on. Their only analytic method, all too often, is the archaic notion of ‘diagramming sentences,’ at which both Grimm and Tolkien would have stared incredulously, and which most of the students furthermore cannot do. One day a college president is going to say, in effect: “there’s no ‘value-added’ here, I’ve looked at the ‘outcomes assessments,’ I’m going to switch the core teaching to someone who can do it better” – such as the department of Communications Studies. If that switch is successful, and followed, then English Studies, or as Tolkien would have called it, ‘literature,’ will revert to the diminished status now held by, for instance, Classical Studies. It will pay the penalty for having exiled from its curriculum all forms of serious language study. The dying curse of Dame Philology, or perhaps of the great dragon Comparative Philology, will then have taken effect.
I like language. I like to learn other languages. I like to study the history of English, and of English words. I am a professional user of English, as a preacher and as a writer. And I am always trying to learn more. I do not think this is particularly true of many of those who teach English, at any level. There are exceptions, of course, but the official curriculum is increasingly unambitious and un-academic, and so the prime focus for English teachers seems to be something other than teaching English.
The second subtitle of Abbott’s work is “for the use of schools.” I cannot imagine what schools he was thinking of. Certainly, I’ve never attended one that showed much interest in teaching what he had spent his life collecting and organizing.
* “Fighting the Long Defeat: Philology in Tolkien’s Life and Fiction,” in Roots and Branches: selected papers onTolkien