By Craig McElvain
GRAMMAR: Merriam-Webster defines it as- “the principles or rules of an art, science, or technique”
What is grammar? Every discipline has a grammar; a structure, a set of principles or rules that define the discipline. Baseball has hitting, throwing, and fielding. Painting has light/shadow, perspective, and color. English has nouns, verbs, pronouns, and participles. Music has bass and treble clefs, quarter notes, and staccato symbols.
Grammar is essential to the mastery of a discipline. As my old baseball coach, Coach Bill MacDonald, used to say: “it’s all about the fundamentals boys!” He was right; unless the grammar of baseball (the fundamentals) are mastered, even the strongest athlete cannot become a truly great baseball player. That is why David Dobbs, though he was the strongest boy in our junior high class (heck- he even had a full beard in 8th grade!), was a HORRIBLE baseball player. Best athlete and yet the last guy to get picked on the baseball diamond when we chose teams. His baseball grammar was pitiable.
Grammar is that essential base of information that allows a student to maximize their potential in any given discipline, and yet the American educational system has decided to skip it, and go straight to SELF-EXPRESSION. Modern educators don’t often teach kids the grammar of artistic expression, opting instead for immediacy. “Draw whatever you see,” “do whatever your creative heart desires,” we say. That is why we take every 2nd grader’s artwork and put it proudly on our refrigerators. It’s so much quicker to skip boring old grammar and head straight for the open seas of self-expression. The problem is skipping grammar actually LIMITS A STUDENT’S ABILITY TO EXPRESS THEMSELVES ! They don’t have the tools (the fundamentals) that allow them to express the profound creativity of their divinely inspired minds. My head has astounding artistic images in it…sublime symphonies…prodigious poems…jaw-dropping homers. They are all there in my imagination. I just can’t get them birthed into reality because I often neglected the GRAMMAR of the discipline require to FULLY express the vision trapped within.
This failure to teach students grammar came devastatingly home to me a few years ago while traveling with American high school students in China. Every day the Chinese would take us to a different high school to show us the fruits of their academic efforts in many disciplines. We heard musical prodigies, saw stunning artists, and interacted with passionate scientists and mathematicians on a daily basis. At one point in our tour, upon hearing another breathtaking musical performance, I commented to our host that this was an impressive display of the best and brightest in the Chinese school system. He politely corrected me by saying that these were students in lower performing schools who had NOT been chosen to move forward competing in their discipline. I was dumbfounded. How could we have such amazing displays of talent if this was indeed the “runner-ups?” When I thought about our American art students, I was saddened to see how inferior our typical “self-expressions” were to these Chinese students’ output. Why such palpable differences?
A few days later I began to notice the key to this disturbing difference. The Chinese approach to education appears to see early stage learning as GRAMMATICAL learning. They teach budding young art students light, shadow, and perspective FIRST with the hopes that it will eventually lead to a far greater ability for self-expression. This is exactly what I have come to appreciate about the “classical” approach to education. In the United States we used to even call our primary education schools “grammar schools,” but have chosen to shift instead to the term “elementary.” Why? Parents want “self-expression” now at the expense of learning a discipline’s grammar. That takes too long. We want to be able to play “Stairway to Heaven” on the guitar before we learn to read music. I actually had that request multiple times as a young guitar teacher. When I would ask new students to begin learning their scales, or the basics of tuning their instrument, they would belligerently inform me that they wanted to get straight to learning Led Zeppelin solos. The difficult part is—that is actually do-able ! But if all they do is learn how to imitate a Jimmy Page riff it will severely hamper that student’s ability to play much beyond what can be imitated. Failure to master grammar can initially free a student up for “self-expression,” but such an approach ultimately dooms them to mere imitation of other people’s “self-expression.” Great musical expression requires a prolonged discipline in musical grammar first if it is to soar at the end of the day. Anything less is plain ol’ REFRIGERATOR ART.
Grammar must be restored to our educational agenda if we are to have any hope of moving students to new heights in their chosen disciplines. This, of course, is part of the agenda of the classical model of education. The classical school will take the extra time to teach foundational grammars (with the knowledge that younger students are supremely capable of taking on such grammar)—EVEN IT MEANS DELAYING REFRIGERATOR ART SELF EXPRESSION. To do so requires a new vision for grammar that can be easily comprehended by parents, and teachers alike. May it be so.