In preparation for a spring crash-course in rhetoric, I had made a copy of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech so that the students could experience on paper sentences like,
This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality…
Word combinations matter a great deal in moving a classroom—or a nation. Sister Miriam Joseph describes the psychological dimension of words in her book The Trivium, “Some combinations, particularly of adjectives and nouns and of nouns and verbs, are ‘just right.’” The Academy seeks to teach students to know exactly how to produce this “vivid concentration of meaning” richly bestowed in the psychological dimension.
And guess who’s best prepared for psychologically-appealing word-smithery? Students trained in grammar. The schools of our nation tout their commitment to “educating the whole person,” but I’m beginning to think that the “whole person” they mean must be something less than a student who has mastery over and facility with his mother tongue.
It’s not altogether different from the concern expressed by Dorothy Sayers in 1947:
Have you ever followed a discussion in the newspapers or elsewhere and noticed how frequently writers fail to define the terms they use? Or how often, if one man does define his terms, another will assume in his reply that he was using the terms in precisely the opposite sense to that in which he has already defined them? Have you ever been faintly troubled by the amount of slipshod syntax going about? And if so, are you troubled because it is inelegant or because it may lead to dangerous misunderstanding?
Why should you re-enroll your child in The Academy? I again borrow a page from Sister Miriam: because educating the whole child is anchored in language. You must choose a school that teaches phonetics, the prescription for how to combine sounds so as to form spoken words correctly. You must choose a school that requires instruction in spelling, the prescription for how to combine letters so as to form written words correctly. The school must teacher grammar so that words can be properly used to form correct sentences.
Rhetoric must be taught, for students must know how to combine sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into a whole composition having unity, coherence, and the desired emphasis, as well as clarity, force, and beauty. Finally, logic must be taught, for students require understanding in combining concepts into judgments and judgments into syllogisms and chains of reasoning so as to achieve truth.
We need new farmers of culture in the west—whether in preparation for exile or reform I cannot say. But culture is as simple as a story, lucidly told, that grips the heart and mind of a child through language. Habituation to the thoughts, words, and prayers of both the great and wise people of our past is the cruciform vision of the language arts, where the playthings of sophists become the voice of God in this world.