Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric
Q. Why did they used to call grade school "grammar school"?
arts education has three levels that generally fit with the three types of
schools we have in America. Think of education this way:
elementary school - building a knowledge base of facts, ideas, basic skills and
Logic - middle
school - how to think about that knowledge base, and combine and recombine
abstract elements of it
Rhetoric - high
school and beyond - now that you have a knowledge base and know how to use it,
you can create and communicate opinions and emotions based on accurate, well
thought-out positions with accurate, well-crafted, well-chosen style
three - grammar, logic, rhetoric - form the "trivium," where they all come
together, the three-part basis for a good education.
are taught well, and in order, the result is beautiful. You have to use all
three simultaneously to be really effective in your communications. For
example, the most powerful poem raging against a war will fall flat on its face
if it misspells the country in which the war is taking place (the grammar
stage) or misstates the reason the war was started (the logic stage). No matter
how great your rhetorical skills are, if your grammar and/or logic skills
aren't good, you won't have the respect and believability you'd like.
olden days, up until the late 20th Century, these levels were taught
in the correct order. Think of the boy Abraham Lincoln and his slate, writing
words and sums endlessly until he mastered them. Only when he could read,
write, reckon and reason with experience and skill did he try to speak in front
of judges on behalf of legal clients, or campaign for political office with his
oratorical skills. No matter how convincing your "word pictures" might be in
your writing, if you use bad grammar or misspell words, people won't take you
seriously. No matter how much money your business plan claims that you can make
with a new product, if the basic math in your projections is faulty, your
conclusions will be thrown out as invalid.
modern-day educators have thrown all this out the window. Because of
Child-Centered Education and Developmentally-Appropriate Practice, they think
these academic practices are all "out" because they're no "fun":
the principles of spelling
the rules of grammar
how to diagram sentences
how to memorize math facts
lots of practice with math
drilling on the
how to cross-check spelling
in the dictionary
how to cross-reference a
statement of fact
believed it was better to have students practice critical thinking and
problem-solving, rather than get bogged down with facts and skills. The problem
is, you can't build anything without bricks. We know from cognitive psychology
that you can't separate the 3 R's from content. Vocabulary and analytical skill
have to come from somewhere.
minimizing a strong, rich curriculum, educators sentence students to
ineffective rhetorical skills. No wonder American kids start off as the best in
the world in the early grades of school, and then peter out to the middle or
the bottom by the end of high school. Ironically, students in Europe and Asia
are beating our secondary students on international standardized tests now in
not only content knowledge, but critical thinking and problem-solving as well.
Why? Because they had a strong, content-based curriculum in elementary school.
have failed to teach middle-school kids the principles of logic, how to spot
fallacies in arguments, how to discern inconsistencies, and so forth. So when
they get to high school and college and encounter complex content, they're even
have put the cart before the horse in teaching rhetoric in grade school, and
then realizing they've shorted students on basic knowledge and skills, so they
try to cram that into the high school curriculum. And here's what happens: when
third-graders are encouraged to use high-school level rhetorical skills that
are 'way over their heads, such as being assigned to write a poem about war,
the result in the vast majority of cases is so bad that the pupil never, ever
wants to write a poem about anything, ever again. And when a high school
student doesn't have the reading skills to comprehend the classics of
literature that he or she should be reading, but has to read "baby books" or
even have test questions read aloud like a small child, no wonder the result is
to drop out of school, underachieve, pretend he or she doesn't care . . . or go
numb on drugs and alcohol.
what happens when you put a child into a position where he or she cannot
succeed. That's what we're doing in our schools today, especially in our grade
schools - or, as we SHOULD refer to them, our GRAMMAR schools.
. . logic . . . rhetoric. As parents, taxpayers and citizens, we should demand
that our schools return to this tried-and-true format and philosophy of
delivering education to our young, and turning out literate, numerate, capable,
E.D. Hirsch has been the greatest American proponent of quality grade-school
curriculum, and deserves a Medal of Honor. This professor emeritus of education
and the humanities from the University of Virginia has written books like Cultural Literacy and The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have
Them, and founded the Core Knowledge Foundation, www.coreknowledge.org, in a tireless
effort to put beef back onto the academic plate.