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Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric


Q. Why did they used to call grade school "grammar school"?


A liberal arts education has three levels that generally fit with the three types of schools we have in America. Think of education this way:


Grammar - elementary school - building a knowledge base of facts, ideas, basic skills and principles


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


These three - grammar, logic, rhetoric - form the "trivium," where they all come together, the three-part basis for a good education.


When they 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.


In the 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.


But 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


         spelling bees


         book reports


         term papers


         how to memorize math facts


         lots of practice with math problems


         drilling on the multiplication tables


         how to cross-check spelling in the dictionary


         how to cross-reference a statement of fact


Educators 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.


So by 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.


They also 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 more lost.


Educators 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.


That's 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.


Grammar . . . 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, competent citizens.


Homework: 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,, in a tireless effort to put beef back onto the academic plate.


By Susan Darst Williams Ages & Stages 131 2008


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