HEADlines: What We Don’t Know

In the beginning was the Word,
    and the Word was with God,
    and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came to be through him,
    and without him nothing came to be.
What came to be through him was life,
    and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness,
    and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:1-5~

“In former times, the most thoughtful people valued the old or the new only insofar as they gave a clue to the eternal and transcendent. In seeking the transcendent, they believed that old things did have a certain dignity on their face: they have the advantage of persistence, which is one part of virtue. Things that have been thought good for a long time are worthy of attention, respect, and study. New things are harder to judge. Nonetheless, both old and new things must meet the test of permanence and transcendence.

“To the modern ear, that sounds antiquated. Today the theme is not permanence, but change; not transcendence, but presence. Change is the master key to everything. Change can be eternal only in the sense that everything changes. But if everything changes, nothing is permanent, and nothing is transcendent. Today we are trying to make a transcendent good out of the one thing that cannot transcend.” Larry P. Arnn

One of my sons was ten or eleven when I asked his teacher whether he taught sentence diagramming.

“I sneak it in whenever I can,” was his reply.

Even during my youth, teaching elementary and middle school children the structured grammar of the English language had to happen through mutiny. My son’s teacher knew diagrams would help his students better understand their own language, but he had to be sneaky to avoid the wrath of an administration that thought it knew better.

During my years as a college composition instructor, I saw the results of grammar poorly taught or not taught at all.

Many of my college students could not identify the parts of speech in a sentence. Too many did not know how to craft a sentence. They wrote in run-ons or fragments. Beyond their inability to construct a sentence, many had no idea how to craft an argument and defend it.

College students.

Why the continuing animus against teaching English in a way proven over the years to work when the lack of teaching has produced such dismal results? Why the failure to teach the pieces of language to students, no matter their major, who presumably are working to learn to communicate in professional and public settings?

I remember an article I read years ago that I’m unable to source and cite today. The writer proposed that teaching grammar had fallen by the wayside because of an evolutionary mindset.

If we had evolved, so had our ability to speak and so had our development of language. From such a view, it would seem imprudent to teach grammar. After all, evolution means change, and if language evolved, ways of constructing language would evolve too.

This new way of thinking dismissed the idea of “correct” grammar and embraced the idea of an individual, self-created “voice”. Educators could no longer interfere with a student’s voice.

Grammar, in such a view, is a social construct, and social constructs are always to be rejected without consideration of what we lose in dismissing them.

Conversely, the author of the article explained, if we are created beings, we received language. God gave words to us along with the capacity to convey complex ideas in thoughtful, developed, structured, and civil ways.

God the Word Himself, the Logos, (John 1) ordained language.

Yes, language changes over time. Old English, the language people on the British Isle spoke around 700 AD, is unrecognizable to English speakers today.

Old words fall out of favor. New ones come on the scene. Few of us would recognize crumpet as a person’s head. If we used the word nithing in writing, we’d be accused of typographical error rather than insult.

Even so, the changing of language supports rather than refutes the need for grammar. A structure of grammar helps us understand new terms through context. Grammar helps us decipher old texts and more easily navigate complex ones.

Language changes, but we don’t invent it from scratch and expect to communicate well with others. Human interaction in any language is made worse when communicators lack vocabulary and reasoning skills as well as the ability to put words in an understandable arrangement.

Today, only a few understand the grammar of, not only English, but also history (what happened where and when and why certain events matter), math (the basics without calculators), literature (revealing the events and beliefs of people in other times), and science (what is verifiable and what is not).

During the Renaissance, people who believed God had created man melded the views and ways of Judeo-Christianity with elements from pagan cultures like logic and mathematics. Learning flowed from, not only Jerusalem, but also Egypt, Athens, and Rome.

The goal of education was (and should be now) to help students discern truth. To understand the first tenet of logic: that a statement cannot be true and false at the same time. To be able to weigh and argue reasons, facts, and ideas and come to logical, supportable arguments. To be able to explain those arguments in a coherent, persuasive way and to do so in with civility.

Such an education enables students to develop a sense of morality based on objective truth and to understand which actions lead to which consequences.

A language that evolved for a people who evolved is ever-changing and never settled in meaning. Not only in meaning by definitive definition but also meaning in having a lasting purpose. There is no room to claim an objective truth. There is no purpose in trying to convey it. There is only one’s lone voice speaking a foundationless language of self.

A created and bestowed language provides the means to use ministry to convey truth. From truth flows morality, purpose, and meaning.

All that from English grammar? Well, no.

All that results from the idea that learning looks back. Learning looks for structure. It seeks meaning. Learning has meaning because life has meaning.

The ultimate outcome of learning is far more than getting a job that pays well, the best we can hope for in the atomized life in which nothing is definitive. Learning builds a citizen, a spouse, a parent for life.

Arnn refers to higher education in the following quote, but his statement resonates no matter the age of the learner:

“Students [today] are not invited to step outside themselves, to step outside their own time, and to look at things as they have been understood by the best over time. If they did that, they would find that the great books are not a parade of agreements but attempts to approximate truth that frequently differ from one another. They would see that some [books] are more successful than others, and they would then learn and grow not by invention but by discovery.”

Not by invention but by discovery.

Modernity and post-modernity have erased the past from many of today’s classrooms. They’ve removed the wonder that comes from discovering ideas that mattered in the past, that still matter today.

Every generation must write old learning on new slates.

In losing such learning, we lose ourselves.

Reposted from The Mustard Seed Sentinel, 6/25/22

Photo Credit: Unsplash, Eric Muhr

Nancy E. Head’s Restoring the Shattered is out in paperback! Get your copy here!

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24 Replies to “HEADlines: What We Don’t Know”

  1. One subject I excelled in was English composition. Diagraming sentences at first seemed useless, but it did help me learn what the parts of speech did and why they were there. The so called “progressive” education touted today is, in my opinion, degressive and harmful as you pointed out. The fact that college students can’t form a sentence should be enough to identity the lack.

  2. Well written! Your article should be required reading, especially in schools of education that train teachers. This really resonates: “The ultimate outcome of learning is far more than getting a job that pays well, the best we can hope for in the atomized life in which nothing is definitive. Learning builds a citizen, a spouse, a parent for life.”

  3. It is important to learn and appreciate the nuisances of our language. I wish I had paid more attention to it in school

  4. Nancy, you’ve made a thoughtful argument here. Education should be about character and learning how to think more than simply learning skills for a particular job. I appreciate how you always bring your readers back to the basis of Truth.

  5. Another great post Ms. Nancy. I’m guilty of becoming lazy in my writing; especially when it comes to the rules of grammar. Is it because we’ve grown accustomed to email, where we work so quickly to get through the 300-400 per day we get that we don’t take time to proofread or copyedit? Or perhaps, because we use so much jargon and so many acronyms that few understand anything but those constructs? I love how you tied this to God’s immutable, unchanging, Word ma’am. Great job!

    1. Thank you, JD. Social media/technological communication do us no favors in helping us use correct English. Our interactions, especially with younger people can set an example of communicating clearly and in truth. God bless!

  6. I think it’s so important to be taught everything we can possibly be taught. Not all of it will stick, and students will indeed struggle with it, but avoiding certain lessons because it’s considered “boring” or “antiquated” or even “uncomfortable” for students is doing a disservice to us all.

    1. That’s right, Jessica. Education is not entertainment or customer service. It is learning. And learning isn’t always comfortable. Thanks for your insights. God bless.

  7. Clear communication, both oral and written, is essential for success in the workplace and in human relationships. Equipping students with grammar and the rules of writing facilitates communication and arms them for success beyond simply talking with their peers. Thank you, Nancy.

  8. Well said, Nancy! As a frustrated English teacher (retired now), I can so relate to everything you’ve said. I had an excellent seventh grade English teacher who didn’t let me go on to eighth grade until I could write with perfect grammar, punctuation, spelling, and structure. What she taught me has stayed with me for over 50 years and no doubt has had a huge influence on me as a writer. And yes, we diagrammed sentences all the time! We did it on paper, and we did it on the board in relay races. Each member of the team would run up to the board, write one word in the correct spot, run back, and hand the chalk to the next person.
    Some years ago, a friend of mine was telling me how she really wanted to finish college. She had everything she needed for a degree in art except English 101. She confessed that she was lost when it came to parts of speech and sentence structure. Since she was an artist, I thought, “Visual learner!”
    I set my coffee aside and diagrammed a simple sentence on my napkin. As I explained it, I could see in her eyes the proverbial “lightbulb” turning on. She said, “Do another one!” I did another, and another a little more complex. She reached for the pen and said, “Let me try!” I gave her a sentence, and she diagrammed it perfectly! This educational hurdle was conquered in less than five minutes, using this “antiquated” method.
    So, when people scoff at the idea of diagramming sentences …. Don’t get me started!

  9. Nancy, this is an interesting article. And I enjoyed how you started with the Word and brought the same idea to your closure, “A created and bestowed language provides the means to use ministry to convey truth. From truth flows morality, purpose, and meaning.” Yes!

  10. As a college professor, I see first hand the problems caused by our students not learning grammar and other writing skills BEFORE they enter college. I understand your lament. I always informed my students in advance that I graded on composition, spelling, and grammar and their final grade would reflect their attention to correct those details. Thank you for addressing this issue.

  11. Great post again! I love the tie-in with Logos. It’s something I’ve contemplated in writing. Such an amazing thing to be personally connected with the Word made flesh.

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