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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