Last week I wrote a post about STEM . . . how the emphasis in public education is on science, technology, engineering, and math . . . as being the appropriate preparation for today’s jobs. I do not disagree that these fields are where the jobs are. I do, however, think that the ability to communicate clearly is still important, as is the role of the arts in a well-rounded education.
Even in college, students during their first two years are required to take “general education” courses. These courses fall into a variety of categories and are there to provide a well-founded education. Such requirements were there when I went to college, and as far as I know, exist today. So, even though I was planning to major in journalism and English Literature, I needed to take two classes in the maths or sciences, two classes in the social sciences, two classes in the fine arts, and so on.
Yes, one of the problems of this is that if you are not interested in math or science, you tend to choose the “gut” classes — classes that you think will be easy to just get by in. In my case, it was nutrition, which everyone said was an easy way to the requirement. For my other class, however, I chose astronomy; it sounded like fun. However, I nearly failed it, as it was a very difficult math class. And I was no math slouch, having taken calculus in high school.
So perhaps, college is too late for the well-rounded, classical education, as most people have developed their interests by then. However, in grades K through 12, I think we certainly need the classical education. We need art and music. And we need language, foreign language and English language.
In high school, and even junior high school, English class tends to become a literature class. Why? Here are some possible reasons:
- Teachers don’t like to teach grammar and writing.
- Students won’t pay attention to grammar “rules.” It’s boring. It’s difficult.
- Teachers don’t feel comfortable with their knowledge of grammar.
- The standards and the powers-that-be don’t stress grammar.
That last reason isn’t really true, although we might think it is. For example, here are some of the Common Core language standards for grade 6:
*Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
*Ensure that pronouns are in the proper case (subjective, objective, possessive).
*Use intensive pronouns (e.g., myself, ourselves).
*Recognize and correct inappropriate shifts in pronoun number and person.
*Recognize and correct vague pronouns (i.e., ones with unclear or ambiguous antecedents
*Use punctuation (commas, parentheses, dashes) to set off nonrestrictive/parenthetical elements.*
*Use knowledge of language and its conventions when writing, speaking, reading, or listening.
*Vary sentence patterns for meaning, reader/listener interest, and style.
*Maintain consistency in style and tone
*Use common, grade-appropriate Greek or Latin affixes and roots as clues to the meaning of a word (e.g., audience, auditory, audible).
*Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
*Interpret figures of speech (e.g., personification) in context.
*Use the relationship between particular words (e.g., cause/effect, part/whole, item/category) to better understand each of the words.
*Distinguish among the connotations (associations) of words with similar denotations (definitions) (e.g., stingy, scrimping, economical, unwasteful, thrifty).
Pretty sophisticated, huh? Yes, grammar and language are definitely in the standards . . . whether they are actually taught is another question.
I told you last week that I would give you my thoughts on what should be taught as far as language is concerned.
Some high schools have separate classes for English Literature and English Language. I like that. I don’t know if it is still true, but last I knew, there were separate Advanced Placement Tests in high school for literature and language. There used to be SAT2 subject area tests in both Literature and Language, but apparently now there is no longer Language; there is Hebrew and Chinese and French and Spanish, but no English language. What a pity.
I think English Literature and English language are separate. Many school administrators and teachers believe that grammar and writing should be taught as part of the literature. I have talked about this before: how, to me, it is like hiding grammar in literature because grammar is so distasteful, kind of like hiding the broccoli in the mashed potatoes. And I don’t think language is just about writing and speaking correctly. Knowing about your language is important for its own sake. It is part of our history.
Why not make language interesting? In language classes, and in language arts in elementary school, why not teach the history of our language? The closest we come is to teach Greek and Latin roots, which is important and interesting. But why not teach why we have grammar in the first place, where it came from, where it is going, how many words are continuously added to the dictionaries, where our grammar standards came from, what happens to your writing if you don’t follow some of those standards. Why do students learn more grammar in French or Spanish class than they do in English class? I think we should have separate language classes in junior high or high school, maybe not in every grade, but language is certainly worthy or more attention. And that is my two cents. I would be happy to hear yours!