Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The War Against Grammar

The War Against Grammar by David Mulroy

Book review by Phyllis Morris Lotchin

"Calling chapter one “America the Grammarless,” the author contends that the campaign to de-emphasize grammar became fashionable in the 1960s. Students who have come of age since then have very little grasp of grammar, and now many teachers could not teach grammar even if they chose to. He cites an NCTE report issued in 1963, which stated that teaching formal grammar has a deleterious effect on composition. In 1985 an official resolution adopted by this organization proclaimed that the value of grammar exercises is not supported by theory and research (a claim Prof. Mulroy would refute) and is a “deterrent” to the improvement of speaking and writing (6). The 1991 NCTE-issued Handbook on Research on Teaching the English Language Arts declared that teaching traditional grammar is “not just useless but pernicious” (6). Although a few voices were raised in protest, the NCTE’s views were repeated endlessly without the benefit of research or authority.

The results have been disastrous. American students now test as “mediocre” in reading abilities in relation to other wealthy nations. Prof. Mulroy argues strongly that an understanding of how the language works is necessary to read complex texts with understanding. Verbal SAT scores began to sink in 1963 with fewer students showing outstanding verbal ability. In 1996, the College Board “recentered” the SAT scores to camouflage this trend (10).
In colleges and universities, this lack of grammar instruction has had several unfortunate results. Fewer American students now study a foreign language...

A unique feature of this book grows out of Prof. Mulroy’s training as a classics scholar. A large part of the text traces the history of the study of grammar, beginning with the ancient Greeks, a time in which “grammar entered education in the West as the first and most important of the seven liberal arts” (28). Classical scholars such as Aristotle argued that grammar perfects the understanding of literature and contributes to eloquent self-expression.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the twentieth century in America that a “full-fledged revolt against the liberal arts occurred” (60). It happened under the banner of John Dewey’s “progressive education” (60). With more students entering high school, the progressives thought education should be more “practical”—training young people for vocations and the challenges of adult life (61). Although these educators did not present a unified disregard of “common essentials,” they disliked “formalism.” This included the study of grammar, in which there are definite and predetermined answers for all questions...

Yet times are changing. Happily for those who hold that grammar taught systematically in the early grades is beneficial to students in their later academic careers, both research and practice are coming around to support their view."


Charles Nelson said...

So, what did you think about the claims of the book concerning grammar.

reineke said...


I haven't actually read the book. I mean, come on I'm bloggin' here :) Reading scores began to sink with the advent of television - the idiot box. It's easy to put a different slant on the story. I do believe that with grammar a little can go a long way and that too much study can become a burden.