Monday, August 10, 2009

Keep Grammar Study Substance Free


FROM 2007

Politics and education intertwine in some obvious ways - No Child Left Behind, vouchers, “intelligent design” in science classes, school prayer, Brandon’s campaign for class president on Beverly Hills 90210. Then there are those subtle manifestations of educational politics, the ones you might miss unless you’ve got your political antennae on their most sensitive setting.

Classroom discussions can bring politics into the foreground, of course, and the discussion issues that teachers present to their students can betray a political bias. I’ve recently been reading about a dustup between the American Association of University Professors and a conservative group called the Students for Academic Freedom. The SAF wants professors to leave their (presumably liberal) politics at the classroom door and limit their teaching to what is clearly within their discipline. The AAUP says that approach would deny the obvious interconnectedness of knowledge: “Might not a teacher of nineteenth-century American literature, taking up Moby-Dick, a subject having nothing to do with the presidency, ask the class to consider whether any parallel between President George W. Bush and Captain Ahab could be pursued for insight into Melville’s novel?”

Professor Stanley Fish, an interested observer of the dispute, points out the AAUP makes the SAF’s point for it with that hypothetical situation. “Insight into the novel” is an unlikely goal here. Fish asks, “With what motive would the teacher initiate such a discussion? If you look at commentaries on Moby-Dick, you will find Ahab characterized as inflexible, monomaniacal, demonic, rigid, obsessed and dictatorial. What you don’t find are words like generous, kind, caring, cosmopolitan, tolerant, far-seeing and wise. Thus the invitation to consider parallels between Ahab and Bush is really an invitation to introduce into the classroom (and by the back door) the negative views of George Bush held by many academics.” I would add that Ahab has it all over Bush in the extemporaneous speaking department. If Ahab had said, “The white whale has misunderestimated me,” the crew of the Pequod would have mutinied.

Fish goes on to argue that literary parallels that would be favorable to Bush (Atticus Finch, Shakespeare’s Henry V, Aeneas) would also amount to politicization of the classroom. His inclusion of Henry V in that list is interesting. That’s a character who could go the other way. Does Fish mean Henry V the dauntless patriotic warrior, or Henry V who shamelessly fabricated a reason to invade France?

I don’t know whether the AAUP or the SAF is going to prevail in that dispute (it might be one of those situations to root for a mutual knockout), but their quarrel certainly reminds us that educational politics are not just at school board meetings. They’re on the whiteboards, in the textbooks, on the overhead projectors, even in the grammar exercises.

You know the kind of exercises I’m talking about. You’re learning about dangling modifiers or passive voice, and the teacher checks your understanding by asking you to do Exercise B on page 226. The instructions will tell you (for example) to change passive voice to active voice, so you come across a sentence like, “The circus was enjoyed by Tom,” and you change it to, “Tom enjoyed the circus.” Generations of young people have improved their writing by completing such exercises, grammatically clarifying the activities of Marks and Steves and Lauras and Susans as they study in the library, work on the blood drive, and visit Ohio.

On the surface these grammar exercises seem devoid of politics. Indeed, they seem empty of anything that could raise anyone’s blood pressure. That’s the beauty of them. It is true that the all-WASP cast could not last long in the era of ethnic diversity, so some DeShawns and Maritzas have joined the grammar sentence community (a welcome development – minority children have the same right as white children to see people of their own ethnic group depicted doing incredibly boring things). On the whole, however, these exercises have been as politically neutral as classroom activities come.

But something has happened. The exercises have changed. Once upon a time when you were asked to do an exercise on subject-verb agreement, you could count on sentences about a world of utter inconsequentiality: “Hardly a week goes by that Mark or one of his brothers (doesn’t, don’t) sweep the driveway.” Correcting these sentences was like being a copy editor for the Vapidville Daily News.

No longer. Now there’s an agenda.

Someone – some faceless compiler of textbooks – decided that what grammar exercises need is substance. On page 526 of the grammar book I use in my classroom, there is an exercise on the use of commas after introductory material. There are twenty sentences. Every last one of them is about Fiorello La Guardia. Indeed, most of the exercises in this book are built around single historical topics: the Library of Congress, the history of Texas, Jackie Robinson, that kind of thing. It is no longer enough just to learn about faulty parallelisms – we have to learn about Philadelphia while we’re at it: “City Hall marks the center of Philadelphia, holds a statue of William Penn, and city records are kept there.” It’s like getting your teeth cleaned and having to listen to a lecture on the customs of Latvia while you’re at it.

Am I being anti-intellectual in objecting to this trend? Perhaps. The composers of these exercises might justifiably congratulate themselves for cunningly promoting cultural literacy. And there’s nothing overtly political about the new sentences – you’ll never see something like, “Identify whether the following is a simple, compound, complex, or compound-complex sentence: Although President Bush is more evil than Captain Ahab, he isn’t as evil as Richard III.” (Answer below*). Still, however harmless these new exercises may seem, I find them objectionable. There’s a presumption behind the whole enterprise, an annoyingly high-minded presumption. In the era of No Child Left Behind, no air, no space, no time, no tiny fraction of the school day may be unencumbered by an academic purpose. I say, “Enough!” Grammar exercises are and of right ought to be devoid of substance.

And I miss my old friends. I hate to see Andy and Jennifer and their world of perfect blandness exiled from textbooks. They and their kindred are the rightful inhabitants of grammar exercises.

* answer: complex

1 comment:

Knox Porter said...

Your post has stimulated laughter, for I have taught from the same grammar text; have tried to explain La Guardia to an apathetic generation. Strangely, I remember my third grade English text, where in 1963 the model for writing a friendly letter was penned by Juanita Lopez. In small town North Carolina of the sixties, the name Lopez did not seem to fit with the other Anglos in the text. My small town mind took note. Yet my residence, career, and students moved forward to the big city. Sometimes I wish I could respond to Juanita's friendly letter.