[Article presented to National Council of Teachers of English at local conference in Largo, Florida, June 26, 1990]
THESIS: The knowledge of the building blocks and framework for language – parts of speech, grammar, usage, and syntax – greatly enhances a student’s ability to formulate and generate more highly qualitative compositions than those that would be produced without the rigid application of such principles.
The argument that the teaching of grammar, syntax, and usage along with the parts of speech is a mundane, useless waste of time and energy and has little effect on the end result of composition has long been proliferated in classrooms throughout the nation. There is no consensus on the definitiveness of either philosophy, that of the grammarians versus that of the nihilists, terms that I use affectionately to describe the two “schools of thought.”
There is some evidence to support each side’s contention but not enough to make an unqualified statement that would be accepted incontrovertibly. Individual teachers employ their independent skills to achieve the objectives laid down by the “powers that be” in spite of the preferences of the separate systems; it is irrelevant that the system may or may not endorse its preference for one “school” over the other. The teacher is the sovereign ruler of his class, his room is his kingdom, and his methods are his irrefutable right so long as the results reflect the goal-oriented curriculum.
One of the most controversial implementations has been the enhanced writing program that exists in many systems including Florida and Maryland. In theory, it works; in actuality, it doesn’t. There are schools in which teachers “fake” it because there is no viable way of corroborating actual results with real expectations. Record-keeping is shoddy; compositions are non-existent while records indicate that they have been completed; cursory attention is paid to quality achievement and mere attainment of minimal objectives is underscored in lieu of the realization of significant, scholarly work demanded of the students and expected by the school. These are not conjecture; these are realities that are, unfortunately, undeniable. However, this is not to stipulate that such questionable integrity is the rule; it may well be the exception. There have been many success stories that offset the horror stories.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, in “The Change Masters”, offers some insight into the crux of this problem in particular and the problem of theory in general. It treats the problem of why something works, or works in some cases, or doesn’t work at all. She calls it the “roast pig” problem (after Charles Lamb’s 1882 essay “A Dissertation on Roast Pig”).
“A mischievous child accidentally set fire to a house with a pig inside, and the villagers poking around in the embers discovered a new delicacy. This eventually led to a rash of house fires. The moral of the story is: When you do not understand how the pig gets cooked, you have to burn a whole house down every time you want a roast-pork dinner.”
The point is analogous to the writing process, or to any process, for that matter. A pitcher might be able to throw the most phenomenal curve ball quite by accident without knowing the physics behind the process or the fingering on the ball. He can observe possible rationales and come up with no conclusions. So long as the effect is satisfactory, why mess with figuring out the “whys”? There is the chance that by analyzing the mechanics of a process, the end result might be adversely affected. By teaching the pitcher the “correct” method of throwing a curve ball might destroy the product by saving the process. It is unlikely that the best roast-pig dinner can only result from the burning down of a house. But, apply the theory to the composition process.
Ann E. Berthoff in “Teacher as Researcher” addresses a similar problem in her search for quality teachers. The method of questioning with open-ended inquiry leads to creative responses and opens the door to wider ranges of action and reaction, non-critical, in-dependent, acknowledgment of multiple possibilities, and more enjoyable group input. Looking for a preconceived notion of what is right in subjective discourse tends to result in unified disdain of the process and a balking by the students who feel frustrated with the game of twenty-questions in the search for the proverbial needle in the haystack.
Teachers have notions about what works and what doesn’t work. Many teachers neither know about nor care whether or not they teach the process of Kellogg diagramming, which, to some, is an invaluable tool for understanding the relationship between words in any composition. Of course, it is not NECESSARY to know the diagram to understand the relationship of words. It is merely a tool just as knowing the parts of speech, verbals, sentence forms and types, rules of punctuation, and usage is a tool the knowledge of which can only enhance the operations that are inherent in the composition process. This is not to say that the best composition results from analytical knowledge of the intricate processes that go into it in the same way that a child is able to walk or run without knowing the muscles and bones and the laws of physics that govern their interactionary relationship -their correlative articulation. If he had to describe the actions as he was doing them, he would probably fall flat on his face in the effort and still not complete the assignment.
There are activities, like enunciation, ambulation, mastication, inhalation and exhalation, gesticulation, and elimination that require no technical knowledge for their operation to completion. To require the student to know the factors that are prerequisite to successful performance of these activities would be counterproductive. Yet, these are the very factors that are intrinsic in advanced studies like biology, physics, chemistry, psychology and others. The new information expands the knowledge of the processes but not necessarily the effect or the actual performances. Composition is a process that can subjectively satisfy the requirements of the form and content: multiple paragraph, correct spelling, proper punctuation, and standard formal usage. This does not necessitate drilling rules and laws to reach the ultimate goal. Good composition can result from common sense. The message might well be clear as the final paragraph of Ann Berthoff’s article indicates. The question is: where should the emphasis be? On the end product? On the process to reach the end product? Or a combination of the two so that the KNOWLEDGE of the intricacies can better enable the student to manipulate what he knows to better create on purpose what he can already do by chance?
Is the end result, the roasted pig, more important than knowing that the house doesn’t have to be burned down to get a roasted pig? Is it better to know the tools of good rhetoric and how to use those tools as an important element in the process of composing, or should the student be satisfied that he can blindly create accidentally without having to know the technical merits that make his project excellent?
There is nothing wrong with experimenting with creative methodologies that instill the imaginative student with the germ of successful achievement, but not at the cost of sacrificing the distinct advantage of having not only the ability to write well but also the knowledge of why he writes well and be able to do it on purpose without having to burn down the house in the interim.