Saturday, October 1, 2011

Teaching grammar in close relation to logic and rhetoric

[This short article is in association with the web event [みんなで英語教育] 第2回「英文法指導」まとめ.]

The trivium

One of the contentions I made in the Keio Symposium on Pedagogical Grammar was that pedagogical grammar should not be taught or tested for its own sake; pedagogical grammar only serves its purpose when it helps learners acquire and use the target language.

I'll elaborate on the contention today and argue that grammar should be taught in close relation to logic and rhetoric. In short, we should respect the old wisdom of the trivium.

The trivium is defined by Sister Miriam Joseph, the author of The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric as follows: (Thanks again, Wikipedia. You're a hero for lazy writers!)

Logic is the art of thinking; grammar, the art of inventing symbols and combining them to express thought; and rhetoric, the art of communicating thought from one mind to another, the adaptation of language to circumstance.

Grammatical but unintelligent writing

As a Japanese college teacher in the department of English Language Teaching who has to teach students to write academic papers (or indeed reasonable essays in general) both in Japanese and in English, I often find teaching of logic and rhetoric far more important than teaching of grammar.

My students are reasonably educated in high school and their knowledge is not bad at all in English grammar (not to mention Japanese grammar). But what surprises me is that they are often not good in the use of logic and rhetoric even when they write in Japanese. Their thoughts are sometimes not consistent or coherent, and not expressed communicatively. Their logic sometimes does not extend a sentence; They often place their focal point in a wrong place of a sentence or paragraph. Those writings take much more time to comprehend and convey far less information than good writings do. These grammatical but unintelligible writings really confuse and irritate me. (I hope this essay of mine is not irritating you right now).

But when I tell my students that their essay doesn't make sense or is only clumsily written, some don't understand the point; Others understand but get frustrated because they don't know how they can improve. It seems that grammar is the only criterion in their writing. Those students who avoid studying mathematics and science to the limit of their legitimate curriculum proudly say that they hate logic. There are even some students who have never heard the word rhetoric.

This is why I make the undergraduate students in my seminar class read a number of Japanese books on the use of logic and rhetoric in (academic) essays. (ゼミ開始にあたって読んでおくべき本・論文

I also spend almost an entire semester in the graduate course to teach them to read, write and think academically by using The Craft of Research by W. Booth, G. Colomb and J. Williams.

But honestly, I believe the above Japanese books are for senior high school students and The Craft of Research is for undergraduate students. I'm fairly sure that young students are quite capable of understanding these books. So when I was asked to teach a writing class due to the shortage of the staff member a couple of months ago, I chose without much hesitation Style: The Basic of clarity and Grace as the textbook for the freshmen. I'd like to dispel concerns of some teachers who believe that a book on English that deals with logic and rhetoric is "too difficult" for undergraduate students.

So here is my contention: logic and rhetoric should be and can be taught earlier in the Japanese education system.

From the whole to the parts

I expect at this point a roar of teachers complaining that even if they can teach logic and rhetoric in earlier stages they simply have no time to teach them in addition to grammar. In fact, one of the arguments that I frequently hear or read about pedagogical grammar is that we need to select and reduce grammar items to teach.

This objection is quite right on a modern assumption; Descartes, for example, wrote about four principles of the modern approach in Discourse on the Method as follows. (Thanks again, W!)

"The first was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgment than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.

The second, to divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary for its adequate solution.

The third, to conduct my thoughts in such order that, by commencing with objects the simplest and easiest to know, I might ascend by little and little, and, as it were, step by step, to the knowledge of the more complex; assigning in thought a certain order even to those objects which in their own nature do not stand in a relation of antecedence and sequence.

And the last, in every case to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I might be assured that nothing was omitted."

The modern times have witnessed that this method of Self-evidence, Partition, Accumulation and Enumeration works, particularly in science and technology. Yet, it doesn't (and shouldn't) suggest that this modern method should be the universal method.

In teaching, we often rely on the modern method. We start from the analytically partitioned parts that are to be self-evident to students, accumulate them comprehensively, and then we declare that teaching is complete. But we know from experience that this approach doesn't often work, particularly where students are to learn a very complex system of knowledge and skills involving various factors. (Foreign language learning is a prime example).

But teachers have an excuse: whether or not students have mastered the targeted complex whole is up to the individual students. Students who haven't mastered must have been lazy or less-intelligent, for the teaching approach was right: what else can you expect in the modern times other than self-evidence, analysis, synthesis and enumeration!

But we may cast some of our distrust from our students to our approach. There are non-modern teaching/learning cultures, where, with their own shortcomings, a complex system of knowledge and skills are successfully learned.

Although it is common to quote Legitimate Peripheral Participation (LPP) in this context, I'm inclined to take a case of learning in Japanese martial arts (my favorite subject). But that is going to be a very long story, beginning from an account explaining how modern Japanese martial arts as most people know them are different from traditional ones, and continuing to histories of individual martial arts and of modern Japan in general. I don't think I'm sufficiently qualified to write on this subject in detail, so suffice it here to say that in some traditional teaching/learning approaches learners start from the whole to the parts. To be a bit more specific, learners start from the whole and occasionally go to parts as the teacher (or the experienced member of the group) deems necessary: learners never stay away from the whole and as they analyze some parts their whole develops into a higher stage.

This is quite different from the modern approach, where students start from the separated parts and (supposedly) reaches to the complex whole in the end. If the modern learning approach is characterized as analytical, the non-modern (pre-modern and/or post-modern) approach may be characterized as integrative. Being integrative does not mean being non-analytical or anti-analytical, though. The non-modern approach encourages occasional analysis of parts when appropriate, but the whole is never partitioned out: the whole is always more than the total sum of the parts, as Gestalt psychology says, and learners are always embedded in the whole.

When logic and rhetoric were taught together with grammar

So, my counter-objection is that teachers may not have enough time to teach logic and rhetoric because of their commitment, conscious or otherwise, to the modern approach. If we never leave the whole from the beginning to the end, and teach language integratively, with grammar, logic and rhetoric dealt with in their close mutual relationship -- probably in the spirit of the trivium --, then we may have sufficient time to teach logic and rhetoric.

The price of this trivium approach would be that grammar teaching becomes not as complete and systematic as the modern approach demands; neither does teaching of logic and rhetoric. As grammar, logic and rhetoric are taught in specific contexts (when their importance is obvious), some items may not have opportunities to be taught; students may not have the complete pictures of grammar, logic and rhetoric.

However, whenever I hear students (and sometimes teachers) say that what they usually mean by "studying English" is to do the vocabulary check (memorizing a list of one-to-one correspondence between English and Japanese words) and finishing the workbook of sentence grammar (answering quizzes on grammar of context-less sentences), I believe the price above is quite negligible, for those students (and teachers) whose main concern is the vocabulary check and the grammar workbook can hardly use English communicatively. At best, they can clumsily combine bits and pieces they know to produce grammatical sentences that are irritatingly hard to understand. If this is the case, as I believe it is, we may look back and restore the old wisdom of learning cultures. (And who has the complete pictures of grammar, logic and rhetoric in the first place?)

In the Keio Symposium where a lot of discussions, formal and informal, on pedagogical grammar took place, I heard many episodes of Japanese professors in the old days teaching many things at the same time in an undifferentiated manner. For example, one professor used Macbeth to teach syntax and pragmatics. Studying English literature was not really differentiated from studying linguistics, and syntax and pragmatics were not taught separately. Many claimed that these old professors may not have known the specialized technical notions that current studies have developed but they knew English better than we do. (As is often the case with recalling old episodes, there may be a bit of exaggeration here, but I understand the point.)

To borrow the way of thinking from martial arts, nothing is good unless it works. Martial artists may say whatever they want to say, but unless their skills are effective, it is no good. The same principle of pragmatism applies to pedagogy: teachers and pedagogists may say whatever they want to say, but unless learners learn what they are taught, it is no good.

We should be critical about the modern analysis-synthesis approach of grammatical language teaching. But that doesn't mean to abandon grammar teaching. On the contrary, it means that teaching of grammar should be integrated with teaching of logic and rhetoric.

Integrative teaching of grammar, logic, and rhetoric may have been already meant when Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) or Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) was advocated. As I'm not interested in methodological arguments in language teaching because many terms are only ill-defined, I don't know (or care) if CLT or TBLT has successfully revived the trivium (again, "CLT" or "TBLT" is too general and vague for rigorous discussion and our practice of language teaching is too complex for rigorous discussion). But my point is to pay due attention again to logic and rhetoric in language teaching. Grammar is of use only when the thought is logical and expressed effectively.


Interest in rhetoric, as you know, resurged after the publication of Metaphors We Live By. Rhetoric and logic seem to be more related than we previously thought. I'd like to continue to develop my theoretical understanding of rhetoric, but at the same time, I'm interested in specific language uses of rhetoric as are exemplified in such a book as Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric.

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