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by Peter Moskos

August 25, 2009

Teach Grammar!

Stanley Fish gets to the issues on teaching the craft of writing in "What Should Colleges Teach?"

I was blessed to have good English teachers throughout my Evanston public-school education. I also had good and literate parents. Collectively, they somehow taught me skills I use pretty much every day: write, type, and edit (though I must have been sick on the day spelling was taught).

I think I'm pretty good at getting my ideas across in writing. I wouldn't say I like writing (does anybody?). It's work. But I think I'm pretty good at it.

So I never know what to do with students' basic bad writing. I'm not an English teacher. Yet I often feel like I'm playing one in my classroom. Doesn't anybody teach grammar and syntax? This does not seem to be an appropriate subject matter for my "Seminar in Police Problems." Yet teach basic grammar I must. Why do I ever have to remind college seniors--as I do every semester--that sentences need a subject, verb, object, and then a period. Why is subject/verb agreement so difficult? Why do my students, class after class, insist on capitalizing the words "police officer" and many other nouns (is there some Germanic underground I don't know about)?

To argue that grammar and basic writing (not thought-provoking composition) should be taught in elementary and high-school is besides the point. College is a great place for teaching. And what's more important than teaching how to write?

Read Stanley Fish's piece in the New York Times.


Jaguar said...

This is exactly why I sent my kids to parochial school. I loathed it as a child, but as a parent I knew a Catholic school would provide a far better foundation in basic skills.

Utterly unrelated to the subject of education, I thought you might find this article of interest Peter, given your recent posts on arrest philosophies. It will be interesting to see if the proposal becomes a reality.

PCM said...

I would have to go with "unquestionably unconstitutional."

There might be some precedent in Chicago, which a while back made being a gang member hanging out illegal. I don't know what happened with that, constitutionally.

My dad always spoke fondly of Our Lady of Angels, his Catholic parochial school in Chicago (the one that later had that horrible fire). And he wasn't even Catholic. Those were good nuns, we said.

But for me (and a lot of those at my recent reunion!), I can't imagine a better place than Evanston public schools.

Marc S. said...

Some people wonder why bachelor's degrees are worth what a high school diploma was years ago, but it seems obvious why employers want four years of higher education for doing menial work--graduating high school is no guarantee of even a basic grasp of the English language. From what I've seen, it's getting to the point where that's hardly a good bet after 4 years at a state school.

This is all a side effect of the feds pushing universal K-12 and now universal higher ed. We're not improving the standard, just standardizing mediocrity.

BG said...

I'm torn! I'm a horrible writer but an excellent speaker but which skill was more important to learn. If we assume that a student can only learn X number of skills-subjects, what is the correct amount of X to allocate to each skill level. I'm personally horrified by economic analysis that I read practically everywhere, should we allocate more resources to that?

One might assume that by spending time teaching grammar, you miss teaching something important.