Wrong is Wrong
I am currently enrolled in a graduate certificate program which involves a formal study of grammar and mechanics. In this endeavor, I am reminded of a story my wife tells about her first week in school after moving from California to Louisiana. In her old school, students were expected to diagram sentences of ever increasing complexity. After a week in Louisiana, my wife had figured out that the material was not on her level, so she stayed after class one day to ask the teacher when they would start diagramming. He told her they would not be doing so, and when she protested, he cut her off. “These students can’t handle diagramming.” he said. The truth, of course, is that the students very well could have—should have—handled it and more, but they would have complained to their parents who would have complained to the principal who…well you get the idea.
I think of this now because I was one of those kids who should have diagrammed sentences but was never taught how. I have since found the exercise instructive and helpful, and as I study advanced grammar, I sometimes regret that I was not afforded the opportunity to master this skill as a child. More to the point, I regret that I was never correctly taught grammar, punctuation, mechanics and a host of related subjects. Oh, we had the lessons—every year for twelve years—and I made A‘s and B‘s. I also read so widely that I was able to get by quite well until I started preparing manuscripts and book proposals. But the fact is, the grammar I learned in school was superficial and, in many key respects, simply wrong. It was wrong because somewhere in the educational system in this country, it was decided that school children can only be taught lessons so watered down as to lose all meaning.
I am reminded of another story, one told by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman about his experience serving on a text book adoption committee. He was asked to serve and was happy to do so, and so he received a few elementary grade science texts to review. In each, in the first chapter, he found the same words: “Energy is the ability to do work”. “No!” argued Feynman, “It isn’t”. They all had it wrong, and so, being a good citizen, he called them up to explain the three or four ways in which this apparently universal statement was mistaken. The reply was unanimous. “Calm down Mr. Feynman. You can’t expect elementary children to understand college physics. We give them explanations they can understand.” His answer was direct: “How can they understand anything if what you teach them is WRONG.”
Perhaps not everyone need understand physics, but everyone ought to be able to use his own language correctly. Children do, of course, have to be taught at their level, but Feynman had a point. English grammar isn’t quantum mechanics. Diana Hacker managed to cover it pretty well in only five chapters out of her 540 page “Writer’s Reference”. On reading it and similar texts, it quickly becomes clear that most of the sticking points that English speaking adults stumble over—indeed, have come to see as intractable—have less to do with the subject matter, and more to do with the quality of education.
You cannot punctuate a sentence correctly unless you know a subordinate clause when you see one, understand why a preposition is called a preposition, and know the difference between coordinate and cumulative adjectives. When you know that “who” is a subject and “whom” is an object, you don’t need silly rules about prepositions, or to remember lines from Hemingway. There are exceptions, but most of it makes pretty good sense once you understand all the detail and terminology that, in school, was replaced with rote memorization, rules that aren’t really rules, and alternative terms designed to keep us from having to learn the Latin and Greek roots upon which our language is built.
My recollection of college is of discovering that we could easily cover in one quarter the material presented over an entire year of high school. We had twelve years in which to master our language, but wasted much of it wading through twelve repetitions of the same coddling. In life, the only things I really regret are squandered learning opportunities. The only things that really anger me are those ruined through ineffective instruction. I can’t get too riled through, for my schooling taught me one thing very well—something that has served me faithfully and that every child should learn as early as possible: no one is responsible for your education, ultimately, but you.