Above is the headline and subhead of an article on Salon.com, one that’s both unsettling and disheartening. First (though least important) I disagree, on the whole, that teaching classics may be a waste of time in high school. Certainly not all of the reading need be ‘classic’— there are many more contemporary writers that could fit in well and probably be more engaging to high school students; more likely to be relatable and hold interest, but the problem is that it sounds as though kids are expected to learn how to write properly in high school!
By the time a kid is in high school, he should already know how to write properly, if not well. The process of learning the basics of grammar and structure must be taught gradually, all throughout primary school (grade school, elementary school— once called GRAMMAR school, for a reason). As anyone who has studied a foreign language knows, trying to jam all of the parts of speech, the understanding of infinitives, gerunds, etc, is a daunting task even if you already understand them in your native language.
Language, whether it’s your first, second or third, is best learned gradually and built upon as each phase is mastered, in a somewhat organic way. When I was in grade school that’s how it was done (isn’t it still?), and in a literate society writing is a crucial element of knowing a language. Each year there was a set of basic grammatical rules and structures covered, as well as lists of vocabulary words, and of course, reading, that reinforced all of these rules, and writing exercises. It was a sedimentary building of skills that, through repetition, made most of the rules come to feel like inherent knowledge—habit, if not instinctual. In addition to being expected to write in English class, we had essay questions and assignments in History class as well and, to a lesser extent, in Science.
As a result of all those years of introducing additional rules, parts of speech, and nuance year by year, you were expected to be able to at least vaguely comprehend the classics— which in high school were examples of both how to write according to the rules, but also how to break them elegantly, thereby introducing the notion that once the rules are well ensconced and understood, they can be bent or deconstructed in expressive and intelligent ways. Introducing students to a diversity of authors (throughout school) is also the best way to ensure that at least some of them become ‘readers’— people who read for pleasure, enrichment, throughout their lives.
To leave the teaching of comma usage and sentence structure to high school teachers— that’s a serious problem. If college professors and adjuncts are still having to teach this stuff: egregious! By the time I was in twelfth grade, we were expected to write a proper thesis paper; researched, outlined, drafted at least once, then edited and footnoted. It was mandatory, and that was at a pretty average, middle-class public school. To this day, there are still parts of speech whose name I might not be able to tell you off the top of my head, or quite exactly explain how it’s used, but I can use them all and I know ‘inherently’ when something doesn’t work, even if I can’t tell you why. That is the point, though, same as learning to speak a language. For this and so many other reasons, grade school level learning in particular must be a somewhat holistic experience, so that students learn that none of the ‘subjects’ in school are discrete knowledge bases. Knowledge and understanding— of things, of people, of the world— are all interconnected and each aspect informs all the others.
It disheartens me to know that so many college students have a dearth of understanding of their native language. By the time they’ve reached college, one would hope students are moving on to elements of style, not struggling with structure. As to the question of whether knowing how to write is important: in the age of digital communication, where so much is written in some form or other—much more than when I was growing up, and now often in public forums— it’s as insulting, absurd a question as asking if students need to learn how to speak.