“Consider, for example, what a reader should know in order to properly interpret the Aeneid, and one will intuitively grasp the nature of grammar in its classical sense.” – Clark & Jain, The Liberal Arts Tradition
Let us think about that for a moment. What would be needed to properly interpret the Aeneid? Notice the key words here are ‘properly interpret’. Of course without a classical education, someone could read the Aeneid, think about it, notice things about it, and maybe even enjoy it. However, I would argue much of it would remain inaccessible unless the student made a tour of some important ideas, facts, and concepts. A student would need to:
- Read words, especially Latin words
- Be able to recognize and think about dactylic hexameter (the form or structure of the epic)
- Be able to recognize and think about a variety of grammatical structures and syntax.
- Be able to notice or find the inherent meaning of words.
- Know the stories of the Roman gods and goddesses.
- Know some Greek and Roman history and cultural norms.
I am sure others could add or take away from this list, yet I think the above mentioned gives us a good idea of the kinds of things a classical education in grammar is after. In a recent post, Justification, Judging, & The Liberal Arts, we took a look at the idea of justifying and how the liberal arts are the seven ways knowledge can be justified. Based on that idea, how does the liberal art of grammar justify knowledge? How does the fruit of grammar show some knowledge to be true? On that note, what is the fruit of grammar?
According to the above quote, the classical grammar course includes all that is needed to correctly interpret a text, but not just any text, an epic poem kind of text, including those famous myths, stories, and poems of history that contain a special something, that human something. In turn, we have invited them to our libraries, hearts, and homes as classics. David Hicks refers to these books and stories broadly with the term myth and argues that myth is what develops the conscience. With this in mind, maybe the fruit of grammar is justifying reality -related to conscience- through myth. In other words, knowledge of morality, right and wrong, good and evil, etc. can be shown to be right through myth, also referred to as grammar. Clark and Jain point out that Quintilian recommended “that the Latin word literatura is the best way to render the Greek word grammatike.” Therefore, we can say that the classical liberal art of grammar is a long contemplation of literature/myth/the classics in a way that allows the student to justify matters of conscience.
No wonder the ancient Classical curriculum was almost completely grammar and rhetoric. To me, this echoes phrases like developing the moral imagination, education as the science of relations, and cultivating wisdom and virtue. In addition, this view of grammar seems strikingly close to the normative core David Hicks refers to in his book Norms & Nobility.
Grammar has to do with understanding language, but not just any language, language pregnant with the truth and we are called to be her midwife. The truth is in there and a certain course of study allows us to help her come out and be seen. In this way, grammar speaks to us and to others who take the time to learn and be attentive as humble participants. Humble because we still must wait upon Pentecost, we must wait upon the growth. We cannot make the plants grow, we can only be stewards of the land and pray.
Have you ever heard of learning how to spell ‘in context’? Then, think of grammar as learning about reality in context. Clark & Jain say it this way.
“It is from these texts (the great poets, philosophers and rhetoricians, the Scriptures, and the Church Fathers) that the meanings of words and their etymologies, so cherished by the grammarians are established. It is through these languages, texts, and the liberal art of grammar that the concepts ranging from justice to nature would have first been grasped.”
Thinking about grammar in this light we can begin to see how it is part of the path “which allow students not only to acquire the skill and content, but to be initiated into the Western tradition.”
After looking at examples of grammar books from these ancient times, The liberal art of grammar seems to me, to have three main areas of study. First, the part concerned with how one recites the classic or reads it out loud. Second, the part concerned with interpreting the written symbols, words, and sentences. Third, the contextual knowledge necessary for properly interpreting the classic.
So what does it look like in the homeschool? First, make sure you get these principles, or at least spend some time thinking about them. Establishing the principles in your thinking will give you endurance when the hard work of the daily hits and you ask “why am I doing this?” You won’t have to wonder, you will know. Second, there are some helpful particulars as well. Let’s look back at our list from The Aeneid question above. By the way, this is not meant to be the end-all-be-all list. it is just one example of how the liberal art of grammar looks in one homeschool.
Read great books
Read, be read to, listen to, sleep on, talk about, and read great books. Fables, fairy tales, myths, and all those books we label classic. When students are older, introduce a highlighting system to help them read more closely. For a couple great webinars and a helpful printable, check out the Schole Sister’s A Beginner’s Guide to the Commonplace Book.
Ask & Answer great questions
Ask “should questions” and use the five common topics to discuss the books. Here is an article describing the ‘Should question’ and here is a free LTW webinar about the five common topics. The webinar focuses on the Lost Tools of Writing, so just listen to how she asks the questions. What you discover can be applied to any literature or book discussion.
Whenever you begin a new book, poem, etc. give a moment’s attention to the structure or form of the thing you will read. It can be as simple as saying “we are going to read a poem” and then show them the poem and let them listen to the poem. Eventually, you could begin comparing various poems and noticing their similarities and differences. You can do the same thing for any other kind of writing you read. After some time of doing this, your student will notice a lot regarding the structure of various kinds of writing.
Learn how to read books out loud based on their structure
This is what most people would consider ‘learning to read’. The ancients did not stop at phonograms and neither should we. A large part of the first grammar books dealt with this very issue. In our homeschool, we use McGuffey’s Readers. I love them. At the beginning of each book, there is a section that gives instruction in articulation, inflection, accent, emphasis, and more. The readings become progressively harder. These oral lessons and readings are on our loop list for Morning Time, with the exception of those just learning to read. Those kiddos have daily lessons from McGuffey’s Readers with me or an older sibling. As more of the principles get to us about how to read, the more they inform our other reading.
Latin and Greek
In our house, everyone has their own Latin curriculum they work through beginning in 2nd grade. For Greek, we are only learning the Alphabet during Morning Time together. We do not have time to do a full Greek Curriculum yet, so we are focused on making sure we take some steps down this path, even if they are super small steps. We use Visual Latin for my Middle School Student and Mars Hill for my 4th grader. Someone gave us Mars Hill for free so we are using it. When we complete it, I think we will switch to Latin for Children. Regardless of your Latin Curriculum, here is a great and free resource from Simply Convivial Blog. We use the Bludorns’ A Greek Alphabetarion for learning the Greek Alphabet and its sounds.
Maybe English Grammar
Play with History, especially classical & Ecclesiastical history
A solid timeline for all students is my favorite foundation for history. I like the Classical Conversations timeline the best. It has a brief narrative on the back of each card and a map with marks that place the timeline event geographically. We also use a host of living books to help develop our relationships with the people, cultures, events, and ideas of our past, present, and future. You can find great suggestions at Ambleside Online, Christine Miller’s History through Literature guide, or whatever Classical/Charlotte Mason/Literature-based curriculum you are using. We tie this part off with Century book entries and narrations. NOTE: for the liberal arts tradition we ought to give a bit more emphasis to Christian Studies & classical studies. Christian Studies would include the scriptures, Church history, stories of the Saints and other famous Christians, and the writings of the Church Fathers. Classical studies would include the myths, stories, and histories of ancient Greece and Rome. So much of what we read, and all of western civilization, are based on these cultures and times. Therefore, having a stronger relationship with Church History and the Greek and Roman cultures and times is wise and fruitful.
Geography to support the encounter with history. We use Ambleside Online’s geography for the main part of our geography studies. We also use Leigh Bortins, The Core for a plan for drawing the world. We spend no more than 15 minutes per day on Geography.
As you can see, the liberal art of grammar, is a course that runs from birth-12th and beyond. As I was researching and preparing for this article I noticed at a greater depth how much more I can still learn about this liberal art. I hope this is just a first dip in a large pool. Thank you for reading.
What are your thoughts? Have you ever heard the liberal art of grammar described in this way? What is your initial reaction? What questions come to mind? I look forward to hearing from you. Join the Conversation Here.
Expanding Wisdom, extending grace,
Resources used in Research
The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education by Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain
The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric by Sister Miriam Joseph
Norms & Nobility: A Treatise on Education by David Hicks
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