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    Books & Reading, Educational Philosophy

    Killing Grammar, Killing Imagination

    January 11, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    [dropcap]T[/dropcap]his first chapter is not the Number One Method for Imagination Assassination. No, that comes in the second chapter. Chapter One is more of a foundational principle. And the principle is this: truth is your enemy. Esolen even goes so far to say that if one is truly seeking to destroy the imagination, one must even consider facts — insofar as they contain truth, truth which can interest a child — our enemy.

    Esolen mentions all sorts of facts — historical, mathematical, grammatical.

    I was particularly interested in the grammatical.

    Esolen mentions that there are a number of ways to kill grammar. For instance, I can teach it while belittling it. I can explain to them how unimportant it really is, how no one really knows all these rules, and they are kind of silly anyhow. This is, in effect, killing two birds with one stone, because while I kill English grammar proper, I also kill enough of the reverence for rules that the children become unable to learn the grammar of any subject.

    In relation to this, Esolen explains that while I am minimizing grammar, I can simultaneously encourage faux creativity, imagination’s ugly stepsister:

    Imagine a serpent whispering into the ear, “Young lady,” or “Young lad,” as the case may be, “do not fear those rigid threats of Death. Bad grammar will not kill you. How should it? It is itself weak and foolish. All structure is foolish. Be creative. Do what you please. So what if some old fashioned Tyrant up above calls it gibberish? It will be your gibberish. There are no rules. Isn’t this apple shiny, though?”

    There are no rules. Rules seek to stifle you. Rules crush your creativity. Do what you want. Listen to your heart. Yada yada yada.

    When I was fourteen or fifteen years old, I remember telling my piano teacher I wanted to learn jazz. Instead, she bought me a collection of Czerny studies. I will never forget her telling me that if I wanted to play jazz, I needed to learn to play classical. Classical would teach me everything I needed to know, and the reverse could never be true.

    I came up against a similar wall in college when I was studying voice. Opera?? Quite honestly, it had never dawned on me that they would try to make an opera singer out of me. Once again, the answer was the same. “Learn opera and you can sing anything.”

    In both instances, the study was organized in such a way as to teach me to master the grammar and the logic of the subject.

    I am thinking about the grammar of music today because I am studying up for teaching piano for the first time. In the back of my Pianophonics book are notes to teachers. The author explains that he wrote his own curriculum because none of the others he’d found actually taught … the grammar of the subject. Among other things, there was no emphasis upon reading music. The author, Mr. Freer, equates his approach to the battle between whole word reading and phonics reading. He writes:

    [B]y youngest daughter we had less time and marginally more wisdom. We had come to value rules, rather than unthinkingly and cavalierly prejudging them, hippie-fashion, as stifling, boring, outdated and useless. True, rules in themselves are not especially interesting, and nor are they meant to be. Learning them is work rather than play. But they have the power to unlock new worlds because they encapsulate an essence, in this case the essence of English spelling, just like the essence of vanilla encapsulated in a bottle. Essences are potent stuff, and a little goes a long way. You can’t just drink them out of the bottle. And the more ‘essential’ an essence is, the more concentrated and powerful it is. Those 70 phonograms take some effort to learn, but it certainly beats having to cold-memorize thousands upon thousands of different shapes… Rules make things easier when you know how to use them.

    He later explains that the grammatical rules of, in this instance, musical notation, are like the boundaries of a game:

    The first step of all is to place stickers on those two black keys, defining and delineating our playground, our initial zone of engagement. Boundaries are built into nature, and are integral to everything, including Pianophonics. We can only work during the day because we have slept at night; and as Chesterton pointed out, one is able to jump for joy only because the ground is hard and unyielding. Games fascinate us because in them we enact a metaphor of this. Within the physical boundaries and those defined by the rules there is absolute freedom. You can do whatever you like within the rules. But outside of them there is no freedom. Outside is a ‘non-place’ where the game ceases to exist — a no-go zone of meaninglessness. ‘Out of play’ means only one thing: get back into play. The rules engender the freedom…

    It’s so counterintuitive, because our culture is constantly sending us the message that the rules prohibit freedom, that we cannot be free unless we are free from the rules. Our government has made so many laws that it is ridiculous — we are tempted to think that law is silly. But generally, we cannot (and ought not) be free from the laws of nature, and without a certain amount of law, there is no order, and therefore no freedom.

    What does this have to do with school?

    Well, if the goal of the school is to destroy the child’s imagination and fit the child for the global economy, it must not allow the child to learn the rules. In learning them, he might accidentally find freedom, and free people do not fit very well into said global economy. Free people do crazy things, like saving their own seed instead of buying it from Monsanto. This we cannot have, for in fitting children for the global economy, we are training them not only to be employees, taking orders from some huge corporation somewhere, but also to be consumers. Let the factories produce, and let the children learn to buy!

    This is how the world goes ’round.

    A lot of the methods in this book, by the way, can be reduced down to methods of killing the grammar of something or other — to eliminating the grammar and form … of life.

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    12 Comments

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts January 13, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    Rahime, I think you know this, but you are always in my prayers. 🙂

    RE: Pianophonics–I have pretty much finished reading all of the teacher’s notes, and I’ve printed off the “Teach Yourself Piano” section from the website. I will be giving the first lesson on Friday, so I’m thinking it’ll be a while before I have an opinion on its effectiveness.

    So far, though, I am VERY impressed. The author is a concert pianist, and I feel like I’ve finally met someone who understands the importance of being able to actually read the music.

    The goals seem to be to (1) help the student get a feel for the piano with appropriate fingering, (2) understand musical notation and its connection not just to tone but also to rhythm, and then (3) to put (1) and (2) together to be able to play music.

    So far, in thumbing through it, I would say that this is NOT for young students. I started at age 3, for instance, but could never have accomplished what this curriculum expects of a student in such a short period of time, even if the lessons were broken down into smaller chunks and spread out over weeks. They just require more than tiny hands are capable of. So, I definitely think starting with a bigger, more coordinated child is going to give me an edge. My 5yo (almost 6–YIKES!) has asked if she can learn, too, but I told her I’m starting with her brother, and then I will know how old she needs to be. I think we might wait at least until she is 7.

  • Reply Mystie January 13, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    Yes, please give us a review as soon as you can on Pianophonics. 🙂 Hans will be finished with the first Alfred book soon, and Matt isn’t impressed with the book. He’s game for trying Pianophonics next, but I thought I’d just wait until you read through it and try a lesson or two and tell us if it met your expectations. 🙂

  • Reply Debra January 13, 2011 at 6:39 am

    Re: Pianophonics – what do you think of it? Have you used it for long?

  • Reply Rahime January 12, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    I hadn’t read Cindy’s link yet, but I’ll head over there. I think you’re right that my health may have a lot to do with the acedia. I also feel like my temperament changed (sometime before my health did, but I feel there is some sort of connection, maybe a foreshadowing of sorts) to accentuate that tendency.

    I think that more than just feeling Lazy, it’s the Apathy that comes with it that disturbs me.

  • Reply Debra January 12, 2011 at 9:08 am

    Now this is a really insightful post on how rules set you free – and full of the applications of it! Thank you very much.

    Brandy, I, too have heard most of this before, but I don’t think that is a problem. The really important things need to be said many times, in many ways, so that as many people as possible can hear them over and over until they understand that they are true.
    Kelly, I’m not sure that people coming to it for the first time would be offended. I think some might, others would be struck.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts January 12, 2011 at 5:08 am

    Sara, Funny! I really do think we all intuitively recognize a need for The Rules.

    Rahime, Did you check out Cindy’s link?? She used that exact article in her post. My dad sent it to me over the weekend, and we’ve been talking about it around here. I think you would find the comments over at Cindy’s interesting.

    I think it was Mystie who mentioned Acedia & Me. I’ve been meaning to read it. I have read excerpts on a number of different blogs, and I find it interesting that you identify with it. I say this because I was thinking that there was a time when I would have, too, but I wouldn’t now. The only thing that has changed is my health. I can’t help but think that some of us mistake ourselves for lazy when we are really just not well–and I am learning that vibrant health is what some people (who I used to think were crazy) have, and that is why they get so much accomplished and don’t seem to be tired…

    And now I’m completely on a tangent…

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts January 12, 2011 at 5:04 am

    Dana, I totally agree that choosing an ironic voice was a strange decision on Esolen’s part. I admit that it has made me struggle with my posts–do I decide to use the ironic approach myself? In this case, I did, but I admit I felt almost wicked doing it.

    I think the book is a great one, but I can’t say that I necessarily learned anything new. At the same time, he took a lot of ideas I’ve read in a lot of different books, and put them all in one book, using generous amounts of literature, which is handy.

    I’ve been reading parts of this aloud to my husband, who is enjoying it. To compare, reading Poetic Knowledge aloud just wasn’t working for him.

    I definitely think this book not only has its place, but will be one I lend out to friends who are thinking about education for the first time.

  • Reply Rahime January 12, 2011 at 12:11 am

    My sister sent me a link to this article, & I thought you’d enjoy it:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704111504576059713528698754.html

    I love this book. Can’t wait to get into chapter 2. I’m also reading (though audio version, so listening to) Acedia & Me right now, which (unfortunately) I’m relating to a little too much. Are you the one who recommended it? I can’t remember.

  • Reply sara January 11, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    You have such an interesting take on this! It reminds me of discussions my husband and I have had about art. He (not a Christian) likes the sort of art, and ideas about art, that make me squirm. He told me once that he thinks it is important to learn the rules about art before you break them. He’s a funny guy.

  • Reply Kelly January 11, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    Correction — it was later, after I read the table of contents listing the 10 Methods, to Mom that she said the above. She and Daddy broke nearly every method mentioned there, thanks be to God!

  • Reply Kelly January 11, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    That’s a good question, Dana. My copy of the book came while my mom, a retired public school teacher, was visiting us. My daughter read the first paragraph or two aloud and my mom’s response was that every school teacher and administrator ought to read the book.

    But now that I’m about 1/3 of the way into it, I think that people who are unconvinced would be more offended than enlightened, which is too bad.

  • Reply Go quickly and tell January 11, 2011 at 5:42 pm

    Admittedly Esolen is going about this is in a strange way. I wonder about his audience. All of us in the book club are really all on board.

    Who’s coming to this issue for the first time and being convinced?

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