Grammar as Remembering (Part 2 in Stratford Caldecott series)


caldecott series

In my first post about Stratford Caldecott’s book Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education, I stated his thesis:  “[E]ducation is not primarily about the acquisition of information. It is not even about the acquisition of ‘skills’ in the conventional sense, to equip us for particular roles in society.  It is about how we become more human (and therefore more free, in the truest sense of that word)” (Beauty in the Word, 11). I also explained his unique view of the classical trivium as Trinitarian in nature.

  • The art of Grammar is about being, about remembering our origin and end in the Father, where we came from and where we are going.
  • The art of Dialectic is about right thinking, about recognizing truth, about walking in the light with the Son.
  • The art of Rhetoric is about speaking, about sharing the truth in communion with others through the Holy Spirit.

Here we’ll consider the first art — Grammar — as Caldecott explains it in chapter 2 of his book. For him, grammar isn’t a stage of intellectual development; it is the art of remembering our story.

Remembering: Naming

God sends us into the world and we are to return to him with our gifts: our gifts of wisdom and love. But we can never acquire those gifts alone: that limitation (and blessing) is written into our natures. Alone, we will never be free.

We begin to escape our solitude when we can speak, at first through naming things. Caldecott calls naming “the first human task.” It is fundamental to our humanity and a sign of God’s image in us. Like the Father, the first person of the Trinity, we intuitively name things. Ball. Dog. Mommy. Jimmy. The smallest child begins to find a path outside himself by naming the things and people around him. Animals don’t do this.

There exists a whole theology of naming, which I won’t get into here, but Caldecott touches on it.  In short, a name is more than a symbol. At the creation of the world, when God spoke, his word became reality. And he continues to create. We are the result of a spoken word: God spoke us into existence. A word spoken by God stands for an idea, and the idea is real. There’s a whole reality that we don’t understand and it exists in the words of God. The greatest idea: Jesus Christ is God the Father’s idea of himself. Mind blowing.

Caldecott’s big point: through naming we close the gap between ourselves and other persons and ideas. We become less alone. We teach our child the structure of our own language (how to use it clearly and accurately) and how to speak in foreign languages not so that she sounds impressive to others or scores high on standardized testing, but so that she remembers where she came from, so that she taps into the source of what it means to be human, so that her imagination is enlivened and drawn toward others and God.

Remembering: Telling Stories

After naming, humans tell stories.

“As we move from individual words to the construction of sentences we have begun the making of narrative, of stores, and stories, like names, reveal the meaning and relationship of things to ourselves. . The anamnesis of culture and tradition is largely dependent on our ability to remember and build upon the stories that come down to us. These stories are the vehicles of meaning” (Beauty in the Word, 52).

Children wonder at the smallest sentence and greatest sagas because that wonder was placed there by God. God reveals himself through stories.

Caldecott joins the voices of other writers I’ve been reading recently (in particular, James Taylor in Poetic Knowledge) in pointing out the decline of the imagination that coincides with the rise of the scientific and industrial age.  Imagination and emotion are no longer valued as sources of knowledge because they can’t be measured, catalogued, or analyzed with precision.  Like James Taylor, Caldecott sees that something unique was lost when we began to devalue these experiences:

“That something was a poetic consciousness, a mode of knowing through feeling and intuition that connected us with nature and with the natural law, with the reading of God’s intentions expressed in nature and the divine wisdom manifest in creation . . .[C]hildren should be brought up on a rich diet of folklore and story, with plenty of experience of natural, growing things in the garden and countryside” (Beauty in the Word, 54).

We can see why Caldecott took note of Charlotte Mason and her approach. Charlotte believed children needed plenty of time out of doors experiencing the natural world firsthand. She believed our children should be spared “twaddle” – dumbed down textbooks that suck the life out of stories and ideas. By exposing our children to the natural world and to the riches of our heritage in books, art, and music, Charlotte believed they would gain a synthetic or poetic kind of knowledge that is necessary for higher learning. How can you really understand mud if you’ve never played in it? If your first exposure to mud comes through a textbook, you will never really understand it or care about it. (And children still remember that there is something to care about in mud. We have forgotten.) Real understanding and love requires the engagement of our imagination, emotions, and senses.

For Caldecott the art of grammar is not a stage that the child leaves behind. Not only does he carry the art with him into other modes of learning and understanding, but the art of grammar works with the art of logic and the art of rhetoric at every stage of human development. Caldecott makes this very clear: the art of grammar is necessary for human flourishing at all stages of life, not just in early childhood.

Remembering: Tradition

Caldecott also points out the importance of tradition to human flourishing. Traditions help us remember where we came from so we become more strongly rooted in the present as we look with confidence to our future. Traditions help us bridge the past and the future to our present experience. This matters because it makes us more free in the truest sense. We are all really in exile, journeying back home to God. Our traditions provide signposts on that journey. Without them, we just wander around aimlessly.

Our storytelling is part of that tradition. The stories of western civilization are our children’s birthright; those stories help our children make sense of who they are and where they are going, because it gives them an idea where they came from. Those stories were handed down to us by our parents, and to them by their parents, and so on. With the rise of political correctness, children are increasingly deprived of their own cultural stories. In modern public high schools, teachers often present to our children no stories, poems, or books written prior to 1900.  No Homer. No Chaucer. No Shakespeare. A tragedy of a magnitude unfathomable.

Caldecott suggests the following topics for engaging the imagination and tapping into our traditions: crafts, drama, dance, poetry, storytelling, and music. These are the foundation of truly independent and critical thought, a foundation that must be laid in order for later learning to unfold properly. “Through doing and making, through poesis, the house of the soul is built” (Beauty in the Word, 57).

Without these fundamental experiences, our children will lack a capacity to see the connection between things and they will fail to understand themselves in the larger story of creation. They will remain alone.

Series Index

Beauty in the Word: Catholicism and Charlotte Mason

Grammar as Remembering (Part 2)⇐ YOU ARE HERE

Logic as Finding Truth and Order in the Universe (Part 3)

More coming soon!

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