Verbs are like cats.
Everyone who has taken professor of education Daniel Coupland’s English Grammar course remembers the “verbs are like cats” lecture. In comparing the unpredictable — and, sometimes, counterintuitive — behavior of his two cats, Angel and Blackard, to that of verbs, he prepares the students for weeks of mental pain as they trudge their way through one of the language’s most used parts of speech.
For the hundreds of Hillsdale College students who have not taken Coupland’s class, however, the entire English language can feel like a cat. Using the subjunctive action or the impossibility of having a “second favorite” throws off people who have spoken English all their lives. In fact, since the Progressives rearranged the public education system in the beginning of the 20th century, emphasizing technical learning instead of the liberal arts, Americans have been left in the dark about their own language. Like the spelling readers buried in the back of your grandparents’ parents’ attic, American grammar has yellowed since it was retired from the classroom.
Hillsdale College should lead the charge to return grammar to higher education classrooms and restructure the core to include an English grammar class. Grammar does more than just explain the rules of our language — it helps writers understand the power of their words, and how the placement of different words changes the essence of what they’re writing.
Students majoring outside the humanities who struggle with writing papers for their Great Books or Constitution classes would gain much from the grammar course. Perhaps many freshmen fall victim to Hillsdale’s notoriously rigorous ‘first paper’ grading scale because they write at the lax level of grammar our country embraced for professors expecting more than that. Keeping the course as an elective is a disservice to the students of the college, who jump through hoops to complete less important classes that weigh down the core.
Last semester, Hillsdale required its students take a class within the seven classical liberal arts for the first time, Logic and Rhetoric. The problem with the class is that English grammar, an instruction on the order of words within sentences, is supposed to precede logic, an instruction on the order of sentences within arguments. While the college’s introduction of Logic and Rhetoric to the core was a good decision, it makes no sense for a self-respecting liberal arts school to miss the mark on so basic a principle of the liberal arts.
One roadblock to including English grammar in the core is the assumption by Hillsdale administrators that students have already taken grammar classes prior to college. Leaders in higher education often view grammar as ‘remedial,’ like cursive writing or division. On the contrary, Coupland has found that many of his students’ prior experiences with grammar leaves something to be desired. Some students have had grammar classes before, but those classes came up short, either in the subject material or the length of the class itself. Yet another group only learned that English has a subjunctive tense and participles, for example, after learning the grammar of foreign languages.
This is a major part of the problem: Most high schools and elementary schools do not teach grammar because of the Progressive push for education mentioned earlier, and colleges are afraid of the redundancy of teaching it at the secondary level. In 2009, students at Hillsdale took matters into their own hands and petitioned for the addition of a grammar course, resulting in Coupland’s. After two semesters at the 1-credit level, Hillsdale administrators promoted it to three credits, and, now, Coupland has had no trouble filling seats. Just as they were eight years ago, students today are unsatisfied with their remedial understanding of such a crucial part of communication.
Since Hillsdale attracts many students whose primary education emphasized the liberal arts, the redundancy may be more of a problem here than at other colleges. One way of solving this problem is by treating English grammar like any other language course and offering an entrance exam. That way, the college could best address the deficient approach to grammar in primary education.
The core is too big, but English grammar is too big a course to leave out. During its next meeting, the academic administration should seriously consider amending the core. The college will be better for it, and Hillsdale will be a pioneer in yet another critical movement: reviving an observance of proper English grammar.
Mr. DeVoe is a senior studying politics and journalism.