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What are the liberal arts and how do we teach them? (2) – Grammar

Grammar is the first of the Liberal Arts and the foundation of everything that comes after. Grammar is both an approach to teaching subjects and a subject in itself.

We all know that one must learn to walk before one may run. That is the idea behind learning the grammars of various subjects. The grammar of a subject is essentially its foundations, its basics. The grammar of literature is phonics; the grammar of writing is spelling and punctuation; and the grammar of math is numbers and symbols.

Not only does every subject have a grammar, but grammar itself is a subject. Traditionally grammar as a subject most resembled a modern literature class. The purpose of studying literature was twofold: in reading great works students would see good writing modeled while also seeing good, moral examples. In terms of what they read, they read both works of literature and historical works and did not divide the two as most modern schools do today. They also read works in the original language, which was generally Latin; this in turn required them to learn Latin.

How do we teach grammar today?

To begin with, we continue to teach grammar as an approach. Students need to begin the study of every subject by learning its grammar—by learning its basic facts, symbols, and terminology. For example, students need to learn letters and sounds before they learn to read; they need to master dates and facts to understand history, etc.

What is more, various areas of what traditionally constituted grammar now have their own subjects.

Literature. Like students of bygone eras our students continue to read works of literature that connect them to their cultural ancestors; they also read works that explore questions of fundamental and eternal importance.

History. People in the past didn’t learn history by reading stodgy old textbooks—they read primary sources, passionate eyewitness accounts written by the people that made and witnessed history. Here at Charis our students, especially as they grow in their ability to understand more complex works, read the great works of history. These works are inspiring, probing, and engaging and allow our students to see the rich cultural heritage that they have inherited. This is especially true for us as Christians. Christianity arose in the Greco-Roman world at the height of the Roman Empire. It is a historical fact that over the first eighteen centuries Christianity primarily spread north and west; only within the last century or two has it begun to retreat from the West and grow in the global south and Eastern Asia. Given this historical reality it is impossible to understand the growth and development of our faith without understanding Western Civilization.

History also helps student understand their culture heritage and how they fit into it. “The best way to create a generation of aimless know-nothings who feel no sense of obligation beyond themselves is to deprive them of the past.” Many argue that the centrality of history is the single most important facet of classical education.

Latin. Finally, as most great works of literature, history, theology, and philosophy were written in Latin, students in past ages had to learn Latin as a prerequisite to the study of any other subject matter. While we have good translations of all the great Latin works we continue to teach Latin because it helps students to learn the vocabulary and grammar of English while also teaching them to think logically and clearly about language. This helps them in their English studies and prepares them for the study of other foreign languages.