What Is Basic about English?

What Is Basic about English?  (1941) 
by Mortimer Adler

I hope all teachers of English know, as well as I do, how complete and dismal is the failure of liberal education in this country—at both high school and college level. I am sure that all weep, as much as I do, about the fact that few, if any, of their students can read better than sixth-grade children, or write well, or speak well, or listen well. They certainly do not know how to read a book, either for comprehension or for appreciation, either to receive instruction or to delight in beauty.

Instead of dwelling on these well-known and lamentable facts, instead of repeating the therapy I have described in How to Read a Book, I am going to try to explain why liberal education has fallen to such low estate, how it has happened, and what can be done about it. And central to my explanation is the peculiar status of the teacher of English. The history of the teaching of English reveals, I think, the gradual decay of the liberal arts and the progressive degradation of the curriculum to its present state.

On the other hand, the teacher of English is the most indispensable man on any faculty, for he is the only one left who is it all concerned with the liberal arts as the disciplines which train a mind for the most characteristic function of human life—communication. With the progressive decomposition of the curriculum under the shattering impact of the elective system and the insidious encroachment of the sciences, especially the social sciences, upon the field of humane letters, the English teacher has become the last defender of the faith that something can be learned from books. I mean books—not textbooks; I mean great literature—not current journalism about current events.

On the other hand, and paradoxical though it seems, the very reasons which make the English teacher the indispensable man are the reasons why English departments and English courses should be completely abolished as such. It is precisely because the English teacher is the last—and often a very frail—vestige of the liberal tradition in our education, it is precisely because he still cherishes literature and the liberal arts—though his devotion (under dire threats) is often secret and unconfessed—that the English teacher should commit academic suicide.

I am not recommending suicide as an empty gesture or as an expression of despair. I am thinking of militant martyrdom. My simple thesis is that English—its courses, teachers, and departments—should be abolished in favor of the restoration of a truly liberal curriculum in secondary and collegiate education. The English teacher should cease to be a separate academic entity, only on the condition, of course, that every other teacher would become a teacher of English, or, to say more precisely what I mean, a teacher of liberal arts; for my main point is that what the English teacher is now trying to do, often half-heartedly, often unwittingly, and almost always inadequately, should be done by the whole faculty in a curriculum which is not atomized into courses or made chaotic by departmental prerogatives. Only if it its thus done can what the English teacher is trying to do be well done.

Perhaps I have now explained my title, the question, What Is Basic About English? In asking this question I am not thinking about the tragic possibility that English may be the only language left in which civilized men can think and talk freely, even though that fact by itself would make it terribly basic. Nor am I thinking of the semantic invention known as basic English.

What I have in mind is simply this: That if one asks what functions the teaching of English performs in contemporary education the answer will show that these functions are so basic educationally that they cannot be performed well in a single course or series of courses which the natural and social sciences still permit to exist in an innocuous corner of the curriculum.

I shall, in short, try to argue that what is basic about English is not the English language, but language and all its arts; not English literature, but literature in all its forms and all its books. I shall try to persuade you that every English teacher who is not a traitor to the tradition he has inherited should become a fighting exponent of the curriculum which is now widely known as the St. John's curriculum—the curriculum which devotes all its teachers' and students' energies to the liberal arts and the great books. And, let me add at once, there are no teachers of English at St. John's, as there are no teachers of philosophy, or science, or history, because every teacher at St. John's is doing what the best teachers of English try to do and fail in doing simply because it cannot be done as an isolated and restricted part of a curriculum. It can be done only when the whole curriculum is devoted to liberal pursuits and humane letters and every teacher is a master of the arts, toward bachelorhood in which he is trying to help his students.

To say what is basic about English and to support my appeal that teachers of English abolish themselves and become undepartmentalized liberal artists, I shall now proceed to show, if I can: first, how the liberal arts have suffered from having ceased to be the whole of liberal education and having become mainly the preoccupation of English teachers, their concern and almost nobody else's; second, how the study of literature—and here I mean the reading of great books—has become a special privilege instead of a general vocation, as the result of its being left almost entirely to English teachers, for in their hands literature has been reduced to belles letters, or, worse, to lyric poetry, or to poetry written in English.

Throughout all this please remember that though I come to bury Caesar, I have also come to praise him. Although I ask teachers of English to immolate themselves for their faults and their inadequacies, I also speak a panegyric for the valiant effort they have made to keep the light of genuinely liberal learning shining, however dimly, somewhere behind the bushel basket of the elective system.

First: the liberal arts are three and one—an educational trinity which must function as a unity and should not be dismembered. By the three liberal arts I mean the arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. (For the sake of brevity, I am omitting the consideration of that specialized version of these arts which belongs to the quadrivium—the liberal arts of mathematics—the grammar, logic, and rhetoric of mathematics, as a special universe of discourse.)

When the arts are thus named, the English teacher may suppose they do not all belong to him; for does not logic belong to philosophy, and is not rhetoric the province of that specialized fellow, the teacher of elocution or public speaking? But suppose I were to name the arts, not in terms of their analytical principles or in terms of their fundamental rules of operation, but rather in terms of the operations they regulate according to sound principle. What would these operations be? They would be writing and speaking—the initiation of communication; and reading and listening—the reception of communication. And, of couse, I do not mean the arts of writing or reading poetry, or the arts of speaking or listening to political propaganda. I mean the arts of writing and reading anything, the arts of speaking about or listening to discourse on any subject matter.

Thus named, all these operations fall within the province of the teachers of English who, as they usually deal with them, unfortunately restrict them to certain very limited subject matters. To the extent that teachers of English are concerned with these four operations, they are concerned with the three arts; and in so far as they are properly concerned with these operations, and with their arts, they should transcend every limitation of subject matter, for they should be concerned with every type and every phase of communication.

But you may object that I have omitted the most important operation and the most essential of the liberal arts, namely, the art of thinking. Let me reply at once that all human thinking is of two sorts: the sort which is involved in discovery—learning without the aid of teachers; and the sort which is involved in instruction—learning with the aid of teachers, who already know what the student must learn.

Although in the history of the race and its cultural growth learning by discovery must take precedence over learning by instruction, in the biography of any individual, learning by instruction is foremost. There is no point in any individual starting out to discover anything until he is well versed in what other men have already discovered and are prepared to teach.

The book which more than any other has misled millions of American teachers and distorted American education is Dewey's How We Think, for it is concerned only with learning by discovery and the sort of thinking that there goes on. But below the level of the university, apart from men competent in scholarship or research, the major learning is by instruction, and the kind of thinking therein involved is inseparable from processes of communication. In so far, therefore as I restrict myself to the basic education of youth—youth incompetent to discover anything by itself—I can say that there is no significant operation of thinking apart from such operations as reading and listening, writing and speaking, and there is no art of thinking other than the three liberal arts as arts of language or communication.

Now let me explain why the three arts are co-implicated—always interdependent—in all the operations of communication. There are three things involved in all communication, whether in initiating it or receiving it. They are language, thought, and the persons who think and discourse. (By "language" I mean any language, not just English; by "thought" I mean, broadly, every state of mind or soul, feelings, intentions, perceptive experiences, as well as ideas and intellectual judgments. And, let me add, there is a fourth thing which I did not mention because it is simultaneous with thought and speech—namely, the object referred to by both thought and speech.)

The three arts get their distinction from the three aspects of every communication, just mentioned. Thus: (1) Grammar is the art of ordering language to express or to receive thought. (2) Logic is the art of ordering what is to be expressed in language or of judging what has been expressed, and here there is a limitation; for logic is restricted to the communication of thought in the narrower, or more intellectual, sense; and it must be completed by poetics as the art of ordering feelings and imaginations to be expressed, or of judging such expressions. (3) Rhetoric is the art of ordering both language and thought in order to reach another mind or person effectively; or if you are the mind or person being reached for, rhetoric is the art which guides you in yielding or resisting.

The three arts cannot be separated, for no one of them is sufficient to regulate good writing or reading. Each requires the supplementation of the other two; the three must interpenetrate one another; they are mutually supporting disciplines for the simple reason that language without thought is nonsense; thought without language is ineffable; and both without consideration of the human context in communication are lacking in direction. (Discourse is not simply rational, but social, for man is not just rational, but socially so.)

Not only are the three arts (of grammar, logic, and rhetoric) mutually interdependent, but they are also in a certain order. Considering the ends and nature of communication, rhetoric is the dominant art: it is the art of writing, not a phrase or a sentence, but a whole composition, a whole poem, a whole speech, a whole book; it is the art of reading, not just a part, but a whole communication. The use of grammatical and logical techniques must be guided by ultimate rhetorical considerations—the intention of writer and reader. Of the two remaining arts, grammar and logic, grammar is ordered to logic when the intention is to explain or instruct.

In order to explain the ordering of the arts in their tri-unity, let me expand a little on the multiple dimensions of rhetoric and show you how these dimensions involve a diversity of logics and grammars.

The most fundamental division which rhetoric considers is the division made by the difference between two intentions men have in writing: instruction and delight—to convey the truth or to create beauty. This is the familiar distinction between science and poetry, between intellectual and imaginative literature, between the use of language to express knowledge of reality and the use of language to create imitations of reality.

There are, of course, subordinate distinctions. Thus:

1. In the intellectual dimension there is the fundamental division between the theoretic and the practical, the former aiming to convince about the truth, the latter directed to persuade in matters of action or feeling. There is, in short, a theoretical rhetoric as well as a practical rhetoric in the sphere of intellectual communication. Unhappily, many regard rhetoric as restricted to the practical, to problems of oratory and propaganda.
2. In the imaginative dimension there are all the distinctions of poetry into epic, dramatic, and lyric, whether in prose or verse, and whether we call them epics or novels, dramas or plays.

But, for our purposes, it is sufficient to point out that these distinctions require us to cultivate two different sorts of grammar—a logical and a poetic grammar; they also require us to cultivate many different sorts of logic, each with an appropriate grammar, a theoretic and a practical logic, and within the domain of theoretic logic and grammar we must be sensitive to such varieties of logic as the historical, the scientific, and the philosophic.

All this, I say, follows from a proper consideration of the liberal arts as united in a triplicate unity and under the aegis of rhetoric as concerned with the most fundamental canons of style, or, shall I say, the styles appropriate for every sort of writing, the styles to be detected by every sort of reading.

I have said all this—much of which must be familiar to many of you—because of the educational significance it has. If what I have said is true, what follows for liberal education? What must be done to make youth competent as liberal artists and worthy of the B.A. degree in terms of the only relevant criterion, namely, that they know how to read and write? I enumerate only some of the more obvious consequences:

1. None of the arts can be well taught merely as a science, having principles, or as a discipline, having rules, in separation from exercises in all the artistic operations, namely in reading and writing, listening and speaking. (Thus, grammar cannot be well taught as a set of rules in isolation from the operations to be regulated, namely, writing and reading; this is even more true of logic. Yet much of our teaching is done contrariwise: students who have memorized grammatical rules cannot put them into practice, cannot detect simple and complex sentences, dependent or independent clauses, in difficult discourse; students who can recite all the rules of the syllogism cannot discover arguments and their relation in the reasoning of great minds, whose books they may be trying to read. Of course, much worse than this is the situation in our progressive schools where writing and reading are done in complete isolation from any acquaintanceship with the rules of grammar and logic.)

2. None of the arts can be well taught in isolation from the other two; for all three must be practiced simultaneously in reading and writing, speaking and listening.

3. None of the arts can be well taught if restricted to some limited subject matter, such as the poetic dimensions of literature or the practical dimension of rhetoric.

4. Since the rules which govern any form of writing are the same rules which govern the reading of that form of literature, no student can learn to write well what he has not been taught to read well, and conversely; and here reading is certainly prior, in the order of learning, to writing, for reading is easier than writing, as listening is easier than speaking.

5. The practice of the arts requires worthy materials to operate on, for rules of art will not work on matter itself inartistically contrived. What I mean is that the greatest books in every dimension of literature must be the materials read if reading is to be well taught, for how shall anyone be able to practice reading, according to good rules, what was not written according to such rules; and, similarly, great literature of all forms must provide the models to guide the novice in practicing writing according to the rules of these arts.

In the light of these five points—and there are many others—you can see how defective and even defunct the teaching of the liberal arts has become in our education because it has been relegated to English courses, almost exclusively, or because the arts have been separated by departmental divisions or divided according to mistaken notions about what is proper at different levels of education.

1. Thus grammar belongs to the English teacher, whereas logic belongs—if it exists at all—to the philosophy department. As a result of this departmental separation both grammar and logic lose their artistic usefulness; grammar becomes nothing but a set of conventional rules of English usage; and logic becomes an abstract science which has nothing to do with the business of reading and writing.

2. Furthermore, as falling to the English teacher, grammar is considered only, or primarily, in the dimension of poetic rhetoric, and all the grammatical problems related to logical rhetoric are ignored or inadequately treated.

3. Furthermore, grammar is primarily treated in relation to writing, if it is given any application at all; and it is seldom invoked in the reading of difficult texts as part of the business of interpretation and criticism.

4. Furthermore, logic, in separation from grammar, and as the special province of the philosopher, degenerates into a discussion of scientific method and ceases to be the basic discipline of writing and reading, not even of writing and reading philosophy itself, as the writings of most contemporary philosophers so painfully reveal.

5. Furthermore, rhetoric, in separation from both grammar and logic, and relegated to courses in public speaking, ceases to be the dominant art, regulative of all forms of intelligent communication, and becomes a minor appendix of the curriculum. It is rhetoric in its most degraded state—little better than elocution. And without rhetoric, the other two suffer! We deal with short passages, not wholes!

Let me picture in another way the disastrous educational consequences which flow from the dismemberment of the trinity of liberal arts.

First, the results of separating grammar and logic. (Equally bad results flow from the separation of grammar and poetics, but I shall confine my discussion to the first of these two separations, because the second is less drastic in English teaching.)

1. Grammar becomes purely conventional instead of formal. It is English grammar instead of universal grammar—the grammar of any language. As a result, both teacher and student wonder why they are bothering about grammar except for the purposes of polite speech and superficial correctness by conformity to "good usage." But usage is arbitrary in large part; and the rules of a purely conventional grammar lack the intelligibility which belongs only to a universal grammar integrated with logic and poetics and subservient to rhetoric.

2. Logic becomes a purely formal science instead of a useful liberal art. It degenerates, as we have seen, into symbolic logic or logistics, which has absolutely no relation to anything. Even though logic be mastered as it is taught in philosophy courses, such mastery means nothing in the way of liberal discipline, any more than the mastery of the rules of a game would be significant if the game itself were never played. The student does not become a better reader or writer, a better interpreter or critic, a better thinker, a more orderly mind.

3. The quickest way to establish both of these foregoing points is to indicate the parallelism between the basic grammatical units (units of discourse) and the basic logical units (units of thought).

a. The parallelism is: words and phrases—terms or concepts; sentences—propositions or judgments; paragraphs—syllogisms or arguments.
b. The fundamental fact here is that there is no one-one correlation between the two sets of units. Thus, one and the same term can be expressed in various words or phrases, and one and the same word or phrase can express various terms; similarly, a single English sentence, especially if complex or compound, or both, does not express a single proposition but a whole series of them, and so forth.
c. Now the separation of grammar and logic prevents the student from being able, in reading, to come to terms with an author by penetrating beneath his language; he may know all about propositions and arguments, but he won't be able to find any when he is reading a book; and if you ask such a student to write a series of propositions he will give you some half-formed or overcomplicated sentences in an undisciplined effort to express his thoughts.
d. When I say that college graduates cannot read or write I am simply pointing to the fact that they have no effective discipline in either grammar or logic, either none at all or, what is almost as bad, the inadequate sort which comes from the departmentalized functions of English and philosophy professors. This is easily tested: ask a college graduate as I have done when he gets to law school, to find the separate propositions in a single sentence or their connection in a paragraph; ask him to translate what a sentence says into another sentence saying the same thing but in different words; ask him to explain what an argument means by pointing to the objects or experiences which the words refer to.

4. What I have here said mainly concerns the writing and reading of intellectual literature, theoretic or practical; but the same holds for the reading and writing of imaginative literature in any of the forms of poetry; for even though grammar and poetics both belong to the English teacher, he deals with them separately—so pervasive is the atomization of everything into separate courses, given by specializing professors.

Second, the results of separating rhetoric from grammar and from logic. Here I do not speak of the separation of rhetoric from poetics, for the opposite has taken place: in so far as rhetoric is not just public speaking, it is reduced to a concern about poetic style.

1. Let me begin, therefore, by commenting briefly on the notion of style. Style is the most general rhetorical fact. But as treated by teachers of English, style is restricted to the consideration of poetic excellence: to effectiveness in the field of imaginative literature.

2. As a result, our students, if they are taught to be sensitive to, and critical of, whole literary works at all, have such sensitivity developed only with respect to belles letters, and sometimes they are so specialized as to be trained in the appreciation of lyric style and not even dramatic or epic composition. Certainly they have no training in the analysis of expository works as wholes, no sensitivity to excellence in logical, as opposed to poetic, rhetoric. They would not be able to tell you the difference between the style of Plato and the style of Euclid, or why the Platonic style is more suitable to the matter which St. Augustine expounds than to the matter of Galileo, who tries to use that style; or why the Euclidean style is more suitable to the matter of Newton than to the matter of Spinoza, even though the latter also tries to use Euclidean style.

3. Furthermore, if rhetoric is treated in the logical dimension at all, it is concerned with oratory, or practical discourse, and even here the effectiveness of oratory is not made intelligible in terms of its grammatical and logical aspects, for rhetoric as customarily taught by English teachers is taught apart from logic and as a course which comes much later than grammar.

I conclude, therefore, that the liberal arts have fallen on evil days as the result of curricular arrangements that separate them into departments which prevent them from being taught properly and which give to the English teacher an impossible task—impossible even when the English teacher somehow realizes what it is, and even less possible when the English teacher does not know the burden which has been unintentionally imposed on him.

Anyone will see this at once by considering the educational work done by the Greek sophists and philosophers, the Roman grammarians and rhetoricians, the medieval masters of the liberal arts, the Renaissance humanists—in each case dominating the whole of basic education—and then comparing the work now being done by English teachers in their little corner. And if such intuitive perceptions have no authority in this day of educational tests and measurements, I suggest a test which will show the enormity of the failure in its full extent. Students have been tested on their ability to read sentences and paragraphs, and on such tests we all know that the average high school graduate is not much better than a sixth-grader, that the best high school seniors are less than reasonably competent. But all such tests, even though they reveal educational failure, are much too easy. Test the best high school graduate or, for that matter, the best college graduate, or even the candidate for the Ph.D. on his ability to read a whole book intelligently—and let the book be a great book worthy of the effort—and you will be able to measure in no uncertain terms how complete today is the failure of liberal education.

Second, discourse is heterogeneous, but the liberal arts are unified, and therefore all kinds of reading and writing must be done together and not under existing departmental separations. This second point follows from what has already been said. If the aim, in teaching reading and writing, is not simply the ability to write or read a sentence or at most a paragraph, but rather a whole work, then the teaching of writing and reading must be undertaken by a comparative study of all the different types of works, for otherwise the student will lack the rhetorical distinctions and principles necessary for guiding him in the use of grammatical and logical or poetic techniques.

For the same reason that many English teachers now realize that it is necessary to acquaint the student with every poetic form—with regard to his skill in writing as well as his skill in reading—they should also see the general principle which is here involved. If it is true that the student has not learned to write well or read well, from the point of view of imaginative compositions, if he can read only lyrics or only plays, then it is more generally true that to possess the liberal arts or reading and writing, without qualification, he must be able to do every sort of writing and every sort of reading—at least every sort of reading.

Now this cannot be accomplished if English teachers restrict "literature" to belles lettres; or, if when they extend their assignments to include other materials, such as philosophical essays or scientific works, they treat them all as if they were belles letters. Though a naturally great teacher in his day, John Erskine used to commit this fallacy in reading books with his students: he had only one set of criteria for interpreting them or judging them, exclusively "literary" or aesthetic criteria. For him to say that every great book should be read as literature meant that only poetic excellence was worth discussing. . . . The opposite error is, of course, equally regrettable, namely, the historical, sociological, or scientific reading of great works of poetry.

The truth, it seems to me, is that every great work has a primary rhetorical dimension, poetic or expository, and exists in one of the subordinate forms of these. According to that dimension and form it must meet certain criteria of stylistic excellence; it must be submitted to proper principles of interpretation and criticism, involving distinctions in grammar and logic. (This does not exclude secondary interpretations, for every great work has more than one rhetorical dimension.) If this be right, then the liberal arts cannot be well taught unless in the teaching of them every different sort of book is read in the context of books of every other sort; and unless every different type of writing is undertaken in imitation of the great models of every rhetorical type.

I need not take your time to tell you that, under present educational conditions, the great books are not read together and in intimate juxtaposition any more than the arts are taught together or in relation to all the books. Certain books belong to the English department; others are specialized in by the philosophers; the great works of mathematics, science, and history are not read at all, because these departments use textbooks for the sake of getting subject matter memorized by students who cannot read the great books in these fields and through them come to understand, not memorize, the principles of these subject matters.

I know, of course, that a large number of the great books on the St. John's list are scattered throughout the variety of elective courses in an ordinary college curriculum. Many of them are, however, treated as supplementary rather than required reading, despite the violence done a great book by making it supplementary to something which is its inferior—an ordinary teacher's lectures or the textbooks written by his colleagues.

But even if all were required, I would not be satisfied as long as they were split up into a hundred courses, separated one from another, and separated from instruction in the liberal disciplines of reading and writing. Shakespeare, Montaigne, Machiavelli, Descartes, Leonardo, Galileo, Bacon, Rabelais, Harvey, Newton, Milton, Locke—here, for example, is a heterogeneous collection, all of which should be read together by the same students with the same teacher.

It is, for the most part, only in the English department that books are read, not for their subject matter alone, but as occasions for developing skill in reading and writing; and even that is rapidly becoming less so as English teachers spend most of their time on the history and sociology of whatever it is they read.

From all of this I conclude that as books are now read in most high schools and colleges—even if they were the great books, as unfortunately in many cases they are not—the reading of them is not done in a way that facilitates the major aim of liberal education, the development of liberal artists, the production of disciplined, as well as cultivated, minds.

I return, therefore, at the end, to the point with which I began: what is basic about the teaching of English is the vestige of the traditional liberal education it still exhibits, however poorly and inadequately. Hence, if teachers of English recognize themselves as the only surviving academic representatives of this tradition, they should find it in their hearts to work for the abolition of the sort of educational system which now prevents them, or anyone else, from doing the main job effectively.

If you, then, ask me what I am proposing to substitute, I can answer you in two ways: (1) I can refer you to the St. John's curriculum as the only curriculum which is genuinely devoted to liberal education; or (2) I can answer you by stating three negations which, if established, would create an educational vacuum into which genuinely liberal education would have to rush, if teachers and students still got together. The three negations are: abolish all departments, abolish all electives, abolish all textbooks.

Furthermore, let me point out that what I am saying applies equally to high school or college, for we waste four years in American education, or certainly at least two. The kind of liberal education I am talking about should follow elementary schooling and precede the specialized education of the university. It should be the secondary level of education, and whether you call it secondary or collegiate, whether you call the four-year course in which it is given a high school or a college course, makes no difference, for this is the education which should terminate in a B.A. degree restored to its proper meaning.

Finally, let me say that although the great books introduce every subject matter into this scheme of education, its aim is not a mastery of subject matter but the acquisition of discipline. The great books, and all the subject matters, are involved, because without them it is impossible to acquire discipline, to train minds in all the skills of reading and writing, speaking and listening, and, perforce, the skills of thinking. But the point always to be remembered is that the sort of education which consists in the mastery of a subject matter can never be acquired in high school or college, for the students are much too young, and much too immature and inexperienced, to get such an education in the full sense. All that they can get is the sort of education which consists in acquiring the disciplines of learning itself, so that, whether they go on to the university or not, they will be prepared to take care of their own education from that point on. This is the whole meaning of a liberal education as signified by bachelorhood in the liberal arts, for that degree should not be taken as marking the accomplishment of learning but only as indicating a man who, because liberally disciplined, is now able to pursue learning by himself.

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