Sunday, October 27, 2013

Repetitio est Mater Studiorum

Repetition is the Mother of Learning. Repetition is the Mother of Learning. Repetition is the...

If you are among the rank and file of those educated in Catholic schools, it is probably safe to assume that you are familiar with the phrase Repetitio est Mater Studiorm, along with a (heavenly?) host of other Latin slogans (Ad Majorem Dei Glorium! Ave Maria! Salve Regina! Carpe Diem!). But whether or not you attended one, it's probably true that when you think of Catholic schools, you thinks of iron-clad rules enforced by iron-clad nuns. Or maybe you think of elderly priests smacking smart-talking boys. (Let the record show that this particular Catholic schoolboy was desperately well-behaved, never once talked back to any priests, and definitely never missed so many 8:00 am classes one semester during his senior year that his poor religion teacher thought he had been thrown out of school.) Basically, you might think about restrictions.

Repetitio est Mater Studiorm beautifully captures that stereotypically rigid Catholic world. As I type the phrase, I can hear hippies spinning in their graves. In a quick Google search, I saw several web sites that claimed repetition is the mother of brainwashing, not learning. That the only way to learn is through  a complete lack of constraints, through total and utter freedom. Whatever that means.

This is essentially the same issue that haunts writing centers and freshman composition classrooms: how much time should a teacher or tutor devote to "skills and drills"-style work on grammar and punctuation? The underlying problem is that many of the rules of English grammar and punctuation more or less need to be memorized, even by native English speakers. (Fun fact courtesy of Dr. Jad Smith: English has more irregular verbs than any other language.)

Let me be clear what I mean by "grammar and punctuation." I'm talking about comma splices, dangling modifiers, misplaced modifiers, as well as the litany of other errors English professors love to circle in red pen. My point is that these types of errors are habits. We all have good and bad habits. And we all know that breaking bad habits takes a lot of time. And, from a pedagogical perspective, the time spent helping writers break bad lexical habits could be spent freeing student writers from all constraints and restrictions. (By the by, isn't freedom always a brainwasher's proclaimed goal? If I planned on brainwashing a group of people, it's not like I would come out and say that I wanted to brainwash them. I would say that I wanted to give them something. Something like the freedom to express themselves more fully.)

But here's another way to look at it.  Lynne Truss, whom I have already cited several times in the blog, equates good grammar with good manners. Both grammar and manners serve to aid human interactions, which are frequently fraught with complications.

Take, for example, a recent experience I had while waiting tables. I have worked as a waiter at a fancy Bosnian restaurant in St. Louis for about six months. In August, a young man who planned on running for public office (maybe alderman?) came into the restaurant for dinner. He met with the restaurant's owner because he needed the Bosnian community's support for his campaign. There are about 75,000 Bosnians in St. Louis, by the way, and the city would be in some seriously dire straights if the Bosnians had not emigrated to St. Louis en masse during and after the horrific war that occurred in the 1990s. The guy running for public office seemed nice enough. Unfortunately, when I watched him eat, he put his left elbow on the table, held his fork like it was a spear, leaned over his plate, and proceeded to shovel delicious Bosnian food into his mouth. It was like he had not eaten in days. I have never seen anything quite like it, and I used to teach at an all-boys middle school.

Shoveling food into your mouth is not a crime. And, function-wise, it totally works. It's not like your gastrointestinal system cares too much about table manners. Bad grammar, also, is not a crime. If the reader is still able to understand what you want to say, everything's gravy. Grammatical and punctuation mistakes often obscure a sentence's meaning, but generally do not make the sentence unintelligible.

However, here's the thing. Grammatical mistakes make the reader work a little harder. In some rare cases, grammatical mistakes will make the reader want to vomit and never ever support your campaign for public office.

This is why teaching the habits of good grammar and punctuation is very important, despite being both time-consuming and reminiscent of rote-learning at the hands of nuns packing wooden rulers. Like good manners, good grammar must be practiced for it to stick. And it is worth it. Perhaps no one told our potential alderman that it is totally rude to cram food into your mouth at the dinner table. Or, maybe, in whatever culture our potential alderman is from, inhaling one's food is a sign of respect. But, in the restaurant's kitchen, the owner did not wonder about our potential alderman's cultural background. Instead, the owner went on at length about how he would never support the campaign of someone who could not follow basic dining etiquette.


  1. Fortunately, writing center consultants have the good fortune of addressing grammatical and mechanical issues in the context of people's writing, which coheres with solid recommendations by Rei Noguchi (Grammar and the Teaching of Writing) and Constance Weaver (Teaching Grammar in Context). In contrast, teacher-centered lectures about grammar, punctuation, and mechanics can be a serious waste of time.

    Here's one of my favorite Latin sayings that sort of relates to your discussion: Ars est celare artem.

  2. Art is to conceal art! Yeah, I think that phrase does apply. It takes a lot of work to appear natural, especially in writing. There's a famous quote from Mark Twain (I think), "It takes me three weeks to write an impromptu speech."

  3. It's good to have another Twain fan around these parts.

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  5. Fabas indulcet fames (hunger sweetens the beans).
    Concerning the learning of good grammar not the teaching of good grammar, I must say having a reason certainly helps.
    The problem we're facing is much like the problem most educators are facing in disciplines such as the human services, education, the humanities, and (making the sign of the cross) our dear long-suffering math.
    Which of us can compete with the slick-coolness of pop culture when it comes to making English sound (as you put it, Sean) good? What is the reason for anyone to sit down and suffer kill and drill grammar sessions? What have we done to make learning grammar fun (other than wag a chalky finger in the face of students saying, you shall wish one day you had learned)?

    Science wised up long ago and. Science pays teachers a bit more (sometimes). There's some cool ad campaigns for science. The powers that be are connecting science to the larger world. Science is controlling its own narrative thus its own importance. They've really mastered their narrative. There are so many cool scientist shows on TV. They play back to back. Everyone on the show looks good, has a good job, owns a cool home, has a nice ride. When's the last time you saw an English professor (let alone a grammarian) on TV or otherwise doing that?

    The humanities knows it is necessary, and like a gluttonous prince it has sat on its wide posterior feeling self-important and now the whole beaver-dam nation cannot speak nor write proper English. What the humanities needs to do is break away from the pride, get hungry again, throw on some leather pants, invest in a sports car and go teach English dagnabbit.
    (Sean, you always say I talk like I’m from the 40s. I believe you may possibly be on to something).