Reading Andrew Sullivan’s The Conservative Soul a few months ago, I came across a passage on p. 205 about sexual morality that I twisted, as is my wont, toward language teaching. He quotes Michael Oakshott, who says: Too often the excessive pursuit of one ideal leads to the exclusion of others, perhaps all others; in our eagerness to realise [he is British] justice we come to forget charity, and a passion for righteousness has made many a man hard and merciless. There is, indeed, no ideal the pursuit of which will not lead to disillusion; chagrin waits at the end for all who take this path.“
Sullivan comments: “When individuals try to govern themselves this way, they can experience great bliss at times, but crushing disappointment at others. The fundamentalist, in seeking perfection (a motif in his criticism of current American “conservatism”), may find himself farther and farther from the God he seeks and the virtue he craves. Why? Because we cannot think ourselves into godliness. And those who construct rules and regulations for every minutia of human activity, who have an answer to every moral conundrum an authoritative solution to every dilemma, cannot solve this recurring predicament. Relating what is true forever to what we do here and now is always a crooked line, like a fishing line into a lake. Every attempt to insist on its straightness will founder, in the practical world, on the different elements of air and water.”
How do I connect this to language teaching? I’m speaking not only of teaching a foreign language but of teaching standard and formal English to native speakers of English. So:
the excessive pursuit of one ideal = grammatical correctness aka accuracy
the exclusion of others = proficiency, fluency, depth, continued interest and motivation
chagrin waits at the end = at the termination of studies, the student still cannot function at any level in the language; and as one enemy of prescriptive teaching said back in the 30s, the student cannot write a simple sentence of English.
experience great bliss = i.e. the teacher who teaches grammar in the vain hope his students will achieve proficiency can at times be elated over high test scores, etc. while failing to realize [I’m American] that the tests test for what he is teaching, grammar, not for proficiency.
crushing disappointment = students who offer comments like, “Gee, after four years of French with you, Madame, I went to France and couldn’t get along at all. What was that you taught us?”
find himself farther and farther from the God he seeks and the virtue he craves the deeper into the grammar, the greater the number of worksheets assigned, the longer the lectures on grammar, the farther his students get from proficiency
we cannot think ourselves into godliness = nor proficiency. That is the fundamental error [get the play on â€˜fundamentalists’?] of the grammar-based approach, that one speaks a language via ratiocination, delving into the brain for conjugated forms and the intricate rules of passivization.
this recurring predicament = cannot be solved with all the rules b/c language acquisition is not that kind of activity; it is not like learning how to build a bridge via engineering principles.
what is true forever vs the here and now = grammar is indeed the foundation of language, but the acquisition of that grammar for use leading to proficiency occurs with use, not via grand principles of grammatical organization
every attempt to insist on its straightness will founder = i.e. every attempt to bypass the acquisition process will founder. I love his image of the fishing line going from one element, air, into another, water. For my purposes, it is analogous to talking about language vs using language: two different things.
BTW, Sullivan is entirely unaccepatble to what we call conservatives nowadays in the U.S.: he’s gay, he’s British and therefore an immigrant, he’s Catholic, and he’s an intellectual……. all killing points to an American conservative.