Thursday, August 21, 2008
Writing as craft
Earlier this week I held a meeting for parents and students who are enrolling in my composition and worldviews classes this year. I guess it confirms my calling as a teacher when I get really excited about diagramming sentences and analyzing the prose of Washington Irving, and just the whole planning, interacting, and discipling of students. Though I am still too tired to be starting (and I'm not starting until October) I am definitely looking forward to starting. I become downright enthusiastic about classical education when I stop and think about it!
As I pulled together thoughts about my composition class, I was struck anew with how right the classical approach to writing seems to be. The ancients approached writing as a craft. Not everyone will become an artist with words, but everyone should be given the tools of language, and taught how to use them to become efficient craftsmen with words. Add to this the Christian perspective that writing, like so much of the Christian life, is tied to dying to yourself and writing for your readers, and I think it is exciting to come alongside young writers and watch their minds (and vocabularies) expand!
The best way to learn a craft is to apprentice yourself to a master craftsman: and here, I don't mean the teacher, but a great writer. The legacy for hundreds of years in the West has been to sit at the feet of those who write well by reading carefully and analyzing what they have done, and then imitating it yourself. Just because somewhere around 1900 they tossed out the tried-and-true in favor of the new-and-experimental, doesn't mean that we have to continue following in the same lock-step way. Contemporary writing curriculum, especially in the pre-college years, is very student-centered, either overly formulaic or entirely self-expression oriented. I reject this approach. So with my students, and the help of wiser authors like Fr. Francis Donnelly, Frank D'Angelo, Edward Corbett, and Aphthonius, we sit at the feet of Washington Irving for our first semester. He was a master of sentence construction, and he has much to teach us still. And after that, we return to the progymnasmata.
I don't teach anything new in my composition class. I teach only what I have borrowed or stolen from others. But what wisdom! Why are we so quick to think that something new must be better, when there was a wealth of wisdom and experience to be found in those who came before us-- but the answer to that would be a worldview question, and I'll have to write about that another day.
If you are interested in how I approach composition, you can see more here.