Here, Diane Ravitch reviews two books on the subject.
David Mulroy’s book did not reach the best-seller list. In fact, when I checked Amazon.com, the book was ranked 471,437. Yet The War Against Grammar is a far more consequential and far more interesting book than Eats, Shoots & Leaves. The latter has verve and sass, but Mulroy’s book has important things to say to American teachers and parents. In 1996, Mulroy, a classics scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, attended a public hearing about the state’s academic standards and innocently suggested that all high school seniors should be required to identify the eight parts of speech in a selection of normal prose. He thought it a “modest and reasonable suggestion.” To his surprise, he was plunged into controversy, supported by parents, but strongly opposed by pedagogical experts, who informed him that the NCTE disparaged the value of any grammar instruction.
After this disturbing discovery, Mulroy began to research the reasons why English teachers have become opponents of grammar, a proposition that he would previously have thought to be an oxymoron. He repeatedly encountered the view in NCTE publications that “decades of research” or “many studies” have shown that formal grammar is not only useless but also harmful to students’ self-esteem and even their mental health! Those who were hostile to grammar instruction cast themselves as progressives and saw proponents of instruction in grammar as rigid traditionalists. These negative views toward grammar, Mulroy writes, became dogma in the nation’s schools of education.