Essays on English in Japan

Welcome the Muses!

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As a teacher, I talk with a lot of teachers. I have to; I can't escape them. Mostly, teachers are pretty good people, about as mixed as any other vocation, and in general, maybe a little more optimistic than the average person. How could you not be optimistic working with young people all day every day? Educators almost always have good intentions. Yet, among teachers, there is one group of teachers I never get along with: the grammar police.

These teachers are the least optimistic. They feel it is their duty to enforce the rules of language. They love to point out mistakes, making them seem almost like crimes! They will cover homework or a test with so many red correction marks it seems to be bleeding to death. They feel their role is to be sure language criminals are not allowed to wander freely. They know the law and see themselves as strong, righteous correctors of students' weaknesses and straying from the all-important rules of language. No one gave them the power, but these teachers consider themselves grammar police!

The grammar police are not just teachers, but also can be textbook writers, administrators, or bureaucrats in the ministry of education. Some schools have been taken over entirely by the grammar police. If you work there, they will hand you a detailed handbook filled with information about percentages for grading, procedures, policies, schedules, deadlines, and a lot of rules about everything. The grammar police want to control not only students, but also every aspect of teaching and schooling. All teachers need a little bit of control, of course, but the grammar police think it's the most important principle of education! It's not.

Stuck at the sentence level of grammar rules, and class regulations, they are picky about small details, and never let students lift their heads and look around at the world. I knew one grammar police teacher who spent the first 15 minutes of every class assigning points. Even before the students could say or do anything, this teacher gave out one point if students were on time, one point if they did their homework, one point if they brought their textbook and so on. This was not at a grade school, but at a university! Students must have gotten pretty good at saying things like, "Yes," or "One point," or "Zero." They must also have been bored to tears. It did not help use the language, but asserted control.

Sometimes the grammar police try to disguise the rules as games. They try to fool students with colored pictures, smiling cartoon faces and a "fun" approach. But rest assured, if the game has correct answers, or if the book has easy questions, repetitive drills or concrete tasks, then the grammar police wrote it. There is nothing wrong with working with correct answers, but making every part of class focused on correctness is more about power and order than the real nature of language. The grammar police are always pushing for the 100-point perfect score, which is their ideal—no mistakes! Perfect!

Perfect? Perfect never happens. You might make language perfect on one test, or on a worksheet, but in the real world, you have to be flexible to accept constant imperfection. Thinking as the grammar police do is like saying if you only obeyed all the country's laws, your life would be wonderful! We know that life involves more than just rules. And so, learning a language involves more than just rules. Language can be very messy, confusing, and rule-breaking. Language is less about following rules than using rules creatively.

Greek mythology is always a good place to find help for internal conflicts! In ancient Greece, music, language, dance, and art were such tremendously admired activities that the Greeks imagined special spirits and goddesses who mysteriously helped create language arts. These spirits were called "Muses." We still have the words "amuse" and "musing," from them. There was one special Muse each for songs, tragic dramas, poetry, comedy, sacred music and erotic marriage songs. You will notice there is no Muse for grammar!

These magical goddesses were greatly respected because they helped to inspire people in all creative activities, especially creativity with language. The Muses helped musicians write lyrics, comedians write jokes and poets put emotion together with words. The Muses helped weak, powerless, little humans to use language better by giving them artistic, creative powers. The Muses "inspired" people, a word that originally meant "having the spirit in you."

In most modern English classes, though, the Muses are, sadly, nowhere to be found. The grammar police have chased them away and barred them from sneaking back in to help students. The Muses rarely appear when the grammar police are around. You have to implore them to come out to help you create. They are mysterious beings, very shy and delicate, of course. They avoid places where strict rules are the main focus, and rarely concern themselves with perfection or correctness. Creativity involves human spirit engaged with internal forces of creative energy. It is the opposite of policing grammar.

So, while we may not believe in the ancient Greek Muses in this day and age, we still need creative spiritual powers to really learn and use language. Students and teachers should always be creative in language classes. Even making one short little sentence is a creative act that needs inspiration.

Every so often, before classes, though I am not religious, I sometimes say a little prayer to the Muses, asking them to descend from their hidden homes and help with my classes. I ask them to chase away the grammar police and help make creativity the guiding force in learning. It usually works.


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About The Author

Michael is currently teaching at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, Japan, in the American Literature section of the English Department. More information in the About Me page.