Archive for May 12th, 2013

On desiccated pedants, and ageing hippies

I’m coming into this a bit late. In media res, as they say. (Or at least, those who are classically educated say. Or those who, like me, haven’t had the benefits of a classical education, but who nonetheless enjoy showing off by peppering their writing with Latin tags.) A veritable storm is currently raging here in Britain on educational practice, and, until about a couple of days ago, I knew nothing of it. Mea culpa.

Having researched the matter a bit on the internet yesterday, but having had neither the time nor the patience to read through everything that has been written on this fraught matter, it seems to me that, as ever, two opposed sets of stereotypes are emerging, and that each side is seeing the other purely in terms of these stereotypes. And it doesn’t help that people from both sides seem intent upon living up – or down – to these stereotypical images. On one side, we have the dry-as-dust desiccated pedants determined to make the process of learning as unpleasant as possible, reducing education merely to endless learning by rote, and labelling as failures that vast majority of children who, when tested at an impossibly early age, fail to meet requisite pre-determined standards. And on the other side, we have ageing hippies disputing the very concept of correctness (seemingly on the grounds that deeming a child’s response as “incorrect” can but cause irreparable damage to that child’s psyche), and insisting that any learning that isn’t “fun” or “exciting” is not worthy of the name.

So what side am I on? I ask myself. Am I a Desiccated Pedant (DP) or an Ageing Hippy (AH)? I seem to have divided loyalties here: one the one hand, I am, by nature, a cultural conservative (as this earlier post of mine amply testifies), constantly bemoaning “our benighted times” to anyone who will listen – or just to myself when no-one does; but on the other hand, my political sympathies remain strongly on the Left – or, at least, on what passes for the Left in our benighted times.

This whole thing came to my attention by a speech given a few days ago by Education Secretary Michael Gove (DP), in which, amongst other things, he attacked by name children’s writer and poet Michael Rosen (AH). Rosen, in turn, penned a combative response.

(Rosen’s response relates only to that part of Gove’s speech in which he is referenced, but it is worth pointing out that Gove’s story of schoolchildren using Mr Men stories to learn about Nazi Germany has turned out not to be true: apparently, the students in question – they were 15-16 year olds – were exchanging ideas about how best to teach small children about Nazi Germany. Gove has not, to my knowledge, yet apologised for having used evidence that is inaccurate, to put it mildly; and Michael Rosen seems to me therefore perfectly entitled to post on his on Twitter account (@MichaelRosenYes) hostile tweets such as “Why did Gove lie about the Mr Men teacher? He was getting his students to write stories for young children – not teaching the orig. history!” And later: “Children, the person in charge of your school has told a lie about a teacher and Mr Men books. Shall we ask him what he thinks about lying?” It’s all, as I said, got more than a little fraught.)

In the meantime, Toby Young, whom I had previously known as editor of the self-regarding but little read Modern Review and as a self-confessed former cocaine addict (see his introduction to this book, in which he talks about himself rather than about the book), has a go at Rosen for a grammatical error in his piece:

In the course of extolling his own virtues as an educator – he’s the ex-Children’s Laureate and has written over 140 books – [Rosen] writes:

“I have spent thousands of hours in schools in the last 40 years doing writing workshops with children engaging in discussions with them about what kinds of language is appropriate for a particular piece of writing.”

Call me an old pedant, but shouldn’t there be a comma after “children”? And, more importantly, shouldn’t it be “what kinds of language *are* appropriate” not “what kinds of language *is* appropriate”?

In answer to Mr Young’s questions, yes, there should be a comma after “children”, and yes again, that should have been “are” rather than “is”. And while we’re picking on errors, Mr Young’s own piece should have spoken of “two howling errors”, rather than “a howling error” (my italics). However, I am fairly sure even Mr Young knows how to count to two, just as I am fairly sure that Mr Rosen understands basic use of punctuation, and the difference between plural and singular. The errors from both writers are errors of carelessness and of proof-reading rather than of ignorance, and, being myself guilty on several occasions in this blog of carelessness and poor proof-reading, I am prepared to be charitable about these matters, although I know it can be argued that professional writers writing in national newspapers should be held to higher standards than a mere unpaid blogger such as myself. But let’s leave that aside. More serious is a letter to which Mr Young links, signed by a hundred (count ‘em!) academics, addressed to the Guardian and to the Independent, raising concerns about the new national Curriculum proposed by Michael Gove. Incredibly, this letter is riddled with grammatical errors. A few examples will suffice:

This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity.

Dear me!

This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding.

Is it the teachers or the children who will be subjected to “rote learning without understanding”?. From the context, one may infer it’s the children, but this should have been clear from what is written: the reader shouldn’t need to infer.

Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation. The learner is largely ignored.

Why the change from the future tense to the present tense?

Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity.

“…their experiences, lives and activities”, surely? But even leaving that one aside, the sentence is pisspoor for reasons that may be explained without recourse to grammatical technicalities. In very simple mathematical form:

A.X + A.Y = A.(X+Y)

Put into words, we may apply A to X, and then apply A to Y, and then add them together (that’s the left hand side of the equation); or we may add X and Y together first, and then apply A to the combined entity (the right hand side of the equation). The two amount to the same, but the right hand side is more compact and more elegant.

So, to apply this to a simple sentence, I could say “I’d love a whisky, or I’d love a brandy” (left hand side of the equation); or I could say “I’d love a whisky or a brandy” (right hand side of the equation). They mean the same. In this case:

A = “I’d love a…”

X = “a whisky”

Y = “a brandy”

The offending sentence from the letter quoted above has the same simple structure, and this time:

A = “Little account is taken of…”

X = “children’s potential interests and capacities”

Y = “that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity”

But while A can easily be applied to X (“Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities”), when you apply A to Y, you get gobbledegook (“Little account is taken of that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity”).

In short, it doesn’t take a detailed understanding of grammar to see that this sentence is incorrect: it just takes a basic feel for the language, and for how it works. Those who do not possess even this really have no business pontificating in public on matters of education.

But it is hard to know which is more shocking: that a letter signed by a hundred academics and educationalists should contain basic errors; or that, once these errors have been pointed out, people should write in to the Guardian defending this same letter (one correspondent even describing it as “well written and correct”). For the errors in the academics’ letter are not errors of carelessness, or of proof-reading: these are errors of people who seem neither to know nor to care about even the basics of the language in which they write.

And yes, it matters. The thrust of the various letters in the Guardian defending the academics’ letter seems to be that we know by instinct what is correct and what isn’t, and that this instinct overrides rules; or that language is all about communication, and as long as language communicates, we need not worry about rules; indeed, rules may act a barrier to communication, and certainly act as a barrier to creativity; and so on. The kind of stuff that gives even Ageing Hippyism a bad name.

I am afraid I am enough of a Desiccated Pedant not to be impressed by any of this. Our instinct for language may no doubt be sufficient for our everyday needs (“It’s a sunny day outside”, “My credit card bill is due”, “I fancy a beer”, etc.), but if we wish to express thoughts that are intricate or subtle or precise, we will not be able to do so without an understanding of the intricacies and the subtleties and the precisions of language. Indeed, it’s even worse than that: not only will we not be able to express such thoughts, we won’t be able even to think them. How can I think a subtle thought, or a complex thought, or a precise thought, if I do not possess language of sufficient intricacy, subtlety and precision with which to think them? To deny children the teaching of the intricacies and subtleties and precisions of language – i.e. grammar – is to deny them access not merely to jobs, but to thought itself.

Of course, as Michael Rosen explains so clearly in his article, there is not one single correct grammar, but many. Indeed, he is far from objecting to the teaching of grammar:

Michael Gove wants to position me as someone who is against schools teaching grammar. No, I am someone who thinks that the place for grammar teaching is the secondary school, college and university, and that it should be taught on the basis of the evidence that someone like Professor Debra Myhill has produced. In fact, I am so keen on grammar, I have written a mini-course in grammar and put it up on my blog where it is free for all to read and download.

However, I must confess to reverting to my Desiccated Pedant mode when I read this:

A problem that arises from talking about “correct grammar” is that it suggests that all other ways of speaking or writing are incorrect. This consigns the majority to being in error. Gove might be happy with that way of viewing humanity, but I’m not.

Even if we are to accept that there are alternative grammars all equally valid, it does not follow that there can be nothing that is incorrect. In mathematics, for example, there are many correct ways of solving simultaneous equations; but there are many incorrect ones also that lead to wrong answers. If every mode of speaking or of writing were to be correct, then why bother with teaching grammar in the first place? This applies to any subject: if everything were correct, then why teach anything at all? Isn’t it then merely a case of – as Pirandello put it – right you are if you think you are?

To demonstrate that there is more than one form of Standard English, Michael Rosen gives us the following:

To take one simple example, we can write in modern Standard English: “Do you have any wool?” “Have you got any wool?” “Have you any wool?” All three are acceptable forms of Standard English.

That’s fair enough. But should someone – a child, say, whose first language is not English – say “Do have any wool you got?”, would it not be right to correct the child? Or does Michael Rosen really think that doing so would “consign” the child “to being in error”? For if this child is not corrected, I don’t see we’re doing the child any favour. But if this child is to be corrected, then I don’t really see the validity of Rosen’s point.

Neither am I impressed by the various appeals to “creativity”. I am not even sure what is meant by “creativity” in this context. One cannot, after all, expect someone to be, say, a creative strategist in chess who is ignorant even of the basic moves. Before we even think of creativity, we must provide children material to be creative with. Even a creative genius such as Schubert, even while creating works the quality of which we lesser mortals can but wonder at in awed disbelief, took formal lessons in counterpoint. He did not see these formal lessons as a bar to creativity: quite the opposite.

And sadly, yes, this does mean an element of rote learning. Of course I don’t want to see education as merely a sequence of learning by rote without understanding: no reasonable person, I think, does. But I don’t really see how all rote learning can be avoided. It is not possible to become acquainted with the wonders and the beauties of mathematics without knowing, at the very least, the times tables. And should anyone know of a way of teaching the times tables that does not involve rote learning, I’d be glad to hear it. And so it continues, year after year of boring drudgery, until the beauty of the subject becomes apparent. And similarly with other subjects – both the sciences and the arts: to get to the stage where things get really interesting, one has to trawl through much that is boring and dull. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. Under the circumstances, the Ageing Hippy stance of insisting only on that which excites and stimulates children does strike me as misplaced. It robs them of that which, ultimately, enriches.

So on balance, on matters of education, I think I am more of a Desiccated Pedant than an Ageing Hippy. Which is a bit of a shame, as I’d much rather be on Michael Rosen’s side than on Toby Young’s. Best would be if people could move away from their entrenched positions, and consider seriously what the other side is saying, but, as with anything else, that would be too much to hope for.

Advertisements