We don’t need no educashun

There’s nothing so stupid that you won’t find some professor, somewhere, saying it.

My attention has been drawn to this article in which Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at the University of Newcastle, claims that here is no need in our modern world for children to learn spelling and grammar.

“Firstly,” he says, “my phone corrects my spelling so I don’t really need to think about it and, secondly, because I often skip grammar and write in a cryptic way.”

He seems to speak “in a cryptic way” also: anyone have any idea what the bleeding hell he means by “skipping grammar”?

He seems to think that SMS texting language can replace the more traditional forms of written communication, and that this texting language can be used to “write good sentences” and to “convey emotion”. Perhaps. But lack of familiarity with more traditional forms of writing, and ignorance even of the basics of grammar, would mean disaster, one would have thought, in all those very important areas of life where precision of written communication is vital: are we to expect legal documents, say, or medical reports, to be written in textspeak?

And as for our literary heritage, it would become quite incomprehensible. Which, perhaps, wouldn’t cause the good professor to lose much sleep, but would, nonetheless, be quite upsetting for a few old farts like myself, who rather like literature, and feel that our literary heritage ought to be passed on to future generations. But then again, as Prof Mitra says, it would be “a mistake to resist technological change”.

I think Prof Mitra goes a bit wrong, though, in imagining that abbreviating words, doing away with punctuation, and ignoring the rules of syntax in order to communicate in the fewest possible characters, are all new phenomena. For well over a century, and until quite recently, people have been doing just that when sending telegrams. But back then, we didn’t have learned professors telling us that this made unnecessary the learning of spelling or of grammar. Now, that is new.

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29 responses to this post.

  1. If Shakespeare were to read one of our modern novels written in what would be considered proper english, what might he say? While it may be much too early to abandon the principals of basic writing, spelling isn’t an exact science to begin with. It can change simply for political reasons. As for medical texts, most people would need at least a few years of study to understand them in the first place. Progress can paint a much different picture looking forward than looking back.

    Reply

    • Hello Zachary, and welcome.

      I’m not, I must admit, entirely sure what your argument is. Of course language changes over time, and modern English usage would be as unfamiliar to Shakespeare as modern physics would be to Newton. I don’t really see how it follows from this that the teaching of spelling and of grammar has become, or is likely to become, superfluous (if, indeed, that is what you are arguing).

      Cheers,
      Himadri

      Reply

  2. Posted by Erika W. on August 5, 2013 at 9:04 am

    This leaves me shivering in my shoes. Here, in the US, some years ago there was a definite movement around to justify “Black English” as a legitimate language. The argument being that it was racist to correct the illiteracy and poor speech of others. This left some children totally unemployable when they needed to join the work force. I was living in Central Texas at the time and can vouch for this. The museum where I worked hired school leavers under a Federal programme for Summer employment. We could barely understand them and they could not understand us and yet they spoke “English”. Their reading and writing skills were hopeless. They were being doomed to failure.

    Now it is becoming usual to not teach elementary school children cursive writing. Our grandchildren learnt their three Rs in private school but the state schools where they live have fallen for this abysmal practice. Again, this is in rural Texas. The argument used is that of Professor Mitra.

    It doesn’t seem to be realized that this could be stratifying social class in an unpleasant way.

    Reply

    • Hello Erika,
      I doubt very much that textspeak will replace standard English any time soon … However, Prof Mitra does express, in an admittedly extreme form, certain ideas that have been influential in teaching, and which have caused, and are causing, immense damage. “Black English” can certainly be a legitimate and indeed, an expressive way to communicate, but as Alan says so clearly in his comment below, if this is the only way black children are taught to communicate, they will be unable to communicate with anyone outside their own group. Instead of empowering them, this achieves the exact opposite: as you say, it leaves them totally unemployable. This sort of woolly thinking does no-one any favour sat all.

      It is very worrying. My own impression is that standards of literacy are in general falling (compare even the best of today’s newspapers with papers from 30 or 40 years ago), and, given the trends in teaching, this really is no surprise.

      Cheers,
      Himadri

      Reply

  3. Are you sure the good Professor is not being deliberately provocative?

    What is education for? All languages are “real” languages, whether you understand them or not. I have a great difficulty with some Australian English I hear in movies and, yes, black English can be hard to understand also. Education, especially required education, should try to make us members of the whole society, not just a subgroup, no matter how desirable that group is. To do anything else is to cut off opportunity for the child.

    Or perhaps the desire is to change the society? To impose on it the language of a subset, like cryptic texters? Having the use of “standard” English we can communicate easily (and, one hopes, clearly) with each other.

    Reply

    • Hello Nancy,
      i really have no idea what Prof Mitra is up to. It isn’t credible he actually means what he says, so I suppose that is is indeed just trying to be provocative. But why he should wish to provoke in this manner, I really have no idea!

      Of course, unfamiliar dialects of English are difficult to understand. We in Britain are used, I think, to various American modes of speech because we all watch American television programmes and films, but there are many British types of English that many British people have difficulty in understanding! Nothing wrong in speaking in these various forms, obviously, but if we are all to understand each other, we must all have access to a common understanding – i.e. to what we may describe as “standard English”.

      PS there was a marvellous British film from the late 60s called Kes: i don’t know if you’ve seen it, but i often wonder what American audiences would make of the broad Yorkshire dialect in which all the characters speak. As I say – even many british viewers have difficulty with it! (It is a quite marvellous film, though.)

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

      • What I make of the broad Yorkshire dialect is that the general intent comes through but I miss many, many words. We have been watching reruns of the BBC series about the veterinarians and I love the animals and the people but can’t understand most of what they are saying. We need subtitles!

        I had the experience while visiting Edinburgh of standing in line at the post office. The locals were speaking with the man at the window and I couldn’t understand a word. When I reached the front of the line the postal clerk immediately recognized me as American and spoke to me in standard English. Not to speak of the Indians and Pakistanis and Jamaicans I meet here in the U.S. who have accents but speak in perfectly-structured, standard English sentences.

        Don’t count on American spelling. It still retains many homonyms which are spelled differently, depending on the meaning. Not just to-too-two but bear-bare and see-sea, wrung-rung, sere-sear, for example. The memorization is as bad as Chinese. So what we gain in simplicity of grammar (no gender to nouns, minimal verb conjugations) we take away with complex spelling. I wouldn’t mind if someone really did simplify it, but don’t expect it in my lifetime. But then, I didn’t expect the Berlin wall to come down either.

  4. Love the title.

    The idea of simplifying the English grammar and spelling baffles me since I’m French. I find it quite easy already. No genders, hardly any conjugation, no gender/number agreement on verbs or adjectives. Easy.

    We have the same debate here about changing grammar rules and letting go of spelling peculiarities. I’m not against it because I think the difficulty of our grammar and spelling prevents foreigners to learn our language. Too much work to acquire the notions necessary for a basic conversation. (same problem with German, btw)

    The idea of writing in text “language” is ridiculous.

    Reply

    • Hello Emma,
      The title was a reference to the Pink Floyd song “Another Brick in the Wall”. 🙂

      Prof Mitra seems to be proposing not changing the rules of grammar – these rules change naturally over time anyway – but doing away with them altogether!

      And by the way – I am making a serious effort to learn French. (And you’re right: English grammar is quite straightforward in comparison.) I was in Toulouse last week, and I still find French very difficult to follow at conversational speed. But as far as reading is concerned – i want to be able to read the Asterix books unaided by teh end of this year; and, once I have conquered Asterix, there’s Baudelaire, there’s Flaubert, there’s Proust … er, i’m not being too ambitious, am I? 🙂

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

      • I know the song, part of my adolescence, even if I was more into children songs when it went out.

        Good to know you’re learning French. Do your relatives in Toulouse have a Southern accent? It’s pretty strong there.
        I hate to burst your bubble but Astérix might be more difficult to read than Baudelaire. So many puns, allusions and play-on-words… I’d recommend starting with Gaston Lagaffe or Boule et Bill. Or Mafalda: you’d love Mafalda.

  5. I will bet that time-traveling Shakespeare – we should be so lucky – would figure out modern English quickly. He was a clever chap.

    Himadri, I will bet you one beer that this idea is not at all new, and that we could find someone similarly eminent making a similar argument a hundred years ago, although not using text messaging as a justification, I admit that. We need an expert on the History of Bad Ideas to tell us who wins the bet.

    Prof. Mitra sounds like the perfect TED Talker.

    Reply

    • Hello Tom,
      Didn’t Bernard Shaw back the standardisation of English spelling? (While all the time himself spelling “show” as “shew”?) American spelling tends to be more phonetic than British spelling – but then they had to ruin it all by going with Arkansas instead of Arkansaw…

      i don’t know about the bet, though. OK, I’ll go for it: I bet you a beer (it’ll have to be a virtual one, I fear) that there was no-one of any importance (by which I mean a senior academic, or something similar, rather than some gin-soaked sot of the streets) who had suggested that the way in which telegrams were written could and should replace standard English, and that, therefore, grammar and spelling need not be taught.

      Cheers for now, Himadri

      Reply

  6. Hello Himadri, this is one of those things that really makes me upset. It seems that nothing is safe from these awful people who want to change everything that was stable. If none of the young people can write, spell, or use grammar, then I pity the children. But then, just because something is not taught at school doesn’t mean that it can’t be taught at home. When I was very small, before starting school, my mother taught me how to read and write, and that is what parents should do if the school doesn’t. My question is, if these, and other subjects such as the old literature, arts and music etc… are being put away, then what exactly are they teaching the students? It will be very sad if they only know about figures and business, don’t you think?

    I think Shakespeare would think contemporary English to be very dull, unromantic and artless, and the modern wardrobe hilarious!

    By the way, I have never texted yet and hope to never do so, as all that cryptic typing and abbreviating makes me cringe!

    Reply

    • Hello Lori,

      I think Shakespeare had found yellow stockings, cross-gartered, also ridiculous! He had a very sharp eye for the ridiculous, I think…

      I don’t think we need worry about textspeak replacing standard English any time soon: the whole notion is absurd. But it is dispiriting when professors specialising in education should suggest such nonsense – even if intended to shock. My own perception is that the quality of literacy has fallen significantly over the last few decades, and that it is not taken very seriously at school. i have seen many essays written by our children that have come back marked by the teacher (with an encouraging “Well done” or “Keep up the good work” at the end), but which were riddled with spelling and grammatical errors that hadn’t even been pointed out, let alone corrected. Yes, parents can certainly do much at home, but parents should not be expected to act as proxy teachers. That standard English should be taught to everyone in English speaking countries as a matter of course is really to obvious, one might have thought, to need saying!

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

  7. Sometimes I think that even people who should be thoughtful like Sugata Mitra might be saying things for a shock value. As you point out he cannot really believe that the new “text speak” should be used ubiquitously, can he?

    I personally have always been a little on the weak side when it comes to spelling. Thus I heartily welcomed the advent of the spell checker. It is however a tool to help improve our spelling and grammar, not an excuse to discard it.

    Reply

    • Hello Brian,
      Yes, I guess he may well be saying this for the “shock value”, but I don’t understand why he should want to shock in the first place! I for one would love to see Prof Mitra get the results of a medical examination written in textspeak! How would that be for shock value? 🙂

      Cheers, himadri

      Reply

  8. I may have repeated this story elsewhere – forgive me if I have – but I once attended a lecture by Toni Morrison at which someone in the audience asked her about “Ebonics” (African American Vernacular English), and whether she was fine with kids speaking it. She paused for a moment, then began discussing the many forms of English – street English, legal English, business English, etc., and how valuable it is to be versed in as many forms of a language as possible. She nicely concluded, by way of this roundabout response, that “someone who, for example, knows only Standard English is at a severe disadvantage in this society.” She would not, I think, be a partisan for Professor Mitra’s apparent advocacy of an either/or approach.

    Reply

    • Posted by Malcolm on August 6, 2013 at 9:18 pm

      I didn’t know the context for Professor Mitra’s speech, or who he is, but a linguist on a message board I belong to said this:

      “He became a Prof by being just an amazing scientist of huge importance on the world stage. Newcastle is very lucky to have him.

      He’s known for his ‘hole in the wall’ project in rural India. He left computers in the walls of houses in villages where the education system delivered very little. The point was that he left no instructions whatsoever. And yet children with precious little education managed — by trial and error, by collaboration and by sharing insights — to learn how to use the computers in an amazing variety of ways. I’ve seen him explaining his work on TV, and he’s enormously impressive.

      What he’s Professor of at Newcastle is Educational Technology, but he has been an outstanding Physicist, inventor and theoretician in computing and the cognitive sciences. He really is a twenty-first century Leonardo. He makes spelling-obsessed Michael Gove look like an intellectual pigmy in a mental straightjacket.

      Mitra was talking about educational priorities. Spelling and the structures characteristic of formal and technical writing have not lost all importance, but the priority Gove attaches to them is a perfectly respectable target for one of the world’s leading experts on trends in technologically-assisted communication.”

      Reply

      • Hello Caro (I assume this is you and not your other half Malcolm!),

        As I said before, I am quite glad I am not on this board from which you quote, as I would get into the most serious disagreements and heated arguments. It wouldn’t be good for my blood pressure.

        I actually work in a very technological area myself. My company sells software. I am an operational research analyst – i.e. I do the statistical analysis of data, design mathematical algorithms, and so on. I’ve worked in this kind of area for nearly 30 years now. And one thing I can tell you is that in all places where I have worked, an immense amount of time is wasted because too many documents are badly written. And they are badly written because the writers do not have an adequate grasp of English to write clearly and unambiguously. Quite often, one has to set down on paper very complex procedures, and to do this well requires a good grasp of the English language – i.e. a good understanding of grammar.

        Prof Mitra’s credentials are certainly impressive in his area, but if thinks we need less understanding of grammar rather than more, he is badly mistaken. If he thinks formal documents can be written in SMS texting language, then, frankly, he is a loony.

        I know Gove-bashing is very fashionable amongst many. Some of it is deserved: there are many points on which I disagree strongly with Gove. But when he says that literature is an important aspect of our culture, and that, therefore, it is important to teach it to a high level, then, yes, I agree most enthusiastically. And when people like Prof Mitra suggests doing away with learning certain things without which literature cannot even be approached, then I feel I have no common ground whatever with those who applaud him.

        For too many years now, literature is seen as something relatively unimportant, and as a consequence, the level of teaching both of literature and of English language has plummeted – at least in British schools. (I speak as a father of two children, now aged 21 and 17: the teaching both of English language and of English literature that I have observed has been, by and large, a disgrace.) So when an education secretary speaks of the value of literature, and of the importance of teaching it properly, my impulse is to applaud.

        And, moving away from the arts, we need to be able to communicate clearly in writing in a vast range of vitally important areas – legal documents, forensic reports, medical textbooks, safety procedures … and so on. To communicate clearly in complex areas requires a good grasp of the English language – i.e. a good grasp of grammar. And, as far as I have seen, this is often badly lacking. If Prof Mitra thinks we can communicate effectively in these areas in textspeak, then he is, as I said, a loony.

        Cheers, Himadri

    • Hello Scott,

      Toni Morrison expressed herself very diplomatically. Of course, knowing only standard English puts one at a disadvantage, when there are so many types of English, so many of which are capable of being used creatively and expressively. But one may add, I think, that not to know standard English at all is an even greater disadvantage. For standard English is the kind of English in which engineering textbooks, environmental studies, government policies, post-mortem reports, etc etc are written. Not in dialects or patois, however expressive they may be if used well – but in standard English. Yes, it is good to learn different types of English, but standard English is surely the most important type to learn!

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

  9. Posted by alan on August 6, 2013 at 9:35 pm

    To repeat what has been said before by many others and in different ways:
    Excluding the many practical consideration like Law, Medicine and EngineeringI that are unattractive to those of artistic leanings, in order to have a shared culture that persists through time we need a language that has some continuity, and part of that continuity is a recognised grammatical structure.
    By treating the desire to propagate a shared culture as somehow imperialist, and therefore trying to promote the language of minorities and excluding ‘standard’ English, what happens is that instead of liberating and empowering those minorities we ghettoise them and make them unable to communicate with anybody but themselves. Academics and wealthy intellectuals may have the leisure to learn several forms of expression but most people do not.
    Recently a Nigerian journalst bemoaned the fact that 20 years ago educated Nigerians could speak 4 languages: a local language, a regional language like Yoruba, pidgin English and standard English. Now, he opined, with regret, that young people spoke a mishmash of all of these, and nothing else, and that this was unintelligible outside of Nigeria.
    There are no easy answers, and we should try to protect minority languages, but I am also confident that a lot of fashionable educational practice that has been developed under the banner of emancipation has only served to enslave.

    Reply

  10. Posted by alan on August 6, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    Malcolm. Good quote, but largely an argument from authority with a dubious extrapolation: he’s done some good physics, he’s helped people learn to use computers by trial an error (not much of a revelation that this is a good approach to those of us who work in conputing), so therefore he must be good at everything else and we are not worthy to comment.

    Reply

  11. Oh, you care about the telegram part of the bet. I concede, then, and owe you a beer. I figured that was just a detail. The anti-spelling ed reformer of a hundred years would have had some up-to-the-minute excuse.

    Regardless, your commenters inspired me to look into Mitra’s ideas more, which was enlightening. That is a pun I made there, because it turns out the ideas are nothing but techno-Rousseau. I am embarrassed I did not see that immediately.

    I highly recommend Émile: or, On Education (1762) to anyone interested in Mitra’s ideas. The chapter where the tutor tricks his plump pupil into exercising by dangling cake in front of him is a highlight of 18th century literature.

    Mitra’s big innovation is that he can dismiss 250 years of debate over Rousseau’s ideas by claiming that we now have a technical solution to all of the objections. He is not out for shock, but believes that through guided experiential (“self-organized”) learning (crucially aided by technology), students will pick up all of the spelling, grammar, and basic math they need, through use. They will not write in textspeak. Their smartphone will see to that, and if the software cannot quite clean up a medical report yet, it will soon enough. Thus, the big TED prize.

    In this recent Guardian article, Mitra seems to suggest replacing the study of spelling, etc. with learning to “set up an organisation-wide Google calendar and find out where the most reliable sources of venture capital are.” As Caro says, or quotes, Mitra is merely “talking about educational priorities.” Setting up a Google calendar is a skill that will never, ever become obsolete, unlike basic multiplication.

    I get the idea that Mitra has no real interest in the humanities. Knowledge about history or art is something you can look up on Google, so there is no point in really knowing any of it. ‘A child being taught the history of Vikings in England says to me: “We could have found out all that in five minutes if we ever needed to.”‘ The wisdom of children!

    In summary, whenever I visit England, the first beer is on me, as are several subsequent beers.

    Reply

    • Tom, you did what i should have done – I should have done some reearch on this chap instead of dshing off a quick post in the heat of the moment after reading the Telegraph article. But, as that chap in Shakespeare said, anger hath a privilege. (He is put intto the stocks shortly afterwards.)

      So this is all neo-Rousseauism! I have read a lot about Rousseau’s ideas on education, but have yet to read Émile: another one for the to-be-read list, I think. The ipicture of teh fat child tricked into exercising by a dangling cake does suggest that Rousseau is not perhaps as humourless as I had thought him.

      I too get the idea that Mitra has no interest in the humanities. I’d go further and suggest that he is more than indifferent to the humanities subjects: he is hostile to them. And if he thinks that learning these subjects is no more than garnering information that can be obtained from Google searches, he seems to have little understanding of them.

      As for the beer I very much look forward to your visit. I think we may both owe each other a few beers. To whet your thirst, here are a few pictures of my local pub.

      Reply

  12. I have been accused of being a grammar and spelling Nazi, so you can possibly imagine that my initial thoughts on Professor Mitra’s comments are not at all nice.

    And, of course, if you can’t say something nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all. 😉

    Reply

  13. When I read lunatic positions like this, I’m glad I have my blog, a little patch where sanity continues to be the rule of the fucking land! It’s just a pity I can’t live in it with you guys, Tom and Himadri, all the time. Sometimes I have to live in the world of Sugata Mitra too…

    Reply

    • But that’s the advantage of the internet – we can create our own cyber-society of like-minded people!

      Of course, some will say that Sugata Mitra’s world is the “real world” (as opposed to our owrld, which is, somehow, not real, I suppose… Hmmm, this could lead to some interesting existentialist questions …) But in truth, I don’t think Sugata Mitra’s world – at least, that aspect of it he presents here – is particularly “real” either. Learning to write well and to write coherently and lucidely – which involves learning such things as spelling and grammar – is not likely to be demoted in the list of priorities any time soon, I think! Prof Mitra is merely trying to provoke those with leaning towards the humanities, whom I’d guess he despises.

      Reply

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