This Earth, This Relm, This England
England seems to be in a beastly stew over the teaching of English in their schools. Since I have not read of it in our paper, this tempest seems not to have crossed the Atlantic.
Perhaps we are so concerned with the problem in our own schools that we have little interest in England’s.
It has reached such a pitch, however, that the Prince of Wales himself stunned educators and titillated the island kingdom by complaining that English was taught “so bloody badly” he had to correct all the letters produced by his own staff.
I have been brought up to date on this heroic conflict by a batch of English newspaper clippings on the subject sent to me by Herb Lucas of Lompoc on his return from an English holiday.
Angered by certain academics who had argued that English could not be taught by rote and drilling, Prince Charles thundered: “All the people in my office can’t speak properly, can’t write properly and can’t punctuate. I have to correct all the letters myself. English is taught so bloody badly.
“I do not believe English is being taught properly. You cannot educate people properly unless you do it on a basic framework and drilling system.”
The prince’s frustration suggests a fascinating picture of him sitting at his desk in exasperation, correcting a misspelled word here, adding a semicolon there, excising a misplaced apostrophe, scratching out a solecism, while his ensemble of secretaries tremble in the background.
What makes the prince’s outburst so shocking, of course, is that one would naturally suppose that the very best secretarial help would be available to the future king. If the prince’s own secretaries can’t spell, what shape must the rest of the nation’s secretarial pool be in!
There are so many dissident factions in the debate--educators at various levels, committees, teachers unions, editors, the secretary of education and a National Curriculum Council charged with making recommendations for revising the system.
The clippings reflect the gist of that august body’s final report, a report so tentative, equivocal and fantastical that it might be a sequel to “Alice in Wonderland.”
Its circumlocutions are not easy to understand, but its main thrust seems to be that “listening and talking” are more important than “reading and writing,” and that students should not be taught standard English at the expense of their individual dialects.
It holds that non-standard phrases such as “We was,” “He ain’t,” “She come here yesterday,” “They never saw nobody, " and “Theirselves” should be treated as “objects of interest and value, and not ridiculed.”
Such locutions are not errors, it held, and are not likely to be misunderstood. It is “historically inaccurate and conceptually confused,” the report said, to think of non-standard English as “a distortion or deviation from the purity of Standard English.”
It recommended that Standard English should not be introduced “at too early a stage.” It should supplement a pupil’s dialect, not replace it. Also, parsing sentences, drills and meaningless exercises labeling parts of speech were condemned as mechanical and uninteresting.
As for reading, its teaching should be based on “the pleasure principal.” Secondary pupils might be introduced to such classics as the Authorized Version of the Bible, Wordsworth’s poems and the novels of Dickens; maybe even Shakespeare. However, that did not mean they had to read Shakespeare.
“The once-traditional method where desk-bound pupils read the text has been advantageously replaced by exciting, enjoyable approaches that are social, imaginative and physical.” These might include films, videotapes, songs and dances and dramatic improvisations. Pupils could read books later if they wanted to.
The Daily Telegraph, in an editorial, took a dim view of this liberal approach. “Any school wishing to equip its pupils well for modern life must know that eradicating their non-standard forms and solecisms, and imparting to them a command of language, are the best means to this end. . . .”
Meanwhile, Nigel de Gruchy, deputy general secretary of the National Assn. of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers, suggested that Prince Charles probably did not pay his help enough to get people who could spell.
“If he has to swear,” de Gruchy said, “he is proving that the public schools are as bad as the state ones. It is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.”
Professor Higgins, where are you when they need you?