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The Debate on English

I have just been marking essays written by university students. The standard is greatly variable, but in some cases I have been astounded at the lack of knowledge of basic grammar, punctuation and the like. So when I saw an article on PhD students and the declining proficiency in the use of English, it piqued my interest. It seems that not only undergraduate students have problems.

Grammar may be boring, but I think that it is very important to have a knowledge of how to write well. Sometimes people just pick up grammar instinctively; but other people need to be taught. My own instinctive knowledge of grammar comes from the fact that I have read a very wide range of well-written literature. Why is it so important? Well, I had difficulty reading one of the essays I was marking because it was so badly written, and it was only on my third read that I worked out that the author had made some excellent points. However, the excellent points were so badly expressed that I could barely understand what the student was trying to say.

I have a unique perspective on this topic because I completed the first three years of high school in Australia, and the second three and a half years of high school in Britain. In Australia, I had cruised on through high school; I had never even had to study to do well in a test. I just picked it up as I went along.

When we moved to England, I was in for a big shock. Admittedly, my school was not a normal English school by any stretch of the imagination. It was highly academic and very competitive. Once, I recall that we had to pray for good marks in our exams (I refused to participate: I regard my marks as arising from my own efforts, not God’s mercy). Initially, I was leagues behind the other students academically, and added to this, no one could understand a word I said. The school called my mother in and gently hinted that I might be mentally retarded in some way. My pride was stung, and for the first time in my life, I studied as hard as I could. I was determined to give those Pommie b*stards a run for their money. I am very proud to say that I did not let my country down in those first set of exams. The pride of Australia was restored.

I found that I got the best of both worlds with a combination of the Australian schooling system and the English schooling system. The Australian system was great for giving me an open mind and encouraging me to think outside the square. But the thing that my English school did a lot better was to give me straw with which to build my bricks. Unfortunately, not all learning is interesting. Some of it is boring, but you need to learn it (by rote if necessary) before you can get onto the interesting stuff. I think ideally, you need to ensure that the foundations are there, and then encourage open minded inquiry.

Everyone in my English school had learnt grammar a few years before I joined the school. But we read “the classics”, wrote hundreds of essays and had our grammar and spelling corrected within an inch of our lives. Woebetide the student who misplaced an apostrophe! These lessons have stayed with me to this day.

Knowing English grammar does not only promote proficiency in the English language. It is useful when one is learning another language. My knowledge about the mechanics of grammar (verbs, adverbs, adjectives, plurals, the like) was actually derived from studying Japanese! It makes it much harder to study a foreign language if you have no idea what a “verb” or a “pronoun” is. With no consciousness of the way in which your own language is constructed it is very hard to learn and understand other languages. A friend and I were theorising that this is one of the reasons why learning second languages is difficult for Australians (apart from the fact that we are so far removed from the rest of the world geographically speaking).

Incidentally, on a related point, I have been following the ongoing debate in The Australian about the teaching of English in Australia and the value of teaching postmodernism. I may be complicit with the fascist hegemony by saying this, but I think that the canon of English literature has its place and should be taught thoroughly before any postmodernist techniques are taught. I don’t care that Shakespeare is a dead white male, I still love his plays and think that he has something to say to everybody. That is part of his genius. When I went to university and studied English literature, critical theory was all the rage. I have studied postmodernism and postcolonial theory, among other things. Some of it was useful and intelligent, some of it was absolute rubbish (as with all things). In my opinion, some theorists strung jargon together so that they sounded very intellectual and clever, but it didn’t actually mean anything. (No one wanted to say so, however; it was a bit like the Emperor’s New Clothes.) On other occasions, deconstructing a text could be useful and enlightening. But I was very glad that I had a very sound education in the canon of English literature before it was deconstructed. You can’t “deconstruct the canon” if you have no idea about it to begin with. Therefore, I think you have to be really careful to build up students’ knowledge before you start to deconstruct it.

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