Vol. 11 No. 16 · 31 August 1989
I was surprised, on recieving the latest LRB (LRB, 17 August), to find myself being persued in your Diary by an educationilist, Jane Miller, for stating (in a Guardian diary) that, in my experience of teaching at Cambridge and Oxford, undergraduates’ standards in spelling suffered from increasing innacuracy. The innacuracy is simply a fact, and there is growing concensus about the problem in universities. It will not be superceded by Ms Miller’s blusterings to the effect a. that we should not mention it, b. that it isn‘t a real problem and c. that the Government’s to blame.
Maybe she is right to diffend bad spelling as far as these schools are concerned where the neccesary priority is to get any sort of words through the Walkmen But in higher education? Hopefully, educationilists won’t be dismisive if universities have to raise the whole problem officially, although hopelessly their response so far has mainly been one of spluttering indignation at the messengers, for bearing bad news.
What you do about the problem, I don’t claim to know. In my Guardian piece I carefully suggested that teachers were not entirely to blame. If it were up to me, I’d pay them twice as much, and give them greater powers of discipline and selection, but in return for a school day and a school year that were less of a conspirecy against working parents and latch-key children. The money for this might perhaps be found by cutting down the budgits and numbers of educationilists. No one outside their ranks would weep. And to console themselves, they could always devise another examination where there is a pass-mark for hurt feelings.
Professor of Modern History, Oxford
Vol. 11 No. 18 · 28 September 1989
The question of who owns the English language and has a lawful right to interpret and teach it has been reopened, it seems, by Jane Miller (LRB, 17 August). ‘There are significant confusions here,’ she observes, after quoting a number of criticisms of the standard of English among recent generations of undergraduates at British universities. The critics are ‘irritable persons’; also, later, ‘tetchy pundits’ who are joining in ‘the abjectly ill-informed and irrelevant debate …’ Prince Charles ‘splutters’, Hugh Trevor-Roper ‘dreams of Greek particles’. Not much is gained by calling a debate ‘irrelevant’ without saying to what it is irrelevant; we can do our best to deal with the problem only where we find it, which for university teachers is with our students. It does not seem irrelevant to us when we have been confronted in recent years by a steep and alarming decline in the use and comprehension of the language, which manifests itself in incoherent writing and consequently in incompetence in developing coherent arguments. As for spelling, which I place at the lower end of the spectrum of concerns, intelligent people sometimes have a spelling ‘block’, but the phenomenon becomes more disturbing when it is only one symptom of a general linguistic impairment.
The recent phase of this debate was actually provoked by a comment of the Oxford University examining board in Modern History in 1988 on what it called evidence of ‘creeping illiteracy’ among finals candidates. At a subsequent faculty meeting at which I had spoken, I was requested by the Chairman to write a paper for the Faculty’s next meeting. In this paper – in which I added the word ‘galloping’ – I cited some cases of the misuse of English in the House of Lords, on the BBC and in the Times, but went on to argue that university history tutors have a responsibility for teaching clear writing to their own students, which they cannot brush aside with the disclaimer, ‘Our job is teaching history, not English,’ on the grounds that the latter ends as well as begins in the schools. I said: ‘There can be no history without knowledge, and there can be no understanding of history without interpretation, which necessarily involves an ability to explain.’ And also, a bit later: ‘Most of the people we teach may be able to survive twenty years later with only a tenuous grasp of whether the Normans did or did not introduce feudalism into England, but they emphatically will need to know how to construct a sequential argument and to elucidate the analysis of a complex problem.’ I would obviously not wish to confine these arguments to the discipline of history.
The publication of this paper in the Times HIgher Educational Supplement (9 June) led to correspondence from which I soon learnt that other British universities had already begun to introduce remedial courses in English structure and usage. Ms Miller says there is ‘no evidence whatsoever to suggest that things were otherwise in the past.’ Well, ‘whatsoever’ is strong language; British universities, so far as I know, have not found it necessary to establish remedial courses in the past. I am not sure whether Ms Miller does not wish to admit that a serious problem exists, or does not want teachers to be blamed. Or perhaps she thinks that it is undemocratic to maintain that a connection exists between the principles of grammar and ultimate clarity of thought and expression. (Some people do think this.) I am sorry to say that I agree with her about the lack of will in this country ‘to provide excellent education for all children’. But that does not explain all the shortcomings of the education that the country does provide. Soon after this debate had broken out (and I was happy to welcome Prince Charles as an ally, though I think he should take more care in selecting his own staff) I heard some portentous official duffer on the BBC assuring us that in the Midland working-class areas where he teaches it would be pointless to tell children about past participles (or words to that effect) because they wouldn’t know what on earth you meant. Here one wishes to agree with Ms Miller’s axiom of good teaching that failure should not be blamed on the learners.
Our critics imply that we are a bunch of toffee-nosed élitists, no doubt using the language as an instrument of class exploitation: but if so, I fear that I am the kind of élitist who finds it offensive to suggest that working-class children (or immigrant children) either cannot understand or will never need to understand the finer distinctions of which the language is capable. The diagnosis of the recent deterioration needs to be directed towards the theories of educationalists more than to the will of politicians. I do not recede from a remark I made that a ‘softening process’ came over English educational philosophy around the Sixties – it had appeared earlier in the United States – which seems to have infected a significant proportion of those now charged with teaching with the conviction that any form of mental effort inflicts brain damage on children. I and some of my irritable colleagues seem to have a higher opinion of children than many of those who teach them.
One of my correspondents told me, however, that the trouble began in the Fifties with HMIs going round discouraging teachers from teaching grammar on the ground that it stifles children’s creativity. I have never understood this argument. Of course you can teach anything, including literature, and probably creativity, in a way that stifles creativity: that is a reason for doing it well, not for pretending that it doesn’t matter, and wiping it off the educational agenda. I believe that this has been a substantial source of the decline, and has nothing to do with social class or political will.
Our young people are brought up in a world in which visual and graphic means of communication overwhelm written forms. But it has yet to be demonstrated that visual communication makes for clearer thinking or more rigorous analysis, or that it conveys a level of understanding comparable to that of the written word for either depth or permanence. That will never cease to be a responsiblity of universities, but it is one that begins in the schools, and it should be returned to them. A lot of children don’t go to universities.
Rhodes Professor of American History and Institutions, Oxford
Vol. 11 No. 19 · 12 October 1989
Jane Miller and Norman Stone are at odds over the problem of poor standards of English spelling: yet, like most native speakers of English, neither of them appears to understand the real nature of the problem, let alone its solution. In fact, it is not entirely clear that Jane Miller accepts that misspelling is a problem at all, while Professor Stone at least admits he is stumped. It does credit to both that they do not really want to blame either teachers or children for poor spelling. But if teachers and children are not to blame, then who is? The answer has been known for four hundred years, yet it is rarely mentioned these days when the problem is discussed. We need to remind ourselves of a few elementary linguistic facts.
When languages are first written down in alphabetic form, the method used is, as far as possible, to match the letters to the sounds they represent. So it was, more or less, with Anglo-Saxon, and so it is today, more or less, with most languages other than English and French. To the extent that the spelling of a language follows this basic alphabetic principle, correct spelling and indeed the acquisition of literacy skills in general pose little difficulty. Sometimes teachers have used a regularised phonetic spelling system for teaching basic literacy skills in English, the Initial Teaching Alphabet being a recent example, and the results have always proved dramatically better than has ever been possible with conventional spelling. Conversely, when one examines the many mistakes people make in conventional spelling, it is obvious that they arise when spellings are unphonetic and when there is no unambiguous correspondence between the pronunciation of words and the letters used to spell them.
Thus we do not often find words such as rag or forbid being misspelt. But the spelling mistakes quoted by Jane Miller and those deliberately used by Norman Stone all show an element of ambiguity. The sound does not tell us which spelling to use for the first syllable in persue, pursuade, and it is hard to know how the final syllable of privilidge should be written when we have such a variety of possibilities such as in village, college, knowledge, vestige, porridge. Why should not receive follow the model of believe, why should not educationalist follow nihilist? Nothing in the sound of the words tells us why not, yet the sound is the only information on which, in the heat of writing, the native speaker can base the spelling of most words.
Two points are clear: 1. the function of alphabets is to represent the sound of words, and 2. when they do not, literacy suffers and misspelling is an inevitable consequence. However, we have to go further than this: we have to recognise that the pronunciation of languages changes in the course of time, and that the spelling should be expected to change with it. Many languages have taken steps in the 20th century to ensure that their spelling is aligned more closely with their pronunciation. But in English there has not been for the past three hundred years the necessary understanding of how writing systems work to enable such modernisation to take place. The occasional adjustment such as show for shew, fantasy for phantasy, medieval for mediaeval, has been just a drop in the ocean of our antiquated, cumbersome and for all too many people cripplingly inconvenient writing system.
Vol. 11 No. 20 · 26 October 1989
It appears to me that Jane Miller’s spirited and indignant defence of schoolteachers (LRB, 17 August) is, as counter-attack, directed less against ‘tetchy pundits’ in the universities and elsewhere than against a government which by financial and other means has made education in the proper use of English more and more difficult. Professor Pole (Letters, 28 September) now returns, with the Government, Prince Charles and others, to ‘blaming teachers’. When accusations and defences are so various one looks for a more general cause.
Something so undeniable and so nearly universal as the present disregard for precision in the use of English (and of other languages, needless to say) must clearly be reckoned part of contemporary culture. A dominant feature of that culture – I am tempted to say the dominant culture of all forms of popular communication – is advertising. In the West at least, advertising in all available modes, visual, auditory, verbal, supplies not just the ambience in which ‘our young people are brought up’ but the atmosphere in which all of us live and which most have come to accept.
Acceptance is the real point: not that we believe what advertisements tell us, but that we don’t care about their ‘truth’, because in one or another of innumerable ways – there is literally no end to the forms of flattery – they tell us what we want to hear. This is a commonplace observation, of course, an account of the arts of persuasion at least as old as Plato. What we have forgotten, or have been persuaded to forget, is the moral effect of allowing ourselves to be influenced by what we know to be untrue. Untrue in intention, whether or not it may be ‘true to fact’.
As an agent of corruption, of long and continuing growth, now pervading the whole of our commercial civilisation, advertising governs a great deal of behaviour, and especially our attitudes to language. Reinforced by behaviourist theories of communication (defined not as conveying information but as any act that produces reaction, as a loud noise can ‘communicate’, or excite, fear or rage), the expectation is no longer that language can tell us what is the case; whether or not we believe there is anything that can be called the truth we don’t expect words even to approximate it. People make sounds, or other signs, merely to nudge one another into some desired action; if it is not always to buy something, that remains the paradigm. (We ‘sell’ ideas.) If that is so, who cares about clarity and propriety in the use of language?
Blame for this general condition can hardly be attached exclusively to any group – not even, perhaps, to a government as enthralled by advertising as the present one. But teachers, though far from being most at fault, do have a special responsibility in trying to deal with it. Might not special courses in detecting and exposing the language of deception have a key position in the teaching of English? Might they not have a real, creative interest for a generation who, whatever else they may or may not know, know that they are always being conned? Would the Department of Education accept such a course as part of the core curriculum?
Vol. 11 No. 21 · 9 November 1989
I am surprised that someone who comes from Birmingham, as Christopher Upward does (Letters, 12 October), can ponder a spelling system based on pronunciation. Between ‘plonk’ in the West-Midlands and ‘plenk’ down here, at least ‘plank’ has the virtue of being neutral. Perhaps I should add that I spent my first 19 years in Wolverhampton.