When teachers can’t write (follow up).

A response to my previous blog (When teachers can’t write) was posted on Facebook by a teacher. It makes the point that nurturing young minds and helping children to become well rounded adults is more important than knowing where to put an apostrophe. A fair point, of course. Here’s what the teacher said:

“There is a difference between spelling and writing. Not being able to spell doesn’t mean that you are not able to love, nurture, motivate, inspire, convey, supervise and entertain as well as TEACH and in my book those come a LOT higher on the list of priorities for what a teacher needs to be able to do than be the perfect apostrophe placer. Did I mention not verbally, mentally, sexually, and physically abusing children because people might want to think about what they REALLY want from their teachers when they look for professionals of perfect punctuation. There is a hell of a lot at stake in teaching and behind that badly placed apostrophe, you might be looking at someone who does amazing things for a larger number of children every year than the author even comes into contact with in a lifetime.”

Fair enough. But why should we make such a miserable compromise? The ability to spell words and punctuate sentences should be a prerequisite for being a teacher. Or, indeed, any kind of professional person. These skills should be acquired by the age of 10 or 12 and then practised regularly. By the age of 16, children should be able to write essays in history or biology in language that is as good as it would be in an English exam. Then, when would-be teachers arrive at university, their ability to use the language shouldn’t be an issue. They should be able to concentrate on developing the skills specific to teaching: those important, civilising skills mentioned in the quoted passage above.

But what if a school were blessed with an inspiring teacher who was a genius at mathematics or music but who was rubbish at spelling and grammar? Such teachers could be allowed to continue on the understanding that they didn’t write anything but equations and music notation. School reports and class handouts would all have to be sub-edited by someone else.

Seriously? Is grammar really that important? 
Yes, seriously. Grammar really is that important. Clear thinking and clear writing go together and help each other. If you learn grammar and then read a well constructed sentence, you can appreciate the subtlety and the precision the writer intended. Then when you construct your own sentences, you have the ability to shift emphasis, make fine distinctions and so on. You can ask a question or make a statement in different ways, being subtle, forceful, tactful, enigmatic or whatever.

People who dislike or dismiss grammar tend to perceive it as a set of unnecessary rules observed by a self-appointed elite. They suspect its only purpose is to enable such ‘grammar Nazis’ to recognise each other. It’s silly to use the word Nazi in this context but grammar fanatics do exist and are widely disdained. It may surprise you to learn, dear reader, that I share this disdain. Grammar is not there simply to be learned and insisted upon. Its job is to bring clarity, precision and subtlety to a sequence of words. By teaching, learning and using grammar, we are giving civilisation a chance.

Our society is based on communication. Of course we can say nasty and abusive things as well as loving and constructive things but for civilisation to have a chance, we need clarity – clear thought, clear expression, clear understanding. The U.S. Republican, Todd Akin, suffered a self-inflicted blow to his career in August 2012 when he used the term legitimate rape. From the context, it was clear that he did not mean to suggest that rape could be acceptable or legally permissible. In fact, he said it was important to punish rapists but the content of his statement was utterly lost. First, he made the mistake of not thinking clearly which led to him not expressing himself clearly. What he meant to talk about was rape that is really rape – an act of penetration that uses violence or force. By using the word legitimate, he meant ‘criminal sexual penetration’ or ‘rape as it is legally defined’.

All over the world, badly educated activists pounced on the term legitimate rape and denounced the Congressman for suggesting that rape could be acceptable. But he never said that. What he actually said happened to be a load of gynecological bollocks* but no-one noticed. [* Yes, I know.]

Instead of considering a whole sentence and working out the meaning, the unthinking activists, fulminated against a single phrase. Their outraged outpourings were very similar to the angry exchanges you see in arguments on Facebook. People pick up one or two words or phrases from a piece of writing, leap to the wrong conclusion and then fire off an insulting reply. Compare the arguments in the letters pages of newspapers such as The Times with the drivel that drives much of Facebook and you’ll see what I mean. People who get letters published in quality newspapers are people who have learned to think clearly and express themselves clearly. If they are replying to a letter from another reader, they will have read and understood that letter first.

When a generation of teachers fails to teach grammar, the result is a generation of school leavers who are deficient in the skills of thinking, understanding and expressing themselves in their native language. To starve young minds of grammar is, in my view, a form of child abuse. And it’s bad news for civilisation.

For those readers who understand French, here is something to think about from La Peste by Albert Camus.

Le mal qui est dans le monde vient presque toujours de l’ignorance, et la bonne volonté peut faire autant de dégâts que la méchanceté, si elle n’est pas éclairée. Les hommes sont plutôt bons que mauvais, et en vérité ce n’est pas la question. Mais ils ignorent plus ou moins, et c’est ce qu’on appelle vertu ou vice, le vice le plus désespérant étant celui de l’ignorance qui croit tout savoir et qui autorise alors a tuer. L’ame du meurtrier est aveugle et il n’y a pas de vraie bonté ni de belle amour sans toute la clairvoyance possible.

And here’s an English translation:

The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good will can do as much harm as evil if it is not enlightened. On the whole, men are more good than bad and that is not really the question. But they are more-or-less ignorant and it is this that we call virtue or vice. The most incorrigible vice is the ignorance that believes it knows everything and then authorises itself to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind and there is no real kindness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.

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2 thoughts on “When teachers can’t write (follow up).

  1. To excuse poor literacy skills by asserting that the person displaying them has more important things to do is the first and last refuge of the incompetent. The descent of good English into journalese, jargon and illiteracy continues unabated, and it’s a tragedy that someone who is supposed to uphold its standards fails to do so and is defended on the grounds of task-priority. Why does it follow, anyway, that a teacher who doesn’t know what a defining clause is should be any better at dealing with a pupil’s emotional problems? I’d guess that a teacher with questionable literacy skills also has defects in other departments: failing to grasp the logic of English suggests that the ability to deal with a pupil’s personal or social difficulties might also be deficient. The defence by your respondent reminds me of the bad old days (that’s a cliché, by the way) when kids were encouraged in schools to express themselves without being hampered by the constraints of punctuation, spelling and the like. It wasn’t that these were unavoidable as part of learning but that they were not corrected on the grounds that too many red marks would be discouraging. To which one can only utter the idomatic ‘Bollocks!’. We live in a visual culture, teachers included, and words, verbal expression and rules of grammar are passé or ‘uncool’. The difference is that teachers are trained and paid to uphold them. Some do and some – because they know no better – don’t. W.H.Auden said the most important duty for a writer was to know and state the difference between ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’. A teacher, by definition, should understand what he meant.
    And if there are any solecisms in this post it’s because I haven’t spotted them. That’s different from not knowing they’ve been committed.

  2. A heartening response, Nigel. If you look at the Facebook notice about this WordPress update, you will see that my respondent has made some more contributions including “Teachers stopped teaching grammar because of GOVERNMENTS.”

    In some countries, that might be true. But in Britain, I think the trendy dereliction of duty was instigated by teachers at a time when schools were comparatively free to teach whatever and however they liked so long as they included a certain amount of religious education.

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