Sunday 1 April 2012

Gove: what ignorance,what arrogance

In this quarter's 'Classroom' the National Association for the Teaching of English journal Number 16, Spring 2012, the admirable Dan Clayton has an article called 'Classroom Grammar' (pp16-18)

Here is one passage:

'And Michael Gove seems to think that grammar teaching is important too, but the problem is that when he talks about grammar he's probably talking about something very different to what linguists mean by grammar. If his recent pronouncements are anything to go by, English teachers need only nip out out their local Victorian book vendor and pick up a copy of Simon Heffer's Strictly English wherein they will find all the grammar what ain't teached properly nowdays. As he said to his audience at Cambridge University in November 2011,

"Conventional grammar - as we understand it here and as Simon Heffer lays it out masterfully in his wonderful  book 'Strictly English' doesn't feature in the English curriculum. But the English Language GCSE can include listening to tape recordings of Eddie Izzard and the Hairy Bikers." '

[End of quote from Michael Gove and Dan Clayton]

So let's unpack some of this. The Secretary of State for Education is praising a book on grammar by a journalist, calling it 'wonderful' and praising it for laying out 'grammar' 'masterfully'. We can only presume then, that top linguists must agree with this view, otherwise why would the head Education honcho be rooting for such a book? Well, Geoff Pullum in the Times Higher Education said that Heffer 'should be ashamed of himself' and indeed his publishers Random House too, and David Crystal in the 'New Statesman' said that that 'there is no logic in his recommendations' and that it works on the basis of 'if I like it, it's logical; if I don't, it isn't'.

I reviewed the book for BBC Radio 3's 'Night Waves' and met face to face with Heffer. I noted that Heffer can't even describe the language according to the outdated system of language-description he uses. In other words, he's not very good at the very thing he demands others to be good at! He swatted me to one side with some flip remark about how this proved how important it was to get it right! Or some such.

What should be remembered here is that the Heffer-Gove-John-Humphrys side of this argument constantly characterises the opposition to their approach as 'no grammar' or 'anything goes'. Patiently, we keep saying, firstly that of course we think 'grammar' exists because we know that language doesn't exist without grammar. Grammar, we say, is what sticks words together, and, in most languages, gives words the reason for their shape and structure. However, linguists aren't all agreed on how to describe that grammar. There isn't one way. One reason for that is down to the fact that language usage is highly varied depending on the participants and the situation or 'context'. Another is that language-users are able to change language and most obviously do - otherwise there would be no change! Yet another is that any human activity is not as easily determinate and up for slotting into categories as, say, the categories or types of the elements in the material world. In other words, there may well be overlaps between categories or that categories shift or that there may well be two different descriptions for the same phenomenon and they might be both adequate - up to a point.

As an example, for those of us who were reared on a particular way of describing language in the 1950s find on opening a book by someone like M.A.K.Halliday another way of dividing up the language and explaining how its 'grammar' works.

However, back to the 'anything goes' argument. If you look at this quarter's publication by NATE - that's 'Classroom' and 'English Drama Media', they are jam-packed with research on how to teach grammar in schools - because even if we come to some sort of loose agreement about how we should describe the grammar of a language (terminology, ways of categorizing words, expressions, structures etc and their functions and purpose) we still have a problem of how to teach it - just as we have a problem of how to teach atomic physics or any other conceptual matter.

But back to Gove.

He clearly is infuriated that teachers and academics working in league with teachers don't accept what a journalist says about linguistics! Imagine the equivalent in relation to atomic physics again. Imagine a journalist announcing that he's worked out what atomic physics is, that physicists are wrong about it and teachers are wrong to follow what they say. And then, incredibly and amazingly and ludicrously, the Secretary of State for Education decides to stand up in universities, pronounces the physicists wrong and his pet journalist is 'wonderful' and 'masterful'!

O gawd, what a mess of an education ministry we have with this sort of rubbish going on. What ignorance. What arrogance.