Thursday 9 June 2016

You want real-life language? Sorry not here. We do the 'cult of the ideal'.

In conversation with my colleague at Goldsmiths, University of London, Maggie Pitfield, it became clear (or clearer than before) that there is something truly weird at the heart of much English, literacy, language and literature education - particularly at the primary level.

This is what we might call the 'cult of the ideal'.

(I'm using the word 'ideal' in the same way as scientists use it to describe, let's say, a gas. Scientists create equations for, say, how gases behave when compressed - they get hot. The equation I had to learn accounted for the behaviour of an 'ideal' gas in 'ideal' conditions but in reality all gases in the real world are not perfect and pure, and no circumstances are perfect, pure. So when you compress a real gas, it does get hotter but not in a perfect 1:1 relationship to the amount of pressure you put on it. It behaves imperfectly (not 'ideally') according to what are its real circumstances. So this blog is not about 'ideals' in the sense of having an ideal about equality or justice.)

The cult of the ideal that takes place in primary level literacy and literature or 'English' can be seen in two examples: the Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation papers; and the Comprehension papers.

In GPS, the grammar itself is based on an idea that the descriptions and names for bits of language are perfect, that there is no debate to be had about any of it, they are settled agreed names. In fact, very nearly all the terms are a matter of debate and discussion and real grammarians and linguists have constructed careers on the basis of disagreeing with previously held views about such matters. But we are not supposed to tell children that. We're not supposed to engage their interest in language by enjoying that fact that debate is one of the interesting things about trying to pin language down with terms and differences! Take the most basic term of all - 'word': look up the pages written about this by linguists. You could easily get children interested in whether the noises we make like, 'eh?' and 'uh-huh' and 'mmm' are or are not words. How do we decide? What about made-up words that people in the class made up? Would they be 'words'? What about when we make compounds and they start off as two words, then they grow a hyphen and then become one word - like, say, 'weekend'. Then again, you could with older children get them wondering about whether all the variations of a given word (e.g. 'we' and 'us' or 'bag' and 'bags' or 'run', 'ran' , 'running' 'runs' ) are still 'the word' or different 'words' or do we need a different word for these variations, like, say, 'sub-word' or 'wordlet'.

Again, the sentences that are given to children to divide up and name are mostly 'ideal'. They are invented by the examiners so that they can test children with them. Try this: the children are not only expected to spot 'relative clauses' -

(not too difficult when it comes to relative clauses beginning with 'who' and 'which' but it all starts getting wobbly when it comes to 'that' (when it's used as a header for noun clauses) and non-standard uses of 'what' (which can be 'relative) and relative-clause uses of 'where' (as opposed to when it heads an adverbial clause of place) and so on) -

but it gets really difficult when it comes to the old chestnut of defining and non-defining relative clauses.

I have a clear memory of 'doing' these when I was at school and making a decision I often made about pernickety things: 'Life is too short for that one.' When we speak, we don't have the means within one short utterance to make this difference between defining and non-defining relative clauses. We just say it, and then clarify it, if we need to, a few seconds later or we do it by saying stuff as we go along. In writing, the GPS gurus tell us, we do it with commas - as if commas are some kind of scientific indicators. (Remember commas were invented as guides to saying things out loud not as bits of barbed wire marking off one bit of sentence grammar from another.)

So the rule goes like this: 'Defining relative clauses define. Non-defining clauses are add-ons. Defining clauses supposedly don't need commas. Non-defining clauses do need commas.


Question 35 from the Sample GPS paper from the government website:

"Explain how the use of commas changes the meaning in the two sentences.

Mangoes, which are grown in hot countries, taste delicious.

Mangoes which are grown in hot countries taste delicious."

This whole question relies on several fallacies:

1) Writers of newspapers, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, TV scripts use commas in this way.

2) Readers of writing understand that the distinction between these two kinds of sentences is made known to us through the use of these commas in this way.

3) Even if we writers and readers are aware of this distinction, that we are so aware of it that we remember it as we read! Every time!

4) The number of occasions when we might need to make the distinction is sufficiently often for it be a crucial and necessary part of primary education.

5) There are no other simple and useful ways to make clear the kinds of distinction going on here.

These are all fallacies. They are not true.

Now to the 'ideal' point. In order to construct this particular question, the examiners had to think long and hard (precisely the kind of creativity denied to the children sitting the test) in order to come up with two sentences that have exactly the same words so that they could be used in order to show the 'need' for these commas.

Think about it. There must be very, very, very few occasions when talking about mangoes where you would construct a sentence in this way. In a real-life passage of writing, we might assume that you might have mentioned the mangoes before this sentence, in which case, - and this is crucial - the context of the paragraph or passage would indicate which of the two sentences followed on and made sense.

So, in the case of you needing to 'define' the mangoes, you might be talking about different kinds of mangoes - ones that grow in cold countries under glass, and ones that grow in hot countries. That would be clear from the passage. In actual fact, whether you used at least one comma or not would be optional. It's a fib to say that it's a 'rule' that you should not. AND THE MEANING WOULD BE CLEAR FROM THE CONTEXT.

In the case of you needing to be non-defining, we might assume you might have been writing about different fruits which taste delicious and you might be adding in incidental information about each of them perhaps. Again, the idea of 'non-defining' as being a bit like an 'aside' in stage instructions would be clear. It's not a rule to use commas. I often use dashes in that circumstance.

And overriding all that is the fact that there really isn't a firm distinction between whether one is really, totally, purely, ideally 'defining' and the other is really, totally, purely, ideally non-defining! Both kinds of clauses add information which in the broad sense help 'define' the mangoes we are talking about. It is, as I suspected all those years ago, a pernickety distinction.

So we have here a sentence that was constructed precisely in order to show an apparent ambiguity - unless it had commas in, but one which in all likelihood would be totally clear from context.

It should also be noted that this isn't actually 'grammar'! It's punctuation for purposes of meaning ie 'semantics'. Well, OK, it's a grammar, punctuation and spelling paper. Even so, someone will call it 'grammar'.

So we have this notion of 'ideal' being a way of testing children about 'usage' when in actual fact 'usage' is never 'ideal' because it is always in context.

Meanwhile, we have another 'ideal' at work in comprehension. This is the ideal 'reader'. Most of the questions on comprehension papers assume an ideal single reader getting 'the' meaning, 'the only approved meaning' from the passage in question. In real life, we get meaning from writing through talk with others, and through a passage or book being 'mediated' ie talked about by others, critics, 'tradition', book covers, and the like. There is no one pure meaning. There is no one pure reader who is the sum or essence of all readings. That is a dictate from the invisible people who write and invent these tests. So when these tests ask examinees to say what something means, when the tests ask the examinee to say what is the 'effect' of a word or phrase, they are talking about a mythic ideal human being who is somehow always 'right' and therefore by definition, not you the examinee, because you the examinee is at the very least sometimes wrong!

In some ways it's more sinister than that. This ideal meaning and ideal reader are supposedly unaffected by any aspects of ourselves which might produce different meanings. There is supposedly only one right answer to a question about why the author chose this or that word or phrase. There is supposedly only one right answer to a question about what 'effect' a given word or phrase has. An interesting piece of research would be to see what kind of 'ideal' reader is 'implied' by these questions.

Our son had to do a comprehension paper on W.H.Auden's famous 'stop all the clocks' poem - the one that John Hanna recited in 'Four Weddings'. The question asked was, what is the effect of the opening verse? (It's a series of commands.)

Not 'an effect', not 'how you were affected' but 'the effect'!

To tell the truth, I, for one, really don't know what 'the effect' is. I can say how I am affected, and some possible effects but not 'the effect'. In other words the examinee has to guess what was going on in the examiner's head.

Our son said that if you stopped the clocks you wouldn't know what the time is.

He was right.

No, he was wrong, because that would be an effect and not 'the effect' as meant by 'ideal' questions addressed to 'ideal' readers in the context of comprehension questions in the context of a test. There is no room for any other alternative views of the poem, his reading, or any meaning of 'effect' other than this ideal meaning.

Even a question about why we might suppose that Auden began the poem with a series of commands would or should throw up several plausible answers. What's more, we should assume that Auden himself had no clear idea why he did it. To say that he did have a clear idea is what's known as the 'intentional fallacy'. At the very most, we might make a guess and it's my view that at the very most it should remain as a guess and sit in our minds as a matter of discussion, and not as one ideal absolute right on-the-button truth. It also has to be said that we can read, enjoy and understand poetry without bothering too much about trying to figure out why a poet chose a particular set of words. Ultimately, the effect of the words is in or on us, so the reason for the effect will be as much to do with us as it is in the choice of words made by the poet. Having examined the effect on us, we might then make suggestions that the poet chose those words precisely in order to make that effect. However, that is what's known in Latin as 'post hoc ergo propter hoc', meaning: 'Since event Y followed event X, event Y must have been caused by event X." In other words, we can't assume that because some words had a particular effect that that is the reason why the poet put those words in the poem.

But these comprehension papers nearly always have at least one question where this is precisely what the examinee has to do - guess why the writer put those words in the passage, based on some 'ideal' 'effect' that the words had on an ideal reader - who, you discover as you're sitting in the exam hall, may well be not you!

Doing one of these tests can in fact be a means of learning that you have no value. You discover that you are not the ideal reader. The reason for that may be that you fall outside of what the examiners think is the ideal, and we can all think of reasons to do with class, culture, age, gender (and a lot more besides) why that might be.

Just to be clear - none of this should be taken as me saying that we should not spend time talking about contexts for writing or even stuff to do with writers' lives. However, these are what they are: contexts and biographies. For many of us, they can be gateways into finding out why and how literature doesn't just spring up out of text books, exam papers but come from real-life circumstances. Fine.

Now here's the big irony - if not absurdity - even though these comprehension questions (on previously unseen passages), about 'author-intention' can only be ultimately linked to such questions of context and circumstance , they take place in a situation precisely at the point in which you have no means to find out what these contexts and circumstances are - an exam! So, in an exam, looking at an 'unseen' passage, the answer to why an author chose those words can never be to do with this context stuff. Again, the answer to the question must be in some way, pure, ideal, and 'the truth' away from real life circumstances.