Not for the first time pupils and teachers have been told to mind their grammar. The latest luminary to express his concerns is Charles Jones, professor of English language at Edinburgh University and editor of a recent ground breaking, but impenetrable, book on the history of the Scots language. Professor Jones wants teachers to go back to a college of education to learn the traditional grammar lessons their own schooling failed to give them, so that they can then do better for the next generation of youngsters.
His suggestion is a twist of the knife to the view more commonly held by academics that undergraduates cannot express themselves clearly and correctly because they have not learned the mechanics of their own language. At one time Professor Jones and those who agree with him would have been dismissed as fuddy duddies. They would have been told that any minor problems shown by students were nullified by the confidence and imagination in expressing themselves that had traditionally been lacking in school pupils instructed by rote.
Reassertion of the three Rs, which are among New Labour values, means that Professor Jones will be listened to by school inspectors, although he has been excoriated by teachers' spokesmen for impoliteness. They say it is all right to criticise pupil standards and even commendable to denounce students, but the professionalism of teachers must be kept sacrosanct.
However, it is not teachers' fault if lacunae in their own education mean they cannot parse a sentence themselves, much less ask children to do so. And learning about grammar and syntax is no more arcane than understanding the physical and chemical composition of the world about us. It is the key to confident handling of the mother tongue and the best way to learn a foreign language when prolonged stay in another country in unavailable. The question is not whether the structure of language should be taught but how.
That point is well illustrated by the misleading distinction drawn between teaching thinking and teaching "knowledge". In The TESS last week John MacBeath argued for an emphasis on thinking skills and a valuing of young people as they learn to hone such skills.
In our letters columns (page two) he is criticised for discounting knowledge as handed down by one generation to the next. The dichotomy is false: thinking is not conducted in a vacuum. Thought needs facts for nourishment. But any of us can be taught only a tiny amount of "knowledge" in our schooldays. We need to learn how to absorb, analyse and synthesise much more throughout the rest of our lives.