Not showing at this classroom;Opinion

18th June 1999 at 01:00
CARDS ON the table. I know that this outpouring will probably earn me a sharp rebuke but I am increasingly worried about the way English language and literature are being taught. I am not referring to the well publicised Higher Still shenanigans but the less high profile debate of purist versus philistine.

It is worth considering the images English teachers evoke. Naturally, this is a variegated show depending on your own experiences. The person who taught you English may have imparted a lifelong love of literature, a satisfying revelling in the intricacies of etymology or amazing hallelujahs at how humanity can distil in creative writing the length and breadth of human experiences.

But you may recall scenarios of crushing boredom when you wished that drab bampot of an English teacher would disappear over the horizon - preferably taking with him Stevenson's Travels With a Donkey.

What you will certainly not remember from your English classroom, if you completed your secondary education more than 10 years ago, is surfing the net or being parked in front of a video to watch something that masquerades as "literacy" under the dubious title of "media studies". This is probably when I should call my solicitor but I don't believe that watching and studying even the best contributions from the world of cinema can be a substitute for genuine interaction with real literature - prose, poetry and drama.

Those with a bent for the classics may now detect the merest crack to get their foot in the door, suspecting that I am a dreary old fuddy-duddy. I'm not - but I don't mind admitting that I regret the passing of Latin. In fact, I was horrified to learn that only 367 candidates sat Higher Latin this year.

But it's not the passing of the history and philosophies from the ancient world that I most mourn, rather the accompanying loss of a deeper understanding of our own and other European languages. Too many of the recruits into English teaching seem to have travelled into the profession on the bottom deck of the bus.

I do fear too much froth and not enough substance and there is much embarrassment when English teachers can't spell. Recently, I felt a "Literacy Alert" coming on when I realised that a colleague did not know the difference between "affected" and "effected". Quite ironic in the light of the Government's campaign to drive up standards.

Who was Publius Vergilius Maro? An Italian footballer. Pythagoras? A Greek athlete? Really, you say, does it matter? Haven't we left all of that stuff in the past? We deal with that obelisk of contemporary society - the screen, whether cinematically sized, or just wide, or whatever you want it to be. Media studies has snaked its way into English classrooms to the extent that some English teachers can spend weeks and weeks watching and supposedly analysing video blockbusters none of which will merit a finger in the air in a hundred years.

Promulgators of such pap defend it by pointing to pupils' enjoyment of these films. Well, it's no surprise: even if the classroom is minus the debris of sticky popcorn underfoot, they are kids and kids like the cinema.

I don't want to be showing a lack of joie de vivre. There is technical paraphernalia to be learnt and I acknowledge the usefulness of knowing about camera angles and the rest. Neither am I aloof from the benefits of information technology: after all, in the next academic session I will be delivering a new course, in conjunction with a further education college, through the medium of video conferencing.

No, what disturbs me is the lack of substance. The exam system doesn't actually help. What is termed "reading" in Standard grade English does not ask even the most academically able pupils to demonstrate their knowledge of literature under exam conditions.

So, it's par for the course, then, when we hear of unintentional mistakes. Pity the poor child who alleged that Noah's wife was Joan of Ark or that the followers of Jesus were the 12 decibels or indeed that Shakespeare wrote the Bible.

The best teachers can still make English an inspiration without resort to Warner Brothers. Notting Hill is certainly funny in the cinema - but that's where it should stay.

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