Return of the native

7th June 1996 at 01:00
Peter Hollindale considers contrasting views on the value of studying English. VALUING ENGLISH: REFLECTIONS ON THE NATIONAL CURRICULUM By Roger Knight David Fulton Pounds 13.99. WHAT IS ENGLISH TEACHING? By Chris Davies Open University Press Pounds 12.99

Since Sir Ron Dearing's damage limitation exercise and the 1995 revision of the national curriculum Order for English, two features have been prominent in considerations of school English. One is a sense that the current situation is provisional. The old Order changeth, yielding place to new, and will probably change again before long. The other is a feeling that English must now go back to the drawing board and redefine itself, producing more satisfactory answers to the curricular enquiry "What is English?"

These very different books find areas of common ground in answering that question. Roger Knight and Chris Davies are agreed that over the past quarter of a century, long before the national curriculum, English has acquired an agoraphobic largeness and a corresponding vagueness in the scope of its activity. Enough is enough, they both say in effect. It is time for English to draw in its horns and concentrate on what it can do best. They disagree, however, in defining what that is.

For Knight the teaching of English is essentially the teaching of literature. Valuing English is about two things, the subject content of English and the public language of political and professional debate concerning it. Knight is an unreconstructed exponent of the Leavisite tradition, and his restatement of its principles is timely. He presents the case for major literature as the subject's centrepiece with cogency and passion.

No one (I hope) could read Valuing English without being convinced that literature is indispensable to the identity of English as a subject. That includes pre-20th-century literature, not just in grumpy acquiescence to the national curriculum's politically inspired nostalgia, but because, effectively taught, it unlocks the child's native inheritance of language. "Native" is one of Knight's key-words. He uses it historically and genetically. For a native speaker (and that goes as much for the Afro-Caribbean as for the long-resident British) English is a wealth you are born to and, in a sense, born with. Its literature opens a linguistic freedom that will enable other language "skills", as anatomised by the national curriculum, to take care of themselves. Given the requisite fine teaching, which it calls for, this is true. But is it enough?

Davies says not. In his ideal scheme of things, literature would certainly be prominent, involving "study and exploration of the complexities, subtleties and insights of good and worthwhile texts", though his notion of what is "good and worthwhile" seems markedly more relaxed and inclusive than Knight's. But literature would occupy only one third of English's domain. The other two thirds would be devoted to media study and (in his terms a rejuvenated phrase) "knowledge about language". Along with specialising in these three subject areas, English would abandon any pretence of cross-curricular responsibility for general literacy.

The case is irresistible, I think, and stronger than Davies's cheerily sketchy argument contrives to make it. Citing Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, Roger Knight says of the butler that his "is an English that belongs to another time. . . . He is marooned in a view of the world which no longer matches the larger, political world that impinges on his life". One can imagine a cheap jibe turning just these words on Knight himself. To do so would be untrue and unfair. His case for literature is beautifully argued and in no way obsolete. However, he lays himself open to the charge by omitting media and language studies from his re-drawn English.

The popularity of A-level English Language is proof that students do find socio-linguistics interesting and relevant to their lives. Like media studies in a different context, it assists them to decode and resist the linguistic practices which nowadays assail them on all sides, and to achieve the aim set out in the HMI Curriculum Matters pamphlet of 1986 that they should be "in control of [our language] rather than at its mercy and open to manipulation by those who use language to persuade and confuse".

It is surely possible to have the best of both worlds here. To read Knight's brilliant dissection of the "public language" now current in the words of national curriculum documents, of OFSTED and the rest, is to see how indispensable such teaching is.

Peter Hollindale is senior lecturer in English and educational studies at the University of York

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