Royal row over 'scary' philosophy

29th October 2004 at 01:00
Andrew Cunningham's Opinion column (TES, October 15) is truly scary. It is as though the entire intellectual and political history of the 20th century had passed him by, not to mention the fundamentals of educational philosophy.

It's hard to know where to begin, but let's start with the idea that British history should consist of "the kings and queens" (which he equates with "a sense of historical context".) They had been "replaced" with a "diet of Hitler, Spanish civil war and the general strike". The replacing of "kings and queens" by this unwholesome "diet" of any social or political history connected with Europe, the working classes, or persecuted minorities rather than the royal family, apparently represents a situation where "facts and frameworks had been replaced by woolly empathy".

Let's try that again: the teaching of social history is "woolly empathy" while the teaching of "kings and queens" is "facts and frameworks"? Pardon me, did I miss something?

It's OK to teach about the British Empire, by the way, even though that's not exactly "kings and queens", as long as we don't present it "in a bad light".

I won't begin to tackle the utter ignorance of the history and background of the teaching of my (and his, I was amazed to discover) subject, English, which his article goes on to display; the intellectual barrenness of his claims; the casual insults he offers to thoughtful practitioners and academics who have wrestled throughout their careers with complex questions about literary, linguistic and cultural value which he reduces to the crass criticism that "on today's syllabuses" modern writers "occupy the same plinths as Chaucer and Wordsworth".

And yet, there is the usual old simplistic claptrap about English teachers not teaching spelling and punctuation any more. Ironically, if there was ever a solid piece of evidence that the ability to spell and punctuate correctly is not a precondition for the ability to construct intelligent and well-written argument, then this piece of rabble-rousing garbage is it.

If Cunningham's shabby opinions, shocking philistinism and cheap gibes are representative of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, this is the most convincing reason I have seen yet not to go anywhere near an independent school.

Gary Snapper

Editor, English Drama Media

National Association for the Teaching of English

30 Boulter Street

Oxford

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