Statistics glow bright as language grows dim

29th November 2002 at 00:00
There's a character called Charles in David Lodge's novel, Nice Work, who laments the erosion in standards of new university students. He says he is leaving academia because teaching post-structuralism to first-year students who have read nothing but Adrian Mole and have no concept of religion or mythology, is too painful to bear. I think I know how he feels.

While the Government brandishes statistics on how well our pupils are doing, universities see a growing dissatisfaction with the level at which most of their first-year students enrol, often with only rudimentary knowledge of their discipline.

My own subject is no exception. Students of English are expected to study Shakespeare for at least one of their modules, so it is astonishing, as the fictitious Charles would have observed, that they have only read the plays they were spoon-fed for GCSE and A-level, such as Romeo and Juliet and Othello. Their essays on these texts tend to be narratives with modest helpings of insight. And considering that religion is an integral part of the medieval literary world, it is depressing that very few students have knowledge of the King James Bible.

In my experience, the odd one or two might have read a novel other than Bridget Jones's Diary or The Lord of the Rings, but most will give an unimpressive account derived from a film adaptation.

As for modern poetry, their experience is limited to a poem by Carol Ann Duffy, "Valentine" perhaps, or Seamus Heaney's "Digging". And that, more often than not, is the basis upon which we select them to read critical theory, literary discourse and existentialism. However, my own generation was not immeasurably better. Mine was the era of comprehensive schooling. But at least it was not uncommon to see boys reading Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, Dickens's Great Expectations, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar or Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night, Sunday Morning.

The only university students who might read such classics these days are conscientious third years. Ask my first years if they have read any of the above, and they will look at you as if you are an alien life form.

The nature of the recruitment process is also worrying. There was a time when students were invited to interviews at universities and specialist academics would quiz them. Frightening as it was, at least you felt you were entering academia, a place of knowledge. Today it is the universities who are interviewed; we are the ones who are in the hot-seat as students ask if they have to read this and that, attend this lecture, seminar, or tutorial because, well, it might be a bit tricky as they have a part-time job at McDonald's.

Sadly today we, along with our government, have abandoned content and real substance in favour of statistical gloss. Basic grounding in written English appears to have been jettisoned. You would have thought that university students would not require help with basic skills and learning how to study, especially those reading English. How wrong you would be. Today there are a significant number of university students who do not adhere to the rules of punctuation or who cannot structure an effective argument with appropriate use of paragraphs and referencing.

Perhaps John Major had a point when he launched his back-to-basics campaign. Not everything that is fun in the classroom is necessarily good for us. Not everything we might consider to be dry or dull is necessarily bad. Essentially, there is a need to teach boring grammar and precis skills; to carry out comprehension work and to hold regular spelling tests in the class.

We need to allow pupils time for personal reading. We need to get them to recite poetry so that they can learn about rhythm, scansion and metre. Political correctness, that laissez-faire attitude to English, has gone just a bit too far - and look at the state we're in.

But it does not just stop there. I also know of senior managers in education and heads of English who cannot punctuate or spell properly and when you get to that situation, you really do have to pause and reflect. As Charles states, it really is becoming too painful to bear.

Roshan Doug is poet-in-residence at the University of Central England

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