Stodgy last course

19th September 1997 at 01:00
ENGLISH FOR TOMORROW. By Sally Tweddle, Anthony Adams, Stephen Clarke, Peter Scrimshaw and Shona Walton. Open University Press Pounds 13.99

Geoff Barton finds the final part of long-running series heavy going

This book on English in the age of information technology marks the end of an era. The English, Language and Education series from the Open University Press concludes with this, its 52nd volume.

Its heyday was probably the mid to late-1980s, when it helped us grapple with narrative and taught us a whole range of new phrases to slip into pre-dinner conversations at courses and conferences. "Narratology", "authoring", "paradigms" and "the politics of representation". We cut our teaching teeth on terms like these.

The series always had nobler aims than telling you how to teach. It was an attempt to encourage us to become that ideal of teacher trainers - the "reflective practitioner". I had a line of the yellow-spined books on my shelves in the early days of my career, until at some point one began to merge into the next. I could never recall whether I'd enjoyed Reading and Response or Reading for Real or Reading Narrative As Literature - I just knew it had "reading" in the title.

As the series grew it chartered deeper waters - Reading Against Racism, Literary Theory and English Teaching and Lesbian and Gay Issues in the English Classroom.

In a bizarrely undemocratic twist, its downfall was that the series always seemed to be written by the same people for the same people. If you weren't a loyal adherent to the views of the National Association for the Teaching of English - and attendance at their conferences suggests many English teachers are not - you always felt a bit excluded, like the person at the party worried about the noise.

The current volume shares many of the strengths and weaknesses of those earlier books - chiefly, a kind of subversive optimism which in the current climate feels bracing but unreal. It is full of breathless excitement for the opportunities offered by new technologies - students using image, music and text side by side, "authoring" their work from home using e-mail - all part of the brave new world on offer.

To illustrate this, there are lots of gee-whiz references to the way the book was - er, authored by a sprawling team of "editor writers", "core writers", "contributing writers" and "reader writers". The ISDN lines of academia, you imagine, hummed with the ricochets of idea and counter-idea.

The book begins with a survey of the current state of English and ways in which new technology is changing reading and writing. Later chapters go on to explore future possibilities. "Students will merge speech, music, images and readable verbal text, and the whole product will be a reflection of the collaborative imagination of the learners". This is a world in which "messaging becomes more and more crucial".

The issue of quality is fudged: "English will not lose its essential concern with criticality, but we have to envisage a future in which no one can any longer expect any one set genre or privileged type to be the paradigm example of an assessable text." It isn't just that the prose is impenetrable and ugly. Nor that it feels so far removed from the hair-tearing practical realities of using computers in lessons. But English itself seems reduced to a bleak and soulless cul-de-sac on a sprawling estate of media studies.

The speculation is marred by a failure to confront some issues central to teaching English. The Internet is awash with information but little knowledge. How will we encourage students to discriminate between what is worthwhile and what is not - what is objective and what is biased? How will the new technologies encourage students to communicate more precisely, as opposed just to more adventurously - particularly as placing students at a word processor appears to destroy their capacity to spell?

For all its zeal, English For Tomorrow presents a narrowly distorted Utopia that seems unlikely to enhance the personal identity or moral awareness of students, to sharpen their critical skills, to engage them with literary traditions or improve their ability to read, write and speak precisely.

And my worry is that as teachers we might actually be accomplices in this - casting our students adrift in the moral vacuum of hyperspace, devoid of human contact, of civilised face-to-face discussion and of the essential humanity that English has always stood for - and will, I hope, tomorrow.

Geoff Barton is deputy head of Thurston Upper School, Suffolk

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