Unconventional wisdom

3rd March 1995 at 00:00
Less burdensome, yes, but the revised English Order remains philosophically confused, says Roger Knight. Slimmer" the revised Order for English undoubtedly is. More "manageable", perhaps. But is it any more coherent than its predecessor? Slimming down was bound to result in a generalised account of the subject. Accordingly the new Order is a collection of familiar generalities; supposedly the now conventional wisdom about English, liberal enough to command general assent and flexible enough to shape national practice.

Of course, contraction isn't automatically accompanied by clarity. Does the Order provide us with what its predecessor so obviously lacked: a version of English in which at every point we shall see the bearings of each of its parts upon the rest and of them all upon the whole? That above all is what is needed: teachers must devise an "integrated programme of Speaking and Listen- ing, Reading and Writing".

An integrated understanding of English is not easily discerned here. The pervading impression is of a failure of connection: both between the elements of the Order itself and with those traditions of thought and feeling that constitute the culture of the subject. Within this culture the object and distinguishing feature of English is the development of sensibility: a moral concept in which thinking and feeling unite. (Coleridge's characteristic contention that "deep thinking is only attainable by a man of deep feeling" is a touchstone here.) What this concept fuses together national curriculum English sunders.

Without a feeling for the written and spoken word alike, for their changing relations both within and beyond our literary tradition, it is impossible to think clearly about either. The immediate evidence is in the Standard English and Language Study sections of the Order. There "slimming down" has simply concentrated the confusions and obscurities that dogged the issue of Standard English in earlier documents. "Pupils should be taught how formal contexts require particular choices of vocabulary and greater precision in language structures." Well, no, they should not. The dead hand of abstraction lies across that idea. "Formal contexts" don't require or demand anything. The life of a language will always be impatient with fixed ideas of this kind. As will literature: "Grates me: the sum," says Shakespeare's Antony, reluctantly giving ear to inconvenient news from Rome. Antony resents the public, formal moment that threatens his private pleasures. His conciseness is utterly truthful; the precision is not merely structural but expressive. A modern Antony might be more circumspect: "This is a very unwelcome and irritating intrusion; please supply me with a brief summary of your news." That's the kind of verbosity which practice makes perfect in regular public performers. It is undoubtedly what the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority means by "precision in language structures"; structures that may serve falsehood as readily as truth. To teach English well is to help students tell the difference.

An integrated understanding of English would have thus brought to bear the example of literature upon prescriptions for language study. The absence of that understanding is indicative of a wider problem. It is one that the next revision will have to address. (Thinking about that, says SCAA's chief executive, needs to begin this year.) The structure chosen for any subject must be defensible as an articulation of the philosophy and values it reflects. The revised Order leaves the tripartite structure of national curriculum English intact and apparently unquestioned. The result is deadening. The framework has acted as a constraint on fresh thinking, as an incitement to the production of often dubious classifications within the separate programmes of study (for Speaking and Listening, Reading, and Writing) rather than of insights into their interdependence.

Without an alertness to particulars, to our concrete experience of both the written and the spoken word, we are prey to the kind of abstraction that drives an unnatural wedge between the two. Reading should inform Speaking and Listening; but it does not. The forms of comedy, for instance, are immensely varied. Invention throws up new forms. We respond intuitively to such invention. We don't need (and don't feel the need) to learn about it abstractly, to "distinguish features of presentation where the intention is . . . to be amusing" (there's no blueprint for making us laugh). Children, however, must. They must in this way learn "how talk varies". The inherited structure, the obligation to supply a separately defined programme of study for Speaking and Listening, encourages this kind of unreal abstraction. Moreover, it ratifies a still extremely questionable article of faith: that Speaking and Listening are amenable to fair and accurate assessment and that it is a proper use of teachers' time that they should undertake it.

Abstractions work against an integrated understanding of English. It is not experience of reading poetry that informs the requirement that in writing it children should "develop their use of poetic devices"; or that they should "write poetry closely related to the poems they read, in their own distinctive style, and also poetry based on their own experience" (as though there could be two such distinct kinds).

Instead of remaining in touch with good practice and the culture of the subject, the classifying habit of mind too easily goes its own arid way. Attention is deflected from the particularities of works of literature and other texts to the categories and generalities they may be used to illustrate. Who, contemplating the books that have really mattered to her, have engaged her imagination and become part of her sensibility, could think it important that children should, as a principal objective at key stage 2, be taught about the "organisational, structural and presentational features of different types of text"? Such an approach stifles rather than intensifies the sense of what good English can be, of the cardinal importance in the teacher of conviction, passion and example.

The revised Order is a holding operation. The focus of the revisers has been pragmatic: not how to render the Order more coherent but how to make it less burdensome. We need a thoroughgoing debate on the philosophical basis of national curriculum English. And that will be possible only with a radical re-appraisal of its tripartite structure.

Roger Knight is a senior lecturer in education at the University of Leicester and editor of The Use of English

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