Literacy and loonies

Australian, 15 May 1993.

If “rong” doesn’t spell wrong, asked Ben Bowyang, what does it spell? That bush teaser poses a problem for the upholders of fixed standards in the teaching of English. Another puzzle for those defenders is why they have appropriated Shakespeare as their hero even though he was uncertain about how to spell his own name. Should 1990s teenagers be penalised because they follow his example, and that of informed opinion throughout the nineteenth century, and omit one of the three “e’s” in Shakespeare?

Despite the obvious intention behind rong and Shakspeare, regularity in expression should be encouraged because language is a shared practice. Hence, misspellings matter most if they impede communication, for instance, if ingenuous appears as ingenious.

Uniform spelling is hardly 100 years old. In the 1890s, the north American philosopher William James complained about everyone’s being “expected to spell in the same way … let us get a dozen influential persons to agree each to spell after his own fashion and so break up this tyranny of the dictionary.”

If dictionaries tell us how words are most often spelt, they do not attempt to tell us what those words mean. As the editor of the complete Oxford pointed out long ago, that monument records the inventiveness of English speakers in how words can be used. The OED’s etymologies demonstrate that meanings are not fixed in time any more than each word is confined to a single meaning. Light is the opposite of dark and of heavy. Similarly, gay can now be joyous and homosexual.

One complaint from the guardians of fixed usage has been that more children are leaving school without basic skills in literacy. A difficulty with that claim is that their objection recurs across the 20th century. In the late 1880s, first-year medical students at Harvard were set oral examinations because they could not write well enough to express what they knew. When the University of Queensland opened in 1911, its staff were distressed by the howlers in examination prose.

In England, the picture has been much the same. In D H Lawrence’s 1913 autobiographical novel, Sons and Lovers, the protagonists’ first employer grumbles that the boy could not read and write properly. In 1921, executives from Lever Bros told an inquiry into English teaching: “Out young employees are so hopelessly deficient in their command of the English language.” Then, 54 years later, another British investigation into English teaching noted how company officials complained “that young people joining them from school cannot write grammatically, are poor spellers and generally express themselves badly.”

Two conclusions are possible from such evidence. On the one hand, we might perceive how the impressionable middle-aged match the failing of their faculties with a cultural decline. On the other, we can accept that the standards of literacy – as well as those of orthography and numeracy – have been on a steady decline since the Phoenicians. Though, if the latter is true, how is it that you can still read this column?

Each of us has some point of English which we take as the personal standard by which to condemn other people’s poor expression. I am addicted to the placing of adverbs as close as possible to the words they modify. For instance, the statement on T-shirts that “I only sleep with the best” is a confession of non-performance. The would-be boaster meant “I sleep only with the best”. I can even affect to be offended when I find such muddling in my own writing.

Greater amusement comes when an upholder of standards makes one of the more common errors. One example came recently on the ABC from an adviser on science to the Hewson Liberals. That professor at the Australian National University used “disinterested” when the context of his scripted talk indicated that he meant “uninterested”. The alarming aspect of that error was not that he made it, but that the ABC had no way of preventing its going to air.

The misuse of only or disinterested is unfortunate, but does not signal the collapse of civilisation. Texts on correct usage are filled with mistakes drawn from the greatest writers and thinkers in our language. Milton’s grasp of the relative pronoun weakened the longer Paradise Lost became – another punishment for the Fall?

Just as particular breaches of particular conventions are misused to mount a case for a general decline in literacies, so that the wider claim often conceals dislike of social changes that are finding expression in language. Prejudice against Asians remains polite when voiced as a point of grammar. This bias is sharper in the dis-United Kingdom where regional and racial accents are far more distinct than they are in Australian English.

A decade ago, the Thatcherites went into the literacy wars with a book called the Black Papers on Education. That publication documented the whackier elements of supposed radicalisation of the classroom.

Evidence and arguments from those Black Papers circulated in Australia and influenced the Metherell agenda for NSW schools. In Victoria, the Kennett administration aims to introduce more standardised tests, which there is no guarantee that the Premier could pass.

In 1989, the Thatcher government installed a new national curriculum which attempted to balance the traditionalists’ emphasis on grammar, spelling and punctuation with the progressive concern for creativity and the dynamism of language use.

Since then, a reactionary British think thank, the Centre for Policy Studies, has bent the ear of the education ministers, and had themselves put in charge of Britain’s National Curriculum and School Examination Councils. They are now proposing to overcome their nation’s literacy problems through one-word answers on Romeo and Juliet, and the imposition of a standardised accent. Given that Australia’s reactionaries are parasitical for their fresh ideas on British failures, we can expect to hear similar lunacies here.

In preparation for that season of silliness, it is worth turning to one of the authors of the Black Papers, Professor Brian Cox. Cox is today among the leading critics of the present round of ratty Right interference with the curriculum. Cox is no far-Left liberal. In 1988-89, he chaired the National Curriculum English World group as a Thatcher appointee.

Writing in Britain’s Observer newspaper last month, Cox laughed at the “absurd tests”, but had to weep because “children are being used as guinea pigs for failed experiments”. For the ultra-Right, the golden age of literacy is linked to nostalgia for the tranquility of English villages. This rural fantasy dominates the new set tests. “It often accompanies a longing for traditional Latinate grammar and the connectives of rhyme and rhythm in poetry”. Emphasis on “mechanical exercises in basic language skills” will reproduce “barren learning”.