Archive for the 'teaching' Category

On the genius of Jane Austen

May 31, 2017

A documentary on TV the other night, about the places where she had lived, reminded me that this year is the 200th anniversary of the untimely death of possibly the greatest English novelist. And the year seems to be passing quite quietly so far: there have been a couple of new books – one of which I reviewed here – not terribly exciting, because there’s a limited amount of information about Jane Austen available and no sign of any undiscovered material, so academics are reduced to what they often do, which is to recycle what has been said already, for a new generation, in a rather more demotic and sensational language this time around…

I knew Austen’s name but had disdainfully avoided reading any of the novels in a teenager-ish sort of way, until I got to university and was faced with Mansfield Park in my first term: dutifully I read and really liked the novel, which is often described as both dull and difficult compared with the others, as well as having the priggish and unlikeable Fanny Price as its heroine. Lectures and seminars opened my eyes to the wit, the language and the social issues Austen addresses; I’ve never looked back. Since then, I regularly re-read the novels every few years, enjoying their familiarity as well as noticing new details. And, as my other half is at least as enthusiastic about Jane Austen as I am, often detailed discussions and conversations ensue. We’ve enjoyed watching many film and TV adaptations of the novels, traced Austen’s path through Bath, and visited her home at Chawton and her tomb in Winchester Cathedral. I’ve enjoyed teaching all the novels save Northanger Abbey (which I avoided), particularly relishing the occasion when we had to compare Mansfield Park with Pride and Prejudice; I still haven’t fully decided whether Mansfield Park or Persuasion is my favourite: the former I find intellectually engaging, but the latter is truly about mature love and the sense of Ann and Wentworth re-finding each other and finally being united is still very powerful and moving at the nth re-reading.

So, what is so good about Jane Austen? What attracts me to her world? It was a very narrow world in terms of physical scope and also future prospects, but she was clearly a highly intelligent and well-educated woman, with a keen eye, a sharp wit and a great sense of humour. She writes about what she knows about, which is both a limitation and an advantage; there is a narrowness to the settings, and her choice of characters; she never presumes to present a conversation between men where no women are present; servants are backgrounded, as is the aristocracy; because she knows the rest, she observes minutely and nothing escapes the sharpness of her eye or her comment. And, quite early on in the development of the novel, she brings in the marvellous indirect authorial comment: we are following the heroine’s thoughts, ideas, comments… or are we? who is actually thinking or speaking there… is it the author herself? because we can’t be sure… and we’ve noticed we can’t be sure. It’s very clever, and very effective.

Austen manages to engage with real political issues: slavery lurks in the background in Mansfield Park (pace Edward Said) war overshadows Persuasion – the Napoleonic Wars are part of the entire second half of Austen’s life, as her family history shows. Social change is afoot in England, with agricultural changes and enclosures, again alluded to in Mansfield Park. Austen seems to me to be at the same time conservative (with that important small ‘c’) as Fanny wistfully notes how the countryside is changing – of course, Fanny does not speak for Austen, but… – and also quite radical, particularly in the other novels, where she is quite forthright about the limitations placed on women’s lives by the need for financial security, and in her endorsement of love as crucial for successful relationships, an idea which we take for granted nowadays…

I feel a need coming on to re-read Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. As readers may gather more generally from my blog, I don’t generally feel that England has very much to be proud of at the moment, but I do think we do literature very well…

On the two cultures

March 14, 2017

Years ago C P Snow wrote about two cultures, the arts and the sciences, and the gulf between them. I oversimplify greatly, I know, but it’s an opposition that I regularly return to in terms of my own life and experience.

I’m clearly on the arts side, from my studies at school, at university and my teaching career, as well as my wider interests throughout life: languages, literature, history, religion for starters. I was about to say that science never really got a look in, when I recalled an interest in astronomy from a very young age, and that at primary school, my best friend and I wanted to be the first men on the moon (!). He’s now a Russian Orthodox priest, by the way, or was when I last had news of him…

At boarding school, there was no real opportunity to study science properly, and so the die was cast, I suppose. Maths was interesting, as our teacher was one of the pioneers of what was called ‘modern maths’ in those days; I understood and liked a good deal of it as far as O Level where I managed grade 2, but it was arithmetic, especially mental arithmetic, that was always my strongest point. I retained my interest in astronomy, even going to evening classes at one point, but whenever it strayed into the realms of maths and physics, I have to say that I very quickly got lost, and began to develop a headache. I genuinely do seem to have a mental block about some things once they go beyond a certain level… How much of this is because of my background, my upbringing and how much is the real me, as it were?

I do stray out of the arts bubble in my reading. I’ve long been interested in the calendar and its development over time, and there’s a fair amount of arithmetic involved in that. I’ve read some works on science and astronomy – Carl Sagan on the search for life elsewhere in the cosmos I found particularly interesting, and I have actually read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, though how much of it I understood I cannot honestly say. I like to read about the development of human knowledge in all fields, and find books like Pliny’s Natural History and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies fascinating because they show us learning about ourselves and our world, developing our understanding over time. This relentless desire for knowledge, and the pursuit of it, are surely one of the things which make us human and allow us to be proud of our species.

I’ve also found myself wondering about gender-related issues in connection with the arts/sciences dichotomy. I have the picture that maths and sciences are largely a male field, and the arts rather more female, and yet I know this is clearly a gross oversimplification. But do some subject areas and ways of thinking lend themselves more readily to brains of one or the other gender, despite the opening up of opportunities in recent decades? And what does this say, if anything, about female scientists and mathematicians of whom I have known many, or male students of literature and languages, of whom I have known rather fewer. And what about me?

Is the separation between arts and sciences inevitable, a result of there nowadays being so much knowledge in so many areas that it’s impossible for anyone to acquire mastery of everything? It has been said that Athanasius Kircher, in the seventeenth century, was the last man who knew everything, as in the amount of available learning and knowledge was capable of being mastered by a single person. I don’t think that the separation does us any good, in terms of our society, or our education systems; I have often felt intellectually poorer for my lack of scientific and mathematical knowledge. And of course currently we are made to feel that only subjects with practical applications, ie maths, science and technology, are worth expending the time and money on, and our country and the world is the poorer for such philistinism. It is curiosity, the act of studying and the eagerness to learn that are important, rather than the subject-matter.

On examinations, coursework and cheating

March 6, 2017

I was shocked last week to read an article which showed how widespread the practice of buying essays online, in order to boost one’s results, has become: it’s not a cheap route to success, but one that tempts many, and is very hard to detect. The issue is somewhat different from plagiarism, ie using material from other sources in your own work and not admitting it: both are definitely cheating and severely punished when found out. Plagiarism was becoming an issue towards the end of my teaching career, and there are, as far as I’m aware, programs capable of detecting it. Indeed, I detected some in my work in the classroom. And neither of these issues is going to go away, because the internet isn’t…

So how best, how fairest to assess performance in a subject like English Literature?

When I did A levels back in the 1970s, it was all examined, and the exams were all closed book (ie you had no texts with you in the exam room). It was hard work, and there was a lot of memorising of quotations, especially: it was to enable exams in the subject to be less memory-dependent, and to spend more time assessing other skills that alternative forms of assessment were devised and tried out. I remember, for instance, preparing students for open book exams, where a copy of the text, sometimes annotated, sometimes not, was allowed in the exam room. A number of problems immediately arose: some editions of a text had better or more copious textual and critical apparatus for weaker students to waste time looking up, and if annotation was allowed, then students – sometimes encouraged by teachers – stretched this to extremes, filling up every margin and blank page with notes and even essay plans… it couldn’t be policed and wasn’t fair.

When I first started teaching, there was far less unnecessary pressure on schools, teachers and students, and a system of 100% coursework seemed to work quite well, as long as moderating processes were adequate. For a while I was group chair of a local panel of schools where we met to moderate and standardise GSCE coursework grades in English Literature. It seemed a fairer system to me, allowing students to develop and demonstrate a far wider range of analytical and writing skills, and completely removing the memory test element. Research at the time also suggested that coursework enabled girls to do better. It’s easy to see potential problems with this system, and they became more and more serious as the educational ‘reforms’ of the bean-counters in the 1980s took effect. Dishonesty was hard to detect and eliminate: teachers could instruct students on what they should write; parents or older siblings could write the essays; extracts from critics and study guides could be copied into an essay in the hope of better marks. Sometimes this might be detected: a lot of the time it surely wasn’t. The advent of the web made this all far worse, as did increasing pressure by school management and OfSTED to produce results.

For most of my teaching career a combination of coursework and examination obtained: the advantages and disadvantages have already been outlined, but the balance between the two allowed a wide range of knowledge, understanding and skills to be developed and assessed.

And now the pendulum seems to have swung back to where it was when I was at school: closed book exams. A number of issues come to the fore: league tables, and competition and comparisons between schools – the ‘market’ as it’s so quaintly called – demands ever higher results (grade inflation) when surely we should be aiming at the best for every student, and co-operation and sharing of resources and expertise between schools. This is compounded by the spread of ‘data collection’ where numbers and grades are perceived to be more important than a real understanding of a student’s strengths and weaknesses (professional judgement has gone out of the window) – how many ways are there to weigh a pig?

We do currently seem to have an education system that isn’t fit for purpose, partly because no-one’s sure of what the purpose is. We have a cumbersome exam system run by a number of competing commercial companies that pretend to be charities, who often cannot recruit enough properly qualified people to mark papers, while we have just increased the number of exams… I’ve often wondered how the French manage to get their baccalaureate marked and results out before the end of the summer term (which is earlier than ours…). And then there’s that major problem that got me started – the internet. If you can buy an essay, written to order, then you hand an advantage to the rich, and you have to turn the clock back to the exam room of forty years ago in the name of fairness. I did manage to memorise enough quotations from the eight texts I studied to help me get my grade ‘A’, but I’m not sure what good that memory test did me…

Montaigne: Essays

February 17, 2017

515td2p46tl-_ac_us218_When I was teaching, I used to set essays all the time, and yet I never really thought about this literary form at all, in the ways that I used to reflect on poetry, prose and drama. Essays were of various kinds, asking students to write about something they were interested in, something that had happened to them, to present an argument or to explore an opinion offered about a piece of literature, and, other than the obvious idea that the requested piece of writing was non-fictional by definition, that was it.

Having taken a long time – several years, with gaps – to work my way through Montaigne’s Essays (and I must also confess that I read them in English not French, having baulked just slightly at renewing my long-lost acquaintance with sixteenth century French) I have found myself thinking. Montaigne seems to be regarded as the originator of the form, a (relatively) short prose piece on a single topic which the writer may explore how she or he chooses, and often from a personal angle.

It doesn’t seem to be that easy a form to master, for it must either be tightly structured so that the reader knows exactly where you’re leading him or her, or, if it’s a looser kind of reflective wandering through a topic, it must not unravel too much and the reader feel lost in someone else’s ramblings. Which is why a large part of my teaching work was about how to plan and write essays.

Montaigne comes across as a very likeable and very erudite man in his essays: he ranges very widely; some pieces are quite long and involved, others much briefer. The titles of his essays are often puzzling, enigmatic, and one often doesn’t meet the named topic for many pages. He seems very liberal, in the free-thinking sense, open-minded in a way one might not expect from his times, humane in his approach to us and our failings and shortcomings. He writes very openly about sex and sexuality, about his own body and its weaknesses as he ages, and faces the prospect of death. And I am quite envious of his very early retirement to his estate and his tower in which he would sit, think and write, away from the demands of the world. I also like the idea that Shakespeare would have read some of his works, in Florio’s translation: usually it’s the essay ‘On Cannibals’ that’s mentioned, in connection with The Tempest.

I’ve really enjoyed making my way through this huge and well-produced tome – Everyman’s Library do make beautiful books; some of the essays I’ve enjoyed far more than others, and I’ve taken care to mark these, so that I can come back to them: I can’t see myself re-reading them all, somehow…

And now that I come to think of it, I suppose that each of my blog posts is actually an essay. In case you wonder, I do plan them (former students please note!) usually jotting down notes, thoughts and reactions as I’m reading a book, and each piece is carefully read through and revised after I’ve committed it to my hard drive. And I thought I had left essays behind when I finished my master’s degree…

My ABC of Reading: U is for Unseen

December 19, 2016

One of the things I remember from my days of studying at school and university is the unseen, a word capable of striking terror into one’s brain: to be faced with a passage of text – prose, poetry or drama, that one had never previously met, and being expected to analyse it and write intelligently about it, against the clock. And, of course, the unseen was in Latin or French, if that was the subject of the examination.

When examiners are pushed into all sorts of tricky corners by clueless government ministers who think that teachers are cheating again, surely what they need is recourse to the good, old-fashioned unseen paper. Only once in my long teaching career was an unseen not an unseen, when I opened the A level paper my students were taking and saw a short story I’d studied with some of them in the fifth form, and thought – I wonder how many of you will remember this? And that previous encounter would have been of no advantage to them anyway, for the unseen paper tests your skills and understanding, and your ability to apply these, as well as your ability to write intelligently; no cheating possible here. If you’ve been a committed and reasonably assiduous student over two years, you can cope with anything you’ll meet.

Yet you could practise for this paper, and we did. A weekly class where I would put an unseen text in front of the class to see what they would make of it; all you could do by way of training really was to feed them prompts, encouragement and feedback, and supply them with a useful list of terminology and definitions. Apart from that, if you covered a wide enough spectrum of literature over time, from sixteenth to twentieth century, intelligent students would build up the beginnings of a jigsaw of literature and its history, with enough knowledge to enable them to conjecture intelligently and explore an unfamiliar text with a sensible approach.

And, of course, I got to choose the unseen texts, and could feed them all kinds of extracts from my favourite novels, or my favourite poems; an advantage of this was that I would end up eventually explaining and clarifying what it was that I specifically liked about these texts, whether language or metaphor or rhyme or build-up of tension or whatever, and the class learned something of how to explore and explain their reactions to texts, as well.

Over time, I came to save one particular poem for the last class I took with a group. It was William McGonagall’s The Tay Bridge Disaster. As usual, we’d read the text aloud – very important for hearing all sorts of things that one should pay attention to – and then they were invited to begin their analysis. Often, they would wrench themselves into trying to make all kinds of appreciative comments, while I bit my lower lip. I loved the student, whose name I sadly cannot remember, who, one year, put up their hand and said, tentatively, “Sir, this is crap, isn’t it?” And that was an object lesson for everyone.

My A-Z of Reading: R is for Realism

December 9, 2016

The ability to superficially capture an exact and accurate image – a photograph, a film, a recording of any kind – seems to have created the idea that ‘realism’ is a thing, a ‘reality’ as it were, and one that is important, if not paramount, in many aspects of our culture. And yet, the ability to film or to photograph has not eliminated other kinds of representational art: they may have changed and developed in response to the new challenges, but they are still very much there.

And there is the unconscious expectation on the part of most people that literature shall pay tribute to the realist fallacy. (Here I must deliberately exclude science fiction and fantasy, which are, of course, minority interests anyway, in the greater scheme of things.) And we never really go on to ask ourselves what we want or expect from ‘realism’…

True to life? In how much detail? Do people clean their teeth, cut their toenails, wipe the kitchen worktops in novels? We ordinary mortals do such things most days… James Joyce had Leopold Bloom sitting on the toilet, reading and enjoying doing what one does there, in Ulysses, and shocked many people… realistic, though.

What I’m driving at is that ‘realism’ is in many ways a myth. I used to have fascinating discussions about this with students. Writers are creators and manipulators: they choose situations, characters, events to write about, they choose storylines, they leave out and include stuff as they see fit, because the novel or story is theirs, created by them… and we must take it or leave it. Think of the times you have reached the end of a story and thought, “But they can’t leave it like that!” or “That’s the wrong ending!” or just “No!” Why not? Characters may act in physiologically or psychologically plausible and true-to-life (whatever that means) ways, but so much is not done, not said, not included.

When we move back in time – let’s say, for the purposes of illustration the time of Shakespeare – things become both clearer and less clear. Students were prone to exclaiming that such or such train of events ‘wasn’t realistic!’ in any number of his plays. And they were right. Once it was pointed out to them that ‘realistic’ didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time, that audiences didn’t have the same expectations as us, things made more sense to the students: what Shakespeare was interested in showing his audience was certain characters in certain situations, how they behaved, and the consequences of their actions. And to do that, the situations didn’t need to be narrowly ‘realistic’. Thus, Othello is about sexual jealousy and its corrosive effects, which we know in our minds can lead to violence. That the time-scheme of the play seems to suggest Othello becoming insanely jealous within a day or two of his marriage, and suspecting Desdemona of committing adultery a thousand times in that time-frame, is neither here not here; if we waste our time thinking about such details we miss the point of the play, and the dramatist’s greatness…

Story – novel or play, film or TV show – is largely about manipulation of the reader or audience, for certain effects, and we are aware of and complicit in that manipulation to a greater or lesser extent, or completely unaware of it, because we crave the escape, the emotional stimulation, the excitement or whatever the writer or director is offering us. And thinking about what’s actually going on – as I’ve tried to outline above – can enhance our experience and enjoyment.

My A-Z of Reading: O is for Open Book

December 5, 2016

Should an examination be a test of memory, or of a student’s broader ability to apply knowledge and understanding? When I took exams in literature at school and at university many years ago, you were not allowed texts in the exam room. This meant that, as well as knowing the texts thoroughly, and the issues they raised that examiners might ask you to write about, you also had to memorise quite considerable quantities of quotations from those texts in order to support and justify your analysis. How useful was that ‘memory test’ part of my degree qualification, for instance?

When it came to the examination for my masters, I met the ‘take-away’ exam, courtesy of Lancaster University English Department. You took away the exam paper and came back a fortnight later to hand in your four essays; you’d had the time to re-read any text, any critic, plan, draft, write and re-write your essays, and the examiners knew that and expected and marked accordingly. No memory test there, but a serious test of one’s ability to analyse, theorise and evidence, as well as think originally.

When I first started teaching there was 100% coursework in both English Language and Literature; that worked for a while, but depended on committed and conscientious teachers, and there was too much temptation – pressure perhaps, particularly where parents were paying for results – to game the system. So that went, sadly. Incidentally, since those days, I have no personal evidence that students’ results are globally any better or worse. And once again, students were being graded on their ability to understand, to analyse and to evidence.

In came open-book exams: invigilated, timed sessions, but students could have their set texts with them; no memory test, but a test of understanding, analysis, and ability to evidence. Such a system had its downside: weaker students in particular saw the text as a crutch, a prop, and tended to spend far too much time searching for quotations instead of writing for marks. A copy of a text was no substitute for textual knowledge. And again, teachers were pressured to play the system: annotation was allowed, and how much was too much annotation? Who was going to police this? Students ended up with every available inch of their text crammed with notes and essay plans; weaker ones again spent too much time accessing these and not enough time writing.

So we came to the era of clean texts: schools had to spend money buying and storing sets of books to be kept solely for exam use, and again, quis custodiet? So everything came full circle and we are now back at the era of memory tests once again: learn the quotations your teacher tells you, and, if you are a weak student, try and cram every one in to your essay, whether it fits or not.

One of the greatest flaws of the English education system, I felt, during my time as part of it, was the amount of time spent chopping and changing and re-inventing the wheel: students were never served by this; teachers weren’t either, so who was? Exam boards, publishers, consultants all made a mint. And nobody really answered the question: what, exactly, are we trying to assess in a literature exam, and what is the best way to do this?

My A-Z of Reading: L is for Languages

December 2, 2016

Readers will know I love languages and that I’m horrified at the disappearance of the study of languages from our schools and universities; we suffer from the tyranny of English (well, American English) as a ‘world language’ and so see little need to bother trying to communicate with others in their languages. And the monoglot English should realise that they are actually in a minority here: in most ares of the world it’s the norm to be fluent in more than one language, and to use those languages regularly…

Rather than ranting pointlessly, I thought I’d write about my own experience of the languages I have some familiarity with: let’s start, briefly, with English, my mother tongue. I think I know it pretty well, and have quite a wide vocabulary, mainly through my reading of literature across the centuries. I know the history of the language reasonably well and have a decent command of etymology, too. I don’t know Old English – joint honours students at my university didn’t have to study it.

Latin came next, because I was raised a Catholic, and in the days before mass in English I was trained as an altar-boy, and so had to learn by heart all the responses in Latin. This caused problems when I moved to grammar school, which didn’t approve of my Church Latin pronunciation, and I had to learn ‘public school’ Latin pronunciation. (BTW, who knows how they actually pronounced it?) Then when I moved to a Catholic school again I gradually had to un-learn it… but I loved this structured and disciplined language and as I learnt its grammar, all sorts of secrets about how language worked were revealed to me; as I learnt its vocabulary all sorts of things about English and French also became much clearer. I can still do the mass responses, various classical choral music is easy to understand, and I can decipher old inscriptions in churches and other places.

French has been my big success, thanks largely to an inspirational teacher who was years ahead of his time. I had an epiphany on my first trip to stay with a French family when I realised I could communicate with them, reasonably fluently and without having to frame my thoughts in English first and then attempt to translate them… I never looked back, went off to read French at university, spent a year as an assistant at a French school and came home able to speak fluently and at times be taken for a French person. What has that given me? A lifelong interest in France and things French that I have explored for many years through countless enjoyable holidays: that I can operate in France in pretty much the same way as I do at home has been marvellous. And I have to confess, as I have aged, I have become rustier, but I can still manage…

German has been a hit and miss affair: never learned at school, but picked up piecemeal via holidays, acquaintances with Germans, evening classes all over the place, and many holidays. My vocabulary is wide, my grammar pretty ropy, I suspect, as I never had the discipline of learning and being taught systematically; not having learnt genders and conjugations correctly, I make mistakes all over the place, but can be understood. I feel confident enough to make the effort to speak when I’m there and again, have had a good number of enjoyable trips; once of my oldest friends is a German I taught English to on a holiday language course nearly forty years ago.

Italian I spent two years on at evening class about thirty years ago; I enjoyed it and I managed on a trip to Italy. I have the intention of going back to it one day. Having spent ages listening to Dutch pirate radio stations in the 1970s, I can understand a lot of Dutch and Flemish, particularly if it’s in writing; my knowledge of German and the closeness of Dutch to English mean that I can make a decent stab at saying things if I need to. But the Dutch are well-known for their linguistic abilities and usually get in with English first.

I’m currently learning Spanish. It’s fun, interesting and I have a really good teacher. Although it was easy at the outset, it’s getting harder, but definitely keeping my brain active. I’m planning a road trip to Spain in a year or so, and this is partly by way of preparation. Although to be able to read a newspaper or a book in Spanish would be good, too.

Two failures to confess, now: classical Greek was hard, I wasn’t committed enough, and eventually my teacher sent me packing. Fair enough. And oddly, not too high on my list of regrets. Polish, on the other hand, is my big failure. My father was Polish, but had decent English (self-taught) along with Russian and the ability to understand Serbo-Croat) and married an Englishwoman so English was our home language. Polish school on Saturday (tried briefly) as a child was a failure, as were several attempts at different evening classes in Leeds and London. I wanted to learn but didn’t really manage. I can understand a lot, my pronunciation is fine (that’s the easy bit!) and I can get by in a basic conversation if I really have to, but my confidence isn’t good. Why? Polish is a horrendously difficult language grammatically and conceptually – it can easily give classical Greek a run for its money, and I have yet to come across a good teacher in this country, someone who can both tackle the teaching of it to non-natives, and who can clarify the grammatical complexities. I will probably try and have another go before I fall off my perch.

Languages have given me a lifetime of challenge and enjoyment; they have been the key to pleasurable travel, adventures and acquaintances; they have taught me that communication is what being human is all about.

And don’t get me started on the languages I’d like to have the time to learn…

My A-Z of Reading: H is for History

November 15, 2016

With the arrogance of a sixteen year-old, I decided that I wouldn’t study History for A-Level, I’d do English Literature instead, reasoning that I could always just read the history… and if ever there was a life-changing decision, that was one. I have always read history, but I’m not a historian; sometimes I wish I were, but that’s for another existence, someday. With more mature reflection, I still approve of that decision so long ago, since my love of literature has been lifelong, and the basis of three degrees and an entire and very enjoyable career as a teacher.

I can’t count myself a historian because my reading has been haphazard and wilful, because I’m not trained in the evaluation of source material, and I have no way really of knowing if the knowledge and understanding I think I’ve acquired is sound, although it seems to have suited my purposes.

I have read quite widely in the history of Poland and Eastern Europe, and have authors on whom I choose to rely: Norman Davies on Poland I find excellent, and Timothy Snyder on the borderlands and ethnic mishmash that was Eastern Europe before the 1945 ethnic cleansing. I’ve read quite a lot on the Soviet Union, an experiment which has always interested me, perverted though it ultimately was, as well as unsuccessful. This has been as a background to my reading of the literature of those areas and countries: my training as a literature expert taught me the importance of context and background.

I’ve read widely in religious history: I’m particularly interested in the earliest years of Christianity and how it developed before it became an official state religion and more interested in temporal power than spiritual soundness. Again, my reading is rather unsystematic: I have found Geza Vermes very interesting, and Diarmaid MacCulloch most knowledgeable and thought-provoking, but whether that counts as balanced study, I know not. Similarly, the rifts in Christianity that resulted from the Reformation have long gripped me. I studied that period several times in history lessons at school, both from a Catholic and an Anglican perspective. Since then I’ve read more widely; again, MacCulloch has impressed through his thoroughness and contextualisation, but I have also gained much from the work of the relatively little-known Catholic historian Philip Hughes, who wrote serious tomes in the 1950s, particularly on the English Reformation. I have the abiding feeling that an awful lot was lost in the cultural vandalism of those times in England. But is my knowledge and understanding balanced? And then I comfort myself with the realisation that my knowledge and understanding of literature, wide and broad as it is, is hardly balanced or comprehensive, and nor is it capable of so being.

As and when the whim has taken me, I’ve branched out: I needed background on Arabic literature I was reading and so took in Albert Hourani’s History of the Arab Peoples; I’ve found E P Thompson’s history of revolutions very thought-provoking; I have had an enormous tome on the history of the United States on my to-read list for over a decade.

Why history: the triteness of ‘those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it’ is nevertheless true; I want to understand why we, as a species, have made such a hash of our world and ourselves, and to discover some hope, perhaps, that we aren’t permanently doomed to be in a mess, even though we will surely not draw nigh to utopia in my lifetime. At the moment, my feeling is that the tension between the individual and the group or collective is not being given sufficient attention, that competition rather than co-operation is not good for us, and that meddling in the affairs of others rather than just getting to know and live peaceably with them, isn’t helping either. And those are probably not the conclusions of an historian…

On linguistic imperialism

November 12, 2016

I was brought up speaking English; my variety is pretty much Standard English although my south Lincolnshire origins occasionally betray themselves in my pronunciation. I’ve always taught students that SE is an enabler, rather than a replacement for their own variety, wherever they come from: to only be able to operate in a dialect or with a regional accent can disadvantage someone in certain circumstances.

My studies of American literature have made me reasonably familiar with US usages, though not with the many accents of that huge country. I have been aware of Britain and the USA being both connected and divided by a common language, and rather horrified by the vague and characterless ‘mid-Atlantic English’ that has evolved or developed over the past few decades, particularly for the use of non-native speakers… I know very little about other varieties of English, such as those of Canada, South Africa, Australia or New Zealand.

What has retained my attention over the years is what having a language shared with the USA has done to us in the UK. Initially, it was our language; the choice of English over German as the national language of the USA was a narrow thing, apparently. I’m aware that pronunciations and usages and some of the spellings in use on the other side of the Atlantic are actually closer to those of Shakespeare and his contemporaries than the English we currently use in the UK. And obviously, as the power of the USA grew and that of ‘Great’ Britain faded with the progression of the twentieth century, US influence on our common language grew ever stronger. Increasingly books are published in a single US English edition, using US usage and spelling, for sale in all English-speaking countries and I have to get used to all those spellings I dislike and regard as incorrect for here… American TV shows, cheaply produced for a much larger audience, are easy fare for our TV companies looking to fill their schedules.

And, rather more alarmingly to me, the shared or almost-shared language means that every idea or theory, no matter how crackpot or bonkers, that someone in the US dreams up, is instantly and too easily accessible to us over here, whether economic, social, political or educational, whether it’s valid only for the US or more universally applicable – it can be in print, online or broadcast immediately and affect and influence us over here, often before we have time to engage our critical faculties.

This might seem blindingly obvious, and to an extent it is, but the point is that countries that use other languages have an inbuilt delay and a filter which is the need for translation, so ideas can and do take rather longer to percolate and infiltrate other countries, if they actually get there at all: they don’t potentially get the same kind of widespread and instant exposure that they can get here. An example: any teacher in the UK can list a great number of crazy theories and practices that have been adopted by or forced onto schools over the last couple of decades, often to the detriment of good education, and many of these ideas – such as performance management, for instance – originated in the corporate US, and have been dropped since. I have noticed from my reading of the French press that many of these half-baked and discredited ideas are now beginning to surface and be implemented in that country’s schools, and have met with the same scepticism and scorn from French teachers that they met quite a few years ago over here… It’s almost as if French, or German, or Polish or whatever is a shield from some of the craziness.

I’m not wanting to suggest that the USA has a monopoly on mad ideas, although I feel they do pretty well. But this linguistic imperialism is not something that seems to be that widely noticed or commented on, although its effects may be profound.

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