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The fight for English

By Malcolm King - posted Friday, 7 March 2008


“The only way to escape misrepresentation is to never commit oneself to any critical judgment that makes an impact - that is, never say anything.” The Great Tradition, F.R. Leavis.

The three-way “prang” of half-baked leftist ideology, the mumbo-jumbo of post modernist thinking and the introduction of new media in school curriculums, has been an unmitigated disaster for the teaching of English in Australia.

The disappearance of grammar from the classroom in the 1970s and 1980s meant that both students and their teachers cannot tell a gerund from a split infinitive, an adverb from an adjective. The rules for the use of apostrophes and capitalisation have been sucked from the classroom like a road map out of the window of a speeding car.

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This is not language evolving. It is English corrupted. Where William Epsom's Seven Types of Ambiguity showed that English is malleable and plastic only a fool believes that “multiple interpretations“ allows multiple errors of grammar, syntax and spelling.

As a former university selection officer and lecturer in professional writing I was astounded by the poor spelling and grammar of 17 and 18-year-olds - and of their parents.

We need a national school curriculum and we need it by the end of 2009.

TAFE and university entrance applications would be littered with passive sentence constructions, redundancies, clichés and American spellings. It became clear in the selection interviews that many of the applicants were not fiction or non-fiction readers. 

If you don't read books, it's almost impossible to grasp how to interpret, let alone write, complex narratives. Those of a feminist persuasion hadn't read Greer, Faludi, Rolphe or Jay Griffiths. It was as if an intellectual Year Zero had taken place in the mid 1980s.

I'm not an intellectual snob. I simply read. Good writing both transports and transforms you. You're not the same after reading Dicken's Hard Times or Heller's Catch 22. There's no place for snobbery in this debate. To take the journey to Dickensian London is to eschew the toff professor.

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The “Literacy Wars” are a ridiculous sideshow and a distraction born from dogmatism. The real task is teaching students to read, write and understand the historical relevance and context that these novels (or films) were written or produced. I can see nothing inherently “conservative” or “progressive” about either argument.

At best, it seems like those arranged behind Kevin Donnelly are more akin to Edmund Burke's arguments for ensuring continuity with tradition rather than the post modernist radical “Jacobin” departure from tradition in the form of liberty, equality and fraternity - or else! This is a simplistic and possibly silly juxtaposition.

In my classes, the first three weeks of the academic year were spent teaching the subject/object verb relationship. We went right back to the basics of writing simple sentences and using simple words.

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An edited version of this article was first published in Adelaide's Advertiser on February 23, 2008.



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About the Author

Malcolm King works in generational workforce change. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University. He also runs a professional writing business called Republic.

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