WHAT IS THE POINT OF STUDYING ENGLISH?

Gove_2065954bIt’s a valid question. Every school child in the UK has to study English. But should any of them dare to raise their hands and ask the teacher ‘why?’ – what do we tell them?

That’s the main problem with English as a subject. It doesn’t matter what books go on the syllabus, or how much Shakespeare they study, if you can’t explain to kids why they are studying it, or why it is a benefit to them, you’re failing them.

The reason I bring this up is because last week it was reported that Education secretary Michael Gove wanted to remove US authors from the English GCSE exam. Gove has since come out to say this is not true, and that he in fact wants to increase the range of texts studied, hoping for more traditional (or in other words, English) texts. [Sounds like the usual political doublespeak to me.] From what I’ve read on the Telegraph, the way Gove’s new rules make it almost impossible to study any American texts.

I won’t get into the politics. I’ll just stick with the question that has to be asked before anyone tinkers with my favourite subject – ‘What is the point of studying English?’

Do you know? I don’t…I was told once by a uni-lecturer that English is nothing but debate, which wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear, knowing my student loan was already over £10k.

Anyway…I know enough to know this…

English should not be about tub-thumping or selling a sense of national greatness. It should be about educating the minds of boys and girls to best express themselves in the wonderful and confusing world they live in. It’s about giving kids the spark to articulate what they feel, what they see and what they experience. It’s about showing kids the rich and varied ways in which we can express ourselves, from the sometimes baffling word-soup of Shakespeare to the ever inventive pool of modern day slang. It’s about showing kids the vast and exciting palette available to them if they read widely and read often, keeping ears open at all times to take stock of new phrases, words and expressions. It’s about getting kids tooled up with literary skills, so they can be verbal and linguistic gladiators with the confidence and ability to communicate to anyone and everyone who speaks the same tongue, from the Queen to a beggar.

Restricting the pool of resources from which a teacher/syllabus can draw, is moronic. I get annoyed as the next person about American spelling. The missed U in colour, Americanisms like ‘standing in line‘ when we mean ‘queue‘, faucet instead of tap – it drives me mad, but I accept that American English will eventually triumph only because it’s easier for second language speakers to learn. But that’s no reason to axe American writers or American books.

Transatlantic fiction is awesome and exciting. Indeed some of the best writers of twentieth century fiction have come from across the pond and their style and output has in turn influenced English writers. Sure, the UK has produced many decent books, but should we really be excluding works like ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’? or ‘Catcher in the Rye?’ – two seminal books that speak about the eternal problems of growing up and understanding prejudice, puberty, and teenage depression.

English takes a lifetime to master…students will only read the classics if they develop a hunger for the subject. Austen and Dickens are simply not digestible to an unwilling teenage mind. Instead, use texts that teenagers can relate to, that they can have an opinion on, that speak in a language they understand and recognise. I’m not saying bin Shakespeare – Julius Caeser and Macbeth were highlights at school – but not for the language at the time, it was for the blood and guts and violence.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. There’s only so much this government (or the next) can screw up. English levels generally should be improving thanks to the internet. You might think I’m joking, but you’re reading this. Just like you’ve read several other webpages today. It’s the ability to read that unlocks the internet, even YouTube. (You can’t search for what you want if you can’t express what you want).

So, before anybody starts tinkering with English, they really need to understand what the point of the subject is. Because if anyone thinks denying the ability to study certain texts is the way forward, it’s not. English literature should encompass all works written in that language that is recognisable as English and the modern English exam should give students the best possible grounding for unlocking the world around them.

 

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