JOHN HUMPHRYS hits out as universities say correct grammar 'elite'
What Grade A nonsense! JOHN HUMPHRYS hits out as universities say correct spelling and grammar may be seen as ‘white, male and elite’
Thirty years ago, Sir Michael Dummett, who had just retired as the eminent professor of logic at Oxford University, felt the need to write a book that would help students answer their questions. Not the content of their answers, just how to express themselves.
Sir Michael was worried because a survey had shown that nearly half of university vice-chancellors were so concerned about their students’ literacy, they had decided to introduce special lessons to help them express themselves more clearly. These, remember, were supposed to be the brightest and best young people our country has to offer.
Today’s vice-chancellors and professors are worried about the same thing, but their response has been rather different. It has been: if you can’t spell or use punctuation accurately or write basic, simple, reasonably grammatical English, don’t worry about it. You won’t lose any marks in your exams because tutors are being told to adopt a policy called ‘inclusive assessments’.
In simple English (if I may be so bold), what it means is the universities who have adopted these policies will no longer be doing what universities have done since the Middle Ages
The truth, as we now know, turned out to be the opposite. We are not imprisoned by grammar. We are liberated by it
They want, quite rightly, to narrow the gap between white students from more privileged backgrounds, and black, Asian and minority ethnic students who may not have had their advantages
The reason is they’re afraid that insisting on students expressing themselves in clear English could be viewed as ‘homogenous North European, white, male, elite’.
Hull University has said it is dropping the requirement for a high level of technical proficiency in written and spoken English in some subjects, in order to ‘challenge the status quo’.
Other universities adopting similar policies include the University of the Arts London, which has issued guidelines telling staff they should ‘actively accept spelling, grammar or other language mistakes that do not significantly impede communication unless the brief states that formally accurate language is a requirement’.
And at Worcester University, academics have been told that if spelling, grammar and punctuation are not ‘central to the assessment criteria’, students should be judged only on their ideas and knowledge of the subject.
Do I detect the influence of the all-powerful Woke Brigade somewhere here?
In simple English (if I may be so bold), what it means is the universities who have adopted these policies will no longer be doing what universities have done since the Middle Ages.
They will not be levelling up — setting high standards and enabling their students to achieve them. They will be dumbing down.
At first glance, it might seem a commendable policy.
They want, quite rightly, to narrow the gap between white students from more privileged backgrounds, and black, Asian and minority ethnic students who may not have had their advantages.
Or students from poorly performing schools. Those who are more likely to drop out of university than the ‘homogenous North European, white, male, elite’.
Hull University said that it would ‘encourage students to develop a more authentic academic voice, a voice that can communicate complex ideas with rigour and integrity — that celebrates, rather than obscures, their particular background or characteristics’.
It warns tutors against ‘imposing your own idea of “correct English” on student work’.
But it takes about 30 seconds to realise that, whatever language you use to express it, this is Grade A nonsense that will achieve the opposite. And what in heaven’s name is ‘your own idea’ of correct English? We get a clue to that from Nottingham Trent University, which wants their academics to give a ‘clear message about whether spelling and grammar are considered important’ when they’re setting an essay.
Perhaps I can save them the trouble. They are not just ‘important’. They are vital.
You may have noticed one simple word missing from Nottingham’s little list of desirable qualities.
It is clarity. That’s why we have language. We need it to communicate. And every language has its own spelling, punctuation and grammar.
If there really is a crisis in our universities we might, perhaps, trace it back to the early Sixties. Trendy self-styled ‘educationists’ ruled that teaching children the rules of grammar was imprisoning them in linguistic jails run by white males.
The truth, as we now know, turned out to be the opposite. We are not imprisoned by grammar. We are liberated by it.
Clarity is the enemy of ambiguity and ambiguity is the friend of every politician who has ever tried to pull a fast one on an unsuspecting public.
Clarity of communication — enabled by grammar — empowers us. Which takes us back to the woke warriors with their own approach to empowerment.
Thankfully, some academics are pushing back against this nonsense. Professor Frank Furedi, of the University of Kent, believes that ‘inclusive assessment’ is an instrument of social engineering that violates the norms of academic education.
He says: ‘Lowering standards of assessment lowers expectation of what students should achieve. Worse, normalisation of illiteracy flatters instead of educates students.’
Alan Smithers, the professor of education at Buckingham University, said that universities were under pressure from the government to close attainment gaps, but not requiring a high standard of written English undermined academic integrity.
He’s right. The approach to students who struggle with expressing themselves clearly is not to say it doesn’t matter. It is to help them. Virtue signalling is not only pointless, it is counter-productive.
You might say we hear non-standard English spoken all the time. Before I started writing this piece, I asked a bright teenager what he made of it. He gave me a thoughtful answer, but in his first sentence he used the word ‘like’ four times. As in, ‘I’m like . . .’ Show me a teenager who doesn’t. He saw no reason not to and was rather surprised when I pointed it out. And anyway, it doesn’t matter. Teenagers have always had their own language and always will. And eventually they grow out of it.
But universities are not the street or the AstroTurf. They teach knowledge. That’s the point of them. And there is a real danger of creating ghettoes. We have a universal language. It’s called English and it’s been pretty successful for a very long time. It would be a grave mistake to abandon it to the ‘woke’ and ultimately meaningless notion of ‘inclusive assessment’.
We rely on our great universities for the new ideas, theories and analyses that will help us create a better world — and they need to be articulated with clarity and precision. We need, in every sense, to be able to speak the same language.
I can’t pretend to be impartial on this topic. I would not be writing in this newspaper today had I not been forced to learn basic grammar before I left school at 15. I got my first job on a local weekly when I satisfied the editor that I could write a grammatical sentence.
Besides, language is fun. We’ve all heard examples of where sentences have gone horribly wrong. Try these for size — culled from the saintly Radio 4 news bulletins: ‘For the second time in six months, a prisoner has died at Durham jail after hanging himself in his cell’. . . ‘A suicide bomber has struck again in Jerusalem’.
I wonder if the person who nailed this notice on the wall of a public building paused to reflect. It read: ‘Toilets out of use. Please use floor below.’ Or a hospital parking notice: ‘Thieves operate in this car park’.
Inevitably, those of us who defend grammar are regarded as humourless sticklers with no imagination, who will always mourn the passing of Shakespeare. When I wrote my first book on the English language, I was accused on Amazon of being a pedant. It did not help my accuser’s case that what he actually wrote was ‘pendant’.
Perhaps an acknowledgement that I’m prepared to swing from one side of the argument to the other?
Nor do I believe that every rule must be obeyed and that splitting an infinitive should be made a capital crime. ‘To boldly go’ is ungrammatical but fine. ‘Boldly to go’ is stupid.
And I have limitless admiration for the dirt-poor young man from rural Mississippi who won a scholarship to Harvard. On his first day, he approached a couple of cashmere-clad young men leaning elegantly against a wall.
‘Hey y’all . . . can you tell me where the library’s at?’
The young men smiled smugly and one said: ‘At Harvard we tend not to end sentences with prepositions’.
He considered for a moment and then: ‘OK . . . can you tell me where the library’s at a**hole?’
Hard to fault his grammar.
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