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Status anxiety

Status Anxiety: Grammatic irony

Toby Young suffers from Status Anxiety

14 May 2011

12:00 AM

14 May 2011

12:00 AM

I received a shocking letter from a 15-year-old schoolgirl called Carola Binney last week. It was a real marmalade dropper. In all my years I’d never seen anything quite like it. Had she really spent the past 11 years in full-time education? It scarcely seemed possible, not at a British school. To my astonishment, all the words were spelt correctly and it didn’t contain a single grammatical error.

Earlier this week, the CBI disclosed that 44 per cent of businesses are forced to provide school and college leavers with remedial English lessons, so poor are their writing skills. British schoolchildren simply aren’t taught grammar any more, a deficiency that isn’t confined to the state sector. Barnaby Lenon, the headmaster of Harrow, told me that when he first took up the job he found that an alarming number of his sixth-formers were illiterate, including those who’d got an A* in GCSE English. He now makes all the pupils in the Lower Sixth sit a basic literacy test.

To give you an idea of just how lax standards have become, take the following example provided by Andrew Penman, author of a book called School Daze. In the summer of 2008, a GCSE English paper asked examinees to describe the room they were sitting in. One candidate gave the following two-word answer: ‘F*** off.’ The exam board in question, Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, awarded him two points out of a possible 27. Justifying this decision, a spokesman for the board said: ‘It does show some very basic skills we’re looking for — like conveying some meaning and some spelling. It if had got an exclamation mark it would have got a little bit more.’ Never let it be said that you don’t get additional points in GCSE English for good punctuation.

In Theodore Dalrymple’s most recent book, Spoilt Rotten, he blames the Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker for this sorry state of affairs. In The Language Instinct, Pinker describes grammar as ‘the hobgoblin of the schoolmarm’. Any standardised language, according to him, is the language of the establishment, a language with ‘an army and navy’. In his eyes, standard English is no more valuable or worth teaching than ‘black vernacular English’. As the American educationalist J.D. Hirsch has pointed out, the irony of this progressive approach is that it ends up entrenching poverty and preserving privilege. In the name of treating different social classes and ethnic groups equally, it perpetuates inequality. For what hope does an African-Caribbean boy born on a council estate in Brixton have of social advancement if his schoolteacher declines to teach him English grammar on the grounds that ‘Black vernacular English’ is equally valid?

Little wonder that so few children eligible for free school meals manage to secure places at good universities when their teachers won’t even furnish them with the basic skills required to fill out the application forms.

Dalrymple traces the origins of Professor Pinker’s attitude to the romanticism of Rousseau and his conception of children as imaginative creatures whose creativity shouldn’t be stifled by petty bourgeois rules. Pinker quotes with approval the observation of the anthropological linguist Edward Sapir who wrote: ‘When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting savage of Assam.’ According to Pinker, a three-year-old is a ‘grammatical genius’.

It’s no coincidence that the two countries in which romantic, progressive ideas about education have made the greatest inroads — Britain and the United States — are currently languishing bottom and second-from-bottom in the international league table measuring inter-generational social mobility among developed countries. These ideas entrench poverty and preserve privilege.

So why was Miss Binney writing to me? To tell me about the response she received when she applied for a work placement at the Department for Work and Pensions. Clearly, the ‘correspondence team’ at the DWP were as wrong-footed as I was to receive a letter from a teenager entirely free of the usual mistakes. Four months after receiving it, they wrote back: ‘The government’s support for pensioners remains absolute and it has reaffirmed its commitment to restore the link between the basic State Pension and earning from 2011.’

As the only 15-year-old schoolgirl in the country with a solid grasp of standard English, Carola Binney should aim higher than the DWP. I’ve advised her to apply for a work placement at the Spectator.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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