At the chalkface: Where language goes to die

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

This once prince of subjects has been eviscerated. Creativity and critical thinking have been junked. Language is rarely subjected to ferocious and forensic examination. At what cost?

These times can feel like the End Days.

Visions get dark. Paranoia blooms.

The cutting winds of austerity blow cruelly through our classrooms. We can’t not be aware of the omni-shambles around us, of a recent UN report that the UK is “a nineteenth workhouse”, a calculated “social calamity” – and getting worse.

We seem to be running out of any effective language to explore this tragedy. Moreover, we seem to have failed to equip our pupils with the tools to survive the treacheries of language.

It gets darker.

Maybe English teachers are especially complicit in this failure? Isn’t the subject meant to inoculate pupils against this avalanche of cant, to nourish reflection, empathy, clarity and cool analysis?

Aren’t the likes of Swift, Orwell, Austen, Baldwin and Leavis meant to see off these the snake-oil charlatans?

So why are they in such ascendancy?

Maybe we just haven’t taught English well enough, or we haven’t been allowed to teach it properly for so long.

Whatever, the subject has been brutally shrunk and has taken savage hits at every level. The core curriculum’s ruthless emphasis on STEM subjects and SPaG and its fevered tick-box culture have wrecked it.

This once prince of subjects has been eviscerated. Creativity and critical thinking have been junked.

Language is rarely subjected to ferocious and forensic examination. At what cost?

Well, just listen to the present toxic public discourse – to May’s limp tautologies, Corbyn’s mimsy incoherence, Farrago’s frontier gibberish, Boris’s rococo, buffoon bombast, Rees Mogg’s feudal obfuscation, Robinson’s vile lies, Michael Francois’ benighted hi-jacking of Tennyson, Matthew Hancock’s rebuttal of Johnson’s elegant “fuck business” remark – “To the people who say “fuck business” I say fuck fuck business.”

Dear me. Bad language, doubled, does not make you cool, Matthew – or lucid. The word we’re looking for is “thick”.

Meanwhile Trump Twitters antically on. “English is the president’s second language. Bollocks being the first,” as John Crace has ruefully observed.

On and on this crippled language goes, peddling ignorance and distraction, fostering a “perpetual possession of being well deceived” in Swift’s imperishable phrase. These people can’t talk, can’t listen, can’t communicate. They would have failed the old GCSE Speaking and Listening exam all ends up – and my pupils would have laughed them out of the classroom. Now this balderdash gets serious attention.

Something has surely slipped... Avaunt visions! Avaunt paranoia!

Maybe I’m investing too much in the subject. Maybe these End Days will end.

Or maybe they won’t. Maybe this is where language goes to die. Words will cease to mean.

Maybe we’ll just be left with the chaos of Pope’s Dunciad.

“Light dies before thy uncreating word

And universal darkness buries all.” 

  • Ian Whitwham is a teacher of English, now retired, who spent many years working in the state school system of inner city London. He has written for SecEd since 2003. Read his most recent articles at http://bit.ly/2UIMd1O


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