Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Proper English Empowers: A Response to Oliver Kamm

In his recent Wall Street Journal article “There is No Proper English,” British writer Oliver Kamm calls out grammar sticklers everywhere who would forbid poor souls from splitting their infinitives or using phrases like “between you and I.” He rails against “pedants” who believe that grammatical rules are like life rafts in the shipwreck of the English language, and that ending a sentence with a preposition is all that is needed to send the mother tongue to her watery grave. Language is what we make of it, Kamm argues: “If it is in general use, then that is what the language is.”

Behind Kamm’s argument lies the belief that that the teaching of standardized language oppresses already disadvantaged or marginalized social groups. The original rules of Standard English, he notes, were conceived by 18th-century aristocrats in an attempt to make the lower class more like the upper class. He is right to acknowledge the relationship between language and power, something that perhaps no one understood better than George Orwell, whose 1984 is, above all else, a novel about a society that controls the thought of its citizens by limiting their language. And throughout history, standardized language has been frequently used to enervate certain communities. The Irish language teetered on the brink of extinction after several centuries of British rule; we still shudder when we think of the many languages of American Indians that were stomped out of existence in the name of our own national project.

Kamm is correct—language is power. Yet he and the academics that support his descriptivist view of language—“scholarly linguists,” he calls them—have it backwards. Rather than understanding that the disadvantaged are empowered by learning standardized language, these scholars argue against its inculcation in our schools, lest it further oppress those who communicate in non-standard ways. As Kamm vaguely puts it near the end of the essay, “once we dispense with the idea that Standard English is ‘correct,’ there are social and linguistic gains.”

Kamm must live in an alternate reality than the one I inhabit as an English teacher, for education dispensed with this idea some time ago, following the lead of his “scholarly linguists.” No longer do students learn how to diagram sentences in middle school. Few come to high school with a coherent understanding of the parts of speech. High school writing curriculums, in general, are more focused on self-expression itself rather than the difficult task of learning the rules of English in order to express oneself clearly and concisely. And college writing classes… well, I’ll get to that in a minute. So, if we have abandoned the oppressive practice of formal language instruction, where are the gains that Kamm predicts? The results speak for themselves: students have never written more poorly, and there has never been a greater need in the professional world for employees who have mastered the English language.

Kamm’s points about splitting infinitives and using “comprised of” instead of “composed of” are foreign to my experience in the classroom. I am ecstatic if I can focus on such minutiae. Instead, in my experience teaching both high school and college, I’ve seen that most students struggle with much bigger problems, such as writing in complete sentences and organizing their ideas into coherent paragraphs. Student writing, at all levels, is in shambles, and those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds have an especially difficult time expressing themselves through the written word.

One of my formative experiences in this area is especially instructive. During my time as a graduate student I taught, each semester, a section of Intro to Writing. The large majority of freshman on campus were required to take the class (the best writers were able to test out), so sitting before me in the small, airless room on the third floor of University Hall in early September of 2006 was a lumpy mix of writing abilities, ranging from those whose prose exhibited something just shy of real command, to those who struggled to write in complete thoughts. I had my work cut out for me.

The curriculum I was assigned to teach, like most of what you’ll find in Composition departments in large universities, bore the Foucauldian fingerprints of Kamm’s scholars, who insist that teaching students the rules of formal English is tantamount to subjugating them to a kind of slavery. Our textbook replaced such harsh-sounding terms as “grammar” and “spelling” and “punctuation” with the more benign “conventions,” a nod to the arbitrary nature of the rules of communication imposed by the powers-that-be. Not surprisingly, the course attempted to make students understand that, despite the hard-to-ignore fact that they were enrolled in a class designed to strengthen their writing, they already knew how to communicate perfectly well in groups to which they belonged, such as their families, friends, chat-room acquaintances, and so on. The textbook called them “discourse communities,” a term that seemed as fluid and vacuous as the very writing I was hoping to steer my students away from.

The very first assignment of the year required my students to research the ways in which they communicated within these groups. They were to write a multi-page Ethnographic report, noting the varying registers of language at work within each of their communities. Though the assignment asked students to examine informal methods of communication, it demanded, of course, that they compose their papers in the register of academic discourse, using formal English grammar, punctuation, and syntax.

I was confused. The university drew from all kinds of high schools, many very rural, and the students’ writing backgrounds were spotty. Their need for solid instruction in the area of clear thinking and communication could not have been more obvious, or pressing. My own background in the humanities taught me that good writing was the sine qua non of academic and professional success, and sitting in front of me, gathered upon arrival in the stifling room on the third floor, were those who most needed that skill. They had washed up on my dock, a tired, poor, huddled mass, and here I was, asking them to examine their own “discourse communities”? What was going on?

The essays, as one might imagine, were a hot mess. Such meta-analysis (“let me communicate about the ways in which I communicate”) disoriented the first-week students, and for the most part the papers were unreadable, as the curriculum had not yet given time for actual instruction in the area of writing clearly and concisely. And as I found out as the semester wore on, the curriculum never actually bothered to spend much time on that kind of thing.

Looking back on it now, the experience marked the beginning of my disenchantment with the more dogmatic realms of critical theory, for I was able to witness, up close, the grisly collision of academic jargon with actual human lives. At the end of the semester, my students had made little-to-no progress in their writing. Most sadly, the curriculum harmed those students who needed the most help. I can’t help but call to mind an American Indian student in the class, a new resident of a world very different than anything she knew on her reservation, trying to make it through college in the face of staggering dropout rates for students from her high school. She and the others, teetering to varying degrees on the threshold of academic life, could not afford to take a writing class that didn’t actually help them master formal English, which, fair or not, is the prerequisite for academic and professional success. The curriculum focused on their existing “discourse communities” in an effort to build them up, but it actually ended up keeping them down, as it wasted the opportunity to help students join the only “discourse community” that would actually empower them: the academic one.

I don’t mean to heap blame on Kamm. His points about the fluidity of rules governing the finer points of the English language are in fact interesting, and true to some degree. In the near future, I think, the pronoun “their” will become the de jure replacement for “he or she” (which of course, replaced the universal “he,” but that’s a debate for a different time). Scanning this essay, I can find at least one place where I ended a sentence with a preposition. Kamm is right—some rules are not as necessary as we might want them to be.

The real culprits are the linguists, in whose wake Kamm bobs merrily along, for they are the ones who have overseen the demise of student writing in the last decades. The irony is that only those who have mastered the English language could occupy the necessary cultural perch from which to argue for the irrelevance of its rules. I would say that they have been so many Neros fiddling, if only Nero had been playing ballads extolling Rome’s unparalleled beauty while the city itself burned. It seems cruelly indifferent to proclaim that you are empowering students while their ability to harness language’s power, and thereby begin to achieve what you have achieved, remains undeveloped.

No, teaching standardized English does not oppress. It empowers.

So mea culpa, students in my Writing 101 class in the fall of 2006, huddled in the late-summer heat of September high up in University Hall. Sorry for wasting your time. Perhaps I should have taken a cue from one of my fellow teaching assistants, more bold than I, who abandoned entirely the notion of “discourse communities” to teach his students the old-fashioned wisdom of Strunk and White and The Elements of Style. I hope they learned how to write, at least, which is more than I can say for mine.

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