As a boy, I was encouraged to study hard – I did not – and go to university as it would serve me well later in life. I turned down that option and over the years, have occasionally – and only very occasionally – regretted that choice. Universities in those days were for those elite students who earned the right to attend but all that seems to have been forgotten in the rush by modern academics to be politically correct.
A few decades ago I read a book by Sir Michael Dummett who had just retired as the professor of logic at Oxford University. I can’t remember what it was called, but it was designed to assist students in expressing themselves when answering questions.
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 this country has to offer.
Today’s vice-chancellors and professors are worried about the same thing, but their response has been rather different. Instead of helping the written language these academic turnips have decided that if a student cannot spell or use punctuation accurately or write basic, simple, reasonably grammatical English, they should not worry about it. They won’t lose any marks in their exams because tutors are being told to adopt a policy called ‘inclusive assessments.’
The reason for this madness is that these -people who are responsible for fitting young people out for life are 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.’
What politically correct garbage is this? They should be encouraging the status quo, not challenging it.
Other universities adopting similar policies include the University of the Arts in 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.
In simple English (a bad pun in the circumstances) 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, this might seem eminently justifiable. They want 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 thirty 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 are setting an essay.
Perhaps I can save them the trouble. They are not just ‘important.’ They are ruddy vital dammit!
You may have noticed one simple word missing from Nottingham’s little list of desirable qualities and that is clarity. That is why we have language. We need it to communicate and every language has its own spelling, punctuation and grammar. The French who take so much flak from the English are proud of theirs and will brook on interference in how things are written or pronounced.
If there really is a crisis in our universities we might, perhaps, trace it back to the early Sixties – the time when I would have been attending university had I been so inclined. 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 fanatics who are seeking to obliterate the modern world 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.’
How right he is.
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 too is undeniably and obviously correct. The approach to students who struggle with expressing themselves clearly is not to say it does not matter. It is to help them. Virtue signalling is not only pointless, it is ruddy counter-productive and helps nobody, particularly not the affected student.
You might say we hear non-standard English spoken all the time. Teenagers have their own lexicon of words that are unintelligible to adults of my generation and probably the generation after mine. But that does not really matter. Eventually they grow out of it.
But universities are supposed to impart knowledge dammit! That is the whole point of them. We have a universal language. It is 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 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 have used words all my life and have twenty reasonably successful books to my name but that is because I was forced to learn basic grammar before I left school on my seventeenth birthday.
Besides, language is fun. We have all heard examples of where sentences have gone horribly wrong. Try these for size and they were 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 will bet you smiled on reading that.
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. To me Billy the Bard was a great story teller but I did not enjoy him much.
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 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 Fuckface?’
Hard to fault his grammar.
It seems a long time since I last ‘ranted’ but after my second vaccination last Saturday, I descended into a deep fog of weariness wherein all I wanted was sleep and more sleep. Thankfully that seems to have lifted somewhat and I feel almost human today.
But – and it is yet another pun I am afraid – I really have missed the boat. It seems that NHS patients in Nottingham are being prescribed paddleboarding sessions to improve their health.
How daft is that? Britain may be four hundred trillion pounds in debt, but you can always rely on the public sector – particularly the NHS to come up with imaginative new ways of wasting money. An alliance of taxpayer-funded bodies, including the Arts Council and Natural England, are bunging GPs Fifty thousand quid to spend on outdoor activities, such as canoeing and paddleboarding on the Nottingham and Beeston Canal.
Is it any wonder we are up the creek without a paddle?
Sorry – perhaps more sleep is required after all.