aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

A word about the teaching of English

Departments and Schools of English have been declining over the course of my entire lifetime. To understand this, the great battles between the philologists and the critics coincident with the career of J.R.R. Tolkien ought to be noted.

When Tolkien was in college and in his early days as a scholar, two great armed camps uneasily inhabited the same academic space in Oxford and other universities. They were known as Lit. and Lang. The supporters of Lit. were the critics, who wanted to teach books -- those books deemed most worthy by informed opinion, such as theirs. The supporters of Lang., the philologists, cared about books, too, but thought the first duty of the student of English was to understand the language those books were written in. They were interested in the history and grammar of English as well as the books written in English. The critics thought the philologists deadly dull; the philologists thought the critics slapdash and shallow.

By the time Tolkien retired, the critics had won. As Tom Shippey points out, it is now more or less impossible to get the kind of education Tolkien received in English anywhere in the English-speaking world. Very few required courses in Old or Middle English or the grammar of English remain in academic requirements, even for those who intend to teach English professionally. Only literature -- the domain of the critics -- remains. Well, that, and creative writing, too, but more on that in a minute.

Since Tolkien's death, the world of English studies has seen the list of books to be studied under the expert guidance of the critics dramatically modified. To quote Shippey again, it has become a weary trawl through the manifestos of various approved victim groups. The traditional literary canon has been debased and trivialized. This was already under way in my high school days: whereas my elder sisters read Moby Dick in their American Literature classes (Junior year), my class read the science fiction paperback Alas, Babylon for our "great American novel."

With the politicization and sillification of the literary canon to be explored, English departments have seen a dramatic decrease in the number of degrees awarded in English. According to the article referenced here (, the University of Maryland saw a 40% decline in English majors in just two years. So what is holding these departments up? Well, it's because most colleges require a course in basic Rhetoric or Composition, and that's been the English Department's bailiwick.

What is actually taught in writing courses, however, would break your heart. I was a tutor in the ISU Writing Center when I was working on my PhD 25 years ago. Most of the tutors I worked with and most of the writers I met in the Department of English were using creative writing as either revolutionary struggle or personal self-help therapy. And when they weren't in "tutor-mode," they all spoke and wrote a personal idiom that showed no more education in the English language than a stevedore or a farmhand would require (for that matter, I've met stevedores and farmhands who showed more pride in their language skills). When you corrected them, they were offended; after all, they weren't "on the job" at that moment.

And it's not just English majors. All of academia has suffered from the decline in verbal acuity. From the members of my doctoral committee -- five of them professors of Education and one historian -- came the following recommendations or objections to me: I shouldn't use the term willy-nilly because it was too informal (it comes from Old English and has been around for a thousand years); one didn't know what perforce meant; another didn't know what the Latin abbreviation q.v. stood for; I should drop my introduction because dissertations don't have introductions (although the style manual I was required to use had clear instructions on how to write the introduction to your dissertation).

Some fifteen years ago, I remarked to a member of my congregation who taught fifth grade Reading that the youth I taught in confirmation had slipped an entire grade in reading level since I began in ministry; I would now say that they have slipped another one. That is to say that the ordinary 6th- and 7th-graders I teach in confirmation class year in and year out -- who are so much the same kind of kids now as they were nearly forty years ago (the same family structures, the same grades, the same extracurricular interests) -- now read at least two grade levels below the same kids of forty years ago.

The decline in the teaching of English at all levels cannot be cured by more tests, by incentive programs (for students OR teachers), or by more computers. The first and most basic requirement to the teaching and learning of anything of value in the field of English is that the teacher shall actually have the knowledge and skills as a user of English and teacher of English to impart the desired knowledge and skills to the student. And EVERY teacher in every school is, to one degree or another, a teacher of English.

We have created an entire organization of poorly educated people passing on less and less of our linguistic and literary heritage. Not merely elementary and secondary schools, but even undergraduate and graduate schools have become filled with degreed dullards who cannot speak, cannot write, and who have never really been introduced to the greater lights of our language and culture. Expecting them to teach what our students need to learn is like feeding them styrofoam: it might fill them up, but they will be starving, regardless.

  • Sermon time: Another golden oldie

    This journal is in danger of degenerating into personal trivia and funny photos. So, let me post something a little more gracious and thoughtful.…

  • From the sermon barrel

    I'm preaching all "golden oldie" sermons until I get back from Africa June 21. For the Sunday we recognize graduates (May 21), I'm preaching this old…

  • Another golden oldie

    Tomorrow's sermon, already in the can (just add heat): Ephesians 4:1-16 Truth AND Love I want to begin this sermon today by reminding you that…

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.
  • 1 comment