Whenever I am asked why I became a journalist, I pretty much trace it back to one afternoon at school. An ordinary English lesson in an ordinary school in an ordinary part of England with an extraordinary teacher.
Mrs Packwood, one of our ‘A’ Level teachers, had printed off an acceptance speech made by Václav Havel when he received the Friedenpreis des Deutschen Buchandels, the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers Association, on October 15, 1989. I have never forgotten the excitement I felt as she read that speech to us and my sudden appreciation of the power and significance of words to human society.
“Words that electrify society with their freedom and truthfulness are matched by words that mesmerize, deceive, inflame, madden, beguile, words that are harmful—lethal, even. The word as arrow.”
In the whirl of death threats against Salmon Rushdie at the time, the content of this incredible speech electrified me. “We live in a world in which it is possible for a citizen of Great Britain to find himself the target of a lethal arrow aimed—publicly and unashamedly—by a powerful individual in another country merely because he had written a particular book.”
The thrill I got as she read the phrase “The word as arrow,” has never left me. This speech popped into my head again this week as I prepared my letter to my children’s school, explaining why I was taking part in the May 3rd kids strike against SATs.
I thought about how much I loved school and how inspired I was by my teacher. And how teachers in primary schools are being robbed of precious time to illicit this sort of response in their pupils. With endless learning of grammar rules, complex arithmetic and comprehension, in order to pass the Year 2 SATS, what is being lost?
I couldn’t shake Vaclav’s sentiment that words can build human society and destroy human society and that they can illicit great joy and great suffering. They are us.
“Words can be said to be the very source of our being, and in fact the very substance of the cosmic life-form we call Man. Spirit, the human soul, our self-awareness, our ability to generalize and think in concepts, to perceive the world as the world (and not just as our locality), and lastly, our capacity for knowing that we will die—and living in spite of that knowledge: surely all these are mediated or actually created by words?”
And our Government has reduced the learning of the magic of these words to complex grammatical labels that mean nothing to a young child.
Education Secretary Nicky Morgan today got it so, so wrong in her address to the National Association of Head Teachers’ conference in Birmingham.
“What are the limits placed on a child’s imagination when they cannot write down their ideas for others to read?” she asked.
Michael Rosen, a fierce critic of the current way of teaching and testing, hit back on his Facebook page by saying:
“Nicky Morgan is posing the idea that when this comes to one specific matter – ‘writing’ – first you have to learn how to write, then you can be creative. This supposes that we can’t learn how to write by being creative! What an absurd and illogical idea. Anyone who has worked with young children has observed hundreds, if not thousands of occasions, when children have been inventive and creative and pushed at the frontiers of what they can (and can’t do) with a pencil in their hand making words and sequences of words.”
I couldn’t agree more.
I don’t think a six-year-old needs to look at a sentence and identify the expanded noun phrase, just to use an example from my child’s homework last week. It just seems to frustrate and bore him.
Is that going to help him write? Will it improve his ability to put ideas down on paper? Won’t he naturally write a collective noun phrase at some point anyway? Won’t this endless learning and testing of grammatical rules just deaden any excitement about words? Will the magic of reading and writing be thwarted by attempts to understand and label the grammatical cogs behind it before creativity has even had a chance to bud, let alone blossom?
I hope not, but I’m fighting just in case.