What was going on?

With two friends I’ve been reading Chapter 3 of Urszula Clark’s book War Words: Language, History and the Discipline of English. All three of us have “English” degrees and we all earned our living teaching “English” in one form or another. (The first effect of Urszula’s book is to problematize as a school subject – hence the inverted commas.) We all had some training in modern Linguistics  and two of us taught English Literature as well. The institutions we taught in ranged from primary through secondary schools and Further Education to University, and the clientele from native speakers to foreigners and immigrants.

Our professional lives covered, between us, the period 1950-2000, the major part of the period covered by Clark’s second chapter. It was fascinating to see how our various experiences exemplified the ideological debates and practices of the second half of the twentieth century. I, at least, participated in those debates, both as an active member of the Labour Party and as a teacher in the system. When I recall what it felt like to be involved in those conflicts, I recall my utter confusion! What the heck was going on?

The advantage of Clark’s account of the period is that, using Bernstein’s model of the pedagogic device, she can survey, not merely the “facts” but also the tensions at work in the educational theory and practice of the time. The most powerful and divisive of these tensions was between successive governments and the teaching profession who wanted to use education to create a more equal and cohesive society, and those who wanted to keep the system as it was, so maintaining class divisions.

Politically, this was at its sharpest in the conflicts over the creation of comprehensive schools to replace the traditional tripartite system. As an active member of the National Assembly of Labour Teachers, it was my speech at the Birmingham Municipal Policy Conference in the late fifties which made the Labour administration set up two new secondary schools as comprehensives and not bi-laterals.

Against this political background were the tensions in English teaching – in the early days between those who wished to retain Latin at the centre of the curriculum and those who wished to replace it with English; the conflicts, especially after the Second World War, between those who regarded the “canon” of English Literature as the only texts to be studied in schools and those who wished to consider the pupils’ own culture and the mass media.

All these battles continue. What is striking in the whole period of state education in this country, as covered by Clark in Chapters 2 and 3 of her book is that the only voice not heard is the voice of the recipients of state education and their parents. Another thing that hasn’t changed!

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