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Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Business as Unusual

"Oft/frequently/often/consistently" I declare/say/announce/whisper/express, (most usually when acolytes/students/pupils/learners/neophytes are struggling with the ridiculous/preposterous/astonishing fact that the words "knight" and "night" sound exactly the same) ".........this........" - I gesture wildly, often at an offensively difficult word to teach (and concept to understand) such as 'since' ' ".....this happens in English. But despair ye not! For, that very difficulty you are experiencing is what makes English such a flexible, and ultimately (I hope you will find) beautiful language." The discussion that follows is one full of praise for the learners' persistence in mastering what can be a difficult language and for the language itself, which is flexible enough to allow sentences such as 'I go bad' to be understood in at least three different ways.

At this point, digress I should for a paragraph or two, permission? I do have a massive admiration for the English language - it allows us to talk to cats, it allows Sal to swear at my fireplace without bothering to give it a gender, RHB to excoriate things and Grasshopper to be "gosh darned knackered", and yours truly to write nonsense. (In her defence, and before a protracted law suit is launched I should rush to add that I've never heard Grasshopper use 'knackered' right next to 'gosh darned' in a sentence, but she has the potential). However, even my massive admiration for English, and my affection for League Tables, cannot allow me to claim that English is the "the best [language] in the World", which is what the UK's new Education Minister recently did at a party rally.

I was watching the new Education Minister's speech at his party's rally with a degree of interest. Not, I should add, that I have (anymore) a particular interest in the Conservatives, as my current view is a minor variance on the Churchillian position that our (current) formulation of democracy is the worst form of Government apart from every other. The variance I would suggest in that statement is that the sentence should stop at the word "apart". For yours truly, minor ideological differences between UK political parties are about as significant as a disagreement at a child's party whether to have jelly or trifle for desert. Thus whether a Party calls itself Labour or Conservative matters to me not a jot - they are equally unwelcome. So normally watching any of them on television is a waste of time better spent watching 'Survivor', 'Celebrity WifeSwap' or perhaps 'Masterchef'.

However, the recently elected Government have caught the eye, because it has promised to embark on a system of power, wealth and equity redistribution whose scope is breathtakingly impressive. The scale of the planned changes to the UK's economy as a whole, social life at every level and Government support for the ill, the old, the weak and the poor is massive, unprecedented, revolutionary.Unfortunately perhaps, the re-distribution seems to be in the un-preferred direction - namely upwards (demographically speaking) and Southwards (where their power base is). All the talk is of cuts - benefit cuts, heating support for elderly people cuts, job cuts, wage cuts and, crucially for my interests, education cuts. So my interest in this person's speech was twofold:

a. How stupid was it of me to decide to get involved in Education (you get blamed for every ill of society, told you are living in an Ivory Tower and get paid neither overtime or a salary that reflects the additional work you actually do) when I should have chosen banking (you can ruin a countries economy, get paid for it, rapidly forgiven and then carry on as you where)?

b.From a wider perspective, should I wait until riots engulf the country before fleeing back to Canada or wait until the removal of the Harpon tyranny and restoration of democracy there?

Predictably perhaps, the speech revealed nothing of substance, unless you count a deep feeling of unease substantial. It was a typical party conference speech - playing to the prejudices of his audience and absent of content. However, he did make the claim that "English Literature is the best in the world". Naturally, as the UK's (joint) second best academic, and lifelong Celtic FC fan I am interested in rankings. So, in an intensive five minute search of Google and Wikipedia, I decided to research the claim as I was interested in what evidence might support it. A list of Nobels (I am still waiting for the letter re: Civilization: Why???? trilogy) by nationality seemed the best place to find the answer. Unfortunately, for the Minister, the Nobels dont help his argument - the Germans (8) and the French (14) far outstrip the UK's number of Nobel prizes for Literature (5 or 6 depending on whether George Bernard Shaw is counted as English or Irish). So I tried searching for the best selling books of all time. Again, our minister has no support there, as the Bible, Words of Mao T'se Tung and the Quran all outstrip the next best sellers - the Harry Potter series. Potter is by far the best selling fiction phenomenon, and perhaps, I thought, after some reflection, the Minister is referring to this, and perhaps he meant "English Literature is the one I like the best". Whether Harry Potter is something a nation should be particularly proud of or not is surely a matter of subjectivity, and in deciding what to read, there is absolutely nothing wrong with subjectivity, nor with Harry Potter. But if an Education Minister for the eight richest (I looked up a list) country in the World cannot tell the difference between "my favourite" and "the best" then what chance do my learners have in the revolution that is coming??

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