Wednesday, 20 March 2013

In difense of speling

                Over the past decade, I have marked the end of each high school term with the same ritual: swearing quietly under my breath as I attempt to extract meaning from the maze of spelling and grammatical errors which wind their way through the final essays and exams I must grade.  The swearing is knee-jerk, but once I have calmed down, I force myself to consider the implications of and reasons for the state of the written word.
                The first thing that I must accept is the fact that English, perhaps more than any other language, is an exceptionally malleable mode of communication.  Indeed, its success and richness are largely predicated on its willingness to borrow, repurpose, and create entirely new words.  The Oxford English Dictionary contains well over 600,000 words, and publishes quarterly lists of new entries.  The OED estimates that each of its quarterly reports contain upwards of 2000 new entries.  And as English teachers love to point out, Shakespeare alone contributed hundreds of commonly used words by adding or subtracting suffixes and prefixes to existing words, and by creating entirely new words to fit within the rhyme scheme and meter of his writing.  It is also interesting to note that Shakespeare himself spelled his own name no fewer than five different ways.  (Interestingly, the modern spelling seems to be one of the spellings he did not routinely use.)             
                The second reality that I must come to terms with is the fact that, as a result of this malleability, English spelling has acquired some very arbitrary characteristics.  The extensive list of homonyms that pepper our language is just one example of the wackiness built into our system of spelling.  “I’ll”, “Isle”, and “Aisle” are as differently spelled as they are similar sounding.  At the root of this baffling system is a love of fusion which underpins our language.  The tendency for written English to incorporate the verbal shorthand of spoken English is demonstrated in its multiplicity of contractions.  “I will” was long ago deemed too inefficient to leave unmolested, so the verbal slurring of “I’ll” found its way onto the page.  Of course, if English was content merely to fuse its verbal and written forms, its phonetics would make a lot more sense.  However, English also relishes the opportunity to adopt words from other languages.  “Isle” comes from the Latin word “insula”, which incidentally is also where we get the words “Island” and “Insulate”.   “Aisle” comes from the Old French word “Aile”, meaning “wing”.    
                As a result of this spirit of inclusion, English developed as a patchwork of disparate and constantly evolving rules and spellings.  It was not until the Enlightenment, when the English speaking world was ascending to a place of political dominance, that this dynamic mosaic started to be formalized.  The combination of the hegemonic forces of English colonization, and Enlightenment ideals of scientific rigour and uniformity led to the publication of the first comprehensive English dictionaries in the 1700s.  Perhaps the most famous speller of this time was Noah Webster (1758 – 1843).  He published A Grammatical Institute of the English Language in 1783, the year the American Revolution officially ended.  Commonly referred to as The “Blue-Backed Speller”, this formalized account of rules for written English would sell 100 million copies in the century after it was published; a literary reach second only to the bible.
                So, if the success of English has historically rested on its malleability, and its system of arbitrary rules was codified at a time bearing little resemblance to our own, why should I get upset when my students can’t spell?  Aren’t text messages and emoticons simply the next phase of English evolution?  After careful consideration, I can say with great confidence that spelling needs to be a continuing area of focus in education.  However, the methodology with which teachers present this skill is in need of change.  Rote memorization of arbitrary rules is antithetical to the creative demands of the post-industrial work place.  As is, I must concede, my knee-jerk anger directed towards students who don’t see the logic in this system.  Instead, spelling and grammar must be explored for what they really are: windows into a fascinating history of cultural exchange and evolution.  The English language needs to be taught using discussions of word etymology, and analysis of both how and why written communication changes.  Students should consider both the benefits and the drawbacks of communicating 140 characters at a time, and apply the same level of critical thinking when considering why teachers continue to ask them for formal essays and reports. 
                As with all significant areas of human endeavor, language is a process rather than an end point.  To be fully valued, therefore, we must learn to appreciate its past, present, and future.   

The Importance of Teaching Optimism

                The most difficult part of teaching World Issues is steering students away from the cynicism and apathy that often infect discussions of the world’s problems.  If television is a good indicator of social mood, then this cynicism seems to be intensifying.  Recently, a variety of documentary-style television shows such as Aftermath and Life After People have entertained a wide range of apocalyptic scenarios.  Life After People is particularly bleak in regards to the future of our species.  The show, which is currently in its second season on The History Channel, callously quantifies how quickly human accomplishments will vanish after we are gone.  There are even some groups that are keen to see this future realized.  Founded in 1991, the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT – pronounced “vehement”) is based around the motto: “May we live long and die out”.  Although this is certainly a fringe movement, its core ideas have been picked up in mainstream culture.  Most notably, the 1999 box office juggernaut The Matrix sounds remarkably similar to VHMET ideology when its main antagonist compares humanity to a virus which has infected the world.  
                Feeling that the world is too big and complex to fix and that humanity is only capable of destructive behaviour is very tempting because it is so easy.  It is the misplaced idea that nothing can change that frees us from the responsibility of trying.  Such a defeatist attitude, however, poses the danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It is therefore the duty of both teachers and parents to endow our students with a feeling of optimism and a sense of control over their future.  To my mind, the best way of doing this is to shine a light on the primary sources of the cynicism which seems so deeply embedded in our society.  As with all problems, pessimism can be fully overcome only if it is completely understood.                             
                The possibility that humans may have lost control of the world became a widely discussed theme during the Industrial Revolution.  Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1818) is the most famous example of the era’s growing fear that humans could become victims of their own technology.  However, it is not the technology itself that is the primary object of fear in this story; it is how it came into being.  What is monstrous about Frankenstein’s creation is the fact that it was assembled rather than born.  The source of the monster’s murderous rage is its alienation from humanity as a result of its unnatural origin.  A little over a century later, Aldous Huxley gave Shelly’s critique of industrialized society a futuristic makeover in Brave New World (1932).  Like the monster in Frankenstein, people in Huxley’s futuristic dystopia are essentially industrial products.  Each person is engineered on an assembly line to fulfill a specialized social task.  Unlike Shelly’s monster, these assembly line citizens appear quite content with their lives.  However, this is only because human inefficiencies like curiosity have been meticulously removed.  They are happy only because they are too apathetic to be dissatisfied. 
                Literary allegories about the disempowering nature of the industrial world are mirrored by one of the most influential publications of the 19th century.  In certain passages of The Communist Manifesto (1848), Karl Marx sounds as if he is giving a description of the Frankenstein monster.  Most notably, he describes the “alienation” felt by modern workers as a result of their fragmented existence as industrial drones.  And like the monster described by Shelly three decades earlier, alienated workers will eventually turn violent.       
                Two centuries of academic literature, and a handful of communist revolutions is pretty conclusive: when people are treated like industrial products, they become blissfully apathetic at best, and chaotically violent at worst.  Even the most cursory glance at history shows that neither approach is particularly good at changing the world.  Knowing this, the value of an integrated, liberal arts education becomes all the more apparent.  Since the Industrial Revolution, education has unfortunately been based on an assembly-line model.  To maximize efficiency, students were educated in a series of specialized subjects, and forced to pass through a number of quality control check points to ensure their readiness for the industrial work force.  It should be no surprise then, that students coming out of this anachronistic approach to education felt alienated and powerless when confronted with a seemingly fragmented array of global issues.       
                Today’s students must be taught how to transcend artificial distinctions in order to regain a sense of overarching understanding and personal agency that was forfeited in the name of specialization.  As students stop seeing their world through the antiquated divisions left over from the industrial age, they realize that many problems share common solutions, and that one seemingly small action can have wide reaching implications.  Education itself is one such solution.  Higher rates of education have been repeatedly proven to eliminate many of the problems that plague the contemporary world, including gender inequality, economic disparity, and unsustainable population growth. 
                Postindustrial, interdisciplinary education can change the world.  It is the job of teachers today to share this optimistic fact with the next generation.