The English language was invented, so to speak, by the English. In the past, English writers were generally held to have exhibited some skill in the use of the language. The Oxford English dictionary is, I suppose, the recognised authority on the spelling and meaning of English words. But what Alice Miles tells us, courtesy of an email from someone who marks examination papers in English Literature, is that English schoolchildren are no longer taught how to spell, how to punctuate, or how to use grammar an orthodox way.
There is nothing particularly new about this revelation. We have known it for some time. But readers outside the UK may, I think, be a little surprised by how far we have gone down the road to more or less complete illiteracy.
First, a few words of background. For some fifty years now, the final examination taken by children in English schools, if they stay on until the age of 18 or so, has been known as the 'A' level. You can take 'A' level exams in a mass of subjects, but they are fairly specialised, and most school-leavers take about three subjects. For arts students, History, English Literature, and French might be a suitable combination; for a science student, Maths, Physics, and Chemistry. The examination papers are marked by human beings, rather than machines, and on the basis of these marks the candidates are awarded a particular grade, of which A* is apparently the highest.
Here is Alice Miles's report of what one of last year's examiners told her about the marking process, together with his comments on what this means in terms of the candidates' skill with the English language:
"A* grades are given out like sweets at a childrens party to youths who not only cannot spell or punctuate to save their lives, but who cannot do something much simpler than that, namely copy words which are printed in front of them, he writes. I marked nearly a thousand English Literature papers. Of those, over a hundred wrote Literature wrongly (e.g. litriture) on the front of their answer-sheet, in spite of the fact that it was there in big letters on the question paper.My comments on this state of affairs follow:
"I marked approximately 700 essays on An Inspector Calls, by J.B. Priestley. The candidates had the book with them in the exam-room, and the name Priestley is in large letters on the front of the book. It was also printed as part of the wording of the questions. Yet over 95 per cent of my candidates wrote either Priestly or Preistly.
A similar number misspelt the characters names Sheila and Arthur. Yet these words are printed on almost every page of the text which they have on their desk.
He continues: I was also forced to award ludicrously high marks to candidates whose command of English grammar and/or sentence structure was simply non-existent. Upwards of 150 candidates will have been awarded a C (or better) who wrote could of, might of, should of. The pronouns I and me were used interchangeably by large numbers of candidates (as in Me and Mr Birling have done nothing wrong or The Inspector was so rude to Mr Birling and I). Neighbours-speak was quite common, as in Then Shelia (sic) was like, what? (meaning she was surprised, I supposed).
This examiner was not allowed to penalise such basic errors. I dont want to award A* in a subject called English Literature to a person who knows no English and cannot spell Literature even though its printed in front of him/her. And yet I had to, again and again and again. I was told repeatedly, explicitly, and unambiguously, that I was to mark only the ideas expressed, and not not even a tiny bit the way in which those ideas were expressed. The instructions given to him by the examining board read: There is NO Assessment of Written Communication on this paper.
I have for some time been of the view that the English (specifically) were driven insane by the two world wars which occurred in the first half of the twentieth century. In the first world war, our brightest and best young men were killed in vast numbers. In the second world war, the same thing happened again, only this time we lost many women also. We were also rendered bankrupt.
The psychological impact of these losses, and the consciousness of those losses, should not be underestimated. Post the second world war, the English clearly became deranged. Society became flooded with well-meaning do-gooders who bumbled about in the most hopeless manner.
The insanity led to a number of public policies which were idealistic and well-intentioned on the one hand, and unrealistic and unachievable on the other. We took the view that everyone has the right to good health, so we tried to provide state-of-the-art medical treatment for every citizen (and some non-citizens), as and when need, instantly, and free of charge. In immigration policy we took the view that everyone deserves the chance of a better life, so we would open our borders to pretty much the entire world. And in education we noticed that no one likes to be punished, so we abandoned any form of discipline in schools. I have a young relative who actually enjoys teaching in a comprehensive school (a rare circumstance), and he recently applied for a job in a new school. As part of the selection process, he was asked to teach a lesson in front of observers. 'You're too strict,' he was told.
Above all, we decided that no child should ever be allowed to feel a failure, so we arranged, as far as possible, that no one should ever fail an exam. This year, the pass rate in 'A' levels is 96 per cent.
The result of all this well-meaning bumbling is that, for the last forty years, English education has been a catastrophe. We have a world in which English children, educated in English schools, not only cannot use the English language to communicate their feelings, hopes, wishes, and ideas - but they cannot even copy down correctly a word which is in print in front of their very eyes.
I have been known to say that the last great privilege of the Englishman is that he can still afford - just - to ignore politics. But by God I am beginning to wonder.