My eye was caught recently by a headline in the Daily Mail: UK pupils of 8 forced to sing in Lithuanian [Thursday 11 July 2013]. Apparently parents have petitioned the Cambridgeshire primary school after their children came home in tears ‘because they were being forced to learn songs in Lithuanian and Polish.’ Naturally I thought of my own primary school days when I was forced to sing in Latin. I was forced to do a lot of other things too – run around a muddy field shivering in rugby shorts, learn large chunks of the catechism, eat liver and onions. When it came to classes, I was so mentally absent that most of what we studied might as well have been in Lithuanian.
In education, as in most things, I have liberal inclinations. I wouldn’t go as far as Summerhill School in Suffolk, founded in 1921 by A.S. Neil, where children are free to attend classes or not as they choose and where, in the words of their website, ‘you can play all day if you want to’. For eight-year-olds some element of compulsion might be necessary, though I tend to be in favour, where possible, of inducing children to learn by making it interesting, rather than forcing them, whatever form that forcing may take. This may sound idealistic, but it’s an ideal based on experience, first as a disaffected pupil, irrationally resistant to fear-based forms of compulsion, and later as a teacher.
The Daily Mail takes a surprisingly progressive line on this Lithuanian singing question, seeming to support the rights of eight-year-olds to opt out of uncongenial school activities. The word ‘force’ seems somewhat strident, hysterical even, in this context. Had I refused to sing in Latin at the age of eight, play rugby, or eat liver and onions, I might have incurred the ultimate sanction of corporal punishment, which is now happily against the law.
Over the centuries, children have been forced to sing in languages not their own, under threat of even greater penalties. No doubt some of my own Irish ancestors were forced to sing in English. I don’t know how education was conducted in Eastern Europe in the early years of the twentieth century, but I suppose it’s possible that my wife’s grandparents were forced to sing in Lithuanian and Polish (paternal and maternal respectively) rather than in the Yiddish of their homes. In this context, the Cambridgeshire children haven't much to complain about.
On the question of compulsion and how children are to be encouraged to tackle difficult tasks, the Mail story has nothing to say. Neither does it shed any light on the question of what, exactly, our children should be learning, though this is a question of topical concern in the light of Michael Gove’s radical shake-up of the National Curriculum. Since the British government decided to involve itself in setting the curriculum twenty-five years ago, modern languages have been argued over – from what age, to what level, by what means, and for what purpose should they be taught?
When I was a teacher in Wales, for a while there was debate over which language should be offered in addition to French, Spanish and Russian. Should it be German, the language of Goethe and our largest European competitor, or Welsh, the ancestral language of a sizeable proportion of our students? Ancient Greek was constantly under threat, mainly from the encroachments on the timetable of newer forms of learning, such as Information Technology. When I taught in California, French seemed to have higher status in the school than Spanish, though Spanish was clearly the more useful locally and internationally. In such choices, utility confronts culture, and the meaning of culture itself is disputed.
Should we be learning the language of our ancestors, of our neighbours, of our trading partners, of our enemies, of our nannies and construction workers, or the ones with the best books? And if learning languages is principally about mental development, does the choice matter that much anyway?
The Mail isn’t really interested in any of these questions. As usual, it has smellier fish to fry. This is, of course, a story about immigration. As the article reports, ‘The area has a large population of East Europeans and a third of the school’s pupils are from migrant families’. As a comment on education it exhibits the same kind of thoughtless ignorance that David Cameron revealed when he casually sneered at Indian dance as a form of physical exercise.
In the end it’s just another jab at ‘political correctness’. That tired old phrase isn’t used in the report, but you never have to look far in the Mail to find it. It’s there on the same page, in fact, in a story about a ‘bonny baby contest’ in the Wiltshire town of Devizes that has been cancelled by the carnival organisers as ‘unfair to the children deemed less than bonny’. Political correctness gone mad!