Comment: Russell Brand English A Level will be refreshing and rigorous

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Andrew Linn, Professor of History and Linguistics at the University of Sheffield, comments on proposals by exam board OCR to introduce a new English A-level featuring comedian Russell Brand's evidence to a committee of MPs on drug addiction and treatment.

Russell Brand English A Level will be refreshing and rigorous

by Professor Andrew Linn, 9 May 2014, posted on The Conversation

The exam board OCR recently announced a new English Language and Literature A Level that they intend to offer from 2015. The proposed syllabus boasts that “the range of texts to be studied is to be the most diverse yet for any English A Level”. The spread covers Emily Dickinson and William Blake, but also more recent non-literary and spoken material. OCR’s press release cites Russell Brand’s presentation to the parliamentary committee on drug addiction and Jeremy Paxman’s interview with rapper Dizzee Rascal on BBC’s Newsnight as examples.

Few things raise blood pressures more precipitously than the nature and quality of education, and when combined with the spectre of cultural and linguistic change, this upbeat and apparently innocuous press release was destined to unleash a splenetic torrent of complaint.

Straight English Literature A Level will have a different syllabus, as will English Language. This combined language and literature course will be about recognising and analysing the cornucopia of ways in which language can and does function, using both literary and linguistic techniques to achieve that. And this is something to be celebrated.

I will come straight off the fence and say that I think the proposals look like they will be both refreshing and rigorous. Of course, not everyone shares this enthusiasm. A Department of Education source is quoted as saying that: “Schools should be aware that if they offer this rubbish in place of a proper A-level, then pupils may not get into good universities.” And there are many comments peppering articles on the subject along the lines that “Britain has had it” and “this is awful”.

We see a more measured response in Laura Barton’s piece in the Guardian. “Language evolves – get over it”, she says. Newsnight, on the other hand, concluded its broadcast on May 7 with a rerun of part of the interview with “Mr Rascal”, subtitled in mock Shakespearean. So for, against, or just taking the piss, the chattering classes are doing what they do best.

But this is not the first time there has been blood on the carpet over the English syllabus. When it was suggested to the Regius Professor of History at Oxford in 1877 that the teaching of English Literature be associated with the School of Modern History, he replied: "To have the History School hampered with dilettante teaching, such as the teaching of English Literature, must necessarily do great harm to the School."

Agonising over whether teaching English would be, in the words of the Professor of Moral Philosophy, “to reverse the Renaissance”, delayed the establishment of the Oxford English School until 1894. And to convince their opponents of the rigour of the degree, the syllabus committee prescribed compulsory study of the dead Gothic language as a counterweight to the “miserably inadequate training” offered by such options as “Authors from 1700 to 1832”. So there is a century-long tradition of those who are not themselves teachers or students of English seeking to protect their own position by inveighing against any innovation in this domain.

It was English literature that was viewed as being too “soft”, too “frivolous” to study a century and a half ago. Today, it is non-literary uses of language that have become the whipping boy. But there is plenty that a student of English could learn from Russell Brand’s speech to the parliamentary committee. It is an incongruous moment when Russell Brand enters the formally structured and formally clad arena and Keith Vaz MP bids him “have a seat”. This in and of itself provides food for thought and analysis.

It is clear from his first utterance that Brand does not speak with an RP accent. What are the phonetic and phonological features which make him recognisably different from his interlocutor, the effortlessly smooth Vaz, and how can these be described using the appropriate technical tools? Does his pronunciation matter? What is the rhetorical impact of its juxtaposition to his complex syntax and vocabulary (what Brand calls his “propensity for verbosity”)? Should some forms of language be reserved for some contexts and not others? What happens when our expectations in this respect are challenged? What makes for effective rhetoric – and is this just a matter of linguistic choice, or is making a striking and memorable presentation about more than just the language forms we select?

The Department of Education needn’t fret. Any student who has thought hard about and engaged with the richness of language by asking and finding answers to questions like these will be welcome at the good university in which I work.

English – as a language – is not a gold standard to be admired from afar. It is a repertoire performed as much by the Secret Footballer as by Shakespeare, and the parts of that repertoire worth studying – tweet or tetrameter – are those which surprise us into thinking differently about the world.

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