Howard Jacobson: Thanks to our abhorrence of grammar, we have raised a generation of blithering idiots

Cultural vandalism denies access to the best of everything to those who have the worst of nothing
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The Independent Online

Interesting, how often movements of liberation end up enslaving us. It seemed a good idea, way back in the old revolutionary 20th century, to free children from the stifling autocracy of grammar and spelling. Burden the young with rules, we said, and that was the end of their creativity. Expression was the thing. Between the true self of a child and its expression stood centuries of regulation and custom. Bring those walls tumbling down and the young would sing to us like poets or, even better, like canaries.

Ditto the canon of literature through which a capitalistic, patriarchal, racist, colonial, misogynistic, Anglocentric, heterophile, hebephobic culture imposed its values. Since there was no apolitical gauge of what constituted literature, teachers had no right to tell pupils what they should or shouldn't read, or what was or was not exemplary. He who believed in "great" books was a lickspittle of the ruling elite, governing through the undergrowth of language.

Henceforth, all children would be the authors of their own grammar of the emotions, would be alert to the hegemonic structure of every word they used, even if that led to their abandoning some words altogether, and would read whatever literature it suited to them read, regardless of whether that meant they never read any at all, literature being an arbitrary concept anyway.

And the result? A generation of blithering idiots, I would like to say, but Hilary Spurling, delivering a lecture to the Royal Academy of Literature, puts it less stridently. "Many, if not most, contemporary British undergraduates," she says, "lack the basic ability to express themselves in writing." Undergraduates, notice, not fourth-formers with their noses in Harry Potter, not toddlers with Thomas the Tank Engine in their noses, but undergraduates - people working towards a degree!

And note what it is they lack - not the stylistic aplomb of Henry James, not the innovative linguistic genius of James Joyce, but, dear God, "the basic ability to express themselves in writing".

These are findings, not opinions. Hilary Spurling is reporting on the experience of 130 writers who, under a Fellowship scheme launched by the Royal Literary Fund in 1999, have been working in British universities with the aim of offering students assistance in such arcane skills as composing an e-mail, sending off a job application and setting out a CV - that last requiring minimal skill, you would have thought, given the career history of most of the undergraduates in question - so many hours sleeping, so many hours sending and receiving text messages, so many hours committing acts of cut-and-paste plagiarism from the internet.

As for what happens when students are confronted with the task of writing an essay - reader, it is even more desperate than we all thought. After years of fiddling with the handsets of their PlayStations when they're home, and ticking boxes when they're at school, they do not know where to start with an essay, do not grasp the concept of an essay, do not begin to comprehend what is expected to happen in an essay, and because they have never been encouraged to follow anyone else's train of thought, have not the first idea how to find let alone follow their own.

In the words of one of the Fellows of the scheme, their work is marked by "lexical nullity and syntactical bankruptcy". A verdict, presumably, which it would be of no earthly use to pass on to them, since of the five words which comprise it, they would recognise only one.

There is a vital connection between reading and writing. You learn what a sentence looks like by reading the sentences of others. Even where the rules of grammar have eluded or been denied you, you grasp them in the act of reading. Not all readers make writers, but no writer was ever not a reader first. So it makes a difference, after all, what people read. From the best models, the best lessons. The argument, favoured by postmodernism and its offshoots, that there is no best, flies in the face of human experience in every other sphere. We seek the best in everything we do, regardless of our knowing that we might change our minds tomorrow.

Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor were successful programmes, drawing viewers from all sections of society, because judgement and evaluation were at the heart of them. Restaurant critics influence where and what we eat, motoring correspondents tell us which cars are better for which jobs, professional travellers sway us in our choice of holiday destinations. In none of these instances do we believe that good, better and best are relative terms which we accept at the cost of our independence of mind. Only when it comes to literature and the teaching of it do we bridle at the idea of excellence. Explain that.

Asked to list the books children should have read before they left school, the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, incurred the wrath and derision of journalists - journalists who in other contexts are nothing if not opinionated and evaluative - by choosing, among others, The Odyssey, Don Quixote, Ulysses, Portrait of a Lady, and The Waste Land.

Too difficult, they all cried, too snooty, too elitist. "Why," said a person whose name escapes me, but it could have been any one of them, "I have never got past the first 90 pages of Portrait of a Lady." "Nor I past the first 10 of Ulysses," chimed in another. As though the failure of their concentration or intelligence should be the yardstick by which a culture measures its achievements.

Myself, I applaud not only the individual books on Andrew Motion's list but the spirit of his defiance. "Of course it's high ambition," he said, exasperated that in a time of universal ignorance the highest educative ambitions should be mistrusted. "I find it maddening that these books should be dismissed as elitist. That way cultural vandalism lies."

We could not have said it better. Vandalism, pure and simple. It dresses itself up as kindness to the kids, as deliverance from stale tradition, as democratic resistance to cultural imperialism, but it proceeds by denying access to the best of everything to those who have the worst of nothing, and its consequence is devastation. Only read Hilary Spurling's report if you want proof of how much has been laid waste.

The most influential intellectual movements of the past century deconstructed language to the end of relativising the advertising jingle and The Iliad; the most influential popularisers of culture today are cheerful philistines who actually prefer the jingle and think they've described a book when they've called it a "good read". Pity, pressed between the two, the disadvantaged, dispossessed, disarticulated young.