It was a good funeral," said the punk poet John Cooper Clarke to my wife Victoria and me as we walked away from St Bartholomew church in the City of London. We had joined 300 mourners to commemorate the life of Bruce Reynolds, best known as the unofficial leader of the gang who carried out the Great Train Robbery in 1963. Clarke had read a poem.
I'd interviewed Bruce many years ago for The Idler, and found him to be witty and engaging company. "Erudite" and "gentleman" were the words that popped up during the service to describe this intriguing person. While in prison, Reynolds had read a lot of books. In fact, bookishness can often save the criminally minded: illiterate Black Panthers jailed four decades ago have become sophisticated political commentators. And British bank robber Noel "Razor" Smith has abandoned crime for a life of letters.
Erudition and gentlemanliness are perhaps surprising qualities to be praised at a gangster's funeral. But I think it demonstrates that, despite what lefties might say, most people believe that both are important, and that is why it is fascinating to watch the fierce debate around education that Michael Gove has ignited.
The Education Secretary, broadly speaking, aims to encourage what he and his deputy, Ofsted head Sir Michael Wilshaw, describe as basic skills, such as times tables and grammar. I have personally witnessed the failure of state schools to teach these basic skills well to my own children. I have had to do it myself. But I am privileged: I am well-educated and I have control over my own time. Other people are less lucky and rely on schools to teach this stuff.
Well, the Gove reforms were attacked in a letter written by a bunch of daft academics who themselves clearly have studied neither grammar nor gentlemanliness. The two are linked: good grammar is a mark of politeness. It is strange to note that the best-written invitations to speaking engagements I receive are written by Germans.
These academics, who claim their wages from taxpayers, are partly to blame for the mess. While erudite themselves, they scorn erudition for others. Their letter claimed that Gove's curriculum was based on "endless lists of facts, spelling and rules" and that this approach would stunt creativity. But this is obviously not true. Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Coleridge, Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll were taught in this way, with the facts in their heads and not on an iPhone, and we could hardly argue that they were creatively hampered.
The really shocking thing, actually, was that these academics seemed unable to string a sentence together: the letter itself was free of facts and relied on vague assertion. Anyway, the Gove idea all seems eminently sensible to me. Educate the people. My own education project, the Idler Academy, teaches grammar to adults, and our students find the process rewarding. The study of grammar also leads to the study of logic and rhetoric – in other words, how to think and then how to convey those thoughts. In a sense, logic and rhetoric are taught fairly well at secondary schools. There is an emphasis on independent thought, and pupils are taught the tricks of what is called "persuasive writing". But the basis of logic and rhetoric, grammar, is skipped, because it is seen as "boring".
My point really is that good grammar will teach us how to spot bullshit in corporate and political language. That is why we have introduced our Bad Grammar Awards, in the spirit of George Orwell, and that is why this month Random House is publishing our grammar guide, Gwynne's Grammar. We are doing this in the tradition of the great early 19th-century radical and auto-didact William Cobbett, who produced a grammar guide for the ordinary working man because he believed it was not well taught at school. I want to reclaim the study of grammar from the Right and position it as a tool of liberty for everyday people. With clear heads, it is easier to detect fraudsters.
Schools have long avoided doing much teaching. In 1977, the Clash sang that schools "teach you how to be thick" and this is still largely true. You are taught a sort of bare minimum to help you become a servant to the system. It is a servile, utilitarian education rather than a liberal education. It teaches you how to get a job but not how to live well. The teachers who oppose Gove's reforms are unwittingly joining a conspiracy to make us all thick.
Anyway, we at the academy are gathering some excellent examples of bad grammar. Tesco is one of the worst offenders with its slogan, "Every Little Helps", which is meaningless. The academics' letter is full of blunders. We have also found a tattoo which reads: "Your not better than me", which seems to sum up the attitude of egomaniacal stupidity that is common among school-leavers. If you find any good examples, please send them to us at email@example.com.
Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'
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