From teacher's pet to insufferable prig

The Baltimore Sun

Being a teacher's pet as a child endeared me to no one but teachers.

My third-grade teacher, Marian Gulley, once let me take a fourth-graders' history test. (At Elizaville Elementary School, the third and fourth grades were in a single classroom; the teacher instructed one class while the other studied, then reversed.) I scored a 96, from having listened to the fourth-grade class and read their history textbook for amusement. It was the highest grade on the test. I was proud, but my mother observed sagely, "I bet that didn't make you many friends in the fourth grade."

The key to being a teacher's pet is to always supply the Right Answer, because there is always a Right Answer for the student to divine. A dedication to supplying the Right Answer is not much help, however, in learning to think for oneself, particularly in circumstances where there is not or may not be a Right Answer.

Nevertheless, by the time I was a graduate student in English, my knowledge of the Right Answers in grammar and usage had made me a proper prig,* and I looked with scorn and derision on the unlettered, a category that included just about everyone not in an English department, and some who were.

What brings these reflections to mind is an article in The Guardian, "Michael Gove and 'correct grammar': let me explain this slowly," by Michael Rosen, which goes into the current dust-up on how grammar should be taught in Britain. Mr. Gove is education secretary; Mr. Rosen thinks that his pedagogy is unsound.

Mr. Rosen challenges the concept of the "correct grammar" to be taught in schools: "A problem that arises from talking about 'correct grammar' is that it suggests that all other ways of speaking or writing are incorrect. This consigns the majority to being in error. Gove might be happy with that way of viewing humanity, but I'm not." 

Further, "the immediate consequence of the grammar test introduced into Year 6 is that teachers are buying textbooks that are full of ungrammatical nonsense. Single words separated from sentences are being described as nouns and verbs. Words are only nouns or verbs when they are being used in real language. The word 'black' has been frequently used as an adjective, noun or verb, but it is only its use that tells us which. 'Up' is only a preposition when it's used as one. If I 'up' my work rate, it won't be."

What Mr. Rosen describes is very much like the grammar I was taught as a child: Standard written English is the only correct way of writing and speaking, there are many, many rules of grammar and usage, and there is always a Right Answer for the test.

Looking back, I see that that that method works for teachers' pets, but not for most students, who remain ever uncertain and uncomfortable about writing in their own language. So, if Mr. Gove chooses to ignore Mr. Rosen's warnings, I envision a curriculum in Britain that, like the one of my childhood, will produce two categories of graduates: unlettered and priggish.



*If you think I'm a bit much to take now, be grateful that you did not know me in my twenties.



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