“Pupils must learn to speak in sentences..” – Reading sets you apart from the rest

· General Cultural Studies

This is a post that is not directly related to Austrian Studies but to the context we work in: the promotion foreign language and cultures.

A few days ago, Education Secretary Michael Gove commented on his proposed education reform:

“In common with high-performing schools in this country and other high-performing jurisdictions, I want to add breadth to the primary curriculum by requiring all schools to teach a foreign language at Key Stage 2, from Year 3 to Year 6.The new foreign languages Programme of Study will require an appropriate balance of spoken and written language. Pupils must learn to speak in sentences, with appropriate pronunciation. They will have to express simple ideas with clarity. Pupils should also learn to write phrases and short sentences from memory. They should develop an understanding of basic grammar. And they should become acquainted with songs and poems in the language studied. Teaching should focus on making substantial progress in one language.”

A posting by Prof Margaret Littler (Manchester) with reference to the above statement on the German JISC-list on 11 June 2012 has initiated quite a discussion among colleagues in primary, secondary and higher education in the UK. The tenor is that you obviously not only need a government that backs up language teaching but also inspirational teachers! But what does it mean to be ‘inspirational’ these days and where dose inspiration come from?

Let us look at David McCullough Jr., member of staff at the prestigious Wellesely High School in the US state Massachusetts, who gave a commencement speech that illustrates perfectly what ‘inspirational’ can mean in our times of media saturation, empty symbols of achievement, power and distinction. His speech amuses, moves and subverts, criticises and irritates. Well structured as it is, McCullough’s speech manages to take his audience of hundred or more High School graduates and parents from a spirit of cheerful complacency and pride (as indeed you would see in any graduate of any institution world-wide) to sobering self-consciousness and then back to a feeling of quiet optimism for the future. He really knows what catharsis is and has certainly given a commencement speech that pupils, parents and youtube viewers will never forget. But see and hear for yourself – click here.

One of David McCullough’s recommendations for a fulfilled and happy life  is to “exercise free will and creative independent thought” and “READ, READ ALL THE TIME, READ AS A MATTER OF PRINCIPLE, AS A MATTER OF SELF-RESPECT, […]”.

Some comments at the bottom of the Guardian’s article on Michael Gove’s agenda are reflecting the confusion that arises when language learning is evaluated on a utilitarian basis. The question always seems to be ‘What do we get out of it?’, conveniently ignoring that the way to knowledge and the process itself has an impact on the intellect. To learn a language, be it your own or a foreign language, means to master structures and to understand logical connections between outer and inner world. First and foremost, though, dealing with several languages forces you to READ with diligence, patience and to apply your intelligence and critical sense of the world in a practice-situation.

When McCullough is urging graduates at Wellesley and, via youtube, all over the (first) world to make good use of their life and of their existential pole-position by making reading a key activity, he is effectively on the same agenda as Conservative politicians in the UK (and politicians of other firstworld, PISA-rattled nations), who desperately try to change course.

Reading is a key skill and primary cultural technique that will always be there in human lives. This skill is inextricably linked with economic success and personal development, if applied with diligence and care. Amidst the numbing noise of our global, media-infested world, the return to a meaningful and lengthy text teaches us patience, self-restraint, self-understanding and lets us create a quiet, recreational space, where we can finally hear our own thoughts again, be inspired and actually become inspirational.

In this spirit go and check out the magazine for German speaking literature in the English speaking world, NEW BOOKS IN GERMAN.

And remember:

Wenn ein Kopf und ein Buch zusammenstoßen, und es klingt hohl, ist denn das allemal im Buch? – Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

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