Thursday 7 December 2023

The SNP has destroyed Scottish education.


Language is an extremely emotive topic in Scotland. People get awfully upset about the decline of Gaelic or the use of Scots. They worry about the number of pupils studying French at school or German at university. But while it remains an emotive topic, it is not emotive enough for anyone to actually bother learning any of these languages.

In a university that has a Brittonic name that would make you think it was in Wales, in a city that I have never been to and cannot find because the road signs are in Gaelic and Doric, there are plans to shut some language courses. Already there are petitions involving thousands of people who speak none of the languages concerned and who have no intention of ever doing so. Members of the Scottish Government too who speak none of the languages involved are angry too.

The answer obviously is to have road signs to Édimbourg, Edinburg, Caeredin and ایڈنبرا that way we can show how internationalist we all our while still not learning any languages.

I spent part of my childhood in a Gaelic speaking area but didn’t learn a word because although we sang in the Mod, the parents didn’t teach their children to speak it. No one forced them not to teach their children. I wish they had because then at primary school I would have picked up quite a bit of Gaelic too and that would have been useful.

Learning languages as an adult is hard work, but none of us remember struggling to learn how to speak our native language. But by the time you get to secondary school, it starts to get much harder.

I studied French at school at a time when you were expected to conjugate verbs, learn vocabulary and write without mistakes. If I had gone on to study French at university, it would have been assumed at the beginning that my French was good enough to read Flaubert and I would have spent the next four years reading great French literature and writing about it.

But to get to that level requires an enormous effort. A degree in a foreign language used to show that you had worked hard for years not just in school but also at university.

This is the difference between studying Gaelic and studying an easier subject. To show that you can speak, read and write Gaelic you actually have to know a lot of words, you have to understand a lot of grammar and you have to practice speaking.

The reason why classical languages were the foundation of education until recently is that to learn to read Homer in Greek is hard work right up there with learning mathematics.

This was the point of education. Bright pupils studied hard subjects because they were able to distinguish themselves from the moderately able by doing so. It didn’t much matter what you studied, and it didn’t matter whether it was obviously useful. Someone who could translate Shakespeare into Greek, was likely to be highly intelligent and a hard worker. This is why you employed such people.

But education has changed. It’s not just the fault of the SNP, though the curriculum for excellence [independence] made worse what was already declining. The problem set in when schools ceased to try to distinguish between ability ranges in the name of equality. This continued with the expansion of higher education beyond what was remotely reasonable.

In the nineteenth century a tiny fraction of the local population went to that Brittonic university, and they reached standards in Latin and Greek that almost no one can reach in any language today. But the standard was still high in most subjects in the 1970s and 1980s. If you studied English literature you had to read Anglo Saxon, Chaucer and the The Faerie Queene.  It meant that a decent degree from a good university got you a job no matter the subject.

People are just as intelligent as they always were, but the bright can no longer distinguish themselves from the moderate. If fifty percent of the population, go to university it simply isn’t possible to make them read the The Faerie Queene. It’s too hard, too long and too boring. It isn’t possible to make them read Molière either let alone the Nibelungenlied, which even Germans can’t read in the original.

School no longer prepares pupils for the level of study that used to be required in university. So, you don’t begin reading Flaubert, you begin with what should have been done in school and then instead of discussing literature you find it easier to deal with political issues in Guadeloupe and Nouvelle-Calédonie and even old Caledonia and even then, your subject is too hard.

I didn’t reach a high standard at French in school, but I learned how to learn and by the time I had finished university I had a skill that is no longer taught. I could teach myself.

I like to learn languages, not just because there is no point trying to study Dostoevsky if you don’t know Russian and no point trying to understand the history of Poland if you don’t speak Polish. More than this speaking a foreign language expands your own mind like nothing else you can do.

But there is a very good reason why school pupils don’t want to learn French and why university students don’t want to learn Spanish. It is hard work.

To reach even a moderate level of Russian will need an hour a day every day for year. To reach the stage where you can read Dostoevsky will take multiple trips to Russia and perhaps four or five years. To reach the same level in a harder language like Arabic, Japanese or Chinese will take still longer and still more effort. After all that a five year old native speaker will be better than you.

I would love to speak Gaelic better than I do, but it’s not about road signs, it’s about learning 10,000 Gaelic words and lots of tough grammar which will enable you to follow a conversation with a native speaker. That would be really worth it. But where do you find the native speaker if you don’t live in Stornoway?

People no longer learn foreign languages because it’s too hard, they don’t start early enough, and the schools no longer provide a foundation for the study at university level.

There are far easier ways to get a degree, than to study French.

If you work hard for years and actually end up able to read, write and speak Gaelic, French, German or Spanish, it’s still likely that you will be in the same position as every other arts graduate. A few will find work using their language, but most won’t, which means you are no better off than your friend who spent four years reading easy books on the latest woke issues.

There was a time when a degree in philosophy or history or French or Gaelic told an employer this person is highly intelligent and has worked hard for years. But in the name of equality, we decided to make school subjects easy enough that fifty percent of the population could go to university and then we made many university subjects easy enough so that fifty percent of the population could pass them too.

Employers realised that a degree told them little about the ability of the student, so they required an additional one-year course, which still didn’t distinguish between the bright and the moderately able, because fifty percent of the population had to pass these courses too.

We have been turning gold into base metal for decades hoping that no one will notice, but the students did notice which is why they ditched languages for something easier.

But what happens when the students realise that five years of education still doesn’t distinguish you from anyone else no matter how hard you study? Ditching languages is the canary in the coal mine for ditching everything else.

The SNP has destroyed Scottish education.

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