Frank Furedi

Sociologist, commentator and author of Culture of Fear, Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?, Paranoid Parenting, Therapy Culture, and On Tolerance: In Defence of Moral Independence.
 
       
 

Spell it like it is
The idea that we shuold except student’s spelling misstakes as merely ‘variant spellings’ speaks to the denigration of Trooth in education.

Many of us have had our Dan Quayle moment; we’re capable of making some highly embarrassing spelling mistakes.

Yet according to the proponents of the ‘New Literacy’, when the former American vice president ‘corrected’ a school pupil’s spelling of ‘potato’ to ‘potatoe’ during a school spelling bee, he was simply practising the art of ‘variant spelling’. Many educators now consider the teaching of Correct Spelling as an elitist imposition that discriminates against the disadvantaged, or, in the case of Quayle, against those who have had a literacy-bypass.

Those of us who work in universities are used to reading essays by students who have liberated themselves from the oppressive regime of good grammar and spelling. Some of us still bother to correct misspelled words; others have become tired and indifferent to the problem of poor spelling.

Now, an academic has come up with an interesting compromise. Ken Smith, a criminologist at Bucks New University, England, argues that we should chill out and accept the most common spelling mistakes as ‘variant spellings’.

‘University teachers should simply accept as variant spelling those words our students most commonly misspell’, he argued recently in the Times Higher Education Supplement. That would mean treating ‘truely’ as the equivalent of ‘truly’ and possibly ‘potatoe’ as a variant of ‘potato’. In this way, academics would save themselves a lot of grief and incidentally – or incidently – rehabilitate Dan Quayle’s reputation.

At first sight, Smith’s proposal appears as a sensible and pragmatic response to the problem of poor spelling. He is not arguing for abandoning the rules of spelling, only for taking a relaxed attitude towards a relatively small number of commonly misspelled words. Unfortunately, in today’s philistine intellectual climate, this pragmatic response can only end up legitimising poor standards of literacy. Taking an eclectic approach towards the rules of spelling would send the signal that how words are written is negotiable, even unimportant. Once variant spelling becomes acceptable for some commonly misspelled words, the list will grow and grow.

My principal objection to ‘variant spelling’ is that it reinforces the pernicious idea that children and young people today cannot be expected to meet the difficult challenge of learning how to use language correctly. For some time now, influential educators have asked whether it is desirable to teach children correct spelling. Some pedagogues argue that teaching spelling is a waste of time that serves no positive purpose. Others claim that an insistence in the classroom on spelling everything correctly frustrates those who suffer from learning disabilities and dyslexia. So-called progressive educators have even suggested that the promotion of spelling is an elitist enterprise that discriminates against young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In some cases, illiteracy has been turned into a virtue. I have been told by some experts that using punctuation is an arbitrary way of organising words. Apparently the insistence on ‘correct’ spelling inhibits creativity and stigmatises the self-expression of minority groups in particular. George Turnbull, described by BBC News as ‘the exam doctor at the UK Qualifications and Curriculum Authority’, has argued that: ‘Shakespeare could survive without spelling well - although he did have a lot of other things going for him.’ (1) So if Shakespeare could not spell, there is little point in insisting that children learn this apparently unimportant skill. It is sad that Shakespeare is now called upon to condone the failures of contemporary schooling.

In essence, variant spelling is a true companion to the idea of variant truths. Contemporary cultural life has become estranged from the idea of Truth with a capital T. In academia, social scientists never tire of informing students that there are no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers. Instead of the truth, people are exhorted to accept different perspectives as representing many truths.

The demotion of the status of truth calls into question the purpose of gaining knowledge. Celebrating variant truths, like variant spellings, is presented as a pluralistic gesture of tolerance. In fact it represents a reluctance to take education and its ideas seriously. And not surprisingly, those who do not take ideas seriously are also not very worried about how they are spelled.

(1) Are school standards slipping?, BBC News, 16 August 2007


First published by spiked, 12 August 2008