Variety is the spice of life, but not when it comes to education apparently

Russell Brand press conference, United Nations, Vienna, Austria - 19 Mar 2014One of my favourite phrases has always been “variety is the spice of life.” This can be applied to pretty much anything, or so I thought. Apparently, this is definitely not something which can be applied to educating the next generation.

Allow me to explain…

I was quite surprised, but also impressed and slightly excited, to read a news article earlier this week about attempts to introduce a new English A-Level. This initial excitement soon turned to confusion and annoyance however, when I saw the negative backlash being levied upon those making the proposal.

To give you some background: this new course, which was being developed by the OCR exam board, in partnership with educational charity the English and Media Centre, would supposedly fall somewhere between the current English Language and English Literature exams.

The selection of texts to be studied was said to be one of the widest ranging of any A-Level course, including authors like Charlotte Brontë, George Orwell, William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and William Blake.

This was not what the media and many outraged members of the public focussed on though, oh no. The problems seemed to arise from the suggested inclusion of Russell Brand, Caitlin Moran and Dizzee Rascal in the reading list. To be more specific, students would study the 2008 Newsnight interview with Dizzee Rascal, Caitlin Moran’s Twitter feed, and Russell Brand’s testimony on drug use, which he presented to a parliamentary committee.

Many people, including senior members of staff at the Department for Education, immediately spat their dummies out, calling the proposal “rubbish” and claiming that “it is extremely patronising to young people to claim that they will only engage with English Language and Literature through celebrities such as Russell Brand.”

This was the point that really frustrated me, as I don’t see how including the works of people such as Russell Brand and Caitlin Moran, or even Dizzee Rascal for that matter, is patronising to young people. Surely to develop a true and balanced understanding of the English language we need to observe how people utilise it in all walks of life?

The English language is a beautiful thing, but it is constantly changing, and this is not something which will ever stop. There are a whole host of factors which help shape our language and this is something which should not be ignored. To truly appreciate it, we need to accept it in its entirety, warts and all.

I could talk about the English language all day, but to stop myself from getting side tracked, I’ll keep it brief and simply focus on the issues raised here.

Firstly, Russell Brand. Personally, I think Russell Brand has an excellent grasp on the English language and the way he uses it is almost poetic at times. You may not always agree with what he says, and rightly so, but his style of speech always manages to hold my attention and interest, bringing to life whatever subject matter he is discussing.

It is not surprising that the suggestion of looking at tweets would cause uproar amongst the older generation, as Twitter tends to be frequented more so by younger people. But Caitlin Moran is not someone who is simply famous for tweeting things like “OMG, jus went 2 Starbucks, it woz ded gud. #YOLO”. She manages to convey both wit and intelligence in 140 characters or less, which is no mean feat. I wonder if people would think differently if it was one of her newspaper columns which was being studied, rather than her Twitter feed?

And finally, Dizzee Rascal. I have always felt that hip hop, when done well, is very poetic. Now I’m not saying that Dizzee Rascal is the most poetic of people out there, but focusing on his use of more urban language and colloquialisms can only further expand young people’s knowledge of the English language and its usage. I would have been more than happy to study the works of any number of rappers at A-Level: Mos Def, George Watsky, Common and Kendrick Lamar to name but a few.

Studying contemporary pieces of literature and speech, alongside classics, would give students an appreciation of how language constantly evolves, while also demonstrating how different situations require different styles of language. My career revolves around writing and different pieces I work on require completely different approaches – for example the way I would write a press release would be completely different to my approach to a blog post, which would be worlds away from a whitepaper and so on.

It’s not just language though: by having students study the likes of Russell Brand, Caitlin Moran and Dizzee Rascal we would also be introducing them to hugely important themes such as feminism, racism, politics, drugs and much more.

Also, if introducing some more contemporary figures into the syllabus would help more young people get excited about the English language, surely this can only be a good thing?

We can’t think of the English language as something stationary and lifeless – it is fluid, ever changing and is effected by those who use it and should be treated as such.

Whatever the outcome of this proposal, it is has certainly raised some important issues and will hopefully help shape certain choices in the future surrounding education.