Should you pay attention to what your English teacher says?

I could answer by saying “no, you shouldn’t” — but my colleagues and friends who teach English would be up in arms.

Instead, I can say “yes, but question authority” — i.e., ask for evidence, not just rules that are rules because someone says so. As a recent president liked to say, “trust, but verify.” My favorite Canadian linguist, James Harbeck, is a little less cautious about this than I am:

I’m not going to be gentle, because I’m damn tired of hearing this crap.

1. School teachers are not subject matter experts. They have their jobs because they have completed degrees in education, which means they know how to plan lessons, follow the curriculum, and generally keep a class moving through the system as it is supposed to. Your high school teachers probably knew more about their subjects than the average person, but don’t take your biology teacher’s word over your doctor’s, don’t argue with an engineer on the basis of what you recall from physics class, and don’t assume that your English teacher knew more about good grammar and good writing than anyone else you will ever meet. Those stern and simple grammar rules you had drilled into you should be stuffed into your yearbook and hidden in a box in your closet. Time to pay attention instead to how the writers you actually enjoy reading do it!

OK, the line about degrees in education may be true in Canada, but it’s not necessarily so in the U.S., where teachers often have subject-matter degrees and always have considerable subject-matter requirements for their licenses, at least in public schools. Otherwise it’s good advice. It’s worth reading the entire article (which is not very long). In particular:

These are rules you’re supposed to outgrow. Well, some of your teachers may think they’re great rules for all times and places.

You may, of course, disagree. But it’s hard to disagree with the observation that

you’re far more likely to get disciplined, suspended, or expelled for refusing to accept authority than you are for forgetting historical dates or mathematical equations.

Schools are about socialization more than they are about memorizing facts, and part of the standard view of socialization is that one should conform to authority. Two of my own English teachers from high school had all sorts of rationalizations for asking for compliance to their arbitrary rules rather than following the actual practice of good writers (such as “If you could write as well as ______________________, you could violate the rules too,” where you fill in the blank with any admired writer). Those of us who have been trained as professional linguists still follow “the rules” — but which rules? The answer is the rules that are determined empirically, not by an arbitrary authority.


Categories: Linguistics, Teaching & Learning