The news this week that NSW students aren't being penalised for spelling errors in HSC English exams was received - and reported - in some quarters with all the panic and sensationalism you might expect.
Students are now primarily assessed on their understanding of the works they are responding to, according to the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA), and although there remain minimum expectations to be met with spelling and grammar, the criteria take into account the fact students work under intense pressure in exam conditions.
So, is this a crisis of literacy - or indeed a crisis of culture?
The implication of this story - deemed so consequential that it made the front page of The Daily Telegraph - is that we have abandoned the fundamentals of education and replaced them with identity politics (a term always poorly defined by its detractors).
A few days earlier, the Tele ran another story citing "education experts" condemning "activist markers", in response to NESA suggesting students should, in their writing, consider "appropriate concepts that have cultural sensitivity and are relevant to current times and avoiding cultural appropriations that rely on familiar or offensive stereotypes".
This is not "activist". Asking students to refrain from cliche and racism is, in fact, asking them to communicate clearly, to write and think well, and to reflect on and critique the assumptions they and others hold about the world. This is the goal of an English education.
I teach English and writing at university and am, unsurprisingly, into the idea of spelling and grammar being important. I also encounter many students who wish they'd been better taught the mechanics of the language.
Yes, we want students who can spell and know how to use a semicolon, but prioritising spelling and grammar above all else strips the English classroom of its power and meaning.
To isolate these mechanics from categories like argument and interpretation in order to wield them as culture war cudgels is deeply reductive. It misunderstands what the discipline of English is for. It angers me not because I don't value the mechanics of writing, but because it treats the discipline as nothing more than a tool with which students might optimise their CVs.
What does it mean, then, to teach a student how to read and write?
It means providing students with a space where they're able to develop their attention to the particulars of language, literature, and culture, to examine their responses to media and art, to ask why one thing thrills them and another bores them.
If taught well, students discover how to clarify their thinking to themselves and to others. Spelling and grammar are tools that help in this process, not ends in themselves. Reducing high school English to a set of rules above all else conceals a desire to make our youth less critical, less thoughtful.
Conventions like the HSC tend to simplify the nuance out of education, so whether it focuses more or less on spelling isn't particularly important. While I'm not sure of the best alternative, I have doubts about any assessment that presumes writing can be productively graded or ranked (yes, there are good and bad essays, and attentive feedback is invaluable, but why exactly do we score them?). I say this with some authority: a significant portion of my life is spent reading essays and assigning them numbers out of 100.
English should be rigorous and sometimes difficult, and there will be students who find it life-changing and others who flee from it as soon as they're able. But if we were to erase everything but the basics, the subject would lose its capacity to compel and enrich. What then would the basics be for?
- Dan Dixon is a writer who teaches at the University of Sydney. He writes about literature, culture, politics, and America.