Hard Times 2014 – in which Bitzer slashes a poem to bits

Janet Downs's picture
Thomas Gradgrind – a man of realities. A man replete with facts and analysis. Thomas Gradgrind – trustee and CEO of the Gradgrind Academies Trust.

In these terms, Thomas Gradgrind introduced himself to the rows of GCSE pupils waiting to be filled with facts and dissected by analysis. The subject of the lesson was Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’.

His eyes swept the serried ranks until he spied an unfamiliar face. ‘I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?’

‘Sissy Jupe,’ whispered the teacher. ‘She’s just arrived in the area. She previously attended a council-run school.’

Thomas Gradgrind wrinkled his nose in distaste. No council-run school, indeed no academy in any other group but Gradgrind Academies Trust, could prepare children for the modern world as well as his exemplary chain.

‘Sissy Jupe! Analyse this text!’

Sissy was for a moment perplexed by the command. She looked in vain for a mobile phone. She saw none. ‘Please, Sir. What text do you mean?’

No child clicked their fingers in approval as they had been trained to do. One boy, the one who had pinched her earlier, the one the children called Snitcher Bitzer, poked her in the back. Neither Gradgrind nor the teacher noticed.

Thomas Gradgind’s square finger jabbed towards the whiteboard. ‘The text which is presented here for you to analyse,’ he said.

Sissy blinked. ‘Please, Sir, I think the man is saying that war’s not worth it when soldiers die so horribly, Sir. I think he means soldiers are being lied to when they’re told it’s worth dying for their country.’

‘Sissy Jupe! I did not ask you to tell me what you think. I asked you to give me an analysis of the text here presented!’

Grandgrind’s finger ceased its furious jabbing and began moving here and there. It lighted suddenly on Bitzer.

‘Sissy Jupe is possessed of no knowledge of how to analyse a poem. She cannot break a poem into its constituent part. You, Bitzer, dissect the text!’

Bitzer stood to attention. ‘Three verses, two verses with eight lines, third verse with twelve lines. Example of adjective: “smothering”. Example of adverb: “softly”. Example of simile: “Obscene as cancer”. Example of alliteration: “blood-shod, blind”. Imperative: “Gas! Gas! Quick boys!” Preposition: “behind the wagon”. Group of three: “guttering, choking, drowning”. Example of assonance: “white eyes writhing”...’

Thus, and much more, through conjunctions and clauses, phrases and fullstops, colons and commas, Bitzer slashed the poem to bits.

The class clicked their fingers to show approval.

‘Now, Sissy Jupe’ said Thomas Grandrind. ‘You know how to analyse a text.’

Sissy bowed her head. She realised she understood nothing.

With apologies to Charles Dickens and Wilfred Owen.

ADDENDUM : To avoid any misunderstanding, I am in favour of pupils knowing the names of the parts (eg noun, adverb) and poetic devices (eg alliteration, assonance). This knowledge provides a shared language in which to discuss the effectiveness of literature and oratory. However, asking pupils to identify subordinating conjunctions, prepositional phrases and dependent clauses in stand-alone sentences is a meaningless exercise which diminishes appreciation of well-written and powerfully spoken English. Dickens recognised this in his description of Bitzer listing facts about a horse; Bitzer had encyclopaedic knowledge of equine essentials but did not appreciate the animal. Neither did he know how to ride or care for one. His interest (if interest it was) began and ended with facts.

See Stephanie Norman’s critique of the primary Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation test (SPAG) test here.

See Debra Kidd’s blog for her take on finger clicking here.
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Barry Wise's picture
Sun, 14/09/2014 - 13:46

Janet, if you do not teach children what a prepositional phrase is, they will find it almost impossible to understand why in the sentence "Jack stood up and ran down the street" 'up' is NOT a preposition while 'down' is one. That said, you'd normally do it rather earlier (Y3 primary) than Wilfred Owen and certainly not in the same session!

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 14/09/2014 - 14:59

Barry - I have no difficulty understanding that Jack stood up before running down the street without knowing what a prepositional phrase is. Why on earth should children need to know how to identify a prepositional phrase in order to understand what is being said or written? It's like saying no-one can understand what is being said unless they can name the component parts.

Children can understand and make themselves understood without being able to identify the component parts of a sentence. The only reason children need to know the language of language (eg the names of the parts, literary devices) is to aid discussion of poetry or oratory. But one can still be moved by Dulce et Decorum Est without knowing a single term just as it's possible to appreciate music without knowing about crotchets, minims etc.

The reason we study literature is to appreciate it not to analyse it to death.

Ben Taylor's picture
Thu, 18/09/2014 - 19:15

Children will find grammar of foreign language harder to understand if like me they were ignorant of English grammar such as the subjunctive and at A level. Since it's teachable why not?

Have you heard Sir Peter Hall speak about Iambic pentatameter in the importance of Shakespeare? The perfect symbiosis of instinctive art and intellectual analysis.

I appreciate that sometimes we will want to just enjoy the moment of the spoken and written word, but that doesn't mean we can't make an effort sometimes at grammatical understanding. There can also be a pleasure in the quieter thoughtful appreciation.

The real problem with Janet's proposal is that we get state schools giving up on what the public schools will continue to do = class skewing of EVERYTHING not just the arts.

Barry Wise's picture
Sun, 14/09/2014 - 18:44

Janet - the idea that we have to choose between appreciating the poetry of the War Poets and being able to understand the structure of language is a totally false one that you appear to have invented for rhetorical effect in this thread. In the real world, it does not exist. In the classroom, it is not a consideration.

Yes, it is indeed possible to appreciate someone else's performance at the piano without knowing about crotchets and minims, but if you want to play the piano yourself at anything more ambitious than beginner level, then it does help to know about them. The same is true for language and literature: you can appreciate someone else's writing without an understanding of grammar, but if you do not have a good feel for the structure of a sentence, then it's unlikely you will write very well beyond a very basic level of expression.

In my experience it is also a myth that students find learning grammar boring or regard it as Gradgrindian. Quite the opposite. Many like to master sometimes fine distinctions and really get to grips with 'language logic'. So long as they are taught properly, that is. Those who - returning to our example - are left in a fog of doubt over the seeming arbitrariness of 'up' not being a preposition while 'down' is, understandably find the whole thing off-putting.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 15/09/2014 - 08:13

Barry - you appear to have missed the addendum under my thread. I am not suggesting pupils should not be taught the names of the parts etc. It is, as you say, essential for the discussion of literature and oratory. However, the naming of the parts can go too far when it strays into 'dependent clauses' and 'subjunctive mood'.

A supreme example of grammar daftness is the Telegraph's Grammar Quiz by Gove's favourite grammarian, Nevile Gwynn. Gwynn's written a book about the correct use of grammar which the Times' 'Pedant'. Oliver Kamm, described as extremely silly.

One of the quizz questions asks which of the names Amanda and Miranda were examples of the 'nominative feminine singular of the gerundive mood imported from Latin." It's unclear how being able to answer this question correctly enhances appreciation of English. It might be of some use to a linguist but won't help pupils' understanding of Ferdinand's praise of Miranda in The Tempest.

'Admired Miranda!
Indeed the top of admiration, worth
What’s dearest to th' world!'

Knowing the origin of 'Miranda' rather misses the point - Ferdinand is smitten.

The Telegraph's assistant comments editor (along with the Times' Oliver Kamm) isn't impressed with the pedantry of such 'grammar warriors'. See here.

PS I got 50% in the grammar quiz. I am obviously, therefore, unable to write clear English or understand how English works.

Barry Wise's picture
Mon, 15/09/2014 - 12:45

No, Janet - It is the addendum I'm taking issue with - the rest is fine!

.... It might be of some use to a linguist but won’t help pupils’ understanding of Ferdinand’s praise of Miranda in The Tempest.

Can't agree. The fact that Miranda is Latin for 'she who should be admired' is too much of a coincidence given all Ferdinand's admiring, and given the character-name-meaning patterns in the play: Prospero -- fortunate, Caliban - associated with blackness... and so on. We are supposed to be aware of the meaning while hearing Ferdinand go on. It's a bit like saying that you can watch the breakfast scene in Reservoir Dogs without knowing that all the names - Mr White, Mr Pink, Mr Blue, Mr Orange - are colours. Well, yeeeees......BUT....

Equally, I don't really get the logic behind your claim that learning about the subjunctive mood is a step too far. Why?

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 15/09/2014 - 15:09

Barry - I'm sorry if I've led you astray. My attempt at brevity made what I said ambiguous. You're right, of course, that Shakespeare made up the name Miranda from the Latin 'miror' meaning to look at in admiration. I meant it is not necessary to know that Miranda is the 'nominative feminine singular of the gerundive mood'. While knowing the former enhances pupils' appreciation of Shakespeare's use of language, the latter does not. Gwynne's insistence on us knowing (or our knowing) that Miranda is the 'nominative feminine singular of the gerundive mood' reminds me of John Cleese's Latin lesson in The Life of Brian (Romanes Eunt Domus).

I could spend paragraphs disagreeing with your assessment of Caliban (linked with blackness). True, he repaid Prospero's kindness by (allegedly) trying to rape Miranda but the island was his before Prospero arrived. And he's certainly a fool in putting his faith in the two drunkards, Stephano and Trinculo. But Shakespeare gives Caliban some of the most beautiful lines ('Be not afear'd, the isle is full of noises...').

Re the subjunctive - language use changes. The subjunctive is not used in English as much as in other languages. Even Fowler, writing in 1926, said subjunctive use was declining. Why, therefore, insist that 11 year-olds learn what it is?

Just for fun, watch 'Weird Al' Yankovic's 'Word Crimes' here.

Oliver Kamm, the Times' pedant described it as a 'fine spoof on prescriptive grammar' in his article about the 'supposed prohibition on split infinitives' (not available on line but a selection of his articles is here).

Barry Wise's picture
Wed, 17/09/2014 - 09:42

Well Janet, every teacher has to make choices. You could - for the sake of a quiet, uncomplicated life - simply agree with your students that when Jane Austen wrote 'she were' rather than 'she was' Ms Austen was indeed 'really stoooooo-pid' or 'dead careless'. Or you could teach the subjunctive.

Tony Pearce's picture
Mon, 15/09/2014 - 23:30

Am reading Hard Times at the moment - a brilliant and topical take on it - thank you!

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 17/09/2014 - 12:19

Barry - subjunctive use is waning, as Fowler said 90 years ago. Subjunctive use lingers in such clauses as 'If I were a rich man, Yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum...' and 'If I were a carpenter...' Some people might balk at someone saying, 'If I was...' but it doesn't detract from the meaning. And Midge Ure had a hit with 'If I was...' which had such lyrics as:

'If I was a soldier
captive arms I'd lay before her.
If I was a sailor
seven oceans I'd sail to her.'

That's an example of colloquial English.

It doesn't follow, however, that if pupils said Jane Austin was 'really stoooo-pid' or 'dead careless' because she wrote 'she were', that the teacher shouldn't explain why Austin used this construction (because it's contrary to the fact, at least at the time the clause was written, and this mood needs to be shown to the reader by the use of the subjunctive). My beef is with the subjunctive being taught out of context just for the sake of knowing the subjunctive for the purpose of a test.

Far better to discuss such things when they appear in literature rather than in exercises comprising stand-alone sentences. For example, the sentences included in the Programmes of Study published in June 2012 contained such ponderous examples of the subjunctive as:

“The school requires that all pupils be honest. (It’s possible for pupils not to be honest, but the school would like them to be.)” Wouldn't it be clearer to write, 'We expect pupils to be honest' (that's if it's necessary to spell out such a fundamental requirement).

and “Father demanded that we not go to the forest.” Nobody speaks like that nowadays.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 19/09/2014 - 07:46

Ben - the main purpose of teaching English is to raise appreciation of English not to help teachers of foreign languages. Subjunctive use is in any case different in other languages just as other aspects are different - in Spanish for example the imperative has different endings. In English, commands don't change endings just because they are commands. Word order is different in German.

You seem again to have misread my thread. I said learning about literary conventions was important for the study of literature. I've no beef with discussing iambic pentameter or any other type of rhythm as long as it's in context. And I'm keen on pupils actually writing their own poems in iambic pentameter or other conventional forms (eg sonnets, limericks etc).

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.