A text is a tool for getting things done

As a human institution, language without doubt falls under the remit of the frequently neglected discipline of anthropology (the neglect of anthropology in schools is itself an interesting and regrettable phenomenon, and a particularly powerful rebuke to those who shout down any effort to question the way academic understanding is portioned out in the educational system).

For much of the Twentieth Century, anthropology was the site of an intellectual dispute between two schools of thought: the functionalists, and the structuralists. Undoubtedly, real anthropologists would be embarrassed by the explanation that I am about to give of this dispute, and for this I am only partially apologetic: while my account is probably awkwardly simplistic, it sheds light on a broader set of questions which should matter to those studying and teaching English.

The question for anthropologists, as for all scientists, is one of explanation and analysis, and their dispute lay in the issue of where exactly theorists should look to find their answers. As they studied the various behaviours, cultures and traditions which peoples around the world exhibited, they naturally sought to explain them, and their approach to explanation fell into two broad approaches.

For the functionalists, a cultural or social convention ought to be thought of as a tool: it is a way of getting things done. At the heart of such an explanation is a vision of societies and individuals as possessing, if you like, ready-built sets of knowledge, capacities and desires. These groups and individuals then set about using their capacities to construct the conventions needed to realise their desires.

Thus, much as a community of individuals who desired a shed might together come up with the tool of a hammer, so might a community of individuals with sexual and reproductive desires together devise a set of rules and rituals called ‘marriage’ (it should be said that the functionalists are in no way committed to the idea that this process occurs democratically: some individuals could well have far more of a say in how the ‘marriage’ tool is put together than others). The question ‘what explains the institution of marriage’ is thus answered: ‘it is a tool for achieving the needs of those who participate in it’. Functionalists might be thought of as the free-will advocates of the anthropological world: their universe is one of thinking and needing agents who take to social behaviour to realise those needs.

For structuralists, this approach is simplistic and naïve. It presumed the existence of something – the independent, human subject – which they felt was a pretty dubious proposition: in the Twentieth Century, many thinkers followed the likes of Nietzsche and Freud in casting doubt on this notion. The solution was to flip the explanation on its head. They insisted that it is in fact the social structures which construct those very agents which functionalists supposed to have been their originators. So, to take any given ritual or tradition, like marriage, and to see it as a useful human tool to get things done, is to get things completely the wrong way round. The institution of marriage – along with all of the other various social structures of the system – forms the human agents who participate in it. The appropriate way to ‘explain’ marriage, in this view, is not to refer to some fictitious set of ‘prior’ agents, but to explain how as an institution it fits in with the structure of the society as a whole: how, for example, it fits with other religious rituals, with political structures and traditions, with legal and economic ones, and so on.

Undoubtedly, in teaching language analysis, secondary school English teachers are significantly biased towards functionalism. Students are encouraged to place writer and reader at the origin of the analysis, and to lean on a range of verbs – choose, use, employ, aim, intend – which reflect this viewpoint, emphasising the text’s language as a tool for getting things done. My argument here is not so much that this approach is wrong, but rather that it is unduly – and usually unwittingly – partisan. A structuralist approach to language analysis is perfectly possible at school, and ought to be clearly offered to students as an alternative. As with so much else in English, lip service is paid to the independence of students’ ideas, but there is a dearth of genuine freedom, and an incapacity to provide the tools necessary to select from alternative approaches.

The notion of bringing structuralist approaches to language analysis into a Year 8 classroom would no doubt seem ridiculously ambitious to many at the chalkface. It is hard enough encouraging students to parrot the time-worn sentence stems ‘the writer uses this language feature to emphasise..’ and ‘the writer’s choice of X highlights….’. And now you are telling me that we need to start giving them a choice? And that choice is between this and some eccentric theory drawn from anthropology?

Well, that is almost what I am suggesting, but I don’t think that it is as hard, or as alien, a proposal as some might thing. While functionalism generally dominates in schools, a structuralist approach is already evident whenever, for example, teachers draw their students’ attention to such notions as text-type, genre, or register. These are all explanatory concepts, just as function is, but their mode of explanation is different: it implies that the various features of the text can best be explained, not by reference to the needs and purposes of the participants, but by placing them within the broader linguistic structures which make them possible.

Students, quite understandably, can be nonplussed when asked to consider both of these things at once, without clear clarification that fundamentally different modes of explanation are at work. The result is confused sentences like the following, which betray a muddled approach to analysis incorporating both approaches at once:

Sentences have been chosen to reflect the text-type of a newspaper opinion piece article

The use of elevated, multi-syllabic words conveys the formal style

The many errors in the speech help the speaker to achieve spontaneity

I am not for a minute suggesting that most students be taught the terms functionalist and structuralist (though why not, for older, keener ones?). But there is no reason why the two paradigms of explanation which each motivates (genre and purpose), which are in fact already present to varying degrees in the classroom and in curricula, should not be taught far more explicitly as distinct approaches, accompanied by their own distinct modes of explanatory language. At least some younger students could to be invited to consider which they prefer, and be encouraged to recognise a choice in approach which they are empowered to make, for themselves.

 As is so often the problem in teaching the arts and humanities, the problem lies in a lack of honesty about the fact that the topic under discussion is controversial – so controversial, in fact, that even when 11-year-olds do it there is an argument about what kind of explanation is best. Most people would agree that teachers have no business teaching students the ‘right’ way of understanding a political event. We recognise that it is the teacher’s job to set out the facts and then give students a sense of the range of ways in which the experienced and informed mind might understand them. But too many English teachers have cast themselves as the wise magi, in school to bring knowledge (if they’re conservative), or empowerment (if they’re progressives)  to the masses. Too often this means steamrollering over the massive disagreements that exist at every academic level about what exactly language is, and how best it should be understood.

To make matter worse, most teachers are themselves pretty unclear about the controversies which swirl at the heart of the subject: it’s rather as if political studies teachers had no idea what conservatism or liberalism meant, and yet earnestly propagandised on behalf of one or another of those positions (or some confusing combination of the two), all the while blissfully unaware that that is what they are doing.

While some of the core activity of linguistics is perhaps separable from humanist controversy, allowing it to claim for itself the status of a true ‘science’, the business of text analysis, which is the primary concern of teachers and students, quickly becomes controversial. It very soon leads to profound questions regarding the extent of human agency, the nature of social and historical change, and the possibility of political progress. Our community holds no consensus on these questions, so the most honest and productive way of teaching text analysis is to offer a pared-down, simplified menu of interpretive possibilities, and the opportunity to consider how they might relate to texts under discussion. This includes the essential question as to how much texts are our tools; and how much we might be theirs.

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