Before March 2020, I was unfamiliar with the phenomenon of ‘guided reading’. My daughter (aged eight during the school closures that year) was sometimes required to read the same short passage five days in a row and to perform different tasks in relation to it. Presumably the idea was for her to learn how specific sentence constructions work, in the hope that she would be able to apply that knowledge elsewhere – but the invitation to write autonomously, beyond a sentence or two, never arrived. It wasn’t merely the emphasis on obscure grammatical concepts that worried me, but the treatment of language in wholly syntactical terms, with the aim of distinguishing correct from incorrect usage. This is the way a computer treats language, as a set of symbols that generates commands to be executed, and which either succeeds or fails in that task.
This vision of language as code may already have been a significant feature of the curriculum, but it appears to have been exacerbated by the switch to online teaching. In a journal article from August 2020, ‘Learning under Lockdown: English Teaching in the Time of Covid-19’, John Yandell notes that online classes create wholly closed worlds, where context and intertextuality disappear in favour of constant instruction.
Almist every structural element of Western education, on all levels, militates against humane learning.