I’m no good with a plough. I am equally as incompetent with a weaving loom, printing press or spinning jenny. And yet, my home is heated, my belly is full and I lead a meaningful and happy existence. How could this be when I am evidently missing so many key skills? The answer is, naturally, that those key skills were imperative to the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, yet are largely irrelevant today. And it’s not just me either; millions of people across the Western World lead fantastic lives without ever putting time in to spin a yarn or plough a field.
So what about spelling, punctuation and grammar? We are told that they are essential to success in post-adolescent life, and that we should knuckle down on these basics because, in the long run, it will make us better. I would agree if it were 1950! Before the digital revolution entire offices were filled with clerks reading and writing letters, filling out forms and copying paperwork. Not to mention the veritable army of low-grade mathematicians required to calculate a medium sized business’ pay checks. Now, all of these jobs can be done with only a tiny fraction of the manpower. In 1950, spelling, punctuation and grammar really was key to a person’s success in life, but the world has moved on and now, in the information age, most of these highly thought intensive and repetitive tasks are done much more effectively by computers. And the trend is still continuing…
I could have written this entire article with the spelling prowess of a disinterested twelve year old truant, yet you would be none the wiser because my laptop is equipped with a spell checker. Even grammar and punctuation can be corrected to a large degree by computer algorithms. Furthermore, ever seen an email or text message that breaks just about every rule of good punctuation? Me too. Yet the information content they carry is almost always perfectly received and understood. Although spelling, punctuation and grammar will always form the backbone of effective written communication, the technical necessity for humans to manually deliver it becomes evermore redundant.
There is, I hope you see, a strong case that spelling, punctuation and grammar are becoming ever more obsolete skills, the same way our old Industrial Age skills have gone. So do we stop teaching them to our children? The answer, you may be surprised to hear, is No.
To see SPAG in its right place I feel it important to first understand a business concept called ‘opportunity cost’. Opportunity cost marks the value of the other actions one could have taken in lieu of the action one did take. For example, if I choose to go to the gym today I may increase my strength, well being and masculine prowess, yet that is 90 minutes that I could not write a blog article, clean my house or make a grand romantic gesture for my girlfriend. The latter three are examples of the opportunity cost of my gym session. So, here is my controversial contention: I feel spelling punctuation and grammar are important, but the opportunity cost of investing time and energy in to learning them is just too high. Why invest years in developing the marginally relevant SPAG, when we can learn computer programming, emotional intelligence, web research, leadership skills or so many other tantalisingly exciting skills that will make a real difference to success in the Information Age.
So why then learn SPAG? I think there are three reasons, but probably not the ones we’ve all been told. Firstly, and most importantly, young people get a real buzz about anything if they can do it well, and self-esteem is utterly vital. Whilst we now live in 2014, the people making policy decisions grew up before the digital revolution. As such, the very real necessity of instilling excellent basic English was rightly drilled in to them throughout their schooling. These children of the end of the Industrial Age know how important SPAG is, and so they’ve created a thorough assessment mechanism to make sure we all know it too. I don’t have the power to change this, and until it is changed there is a good case to make our young people excellent at what they do day-to-day. Even if it is mind-crushingly boring, the value of feeling good about our challenges and gaining positive self-worth is a valuable asset. This, to a degree, is worth the opportunity cost of SPAG. Secondly, our school system rewards good SPAG with higher grades, and since most people want better grades it makes sense to develop SPAG. Thirdly, sometimes our computers can’t correct our most egregious mistakes, for the irony here is that I could not have written this article without reasonably decent SPAG. Expressing yourself eloquently, sadly, still requires the old fashioned English fundamentals. So, until writing is done perfectly by our computers, better SPAG will, indeed, make us better written communicators.
So what do we do with our children’s education? My advice is this: Learn spelling, punctuation and grammar to a passable level then spend the salvaged time on more important skills. Learn it not because it’s so important, it isn’t, but learn it to be excellent at what we do. To be excellent at what we do is to be good.