Sunday, 18 January 2009

Lasantha Wickrematunge

Once in a while we get a great piece of journalism. When this happens, schools – which most likely means English -- should make their students aware of it. For English teachers there are two reasons why.

The first is that English should participate in the education of democratic citizens by making young people aware of what's being said by people who can say things well about interesting public issues.

The second is that English is concerned with knowledge. It’s often forgotten how much students learn in English, not about language or literature but about the world. This is why it so often seems to encroach on territories that are the object of specialist disciplines, particularly sociology, political science and cultural studies.

We don’t teach those disciplines because we stop short of systematic instruction in concepts and methods; but there are other ways of engaging with the world of public affairs than those of academic scholarship. Our students are using those modes whenever in their English lessons they talk and write about crime or racism or youth unemployment or game shows. Good journalism shows us these non-specialist but disciplined modes of engagement pursued to a professional standard. It provides the model for an important class of work in English.

Now: this week, how many English teachers have read with their students the posthumous editorial by the Sri Lankan newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge? As the Guardian explained on 13th January, ‘This extraordinary article by the editor of the Sri Lankan Sunday Leader was published three days after he was shot dead in Colombo’ ; in it he predicts his own murder by government agents. The text is here.

It’s a fine piece of writing. It’s a magnificent rallying cry in defence of a free press. It’s a powerful protest against tyranny and the cruelty of governments insufficiently restrained by law and democracy. It’s a beautiful example of the quality of the English written in many places outside the predominantly Anglophone world of Britain, North America, Australia, New Zealand etc.

Do political essays get read at all in English lessons outside a few Orwell pieces? Does anything contemporary in this genre ever get read? In the 1950s grammar schools our English teachers used to bring in the latest article that had struck them in the New Statesman, Guardian, Spectator, Listener, Observer etc., and would read them to us with an invitation to argue. If that practice has died it should be revived.

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