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The Liberal Tradition

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    Within the liberal tradition the aim of modern language teaching at the university level was - and still is - both cultural and intellectual. Bailey (1994: 41) formulates it as instilling ‘an appreciation of foreign literature and language through a scholarly analysis of their content and structure’. This is achieved through the study of ‘esteemed’ canonical literary texts of the past as well as a historical approach to linguistics.

    Language teaching itself, within this tradition, has been modeled on the teaching of the ‘dead languages’, as the classics were seen as the highest expression of the liberal philosophy (Bailey, ibid.). The rationale for teaching language was to contribute to its two important aims of developing the cultural and intellectual capabilities and sensibilities of students. Whereas language learning has never been seen as an important intellectual activity in its own right (outside the subject of philology or linguistics), there was a recognized academic element in the learning of grammar. The cognitive powers of the students were challenged by exercises in sentence parsing and translation of de-contextualized sentences - even if this resulted in artificial language use - in order to apply the rules of logic and show a thorough understanding of the underlying grammatical intricacies. The emphasis was strongly on grammar and the development of written skills - an oral element to language teaching was either non-existent or incidental. This is because communication had no role to play in the traditional liberal humanistic language curriculum; its rationale for language teaching is the teaching of logical thinking skills and an ‘objective’ way of describing reality. Interestingly, as Cope and Kalantzis (1993: 3) point out, this traditional curriculum of prescriptive grammar has mistaken, even deceptive, pretensions to the timelessness of the classics. In ancient Greece and Rome, the use of grammar was applied to the social context, forming an integral part of the teaching of dialectic or rhetoric. The classical language curriculum thus has a pragmatic communicative origin and a communicative function, which was never followed up on and which diametrically opposes the methodologies based on teaching a ‘dead language’.

    The second aim which informed the teaching of language was the access it provided to cultural products by exposing the student to ‘good’ language use and developing an aesthetic appreciation of language, through the study of a canonical body of literary work. This embodied the liberal humanist principle of language as striving for human perfection and beauty based on the Enlightenment ideas about the interpretation of the concept of culture and a wider epistemology. ‘Culture’ within this tradition encompasses elements of aesthetic and spiritual development (Williams, 1976, 1983: 90) which are enshrined in the valued canonical body of artistic - mainly literary - products of that society. This view pays homage to Matthew Arnold’s (1869, 2006: 40) definition of culture, and its emancipatory idea of striving for betterment: ‘culture is […..] a study of perfection. It moves by the force, not merely or primarily of the scientific passion for pure knowledge, but also of the moral and social passion of doing good’. In addition, this epistemology contains within it a belief in the rational autonomous subject who can use language to control meaning. Language offers endless opportunities to describe a reality which is located outside language itself. There is a belief in the ‘true’ and ‘real’ self and the universality of language. I will discuss this further in chapter 2.

    One will not find Arnold’s view of culture and its moral good quoted in departmental aims and objectives at universities. Nevertheless, the tradition of literary degrees espouses the core of these values, which were up until recently widely accepted at many universities and still inform departmental courses, although this is more likely to be the case at pre-1992 Russell Group universities. At many of these institutions, students studied a canonical body of works to ‘sustain a moral criticism of the world’ and to recognize the ‘little knots of significance’ in order to make sense of the world out there and to make ‘distinctions of worth’ (Inglis, 1992: 220). These liberal values are also reflected in the approach taken in studying canonical works, approached from a strong belief in the authority of the writer, rather than the poststructuralist emphasis on reader interpretation.

    It follows that language teaching has a somewhat diminished role within this paradigm as far as language production is concerned. The aim of language teaching is to instill a sense of appreciation for the language and to recognize language as it functions and gives meaning to the ‘individual’ voice of the author. Language teaching is not geared around developing a language proficiency or communicative ability. Everyday language is of no academic interest. Only literary language and the voice of the author are worthy of study and so literature classes are generally taught in English and the discourse of literary criticism will take place in English rather than through the target language. Language learning and teaching achieve intellectual worth, as mentioned before, only through the study of grammar and translation, supplemented by précis and essay writing.

    The traditional methodology has been heavily criticized and is seen as being thoroughly outdated, precisely because of its lack of placing language in relation to its immediate context or related to wider social and cultural forces which may influence language utterances. Students will have knowledge about the language, but will not be able to speak it. Cook (1989: 127, 128) points to the fact that the traditional approach to language learning does not take account of how meaning is created through a unified stretch of text. In short, grammar-translation approaches do not stand up to scrutiny within applied linguistic theories as the sole method of teaching language proficiency. Whilst this approach may be used at university language teaching at some of the traditional institutions, it will indeed not be used in language courses which teach at the ab-initio level. Ab initio courses, and indeed increasingly language courses at all levels, are generally influenced by the instrumental paradigm.

    This page titled The Liberal Tradition is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gerdi Quist (Ubiquity Press) .

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