Thursday, 10 April 2014

Fight the Power

Sometimes, You've Just Got To Say
It may surprise many of my friends, especially those who have only known me since adulthood, that when I was younger, I had a pretty strong anti-authoritarian streak.  These days, perhaps as a reaction to living for many years in the rather nauseatingly self-righteous bubble of the San Francisco Bay Area, I have been associated with a rather reactionary personna. Now, I've never thought myself to be particularly conformist, and to those who knew me as a child, my political migration would, I think, be seen as unsurprising.

Simply put, I find "groupthink" and unquestioning acceptance of orthodoxy just unappealing.  (It is on full display right now in the sort of "militant tolerance" as the heretic ex-CEO of Mozilla is boiled in oragnic patchouli.)

As a kid, when ordered to do something "because I said so," I frequently found myself on the wrong side of "law" for asking for some sort of rationale.

Today's microagression comes in the form of a homework assignment my eight year old handed in.  The assignment, a book report, required him to describe the five items he liked best about the book he had read.  He completed the task, I reviewed it with him, and he handed it in.

Last night, his teacher returned the paper with her "corrections," asking that our son "fix" his "mistakes."

So far, so good.  I value education, and I am pleased for my son to have his errata laid out for improvement.

In this particular instance, however, I was quite disturbed to see that the teacher had marked as wrong our son's use of the enumerative "First....second... third" and "last of all."  His teacher "corrected" these to be written as "Firstly," "secondly," etc.

His teacher is wrong.  And I've told my son that she is wrong.  (As an aside, the use of "firstly" versus "first" is plainly laid out in, inter alias, Strunk and White and the OED).  My sister is an English teacher, and I for certain will be checking with her opinion as well.

My dilemma is this: I do not want my son to learn improper usage; at the same time, I want him to get out of the third grade.  Here, he is confronted with an authority figure - demonstrably in error - requiring him to correct an assignment that he knows is not wrong.  

I recall when I was in the fifth or sixth grade, a geography lesson in which the teacher insisted that the capital of Canada was Montreal.  She marked my exam as wrong, and would not be budged.  Now, I was born in Canada. The overwhelming majority of my family are Canadian.  My mother and all but one of my uncles currently live in Canada.  The teacher simply would not be convinced that the correct answer was Ottawa.

Of course, in this case, the immediate solution - to go the library, get a copy of the World Book Encyclpedia, Volume "C", and show her that she was wrong - was quite simple.  Note, though, that I said "immediate solution."  The teacher, forced to confront her mistake, grudgingly corrected the correction, but was plainly less than happy about it, and I believe afforded the rest of my work for the semester the royal treatment.

I have decided in this case to try to settle on a middle course.  Usage "evolves" over time (consider the current acceptability in our language of "the data is," or the use "leverage" as a verb).  I've asked my son to adhere in this case to the teacher's request.  I've also pointed out to him that this is a perfect example that sometimes the king is wrong, and indeed, authority figures are most decidedly not always right.

Unless it's his parents, of course.

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