Category Archives: 1941

English in the American Scene (1941)

LaBrant, L. (1941). English in the American scene. The English Journal, 30(3), 203–209.

LaBrant argues for the need to focus on language in ways that address larger social and historical aspects of the human condition. She stresses context, choice in reading, and an “honest use of language” (p. 206).

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/805755 

Quoting LaBrant:

Many persons accept the generalization that what we do in the way of making machines for killing, of building houses, and of producing food and clothing are the important matters of life, most significant of all in an emergency like today’s, and that language is a convenient tool, something like an assembly-line belt, already made and convenient for communication….High-school courses emphasize techniques and analysis of a few literary pieces. And so when we face a great crisis in human relations and social philosophy we turn to ammunition and guns and food supplies, meanwhile letting language take care of itself. We introduce, perhaps, a few books on the world-situation and feel that as teachers of language we have done all we need to do. Let me first of all point to the fact that language is our basic means of being human; that words are a part of our very tissues; and that our life as a democratic society is dependent upon understandings which must be wrought through language. (pp. 203-204)

It is a truism to say that every man’s every day calls for choices. We often infer from this that choice is between high and low, good and evil. One of the errors in our use of language is that we infer from it this contrast in phenomena. English teachers, who have accepted responsibility for teaching the people’s language, frequently make the mistake themselves. They say, for example: This is a good book (good for whom and why they do not always say); this is a good experience (I learned something important from it); this is a good sentence (it does not violate certain conventions). They do not examine, judge, and choose in terms of all that is happening in the situations with which they deal. Playing the violin may be a “good” experience. Nero’s notorious action shows the absurdity of overlook-ing the time and the place-the context. (p. 204)

For these reasons my first request of every American teacher of English is that he teach in his classroom this honest use of language and an understanding of its relation to life.

These teachings it seems to me are imperative and must come first. Compared to these understandings the use of me for I, of who for whom, done for did, or walks for walk are trivia. Making neat diagrams of sentences which pervert truth is as wrong as participating in sabotage or obstructing the common defense-more wrong be-cause language deals with the most precious concepts we have. (p. 206)

Fearing controversial issues we have offered but meager emotional satisfactions through the reading of books dealing freely with such questions. I am not advocating a re-turn to the sentimentality of The Idylls or Sir Launfal but an honest dealing with ideals, human fears, and hopes.

Finally, and perhaps as never before, our students need to learn from literature to understand their own world, the world of this America. (p. 208)

Probably the foregoing means also a free-reading program, in the main, for whenever we begin to consider personal needs we meet individual variation. Frequently I have been told that a free-reading program is one in which there is no guidance and in which no prog-ress is made. I use the term here as always to mean a program in which pupil and teacher are free to select whatever meets the need of that student. (pp. 208-209)