Category Archives: 1952

New Bottles for New Wine (1952)

LaBrant, L. (1952, September). New bottles for new wine. The English Journal, 41(7), 341-347.

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In one of her most recognized articles for English Journal, LaBrant examines the need for the teaching of English to change along with changes in society. The discussion explores the many ways in which language changes, highlighting the traditional practices in the English classroom as insufficient for those changes.

Quoting LaBrant:

It would be strange, indeed, if the chief medium for human communication did not change as the society which uses it changes; and yet one can find in schools of the United States classes in English which are practically identical to English classes of a half-century ago. It is time to examine this material, so universally taught in our country, to see whether we are teaching the language that is or the language that once existed. A physicist who presented the physics of 1900 would lose his job immediately. A teacher of language is under equal obligation to understand the current status of his material. (p. 341)

Do our students know that our language is changing, that it is the product of all the people, each trying to tell what is in his mind? Do they understand their own share in its making and re-creation? Recently a teacher asked me: “But isn’t it our role to defend the language, to maintain standards?” It is certainly our role to insist that a high standard of thoughtfulness, responsibility, honesty, and clarity be maintained. But I doubt that it is our role, responsibility, or right to insist that the forms of the language of tomorrow be the same as the forms of the language of yesterday….Let us, ourselves, understand the forces which develop language and help our students to understand them. Let us show students that vocabulary, meanings, and structures are changed by man as he moves through time. (p. 342)

And yet, only last week, one of my colleagues, talking to an electrician who came to his house, a young man who had seen service in both Europe and the Pacific islands, was met by the statement: “Oh, so you teach English. I’m afraid I can’t talk to you.” What in the name of all the facts we pretend to know about language has made us, teachers of English, the kind of persons who can’t be talked to? How infinitely more skilled was the young electrician who had talked to Frenchmen and Germans, to islanders and Chinese, and had faith he could talk to almost anyone—except a teacher of English! Can we wake up in time to maintain communication with those we supposedly are to teach? (p. 343)

The teacher’s role is changed. When I finished college my teachers thought I was “prepared to teach English.” I had studied the standard English classics prescribed for the secondary school, could recite the Mercy speech and “What is so rare as a day in June” without error; I knew Latin grammar and could distinguish the various genitives and identify the Greek accusative. Whether I should teach in the elementary school or the secondary did not matter. I was prepared. I could go into the classroom and hand back to children what had been handed to me. Those who rejected it, who did not care or understand, could drop out…. (p. 345)

Here is something much more than a choice between he and him, between I and me; here is a choice between man and brute, between civilization and savagery….Can we measure up to our task? Is it possible to teach our changing population a changing language and still give to them something they can use, something they can cherish—standards, if you will? Have we not found it all but impossible to teach the items we have stressed before: the comma in series, apostrophes, distinctions between better and best, the order in which George Eliot introduces characters in Silas Marner, the Mercy speech? Are we not overburdened as it is? I think a partial answer lies in eliminating the useless. (p. 346)

Let us admit that in thousands of schoolrooms our teaching of punctuation has concerned sentences no child ever made, errors which adults and publishing houses provided, books which we have spent hours trying to “motivate,” and corrections of so-called “errors” which are approved forms everywhere except in our classrooms. We have wasted hours on diagramming dull sentences when what a sentence calls for is not to be drawn but to be understood. Who understands “Thou shalt not steal” the better for having written not on a slanting line under shalt steal? Our first step is clearing away busy work, meaningless matters, and getting at the problems of speaking about something worth saying and writing with sincerity and zest. Reading is not to be “something I had”; it should be “something I do.” (pp. 346-347)

For years we have talked about “every teacher a teacher of English.” Perhaps one reason the idea has remained mere talk is that other teachers have seen “English” as the mere mechanical details of writing, the correction of common errors in diction, a pedantic concern for usage of a somewhat outmoded order, and the reading of a list of books whose selection would be hard to justify….Twenty centuries ago a teacher whose words were to change the history of the world spoke in a parable: “And no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish.” It is time to examine the patched and worn bottles into which we have put this magnificent, live wine of language. If our pupils miss its glory, if they use it carelessly as a form, a manner of dress; if they cease to guard it as a means for honest exploration of truth, the tragedy of atomic warfare may be slight. (p. 347)