Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Newspaper, heal thyself

Posted by metaphorical on 27 February 2007

The new scores, based on tests given in 2005, show that only about 35 percent of 12th graders are proficient in reading. Simply put, this means that a majority of the country’s 12th graders have trouble understanding what they read fully enough to make inferences, draw conclusions and see connections between what they read and their own experiences. The math scores were even worse, with only 23 percent of 12th graders performing at or above the proficient level.

An editorial in today’s NY Times decries the basic skills of U.S. high school students as insufficient for our glorious information age.

Marginal literacy and minimal math skills might have been adequate for the industrial age. But these scores mean that many of today’s high school seniors will be locked out of the information economy, where a college degree is the basic price of admission and the ability to read, write and reason is essential for success.

Let’s leave aside sad fact that the Times’s chief concern is that we may not have a sufficiently educated workforce—that, for example, $69 million energy company CEOs might not have enough $106,000 petroleum engineers to do the real work at a place like Exxon-Mobil—you know, of stuff like actually finding oil and gas and getting it out of the ground.

Let’s also leave aside the Times’s condescending omission of the idea that even back in the coal-dusty days of the industrial era students might have been reading Twain, Cather, Steinbeck and Salinger because they wanted what my friend Lizzie just last night called “a lifelong relationship with literature for its own sake.”

I’ll have more to say in a few days about basic K-12 skills, especially math, because it’s a subject that’s come up repeatedly for me lately.

What I was struck by today in reading the Times’s editorial was the juxtaposition of a paid op-ed advertorial in the lower right hand corner of the facing page. It was an interesting piece about climate change by Duke University’s school of environmental and earth sciences. That particular space in the newspaper used to be taken quite frequently by Mobil Corporation, back before its merger with Exxon, but once a year there would be an ad paid for by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (which, by the way, also pays my salary). The ad would be about National Engineer’s Week, a somewhat futile annual attempt to raise the profile of the engineering profession.

National Engineer’s Week ended last Friday. The IEEE doesn’t purchase that phenomenally expensive ad nowadays. In its absence, where in the pages of the NY Times was there any mention of National Engineer’s Week this year? Nowhere. Ever, in fact—a quick search of the Times’s website shows only two such articles, the more recent of which was published on 23 April 1989.

There are many worthy causes competing for precious column inches in the Times, and we all understand the business reasons for, say, devoting two-thirds of the above-the-fold front page yesterday to the Academy Awards. But if the Times wants to know why high school students aren’t doing well at math and reading, it could take a moment to look inward. The fact is, students do in fact “see connections between what they read and their own experiences” when those experiences include seeing a sports section every day, and a science section only once a week.

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One Response to “Newspaper, heal thyself”

  1. [...] Excerpt from a smart, savvy blog I just stumbled across thinking with my fingers about Orwell, politics and language (more on that later): An editorial in today’s (NY) Times decries the basic skills of U.S. high school students as insufficient for our glorious information age. [...]

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