Politics, Technology, and Language

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

Show me the money

Posted by metaphorical on 29 March 2007

If we want better educated young people, a generation who can read well and write well and and find Iowa and Iraq on a map, we may have to—I know this will come as a shock, so brace yourself—pay for it.

There’s been a big trend toward teaching writing skills in colleges, both in separate writing courses and labs, and while teaching the subject matter of individual disciplines, a phenomenon known by various names such as “Writing Across the Curriculum.”

Lord knows it’s needed. I remember grading test papers 30 years ago and seeing students who could fill a bluebook with things that started with capital letters and ended with periods, but didn’t contain grammatically well-formed sentences in between—sometimes not a single one in an entire exam. According to my nephews, things have not greatly improved in the intevening time.

Yet teaching writing, both in its own right and across the curriculum, takes instructors and other resources. In other words, it takes money.

Inside Higher Education reports that the average workload of the instructors on the front lines of the fight for a literate generation coming out of school— community college composition instructors— is 50 percent above what it should be. And for almost 30 percent of all such instructors, it’s double what it should be. Here are the numbers.

Results of a national survey – released at a session during last week’s annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication—found that those who teach writing at community colleges have a mean of 94 students a semester. The conference – a division of the National Council of Teachers of English—has guidelines that state that no faculty member should be teaching more than 60 writing students a semester – and fewer if the students have remedial or other special needs.

Not only has the norm started to greatly exceed desirable levels, but significant numbers of instructors are teaching well above the mean. The survey found that more than 20 percent of writing instructors at community colleges teach between 111 and 130 students each semester. And 9 percent report teaching 131 to 150 students a semester.

I assume that these instructors have a workload of 4 classes, since that would mean that the recommended level is 15 students per class. That seems reasonable when teaching undergraduates. My experience in an MFA writing program is that 8 students is ideal, 10 is fine, and 12 is pushing it. That’s at the graduate level, where papers are much longer and arguably you need more time for nuanced consideration of what makes for the difference between good and great.

So leaving the idyll of grad school and dividing by 4, we get a real-world average of 23 or 24 students. Two out of ten classrooms have 28-32 students, and 9 percent are even more crowded than that. You can’t really teach much good writing even at the lowest of those numbers. I’m not even sure you could teach a good class in social psychology or cost accounting with that many students. Let’s remember what a writing class involves: lots of writing by the students, which means lots of feedback—reading and editing and commenting and office hours discussions.

Composition professors say such limits are essential because good writing instruction – especially at colleges where many students may not have received adequate instruction in high school – is intensive, involving constant assignments that need to be graded promptly so students can learn from mistakes and advance.

As the article suggests, the pressure on colleges, especially community colleges, would be less if students came out of high school with more—more in the way of writing skills, that is. As the NY Times reported this week, it turns out high schools are working on it. But it takes—you guessed it—money.

States and school districts nationwide are moving to lengthen the day at struggling schools, spurred by grim test results suggesting that more than 10,000 schools are likely to be declared failing under federal law next year.

In many districts across the country, the trend has taken hold. In Miami, 39 schools that are farthest behind have added an extra hour to the school day, as well as five days to the school year. In California, the small West Fresno district, with some of the lowest test scores in Fresno County, added an hour more of school a day for students in the fourth to eighth grades.

The reference to “grim test results” should be a red flag that what’s at issue is No Child Left Behind. Sure enough,

The surge of interest has been spurred largely by the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires annual testing of students, with increasingly dire consequences for schools that fall short each year, including possible closing.

Pressed by the demands of the law, school officials who support longer days say that much of the regular day must concentrate on test preparation. With extra hours, they say, they can devote more time to test readiness, if needed, and teach subjects that have increasingly been dropped from the curriculum, like history, art, drama.

Let’s just linger for a moment and notice the Orwellian terminology. Regular instruction is now “test preparation.” Test preparation has taken time away from what we used to call high school instruction, which is now thought of as “test readiness.” If every moment of every school day is geared toward tests, it’s not hard to see why Johnny can’t read Dickens or even Salinger well, and, obviously, students who can’t read well won’t write well.

But let’s move on, because the point is moot. We aren’t even giving schools the money to do “test readiness” well.

Money also has proved a big obstacle. Murfreesboro, Tenn., experimented with a longer day, but abandoned the plan when the financing ran out, said An-Me Chung, a program officer at the C. S. Mott Foundation, which does education research. Typically, she said, lengthening the school day can add about 30 percent to a state’s per-pupil spending on education.

Karen Kay Harvey, an assistant secretary of education for New Mexico, said that the state could not afford to do more. Adding the equivalent of one extra day of school a year for all students could run from $3 million to $5 million, she said.

I wish the Times had looked into these numbers a little, instead of taking them at face value. For example, are any schools extending the day with study periods in which students do homework assignments and special projects. They could be staffed with, say, the better college students who could provide tutoring and other help and might enjoy making work-study wages mentoring instead of stacking dishes in the cafeteria? And wouldn’t that be less expensive than extending classes themselves by a few minutes?

Such a system would relieve the burden on single parents and double-income parents who get home at dinnertime and spend much of the evening overseeing homework. It seems at least worth trying.

Even that, of course, would take money. And apparently we’re going to have to find it somewhere, because one way or another, expanding the school day is the direction things are going.

“In 15 years, I’d be very surprised if the old school calendar still dominates in urban settings,” said Mark Roosevelt, superintendent of schools in Pittsburgh, which has added 45 minutes a day at eight of its lowest-performing schools and 10 more days to their academic year.

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29 Responses to “Show me the money”

  1. digglahhh said

    Ideal class sizes, as defined here, are virtually beyond my imagination.

    It is also worth mentioning, again, that the commodification of higher education plays a big role here as well. The collapsing of the blue collar industries and stigma attached to them is just overwhelming universities, dumbing them down in the process.

    I took several writing seminar classes at the undergraduate level. In my favorite one, I had a young and engaged (not to mention quite attractive) professor who had earned one of the increasingly rare tenured positions at an impressively young age. Despite no shortage of motivation or skill, by our second paper she had already asked me if I would mind if she told the class that they could submit early drafts to me for comments and suggestions. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that we were given a special writing tutor who was slated to relieve that burden, but he was woefully inept and by the accounts of many of the female students, quite creepy. We moved classrooms and did not give him our forwarding address.

    I don’t think any of my MA classes had fewer than 20 students either.

    When it comes to most causes, I usually get more militant than depressed, but I have to admit this one makes me more sad than anything.

  2. Blue Athena said

    I’ve seen too many people in college who shouldn’t be there in the first place. Honestly, in the state I live in the second tier college system is pretty much just a diploma factory. Remove these extra tax dollars, and there is more money to go around. The 4-college credential requirement nonsense is a huge waste of money and is going to make the country non-competitive in the long run.

    I do agree with the lengthened high school day and free periods to do homework. This is being done in some places. But staffing with college students? Have you thought about the liability in todays world? These kids would all have to be finger printed and have police background checks.

    And each time one of the college kids made a politically incorrect crack, or mentioned evolution or ridiculed religion (all of which are things college kids do) would they be treated with the same standards as faculty, who have been rigorously taught what can and can’t be said in a public school setting?

    And think, too, of the danger of the smaller age difference…yikes…we’ve all seen either news stories or real life cases (I have) where young teachers in their 20s have affairs with students. College kids? Just yikes. Think how many more lawyers you’d have to hire.

  3. There are two problems. The first is the dismal, dismally underfunded, school system. The second is No Child Left Behind.

    The law was deliberately written to define success by impossible standards, so as to push schools into failure. (The official goal of the program is grade-level skills in reading and math for 100% of all students – a simple physical impossibility.) The penalties built into the law after 5 years of failing to meet testing goals include firing all staff, giving the school to a for-profit company, and turning it into a charter school or transporting the students to a charter school at the district’s expense; Bush now wants to include religious-school vouchers in the program.

    In other words, NCLB was a deliberate attempt to destroy public education, by defining “success” in an unreachable way and then using their inability to meet that standard as an excuse for privatizing the public schools and funding religious schools with public-school money. It was also an attempt to destroy the teachers’ union by firing all experienced teachers and hiring scabs or religious teachers – because if there’s anything the Republicans hate more than education, it’s teachers.

    We need to do something about the schools. But separately from that, we need to end NCLB and depose the anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-education, pro-religion party and save our public education system from their coordinated assault.

  4. CMD said

    which means lots of feedback—reading and editing and commenting and office hours discussions.

    Ah, not to worry, you can file this one under “solved.” A friend in my Talking Heads ensemble, who has just returned to school for BA, informs me that she asked a professor that she likes, respects, and would like to learn from, if he could give her more feedback on her writing (he’s a rare teacher and makes them do a lot of writing). He told her that he’d gone to a teaching conference, the thrust of which was that teachers are not supposed to put comments on student papers, because it discourages them from writing.

    Where I teach, writing is a joke and an insult to teachers and students alike. Almost all 100-level classes are cross-listed at the 300 level as well, which is “intensive writing.” Anyone who teaches those classes is, by default, teaching intensive writing, whether or not they have any particular expertise, desire, or ability to do so. (I’m leaving aside the monetary rant here, but bear in mind that I’m an adjunct, so I’m really being egregiously underpaid to do two jobs.) I’m in a better position than most, just by virtue of my editing experience, but hell, I’m no writing teacher. I can’t really contradict the point about comments discouraging people from writing. Most students freak the fuck out when they see the amount of commenting that I do on their papers, even when the comments are largely positive.

  5. Very interesting points, Athena. I had actually thought of the background checks and wondered if they might not be needed for recent top graduates of the very high school they were mentoring in. And I suspect a lot of volunteer work involves minimal background checking, though probably more and more these days.

    But I hadn’t thought of the dating issues, and we’re talking about the very break-point between of of-age and under-age when it comes to things like drinking and statutory rape, so that’s a huge problem.

    I do think that extending school by means of study halls would be a huge plus and a smaller expense than longer classes, in part because teachers could teach a little differently and make better use of their limited classroom time if they knew students were going to spend more time on homework and have someone to talk with about questions and problems that they had trouble with.

    Ideally, homework is a student spending time working out for him- or herself what was just taught, understanding its implications, extending it into new contexts, and so on. It’s rarely that in practice, which is one of the problems with high school education today.

  6. “teachers are not supposed to put comments on student papers, because it discourages them from writing.”

    Yup, I understand that’s one of the big debates these days in Writing Across the Curriculum. There’s talk of separate comments, between writing and the subject matter content, even commenting on separate copies of the paper, and so forth.

    Besides the sheer quantity of comments freaking students out, many (myself included) focus on the negative ones, even if in the instructor’s mind the comments as a whole were highly favorable. People are sensitive to comments on their writing to a bizarre degree, partly because it’s not done enough (and often not done well enough), and partly because we tie writing so closely to notions like intelligence and understanding.

    One thing that would help is pushing the teaching of writing in the workshop style down into the high schools. That’s just starting right now with experimental programs (my school is running one such experiment, with some foundation money). It will take some time to develop curricula that the average high school English teacher can use, and then they have to be trained in it.

    One thing that will make things better in the long term is the move to multimedia, which is also just starting. Many students who do poorly at writing a 1000-word paper will be brilliant at producing a 3 minute YouTube video. Of course it will take time for college professors to start accepting them as legitimate fulfillments to an assignment.

  7. Blue Athena said

    Are you expecting students to make clear, well thought out arguments in these 3 minute YouTube videos? Are you going to be able to point out flaws in their logic? Is there even going to be logic?

    I have taken courses in which no grades were put on papers, only comments. Students didn’t sit around staring at their grades, but instead actually read and took seriously the comments. No one had any problem with it. The grades could be retrieved later if the students wished to view them. Separating the comments from the grades allows students to focus on the comments without attaching some absolute value judgment to them.

    But in commenting on work myself (on the few occasions I have taught) I am very careful to balance the comments. Comment writing is itself a skill which takes practice. However, not putting comments on a paper is not, in my opinion, a realistic option that will in any way teach students to write.

    If, however, students are required to do rewrites based on comments, and see the benefits (in higher grades and/or better comments) on their revised papers in my experience they come to tie these things together. The key is to require both old and new papers to be turned in, and to make sure that genuine improvement is rewarded. I would rather see students write 2 papers in a term with rewrites, than 4 individual papers.

  8. CMD said

    “teachers are not supposed to put comments on student papers, because it discourages them from writing.”

    Yup, I understand that’s one of the big debates these days in Writing Across the Curriculum. There’s talk of separate comments, between writing and the subject matter content, even commenting on separate copies of the paper, and so forth.

    I think that the implication was that teachers should not provide feedback on writing at all in any form, not just physically separating out comments, grades, and so on. I’m with Blue Athena on that: I’m not allowed to require students taking intensive writing to attend any more class time than the other students (so we can’t have sessions where we talk about their writings assignments, unless I want to take time away from the other students and the course content). If I can’t provide comments in some format, why not just dispense with the busywork charade and give them a rubber stamp saying they can write?

  9. Swanny said

    How about teaching them to write before they get to college?

  10. digglahhh said

    Couple of points here.

    1. The director my department at our last Board Meeting was just limited to a five minute PowerPoint presentation to summarize the last six months worth of developments in our department. A three minute You Tube video could do a lot if there was substantial effort, thought and revision incorporated into the process. I still remember writing, rehearsing, performing and filming the Latin rap video on certain period of ancient Roman history. Yo, son, what rhymes with parvum?

    2. I take the somewhat vigilant route. If we are talking about college students who are terribly incapable of writing, let them know in no uncertain terms on top of their papers – in Krylon if need be! Find out what this kid’s true talent(s) are and encourage him/her to pursue them instead of gutlessly remaining on the conveyor belt to nowhere at the “diploma factory” and praying for mediocrity.

    Entirely too much consideration is given to the emotional fragility of young people. I’m wholeheartedly with Carlin right here. The vast majority of it is self-entitled, insular, wealthy, white, pop-psychology bullshit!

    If we are at all serious about promoting the healthy development of our children’s emotions and self-image, I take no suggestions seriously until MTV ceases to exist. The show “My Super Sweet Sixteen” must go first, and in fact all those who have been featured on it must be killed (sorry Gnarls Barkley fans, Cee-Lo is gone, his daughter was the subject of an episode- but rest assured, Dangermouse is the truly irreplaceable one anyway).

    Where is the benefit in sheltering our children from their own weaknesses?

  11. digglahhh said

    Oh, and regarding the idea of extending the school day, what is an extra 45 minutes of 10 days in a fractured, ineffectual school system going to do other than increase the school’s capacity to function in what is apparently its chief role in today’s society, as an institutionalized day care center?

    As trite as it is to say, I am largely where I am today, intellectually, because I refused to let school interfere with my education. If that meant skimming Dreiser and pulling a C on the test so that I had more time to read Burroughs, so be it.

    I was lucky enough to have a grandmother (Meta’s mother) who was able to make the time to take me to museums, historical sites, book readings, etc. when I was a very young child. In my opinion, that did more for my intellectual development and more to fortify my bond with education than any instructor I ever had, at least until junior year of college.

    To any of the Jackson Heights crowd, Rosenstock was highly overrated.

  12. Blue Athena said

    Teaching English is not normally my job, but I have taught writing before in my rather distant past. I taught university students in a country where their only previous writing experience was essays aimed at repeating back party propaganda. You have never, even at the worst US universities, seen such poor writing. And this wasn’t an English as a second language issue. This was the inability to think and organize in ways that US students are taught by age 10.

    I regularly required the same pieces to be rewritten multiple times. My students wrote every day. By the end of the term the writing skills had mostly gone from 4th grade to freshman in college level (ESL issues aside). Quality writing is hard and requires practice (not obvious to everyone). If you are writing to academic levels it requires more work and thought than most of today’s young people realize is even an option. But when they have the good and bad versions, and can make their comparisons, they learn a lot — and they see what they can achieve. And when they learn along the way to construct and defend an argument, you have helped build a really empowered person.

    But they can’t learn this by being treated like kindergarten students. This isn’t 5 year olds learning to use crayons. This is for real — and there’s a lot more to the game than encouraging some sort of unrestrained creativity. Most people can learn the fundamentals, but it is lying to them to make it look easy.

  13. The process of commenting is indeed a skill, and it’s integral to the process of becoming a better writer. The full workshop method involves writers – in this case students – commenting on one another’s work. One of the biggest aspects of the experiments that look at bringing the workshop method to high schools is to see if peer commenting works at that level.

    If it does, it would be a big help in teaching kids to write. For one thing, you can often see problems in another’s work that you can’t see in yours. Often they’re the same problems, and so you eventually develop the skill of seeing problems in your own writing. There’s no surprise to this. Rewriting is essentially a process of editing your own work, it’s obvious that that skill isn’t very different from editing someone else. Often the biggest difference is ego.

    In addition, when peers comment, then everyone is commenting, and so the teacher’s comments have a context – they’re just the (usually, by far) best comments (most insightful and useful).

    Athena, I find your experiences along these lines to be very interesting, and consistent with my (much more limited) ones. I too would rather have students write fewer different pieces and rewrite many more versions.

  14. There were two points implicit in my YouTube remarks, neither of them stated very clearly. First, some students think more visually, and even for those who don’t, some stories are better told visually than in text, in the same way that some people are geometry oriented and other can better follow the algebra (the difference pretty much is, visual vs text orientation).

    Second, many of skills are the same, whether it’s in video or text. There’s still a story to be told, drafted, edited, and polished. I’ve written about that several times here (you can use the “writing” or “screenwriting” tags to find find the posts, but the main ones are here, here, and here.).

    I haven’t done it, but I’m pretty sure I can teach story, plot, theme, thematic development, character, conflict, foreshadowing, and quite a bit about editing in helping a kid create and revise a 3-minute video.

  15. One more comment, because these are some truly excellent comments that I’m following up. I too am skeptical about what 5 or 10 extra minutes can do for a class, which is why my thoughts immediate drifted to study periods.

    But I would point out that a lot of each class, especially in high school, is overhead – attendance, announcements about upcoming tests or schedule changes, assigning new homework, going over old homework, etc. Then there’s kids coming in late and getting restless right before the end of class. The actual teaching time might be only 20 or 25 minutes in a 43 minute class. If so, 5 or 10 minutes added to that sweet spot in the middle, where the teaching gets done, could be a 20% to 50% increase.

  16. Blue Athena said

    Yes, peer commentary can be good. Though with very young or introverted types this doesn’t necessarily work so well (OK, I’ve taught at a few levels…but really, I’m not a teacher 90% of the time). As you say, the really valuable part is seeing the errors in others work.

    I agree on the possible video comparisons for creative writing, which it seems is what you are talking about from your last comment: “I’m pretty sure I can teach story, plot, theme, thematic development, character, conflict, foreshadowing, and quite a bit about editing in helping a kid create and revise a 3-minute video”.

    I guess I think of this as a skill of secondary importance for most people, whether they be high school or college educated. Everyone needs to be able to good strong write non-creative prose. They need to be able to write letters arguing why their kid should be in program X or describing why they need a loan for their business. Or they need to write articles in any academic field. And none of those skills are in your list of what you can teach with a YouTube video.

    Very few people will ever engage in creative writing after high school is finished. Those with real potential talent will easily build on whatever little they learned in school — in whatever format it came. Should the world be such that more people can explore creative fields more deeply? Maybe. But I put that as a lower priority given some very real economic and social needs we need to address with education.

    So yes, by all means teach kids in school some basic creative ideas regarding plot and character development using video. But outside what will always be a limited academic area of creative writing I think you’re still going to have to rely on the written word.

  17. Athena, actually, I didn’t have creative fiction in mind at all. All those elements are in the best nonfiction works as well. Nonfiction is all I do, by the way; I write for a technology magazine.

    For more than a decade now, kids have been routinely doing reports and projects in Powerpoint. They’re already experienced with multimedia presentation in which text is only one element. Powerpoint happens to not be a great tool, but they’re doing it.

    As far as business writing is concerned, it’s vital that students come to understand that there are different forms of writing for different milieus, that IM abbreviations aren’t appropriate when writing to your boss (or your grandmother, for most grandmothers). But business writing today is generally awful, and it’s awful mainly because the principles of good writing, which are largely the same for all genres, are ignored, because it’s written by people who are ignorant of them.

    So for example the average loan request or grant application rarely starts out with a three sentence explanation that indicates what the goal is, how the loan or grant will make achieving the goal likely, and what benefits will accrue – it’s missing the elevator pitch, in other words.

    The average press release pitching a story usually is not only missing the elevator pitch, it doesn’t say what the challenges were, gives no sense of what the conflict or difficulties were, who the principals were, or why the product, if there is one, is important to the customers who are buying it. It’s missing all or most of the things a writer would need to write the story, in other words.

    No one who understands what makes good writing good could miss these things.

    If I were teaching high school writing, I wouldn’t even allow my students to write fiction. It’s too open-ended. I would concentrate on the dramas that already exist in their lives and the characters around them. If they can take oral histories of their aunts and uncles and grandparents, or the people in their church or neighborhood, transcribe it, pull out a key event, and edit it into a tight 1000 word first- or third-person essay that tells the story of the high or low point in someone’s life, they will write a better business memo, project report, or press release than 95% of the ones I see every day, even if they never go to college.

  18. A new blog entry by a friend of mine, Editrix on my blogroll, made me think of this thread. Her post today “More Ancient Venus,” is a bit of a follow-up to the prior post on her blog, but you don’t have to read that one to get this one.

    Of story, plot, theme, thematic development, character, conflict, and foreshadowing, she’s pretty much got all of them in 650 words here. Non-fiction, of course.

  19. Being from and living across the Atlantic it is fascinating to watch the debate. As a student teaching math at university level and observing pretty much the same debate here as in Sweden except for the more pro-order-in-class turn the debate has taken in over here, I wonder about a few things

    Is the situation so bad and are people so scared that you have to do a background check? In Sweden a background check is seen as a big violation of someones integrity. You also put trust into the persons good intentions and that all operate across some kind of consensus. Of course religion is pretty separate from the state which helps a lot, and school isn’t politicized ( or maybe everyone is pretty much agreeing on everything here…).

    As for the reading skills I think the problem can’t just be adjusted by poring in more money or teachers and so on. School is also a social issue, poor results often reflects social status, conditions at home etc. The belief in Sweden(more propaganda…) is that equality in education and possibilities is the primary(or used to be perhaps) not your family’s wealth ( Of course it is a bit more easy as 95% of all education at all levels are free, the state runs most schools, all people rich or poor actually get benefits around 700$/month to go to college).

    And finally I think that criticism is an essential part of gathering experience and becoming better at what you do – and as always that criticism must be justified and open for dialog. ‘

    A thing noticed is that in the science community criticism and dialog is much more built into the structure of the community than in the humanities. But that may well be a product of dealing with subjects more prone to personal interpretation.

  20. Great post and very interesting comments. Being an upper level manager in a small company, with only a little formal writing instruction at university level, these are my thoughts: First, I believe you have to WANT to write coherently. There seems to be a lack of caring about the written word in the 19-25 year olds I’m in contact with regularly – as if written communication was a thing of the past. Their spelling is almost entirely phonetic (and utterly incorrect) and the grammar is atrocious. If parents don’t emphasize the importance of writing and spelling, and it’s not hammered in at school (and with No Child Left Behind, plus the other additional burdens placed on educators, there just simply isn’t enough time for everything anymore), the kids end up graduating without a clue that their writing makes them look practically illiterate. Add text messaging and IM’ing to the equation, (lol, cu ltr, etc) and written communication begins to look like some kind of new Morse code system. It will be interesting to see how, or if, this eventually affects these young people later in life

  21. Blue Athena said

    Tree Child, The background checks are primarily to check for people with a history of pedophilia or other other sex crimes. It has nothing to do with religion or politics.

  22. digglahhh said

    Local Tree Child,

    Is the situation bad enough that we really need background checks? No, not even close!

    Are the parents scared enough that they would absolutely required them? Yes.

    Would 90% (more?) of parents out there rather have a glorified babysitter with a room temperature IQ in a faux tutor role acting as a glorified babysitter over a borderline genius who is enthusiastic but smokes a little pot? You bethca!

    Meta,

    Yes actual class time is probably something like 20 minutes. A half hour sitcom, minus commercials is 22 minutes. So, we are basically flirting with the threshold of our youth’s attention span as is.

    Wow, they’ve been calling you old. What are the going to say about me at your age? I guess, they’ll have to call me dead.

  23. digglahhh said

    I really need an edit function!

    I’m so used to posting and then editing the post when I see it in regular form that I neglect to look it over before I click submit. Then I read over it and get embarrassed at the stupid mistakes and redundancies because I also remember I can’t change them.

  24. ClaireDePlume said

    The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on; words are indelible. Sadly, most of our tears will not wash away a word of it, even if we discover we can no longer articulate coherently.

    Schools in North America are mostly a joke – a joke funded and supported by most of its population. They are the ones who will often extol the virtues of “how school done me no good and I earn $100K/year.”

    When I was 4, my mother introduced me to literature, poetry, art, culture, history, and manners. At this age, thanks to my mother, I could recite Shakespeare and Wordsworth. I then attended school full time where they taught the four “R”‘s – Reading, (w)Riting, (a)Rithmetic and Respect. When we arrived in Canada, I was relegated to kindergarten to learn how to eat digestive cookies, sip apple juice, and roll out my nap time mat. Needless to say my mother had LOTS to say about education in North America, nearly none of which can be printed here. Words such as “molly coddling”,” lackadaisical”,
    “dim-wits”, “lacking” et al were mentioned though. These were not in reference to the education system only, but to the population too.

    In the near past, I posted to a bulletin board topic on spelling. Nearly all participants emphasized their own diminished interest and need for spelling and grammar, adamant that these skills lack of importance in the world. They claimed that striving for coherency is far too stifling. These posts were by people between the ages of 21 and 55.

    The bottom line is this – attitude is fostered at home and encouraged to grow at school. Granted, the schools are not lifting the bar of excellence either, but would the majority of parents support such an action?

    We shall see what transpires when the politicians, doctors, scientists of the future take the helm to look after the last of the literate in their dotage. Perhaps there is a category for “Last Testament and Wills” on You Tube?

  25. digglahhh said

    I often hear that education begins at home. Most often, I hear that from privileged white folks who grew up with both parents and only one working. Many of them can afford to pay for nannies and tutors, and don’t do much themselves to educate their children except cut a couple of checks.

    Well, they are right. Education does begin at home. In the poor and working class communities young children get effectively educated at a young age. They get educated about how the lives of most of their family and friends’ family members is a rat race, one in which others have been given a head start and in which people who don’t look or think anything like they do keep moving the finish line. A race in which others are allowed to cheat to win and rewarded for it, while they are labeled as indolent freeloaders if they accept somebody offering them a drink of water… Meanwhile the school system canonizes the architects of the system that has their parents shackled in poverty and enacting the life of Sisyphus. It’s a PSY-OPS.

    Quote some real hip-hop, Dead Prez:

    School is like a 12 step brainwash camp
    They make you think if you drop out you ain’t got a chance
    To advance in life, they try to make you pull your pants up
    Students fight the teachers and get took away in handcuffs
    And if that wasn’t enough, then they expel y’all
    Your peoples understand it but to them, you a failure
    Observation and participation, my favorite teachers
    When they beat us in the head with them books, it don’t reach us
    Whether you break-dance or rock suede addidas
    Or be in the bathroom with your clique, smokin’ reefer
    Then you know they math class aint important ‘less you addin up cash
    In multiples, unemployment aint rewardin
    They may as well teach us extortion
    You either get paid or locked up, the principal is like a warden
    In a four year sentence, mad niggas never finish
    But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t be a doctor or a dentist

    They schools can’t teach us shit
    My people need freedom, we tryin to get all we can get
    All my high school teachers can suck my dick
    Tellin me white man lies straight bullshit

  26. ClaireDePlume said

    I see that rap artists seldom use a big word where a diminutive one will do.

    As for privileged people educating their children? Perhaps. But this is not my experience. I would LOVE the opportunity to attend a school of higher learning, but my high school education has to suffice. I’m glad that I paid attention in class and chose to learn, glad too that I educated myself. I truly wish other people would do the same.

  27. observantbystander, thanks for the comments and compliments. As Claire suggests, I think a lot of 30 and 50 year olds don’t seem to show much interest in writing coherent sentences. Just take a look at a typical police report, FDA report, or corporate project report. Look at any legal document—there’s an interest in writing something that’s defensively airtight but no interest at all in being understood by a nonlawyer.

    As far as spelling is concerned, it’s been 30 years since I took History of the English Language from Mary Uhl, and I still haven’t found a way to dispute something she said. Or anything she said, but here’s the relevant thought: Grammar and even punctuation are evidence of intelligence and clarity of thought, but not spelling.

    English doesn’t have orthographic spelling, and the custom of having a single spelling for a word didn’t exist in Old, Middle, or Early Modern English. It’s a relatively modern invention that can be dated from, and traced to, Johnson’s Dictionary (1755).

    Rather than thinking that people (young and old) have descended into some form of preliteracy, it may be more accurate to think of the one-word/one-spelling rule as having been a brief 250 year oddity or experiment in the history of the English language.

  28. [...] Show me the money [...]

  29. digglahhh, it’s unfortunate that WordPress doesn’t have an edit or preview function. Anyone who wants to fix errors in a comment can e-mail me; a lot of regular commenters have my main e-mail address but I’m also adding an address to the “About” page.

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