As regular readers know, I’ve been bemoaning the declining abilities of America’s young for a very long time. It is unreasonable to suggest that all of American education is hopelessly broken, but too much is, and the trend is not for repair, but for even greater damage. I am, of course, only a teacher, so what could I possibly know about education? Quilette reports on the continuing decline:
On November 21, two educators published an article that lamented the declining quality of written work produced by American adolescents. Early in the piece, Temple University professors Kathy Hirsch-Pasek and Laurence Steinberg cite a 2011 study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics that yielded this disturbing claim: ‘Only one in four [high school seniors] can construct an essay that is coherent and well structured, with ideas presented clearly and logically.’ To bolster their case, Hirsch-Pasek and Steinberg present anecdotal evidence from other university professors privy to what this deficit looks like (literally on paper) at the next level. One, from ‘a high-ranking state university,’ resorted to altering ‘her syllabus to take two full days to review the idea of a topic sentence.’ Illustrating the ubiquity of this trend, another professor, this time from ‘a highly ranked private college, wrote in a recent Facebook post that he took time out of class to explain how to write, noting that students had no idea what they didn’t know.
I do not, gentle readers, have much sympathy for these university professors. As I’ve often written, colleges these days are accepting anyone with a pulse and a solvent checking account, and the pulse is probably optional. On many campuses, race is a deciding admission factor, the better to increase diversity and inclusion and wokeness, and…oh, I can’t keep up with the leftist jargon. Because colleges are accepting people manifestly unfit for genuine college level work, they have established remedial high schools on campus. Enrollment in these remedial classes is mandatory, and tuition is no less than for actual college courses, but they yield no credit toward a degree. This is great for colleges; not so great for students whose meager bank accounts are quickly depleted. Far too many drop out with massive college loan debt, with no skills or means to repay.
Those that happily admit people that can’t survive in a real college have no standing to gripe about their lack of ability. Here’s a dose of reality–remember, I’m only a teacher, unfit to speak to education issues–from 2017:
What?! Some people aren’t as smart as others?! Progressive heads are exploding everywhere! Yes, and if you haven’t learned this fundamental lesson about human nature, I fear for your continuing existence. We do not, for a moment, doubt that not everyone is capable of playing on the varsity football or basketball team, yet we hold the odd conceit that resists recognizing intellectual differences despite the fact that we have to do it every day merely to survive.
Charles Murray, the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute is a prolific writer on education issues. One of his most interesting works (PDF available here), written in 2009, is entitled Intelligence and Education. Murray referred, for example, to a survey that found 90% of high school students were encouraged to attend college by their counselors. It is not surprising, therefore, to discover:
For 40 years, American leaders have been unwilling to discuss the underlying differences in academic ability that children bring to the classroom. Over the same period, federal policy, backed by billions of taxpayer dollars in loans and grants, has aggressively encouraged more and more students to try to obtain a college education. As a result, about half of all high-school graduates now enroll in four-year colleges, despite the ample evidence that just a small minority of American students — about 10-15% — have the academic ability to do well in college.
Using his own research and that of others, Murray came to an interesting conclusion about what is necessary for genuine success in college: an IQ of at least 115.
There is no inconsistency between Kobrin’s results and a 115 mean IQ among white college graduates. The students who make salient points in classroom discussions, who write well-researched term papers, and whose final exams demonstrate that they understood the material are
usually well into the upper half of the distribution of academic ability among those who go to college. In other words, they are somewhere in the top 15% of the population — and usually in the top 10%.
So we discover that only about 15% of the population is truly fit for college level work, and only about one in four of current college students can write on a bare freshman level.There is no conflict in these statistics. Writing on a bare freshman level does not mean all of those students are capable of mastering every other academic discipline or even graduating from college, as indeed, many do not. Let us return to Quilette:
It sounds hyperbolic, but according to a 2001 essay by David Foster Wallace entitled ‘Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage,’ it’s been undeniable since the early 1980s: ‘In neither K-12 nor college English are systematic [Standard Written English] grammar and usage much taught anymore.’ Again, this doesn’t sound plausible. How could teachers instruct students to write well without giving them any rules or basic conventions? No reasonable answer exists, but thanks to Wallace’s observations, I can assure you that our current condition was inevitable.
This is in some sense correct, but not everywhere, and not to the degree implied. There are other issues contributing to the problem. I’m going to skip ahead a bit, so by all means, take the link and read the entire Quilette piece.
For one thing, Descriptivism so quickly and thoroughly took over English education in this country that just about everybody who started junior high after c. 1970 has been taught to write Descriptively—via ‘freewriting,’ ‘brainstorming,’ ‘journaling’—a view of writing as self-exploratory and -expressive rather than as communicative, an abandonment of systematic grammar, usage, semantics, rhetoric, etymology. For another thing, the very language in which today’s socialist, feminist, minority, gay, and environmental movements frame their sides of political debates is informed by the Descriptivist belief that traditional English is conceived and perpetuated by Privileged WASP Males and is thus inherently capitalist, sexist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, elitist: unfair.
This is quite so. Such “writing,” by its nature requires no correction. It’s essentially self-referential navel gazing, which requires little time, and no skill on the part of teachers to grade. It’s all about feelings and spewing one’s angst all over the page, and it has been fashionable for decades. Again, remember this is not the case everywhere.
The author also makes mention of a terribly damaging trend on campus: English relativism. People who cannot write or speak in standard American English are microaggressed against by any professor demanding they write on a college level, with skill and style. Whatever scrawlings they produce are unique to their invaluable cultures, and are beyond critique. In essence, the standard for college writing is there is no standard, and woe betide any old fashioned professor who does not toe the diversity line.
It’s crucial to move beyond the ‘Usage Wars,’ because the carnage has unintentionally deprived students of the most democratic tool English teachers have to offer: control over written language. Throughout American history, people of every race have used the standard form of English to transcend the levels of our social hierarchy. It’s why Thomas Paine, a poor kid from Thetford, England, could stir a population to revolt. It’s why Ralph Ellison, a busboy who grew up in 1920s Oklahoma, could write Invisible Man, a novel that employed both SWE and his native dialects, and arguably eclipsed the work of competing literary giants like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.
If a palatable form of Prescriptivism isn’t permissible in the English classroom, the test scores won’t improve. More importantly, we won’t salvage our public discourse that continues to devolve. Indeed, as Wallace told his students, a ‘[Standard Written English] is the dialect our nation uses to talk to itself.’ If that’s still the case, let’s create some updated ground rules. It isn’t about elevating to elitism. It’s about depoliticizing the printed word to establish a form of communication from which true equality of opportunity can emerge. I think, as Wallace notes in his final sentence, that’s ‘about as Democratic these days as you’re going to get.
The author is quite correct. We are, as a nation and people, in trouble. We are devolving to tribalism, which by breaking every bond that gives us common cause will return us to a dark age only glimpsed in dystopian novels and movies.
Part of the problem is mandatory, high stakes testing, which of necessity warps the entire K-12 experience. Its consequences, which include the waste of untold billions, are severe, but perhaps none so damaging as the loss of 1/3 to ½–or more–of class time in a given year, all lost to test drills. That much class time lost can never be regained. If kids don’t learn specific skills at specific ages, it’s likely they’ll never learn them. The development of neural connections that makes their brains more flexible and more capable of learning higher- level lessons never occurs. They don’t know what they don’t know, and can’t learn it if they did.
In such drills students learn only to write elementary three to five paragraph essays in response to simplistic prompts. They read only brief excerpts of articles or literature, all on a low academic level. Their essays are graded by people hired via Craigslist, and as long as they can be read and minimally understood, conventions, spelling, grammar, vocabulary and punctuation matter little, if at all.
Another major problem is the marginalization of teachers in favor of elite “experts,” who are often ex-teachers who want to get in on the big money scam, selling recycled, failed concepts to school administrators and principals who consider themselves elite, and who force “classroom systems” and other magic one-size-will-transform–all-education “solutions” on capable, experienced, and competent teachers.
This removes, to the largest degree possible, excellence from education, by forcing all teachers to become as uniformly mediocre as possible. Truly excellent teachers are forced to use inferior ideas and methods, often methods that only waste invaluable class time to no benefit for teacher or students, and always place a heavier burden on teachers. As always, the kids suffer for it. The benefit is it is easier for administrators of little knowledge and skill to evaluate teachers, and far easier to control them.
These two trends alone–there are far, far more for another time–are responsible for terrible damage. Imagine, gentle readers, you are a teacher of English. Imagine your principal tells you they cannot fathom why English teachers should spend time teaching vocabulary. Imagine they see no value, despite the nation-wide fad of “college readiness,” in teaching research writing skills. Imagine they see no value in teaching Shakespeare.
Horrified, gentle readers? You should be. This, and worse, is happening around the nation. It is now possible, in many colleges, to graduate with a degree in English--in English–without reading a single play by William Shakespeare, indeed with no familiarity of the foundational works of western civilization.
How do we fix it? Simple. Use the USAF model: everyone that does not fly is there to ensure the pilots can successfully fly their missions. Hire competent teachers and leave them alone, except to ask: “what can I do to ensure you have everything you need to effectively teach?” Principals and administrators exist to establish the facilities and atmosphere, conducive to teaching and learning. They do not micromanage, nor do they presume to tell teachers what and how to teach.
This is, of course, generalizing. It’s only a paragraph, but I trust you get the point, gentle readers.
Colleges? That’s another story.