"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       


The More Things Change…Rethinking the Most Recent Literacy Crises

October 8th, 2012 by

Most people seem to think about language the way they think about teen pregnancy. They think of it only as a problem. At least, that is how they sound.

English is in trouble, or so the argument runs. Eighth graders can’t speak or write in their first language, no one knows what a modal is, and the apostrophe is an endangered punctuation mark. (So is the comma, though its case is beyond saving.)

Add to these items, of course, the usual observations about teens and text messaging, Internet-chatting, movie-going and the like, along with their lack of reading, and it would appear that we are indeed staring down the barrels of a crisis never seen before. Usually in these arguments, language study is summed up in the rules listed in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. In this account, there seems to be little difference between learning to use “correct” English and getting the instructions right on a new toaster.

But I don’t think that we are in a crisis of the proportions currently being imagined. Rather, the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same.

Those objecting to the way that young people use the language today should first consider the kind of evidence that is marshaled to prove that there is a literacy crisis. People who argue that students today are poorer writers than students were in the past are basing their argument mostly on what appears to be nostalgia. Or sometimes they will pit today’s student papers against a novel by, say, Ernest Hemingway or Katherine Ann Porter. (This is not fair, considering both writers had editors.) In fact, this argument is based on a lack of historical knowledge. And as we all are familiar with the maxim about ignorance of history, a remedy seems in order. Our ignorance of the past means that we might be doomed to repeat it, and this is certainly borne out in the ongoing literacy crises repeated over the last 150 years.

One such crisis came out in the 1870s, when the first Civil War veterans were admitted to some of the elite American colleges. Robert Connors and James Berlin both note that these students were unprepared, as were the colleges admitting them on more open terms. Some of these first generation college students could not write in Standard English. The new openness led to new concerns about literacy and the invention of a new college course, Freshman writing, the only general elective at Harvard.

As the United States culture continued to change, with immigrant populations, moves from rural to urban centers, and more people wanting to go to school, English departments engaged in serious debate throughout much of the 20th century on whether or not grammar should be taught and how it should be taught.

The result today is that it is possible to read some of the student papers they published in journals like College English to make their arguments that student writing was getting worse, and training in grammar should be the basis for all college-level writing instruction. Those papers are interesting, for as I read them today they lead me to the suspicion that nothing has changed. 18 year olds in 1926 seemed to make the same kind of sentence level errors that 18 year olds make in 2009. Of interest is that these are the bad student writers that some teacher selected to clinch an argument about teaching grammar in 1926. It might be assumed that these papers are representative of the problems with usage, spelling, punctuation, grammar, and format typical of students at the time. The similarities between these jazz era student papers and the papers my students who struggle the most to write shows no decline.

English teachers engaged in the debate about grammar and teaching writing for decades. But this debate has never been settled for the larger, general public, and when it comes to concerns with language, most of us tend to follow our initial convictions and rely on what seems the most intuitively correct evidence. This seems to be behind the assertions that poor student writing and language use is the result of TV and movie viewing, and more recently, texting.

Consider that in 1939, W. Alan Grove, an English teacher, wrote in College English that critics of the decline in literacy attributed the decline in student writing ability to “the comedians, sports commentator, and crooners of radio and movie.”

Again, it would seem that the more things change, the more they stay the same. When trouble seems to appear again, we seem ready and willing to round up all the usual suspects again. The trouble is, with these ongoing debates about a literacy crisis, we don’t seem to be aware that we are repeating the same episodes seen before. And sometimes the repetition ends in unfortunate programs like No Child Left Behind.

At the very least, it would appear that it is the literacy crises that should be questioned. All of them. We should pay attention to the comparisons we are using to make our points. Comparing the way young people use the language to adult novelists who have been intensely involved in language use for more years than the young have been alive is simply not fair. We might as well base a traffic crisis on comparing the way that 16 year olds drive to the way that their parents do. The comparison would be, of course, unfair.

In language, we don’t see the unfairness because we don’t understand the developmental qualities of language acquisition. We take a positivist assumption that if material is covered in class—in this case, grammar lessons—then that is all that needs to be done.

If the question of correctness among our youngest users of the language were all there were to the story, I’d suggest we pass a law now that requires all sports announcers to at least understand the content of an upper level linguistics course. After all, they are more influential to our youth than the average English teacher. Require anyone with a speaking role in the media to speak English as well as Jerry Seinfeld. If they can’t, they’re out of the spotlight. It would be as simple as that. I don’t care how long an announcer’s dentures are or the blondeness of his/her hair. If the candidate can’t avoid the double negative or complete the comparison or use the correct first person pronoun in the object case, he’s outta there.

The trouble is, however, that this will not do much good. Sports announcers are generally annoying, for a number of reasons, and most of them get their jobs, not because of their command of the English language, but because they were a successful quarterback, or they are outrageously colorful, or because they help to raise TV ratings for their shows.

But this is no reason to make them pay attention to their English.

Most people seem to think about language the way they think about teen pregnancy. They think of it only as a problem. At least, that is how they sound.

English is in trouble, or so the argument runs. Eighth graders can’t speak or write in their first language, no one knows what a modal is, and the apostrophe is an endangered punctuation mark. (So is the comma, though its case is beyond saving.)

Add to these items, of course, the usual observations about teens and text messaging, Internet-chatting, movie-going and the like, along with their lack of reading, and it would appear that we are indeed staring down the barrels of a crisis never seen before. Usually in these arguments, language study is summed up in the rules listed in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. In this account, there seems to be little difference between learning to use “correct” English and getting the instructions right on a new toaster.

But I don’t think that we are in a crisis of the proportions currently being imagined. Rather, the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same.

Those objecting to the way that young people use the language today should first consider the kind of evidence that is marshaled to prove that there is a literacy crisis. People who argue that students today are poorer writers than students were in the past are basing their argument mostly on what appears to be nostalgia. Or sometimes they will pit today’s student papers against a novel by, say, Ernest Hemingway or Katherine Ann Porter. (This is not fair, considering both writers had editors.) In fact, this argument is based on a lack of historical knowledge. And as we all are familiar with the maxim about ignorance of history, a remedy seems in order. Our ignorance of the past means that we might be doomed to repeat it, and this is certainly borne out in the ongoing literacy crises repeated over the last 150 years.

One such crisis came out in the 1870s, when the first Civil War veterans were admitted to some of the elite American colleges. Robert Connors and James Berlin both note that these students were unprepared, as were the colleges admitting them on more open terms. Some of these first generation college students could not write in Standard English. The new openness led to new concerns about literacy and the invention of a new college course, Freshman writing, the only general elective at Harvard.

As the United States culture continued to change, with immigrant populations, moves from rural to urban centers, and more people wanting to go to school, English departments engaged in serious debate throughout much of the 20th century on whether or not grammar should be taught and how it should be taught.

The result today is that it is possible to read some of the student papers they published in journals like College English to make their arguments that student writing was getting worse, and training in grammar should be the basis for all college-level writing instruction. Those papers are interesting, for as I read them today they lead me to the suspicion that nothing has changed. 18 year olds in 1926 seemed to make the same kind of sentence level errors that 18 year olds make in 2009. Of interest is that these are the bad student writers that some teacher selected to clinch an argument about teaching grammar in 1926. It might be assumed that these papers are representative of the problems with usage, spelling, punctuation, grammar, and format typical of students at the time. The similarities between these jazz era student papers and the papers my students who struggle the most to write shows no decline.

English teachers engaged in the debate about grammar and teaching writing for decades. But this debate has never been settled for the larger, general public, and when it comes to concerns with language, most of us tend to follow our initial convictions and rely on what seems the most intuitively correct evidence. This seems to be behind the assertions that poor student writing and language use is the result of TV and movie viewing, and more recently, texting.

Consider that in 1939, W. Alan Grove, an English teacher, wrote in College English that critics of the decline in literacy attributed the decline in student writing ability to “the comedians, sports commentator, and crooners of radio and movie.”

Again, it would seem that the more things change, the more they stay the same. When trouble seems to appear again, we seem ready and willing to round up all the usual suspects again. The trouble is, with these ongoing debates about a literacy crisis, we don’t seem to be aware that we are repeating the same episodes seen before. And sometimes the repetition ends in unfortunate programs like No Child Left Behind.

At the very least, it would appear that it is the literacy crises that should be questioned. All of them. We should pay attention to the comparisons we are using to make our points. Comparing the way young people use the language to adult novelists who have been intensely involved in language use for more years than the young have been alive is simply not fair. We might as well base a traffic crisis on comparing the way that 16 year olds drive to the way that their parents do. The comparison would be, of course, unfair.

In language, we don’t see the unfairness because we don’t understand the developmental qualities of language acquisition. We take a positivist assumption that if material is covered in class—in this case, grammar lessons—then that is all that needs to be done.

If the question of correctness among our youngest users of the language were all there were to the story, I’d suggest we pass a law now that requires all sports announcers to at least understand the content of an upper level linguistics course. After all, they are more influential to our youth than the average English teacher. Require anyone with a speaking role in the media to speak English as well as Jerry Seinfeld. If they can’t, they’re out of the spotlight. It would be as simple as that. I don’t care how long an announcer’s dentures are or the blondeness of his/her hair. If the candidate can’t avoid the double negative or complete the comparison or use the correct first person pronoun in the object case, he’s outta there.

The trouble is, however, that this will not do much good. Sports announcers are generally annoying, for a number of reasons, and most of them get their jobs, not because of their command of the English language, but because they were a successful quarterback, or they are outrageously colorful, or because they help to raise TV ratings for their shows.

But this is no reason to make them pay attention to their English.

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