Sunday, May 30, 2010

A decline in literacy?

I don't usually spend too much time worrying about future generations (except as concerns the environment and the unholy messes that we are leaving for them) but it would be easy for me to become concerned about the lack of real literacy among much of the population.

In decades past, as I see it, America operated a sort of work-class system. People who went to high school and no further (most people) went into blue collar jobs where they worked with their hands or bodies, and those of us who went to college (many fewer) took the white collar jobs where we had to read and write and express ourselves verbally. Because we knew which we were, our personal education went in one of two ways. Most of my cousins fell into the first group, for example, and they spent their summers apprenticing in jobs of interest or to make money. My siblings and I spent our summers reading from college reading lists and taking summer school so we too would be trained for our futures.

Over the last several decades in a very admirable attempt to create more opportunity, access to college courses and degrees has become much more democratic, but the preparation for it (the concentration on studies, the focus on reading and writing early and continued) isn't there. In my two decades of teaching (1975-1994), I watched many unprepared students cycle through colleges. In an effort to keep them, many institutions lowered their expectations so that they could fill the seats, graduate the numbers, get the money. The businessification of higher education.

I may sound critical of this, and I suppose I am, although that's not my purpose here. What some of my friends who are hiring administrators in organizations are finding is that the college-educated young person today can't really write or spell. Grammar, spelling, writing practice have long been out of fashion and it connotes a lack of respect for language and its many uses and its lack of emphasis on clear communication. We may laugh at a George Bush with his many gaffes and faux pas but he is a product of our culture--and a sad commentary how what we value.

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