Friday, May 13, 2011

Our Ms. Brooks

I'd hoped that my switch to early hours (not my idea!) would enable me to get more done in the the afternoons and evenings. No such luck. I have been reading, but not writing. (On the other hand, I'm told that Blogger had a li'l' crisis yesterday, so even if I'd posted something it might have disappeared for a while. But I haven't posted anything since Tuesday anyway.)

There was a really fatuous essay on Salon this past Tuesday that I've been meaning to address. It was titled "Death to High School English" (and I realize that the titles aren't the work of the writers), with the subhead, "My college students don't understand commas, far less how to write an essay. Is it time to rethink how we teach?" Well, rethinking how we teach might not be such a bad idea. But "we" also need to think accurately about what the problem is.

The author, one Kim Brooks, reports that high school English classes were a boon to her, possibly saving her from hard drugs and "Young Life Chapters," whatever those are.

Only now, a decade and a half later, after seven years of teaching college composition, have I started to consider the possibility that talking about classics might be a profound waste of time for the average high school student, the student who is college-bound but not particularly gifted in letters or inspired by the literary arts. I've begun to wonder if this typical high school English class, dividing its curriculum between standardized test preparation and the reading of canonical texts, might occupy a central place in the creation of a generation of college students who, simply put, cannot write.
"The creation of a generation of college students who, simply put, cannot write." That set off alarms for me.

For years now, teaching composition at state universities and liberal arts colleges and community colleges as well, I've puzzled over these high-school graduates and their shocking deficits. I've sat at my desk, a stack of their two-to-three-page papers before me, and felt overwhelmed to the point of physical paralysis by all the things they don't know how to do when it comes to written communication in the English language, all the basic skills that surely they will need to master if they are to have a chance at succeeding in any post-secondary course of study.
It's true that Ms. Brooks wouldn't have learned in high school English what she needed to know about this. Let me help. College students' lack of "basic skills" are not a concern only for the current generation. I've long liked this quotation I found in Gerald Bracey's Final Exam (Bloomington IN: TECHNOS Press, 1995), page 219f:
In 1880, when few people were in school, Shakespearean scholar Richard Grant White noted the millions of dollars that were being spent on public schools and asked this:

What is the result? According to independent and competent evidence from all quarters, the mass of pupils in these public schools are unable to read intelligently, to spell correctly, to write legibly, to describe understandably the geography of their own country, or to do anything that reasonably well-educated children should do with ease. They cannot write a simple letter; they cannot do readily and with quick comprehension a simple "sum" in practical arithmetic; they cannot tell the meaning of any but the commonest of the words that they read and spell so ill.
Whether or not Mr. White was correct about the extent of incompetency among public school students, he wasn't the only person who thought so. From a Harvard Symposium 2000 report by Martha E. Casazza:
One anecdote which illustrates the confusion and tension of these earlier times comes from Cornell University during the 1830's. Its founder, Ezra Cornell, "approached the professor responsible for admissions decisions and asked why so many applicants were not passing the entrance exam. The professor replied that they didn't know enough. Cornell then asked why the university could not teach the students what they didn't know. The professor replied that the faculty was not prepared to teach the alphabet. 'Can they read?' asked Cornell. The professor's response was that if Cornell wanted the faculty to teach spelling, he should have founded a primary school."

By 1871, Charles Eliot, Harvard's president at that time, lamented that the freshmen entering Harvard had "bad spelling, incorrectness as well as inelegance of expression in writing, (and) ignorance of the simplest rules of punctuation."
One caveat about the online document that contains these useful reminders: the author seems to think that the difficulties Harvard and Cornell freshmen had with spelling and composition had something to do with the canaille that elite schools were admitting out of charity:

In the 17th century, for example, at Harvard 10% of the student body came from families of artisans, seamen, and servants, and the university reserved places for poorer students whose tuition was paid for either through work or assessments imposed on the wealthier students.
The author seems to think that it was these scholarship students who dragged down the curve; but President Eliot, for example, doesn't seem to be singling them out. Besides, as a result of this concern, "the university developed an exam to include written composition, and by 1879 50% of the applicants were failing this exam and were admitted 'on condition.'" Fifty percent of Harvard freshmen were scholarship boys, and all the poorer students were illiterate? I don't believe it. It's more likely to be the other way around: scholarship boys were "grinds", often mocked and bullied by their more entitled classmates. You only need to think of George W. Bush and the well-known phenomenon of the gentlemen's C to know that Ivy League schools admitted a lot of rich preppies who weren't interested in study and expected to coast through college on their connections. And as the rest of this report shows, preparation for college has always been problematical in the US.

Ms. Brooks doesn't teach at elite schools, though: her CV includes "state universities and liberal arts colleges and community colleges." But if her students' incapacity is the "shocking deficit" she thinks it is, it's nothing new. This does suggest that the teaching of English should be rethought, but not by a return to the teaching of "basic skills," which never worked very well anyway.

One of my Facebook friends linked to the Salon article, and one person about my age commented,

... I was taught the "traditional way." I spent years in grammar school--yes, it was called that and there was a reason--being taught the mechanics of English from about second to eighth grade. We diagrammed sentences, learning the differences between the parts of speech, and we were marked down for every missing or misplaced comma, every run-on sentence, every wayward quotation mark, and so on. Hey, knowing how to write English is the bedrock of knowing how to communicate with others. I mourn its demise.
First off, of course, knowing how to write English is not "the bedrock of knowing how to communicate with others." Speech is the bedrock of communication with others. Literacy at any level is a relatively recent phenomenon, and widespread literacy is not only more recent, it was resisted by elites. If people couldn't communicate before writing was invented and most people were taught how to do it, what were we doing before then?

It's trivial but maybe not completely irrelevant that "English" isn't the only means of communication, and I suspect that the commenter knows better; but "knowing how to write your own language" isn't that much harder to write, and less ethnocentric. Also, just to nitpick a bit more, spelling and punctuation aren't "grammar." But these are less important than other matters.

Second, the "'traditional' way" endorsed by the commenter doesn't work very well. I went through the trial by ordeal she describes, but it had little effect on me one way or the other because I was already a voracious reader with a good memory, so I absorbed the mechanics of writing standard English before my teachers taught me to diagram sentences. (Which I considered fun, for awhile anyway.)

What was called English grammar then, and still is by "traditionalists," wasn't really English grammar; it was a Frankenstein's monster patched together from Latin grammar and historical and linguistic ignorance. (I remember disagreeing with my fourth-grade teacher, who claimed that some ignorant people said "should of" which was obviously nonsense. This wasn't her eccentricity, of course: I've encountered this construction elsewhere since then. I claimed that what she called "should of" was actually "should've," a contraction that made perfect sense. She refused to consider the point, but at least she didn't punish me. Yes, I was always too damn smart, in various senses of the word, for my own good. But I was right and she was wrong. Fortunately, I was also smart enough to let it go, and it was another lesson that Teacher doesn't always know best.)

Third, "being marked down for missing or misplaced comma, every run-on sentence, every wayward quotation mark, and so on" is a great way not to learn to write, in English or any other language. It is a good way to discourage students from writing, if that's what you want to do. (For more on this general principle, see this.) Traditionally schooling has been used to sort students into various tracks -- "vocational," academic, and others. In Europe and other countries this is often done overtly; in the US we pretend that we don't have a class system, so we sort anyway but pretend we don't. Being taught grammar didn't do me any harm, but I know that traditional modes of teaching did a lot of harm to other kids who couldn't get around them by themselves or with help from their parents, and who ended up thinking of themselves as 'stupid' as a consequence, though they were anything but.

So, what to conclude about Ms. Brooks? She needs to learn something about the history of schooling in America and elsewhere. And then she should look at the work of Alfie Kohn, Harvey A. Daniels, and others who've been rethinking the way we teach English for a long time.