Monday, February 23, 2009

What, Me Read?

Thomas Bertonneau, a professor at SUNY-Oswego has three posts, 15, 22 and 29 January 2009 about his students. He writes, we are entering a "'post-literate' age". I agree with him. Many of today's college graduates could not have survived in my fifth grade class!

Some gems from 22 January's installment: "I am aware of the numerous statistical reports that tell of a decline of literacy at all levels of our society. My interest lies not so much in the fact of this condition than in the physiognomy of the low level of lettered achievement--how the inner life manifests itself in bad writing. ... Perhaps the abilities of newer generations to speak and listen are stunted because of all the flashing lights and rude sound effects they are subjected to from an early age. Such students may be not only sub-literate but also sub-oral, stultified in any kind of thinking by the torrent of electronic stimulation. ... We should not forget, however, that the tortured prose corresponds to dim and cloudy thinking and that this same dim and cloudy thinking will one day define the prevailing mental climate of our society. ... From the first day of class I made clear my worry, based on experience, that students would have difficulty with the chronology of dates before and after Christ. ... As my Manhattan pal Steve Kogan says, 'BC' obviously means 'Before Comprehension.' Steve also points out that chronology is as fundamental to a sense of history as addition and subtraction are to mathematics ... and that this student deficiency argues for a remarkable failure in many compartments of the K-12 curriculum. ... I have argued elsewhere that such constructions are a type of oral generality whose appearance is student populations signifies that they are closer in their mental habits to historically pre-literate and other non-literate peoples than to literates like our grandparents. .. But students are notoriously not prone to thoughtfulness. 'You didn't tell us we had to think,' an irate student once said to me after receiving a low grade on an essay. ... The answer is that written language, including orthography, makes little or no impression on a large percentage of students because these sudents are, in fact, operating with oral mental habits rather than literate ones", my emphasis.

From 29 January's installment, "Some writing specialists excuse bad writing on the hopeful supposition that a gap exists between cognition and expression--similar to the way a stroke victim can have a complex thought, but cannot properly verbalize it. That is, students who write badly nevertheless know what they want to say, or what they have read, as well as anyone else. I have concluded that no evidence supports this postulate. Having no other means to discern congition than through its expression, one must take as a given that expression is cognition. ... The individual who cannot see things clearly cannot think about them clearly. ... My lecture hall comes equipped with all those media-wonders that higher education budgets now lavish on classrooms. ... Keeping the characters straight is an elementary gesture, formerly expected even of sixth-graders, and second nature for any habitual reader. ... The examples of defective prose that have paraded past in the previous installment of this series have exhibited pure epistemological confusion. ... They involve an unwillingness or inability to keep the good guys and bad guys straight in relation to two contending perspectives: for Homer, the Trojans are enemies, while for Virgil they are the heroes, and for him the Greeks are enemies. ... In a response to the depiction of individual moral crisis in Saint Augustine's Confessions, a different type of failure comes into view. ... The Confessions demand that a reader participate with the author in judging actions morally rather than pragmatically and insist that they turn the faculty of moral criticism on themselves. ... Oral people, as those scholars have noted, recognize prohibitions, to be sure, but they never perform moral analysis. Indeed, they see analysis as obfuscation and can show hostility to it. ... Augustine was also, as the Confessions tell us, susceptible to female attractiveness, and spent a period of inveterate brothel crawling and inexhaustible fornication. But Odysseus seeks to win back the material wealth and chattels that the squatters in his palace would steal from him. In contrast, Augustine, in spiritual revolt against worldliness, rejects power and riches for the sake of his intangible soul. This essential difference the student entirely misses. It is as though the student cannot hold the resemblance and the difference in mind simultaneously. ... The inability to make a straightforward statement along such lines as Augustine rejects self-indulgence and adopts self-control as a mandate of his conversion is much more than a funny instance of incompetence. It is a crippling intellectual deformity that will prevent a student who distantly glimpses a moral problem from adequately seeing or articulating it. ... He will lack the very notion of a deliberative resolution. ... Perhaps the only thing we can do is laugh, laugh at the irony of a society that was once the most literate that ever existed now reverting to the spiritual savagery of tribal existence. ... I see in the resentful incapacity of so many students a not-so-dim 'Shape of Things to Come' whose characteristics will be theirs: perceptive obtuseness, expressive coarseness, extreme limitation of language and therefore of concept, radical unfitness to judge complicated technical or moral problems, complete disconnetion from any meaningful past and, to borrow a term from Oswald Spengler, in a conditon utterly 'historyless.' The world will soon be dominated by such people. ... Petulance will characterize it universally. ... Many older, genuinely educated people surviving into this not-too-distant future will find the new world infantile and exasperating. ... When the educational system rejects cultivating intellect as its primary goal and dedicates iteself to fostering fellings, opinions, and baseless pride, it will discharge at the end of twelve years young people for whom the Jamesian 'buzz' of phenomena cannot resolve into a comprehensible image".

"As parents pack their youngsters off to college, they might ask themselves whether it's worth both the money they will spend and their children's time. Dr. Marty Nemko has researched that question in an article aptly titled 'America's Most Over-rated Product: Higher Education.' ... Only 23 percent of the 1.3 million students who took the ACT college entrance examinations in 2007 were prepared to do college-level study in math, English and science. Even though a majority of students are grossly under-prepared to do college-level work, each year colleges admit hundreds of thousands of such students. ... Nemko says that the worst of all is that few of these former college students, having spent thousands of dollars, wind up in a job that required a college education. It's not uncommon to find them driving a taxi, working at a restaurant or department store, performing some other job that they could have had as a high school graduate or dropout. .. First, only 40 percent of each year's 2 million freshmen graduate in four years; 45 percent never graduate at all. Often, having a college degree does not mean much. According to a 2006 Pew Charitable Trusts study, 50 percent of college seniors failed a test that required them to interpret a table about exericse and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, and compare credit card offers. About 20 percent of college seniors did not have the quantitive skills to estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the gas station", Walter Williams (WW), 27 August 2008 at


Is Bertonneau talking about our current president? I'll say again, many college graduates could not have intellectually survived my fifth-grade class.

WW is a professor of Economics at George Mason.


Anonymous said...

So will schools just keep producing pablum?


Big, fat Walmartian masses...

Drain away consumption... too much nonsense.

Mara said...

Gack! This is why I send my kids to private school. The younger just turned 5, but the school accepted him at 4 and could get him properly through the kindergarten curriculum in a year. Now he's in 1st grade. If I had opted for public school, he wouldn't have been able to start attending kindergarten til this fall. And I have worries about them being in schools where administrators threaten expulsion for lack of medication of well, normal kid-like behaviour.

As for college, well it's been a while since I finished, but I could see that a lot of classes were a bureaucratic crock designed to keep various late-middle aged "bags from Berkeley" fully compensated while working 20 hrs a week. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't just the useless sociology classes that were a drag. Even core technology courses (I was comp sci major) had some who thought punch cards were da bomb in 1994, and some malthusian pyschos who felt it was their duty to make unix programming some sort of blood gauntlet. I ended up making it in programming, but no thanks to the university.

[What adds more salt to the wound is that now we're squeezed by outsourcing, "because no one is becoming a programmer" at university. Well, you spent the last 15 years killing off about 80% of the people who would've liked to be programmers and are now wondering where they all went. They went into investment banking and have wreaked a terrible vengeance upon us all.]

As for the points on literacy, within specific topics or just generally being well-read in the western tradition, I agree it's a dog's breakfast. Even if the teaching at the lower levels was of better quality, it could not compensate for the minds addled with drugs (prescription and illicit), thousands of hours of TV (showing the best of gluttony, murder and worshiping bodies), poor nutrition, dyes, chemicals, artificial sweeteners, other enviro-toxins, violent video games and a very short concept of any delayed gratification. Coupled with no training at all in critical thinking until entering college (which was even a problem when I was in high school) and it's a pre-made mess ready to bake.

The colleges damage themselves by still accepting such people into university to begin with, but do so because it makes them lots of money and makes the dupes feel better about being "college educated." The return on investment is bad for the money, and counterproductive for those who choose less moneyed professions. Students should look primarily to community college and state college programs. I think there is an element of middle-class oneupmanship in getting one's progeny to Sarah Lawrence or Dartmouth, as if to show that one has ascended to a higher social strata. But this, like buying a title of nobility of old, will soon prove futile as the old regimes fall.