Sunday, August 27, 2006

Elite Sub-literates?

So we have a generation (at least) of top ranked high school and college grads who are sub-literate. Does it matter? Aren’t they busy as little fire ants blogging their hearts out? Or txt mssging? It’s all about communication, isn’t it?

Of course it is. And these will be tomorrow’s members of Congress, the judiciary and, yes, a couple of them will be tomorrow’s presidents. (Inarticulate presidents are nothing new, after all.)

The problem is, in those positions of leadership, they won’t be trying to communicate only with people exactly like themselves, not if the present push for globalization still has a globe to be concerned with. (US wnts U 2 B gd to Ugnda.) No, instead, we’ll have sub-literate international diplomats trying to express the position of the United States to people who do not have our best interests at heart,people who will have nuclear weapons, most likely, and itchy fingers just longing to teach America a big lesson. In a situation like that you want to express your position in the clearest possible words, leaving very little opportunity for the other side to insert its own meanings.

The English language is particularly well suited to clarity and specificity of expression. This is one of its glories. We don’t have to rely on idiomatic images to suggest what we are trying to communicate. We have words that can express remarkable variations upon meaning, if we can train a generation of the sub-literates referred to in Michael Skube’s article (see link above) to know what they mean and how to use them.

There’s more to this generational illiteracy than its diplomatic effect, of course. If you’ve ever tried to edit anyone’s prose, you’ll quickly see that imprecision of language often reflects imprecision of thought. We really don’t need a generation of muddy thinkers to go along with a generation of mushy talkers and writers.

Who’s to blame? Why don’t they read? Rephrase: why don’t they read BOOKS? Easy answer: there’s so much easy distraction, addictive distraction, available that they don’t take the time for it.

But I don’t think the extent of the problem is explained only by the fact they don’t read books. Our culture is awash in fuzzy thinking and bad grammar shouted from every electronic podium. The teachers of our young people grew up in this culture, too, even if it wasn’t as highly developed as it is now. This is why you have “well-educated” thirty-year-olds who still think the house where the Browns live needs an apostrophe before the S; who think something happened to “he and I”, or to “her and I”. And who have no idea how to write an essay that makes use of dependent clauses.

Here’s one way to approach the problem: teach the teachers to write, first. Require our high school teachers to write coherent essays on assigned subjects before letting them loose to teach “writing” to our kids.

And don’t rely so much on giving them—teachers or students—The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (do they do this any more?); give them E.B. White’s essays to read, instead.

Catching up to a reference from an earlier post—I did enjoy Three Junes. It’s a satisfying novel of the mysterious privacies unique to each generation. You’ll never know all your Mom’s secrets, nor she yours.


  1. Elon University is a "top ranked school"? Give me a break. It ranks below James Madison University and Rollins College according to US News most recent evaluation. These kids are lucky to be your local Lexus dealer…and goddamned unlikely to become the Senators of tomorrow.

    Your generalization that this single experience held by a hack professor truly applies to the world around you demonstrates a possible insulation from said world. In other words, you are mistaken.

    I am sure it would be a fun item for you and Mr. Skube if kids were truly leaving elite institutions with horrendous reading skills and minuscule vocabulary. The truth is, they’re astoundingly well rounded.

    I believe the real issue is the personal insecurity of the author himself. Here’s a guy…from the VERY literate state of Louisiana…who has never himself attended any graduate school. (He has a BA from LSU.) Now since then he’s become quite a fine newspaper man and has done quite well for himself. He has a Pulitzer Prize and everything. But see…to him, he’s still that backwater little boy who could never have dreamed of attending a Princeton or a Harvard. Hell, it probably gave him the drive to succeed. But he’s SO much better than these poor folks. These kids who aren’t, like him, moved to tears at the sentence composition of Henry James…must be idiots, right?

    Bdogs…I know you are just commenting on a fun article…but I think you’re quick to post. That’s my 222 cents.

  2. As an editor, I've read material written by graduates of Ivy League schools, sub-ivies and Rice University that is shockingly limited in its vocabulary, sentence structure and overall diction. My comments had nothing to do with Elon U, whatever that is.

  3. Yes I know. I read the article. I had never heard of it before, though. In fact, at first I check to see what it spelled backwards: Nole, if you interested...

  4. ^^^Huh? Nole/Elon?

    The statement you made in your post about "a subliterate generation" unfairly implies the breadth of the proposed issue. This is not a statistically relevant study, but rather somewhat questionably subjective and anecdotal observation. This is the sort of thing you’d expect from Bill O’Reilly, I would say.

  5. It's not an insult, just an observation. But the observation is one that has been growing for some time. As alternatives to the carefully honed sentence continue to develop via electronics, the true literacy of people will continue to decline. It will be replaced by something else, no doubt, a grapho-literacy perhaps? A fluency of images with minimal words?

  6. I think you raise a point as it pertains to language changing...with an emphasis on images and other shortcuts made to achieve GROK quickly in light of abbreviated attention spans.

    However, as it pertains to literacy, you must remember where we fall in the line of history. If you consider the literacy rates and education levels of Americans in 1910 versus today, we're in much better shape. Then consider 1810. Then 1710. You get my point. You're looking at the upper class standards of the 1950s and are regretting a decline in formal usage of the English language. While I feel for your sentiments, I do not support the validity of your position. And, I still maintain that Skube is a bitter and arrogant baby boomer who needs to take a trip around the world and see what real illiteracy is all about.

  7. Did I mention that you seem to be a notable exception to the whole sub-literacy argument? Nicely put, Chas.