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.