Over the past few years, I have spoken with a number of colleagues teaching at the university level about the current academic capacity of students. Those who have been teaching for a number of years recognize a student body far less able to meet the standards of just 10 years ago. The textbook count that can be assigned has decreased. Literacy skills have diminished. This is not just among students who come from disadvantaged environments, this is across the board. They also believe that discipline and personal responsibility is lower in many students (in fact, one of my friends, now retired, told me of a student who explained that she was consistently late for class because her mother hadn’t been calling to wake her up).
The evidence of diminished capacity is most apparent, I believe, in student writing. The failure to master basic composition skills presents well before college. On many occasions, I have not been able to get a satisfactory answer from 9th and 10th graders to the question, “What is a noun?” It is sobering. At the college level, when students cannot manage tense agreement, do not know how to punctuate or spell, one must question who failed them? Although I am an ardent advocate for teachers, we cannot deny that there is a problem. Actually, teachers are the first to recognize it. There is a progression in which teachers at one level have to instruct students who have been passed forward from lower grades with deficits that impede success as they advance along the chain. The bigger problem is that they will be judged for the response to the assessments that these students must take. There is a great deal of anxiety in schools in the current climate.
One of my colleagues teaches at a state university in another part of the country. He was assigned a sophomore composition class in his fall semester load. Nearly 2 months into the school year, after offering students the ability to rewrite one assignment because their papers were so terrible, then still not being able to grade above a C on any of the revisions and many not even achieving that, he announced that he was going to abandon the syllabus they had been following, effective immediately.
He told his class that they would use the remainder of the semester to learn basic writing skills that somehow they had never developed. I asked how they responded and he replied first with the word “somber;” then he told me that many of the students seemed grateful, even relieved. I imagine that the tension had been palpable until this bold response to the immediate need.
He also needed to discuss this decision with his department chair. He was concerned, unsure whether he would be supported in electing to embrace the immediate need or would be required to tow the line of the administration’s expectation for the course offering. He was choosing to honor the students and stop ignoring the obvious. They are unprepared for the work being asked of them. If he does not intervene on their behalf, they will be unprepared for success in both academia and business going forward. He has the ability to turn that tide and will do what he can to share his knowledge.
This is the kind of bold choice our educators have to make every day, from pre-K through graduate school. I know teachers at all grades who shut their doors and teach the way they know students need and from which they will benefit. Sometimes they fear reprisal, but they would rather educate than drill. These teachers’ students often manage to accommodate the pressures of the assessment system. And then there are many good teachers who are hamstringed, who have been disempowered by administrations and district requirements, unable to adequately impart the scholastic knowledge as well as life skills that they know their charges need, often demanded to deliver scripted units of study from one educational program or another in which their district has invested.
I teach one wacky little single-credit course at a local university every fall, sort of an arts enrichment seminar for honors students. Even with these students, frequently quite driven, I often find the quality of writing lower than my expectation. It is surprising. In fact, one year my evaluations reflected that my students thought I was asking for too much in my writing assignments. This course has no required reading, no research, just a weekly personal reflection of up to two double-spaced pages, one report on an informational interview of at least five pages, and a final personal reflection, five-page minimum. I had to adjust.
But, in defense of young people and their teachers, I also see work by poets who do not know the difference between it’s and its, or lightening and the marvel of a summer night, lightning. These are writers who pride themselves in their skill with language. And don’t get me started on the typos and sloppy grammar on web-based news outlets or on news squawk network trailers and headers, much less television series’ scripts. It is so much important that they beat everyone to the consumer with the headline that there is no consciousness in or even time for adequate proofreading. It is insulting to me but then I wonder who else besides me even notices? Who notices when some celebrity or newscaster says “Her and I were…” either?
I keep thinking that 21st century American life has become a sequel combination of three films: The Truman Show, The Candidate, and Idiocracy. Frankly, I find it not only rather sad but also embarrassing. The most pathetic thing is that not enough of our politicians care deeply or take a stand for education. Others are fully sold on reform policy that is not good education. We are in trouble. If language is power, as I truly believe, we are rapidly becoming a nation of wimps.