The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Most of the kids in my seventh grade class are not going to wind up with editors."...  ...Peter Berger in his commentary below on teaching English.

Commentary of the Day - December 1, 2003:  The Great American English Class.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

Mr. David, my English teacher, wore corduroy suits and wire-rimmed glasses.  His conversation was seasoned with words like "Dostoyevsky," and he cared about what he said to us even when we didn't.

Of course, he also cared about capital letters, synonyms, and the passive voice.  These things I remember a lot less fondly, but when it comes to the English business, they come with the territory.

At least they're supposed to.

Not surprisingly, very few English majors become teachers because they're on fire about the finer points of subject-verb agreement.  We yearn instead to instill in our students a love of literature and a hunger to express themselves with words.

In good English teachers this fervor never passes away.  That's because the love and the hunger are ours to begin with.  In the classroom, however, it yields in the face of the students who sit staring back at us.  Like most other human beings, they don't share our infatuation with words.  For most kids, English class is, at its best, a place where you learn how to communicate and in the process hopefully encounter a few stimulating ideas.

Many English teaching higher-ups disagree.  Eavesdrop on a typical English teachers conference, and you'll come away convinced that our primary ambition is producing a generation of Wordsworths.  All we seem to talk about is voice and tone, reflection and self-expression.  We'll move heaven and every rule of composition to avoid stifling anybody's creativity.  Spelling and punctuation are greeted with disdain, and our assessment rubrics make clear that grammar and the mechanics of writing finish dead last.

I'm all for self-expression and the power of words, and I've never been accused of having lost my passion for either.  I pace and pound on my lectern the same way I did when my eyes and legs were younger, and I still glow when the light goes on in a student's eyes.  But all students aren't "young writers."  The fact is more of my students will grow up to read their local newspaper than will read Lord Byron.  Most won't be penning lyric poetry.  They'll be writing memos and filling out accident reports and voting. That's what I need to equip them to do.

There's definitely a demand for that sort of thing.  CNN routinely misspells words like "veteran", and nobody knows where apostrophes go anymore.  I'm not talking about the average guy with the cable guide in his hand.  I'm also not talking about occasional lapses and proofreading slips.  I'm talking about language professionals -- journalists and Congressmen, secretaries and sign makers -- who don't know how English works.

Last spring the National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges reported that "more than 50 percent of first-year college students are unable to produce papers relatively free of language errors." The same study found that "proper grammar and usage" are the "writing skills college instructors most want from incoming freshmen."  Yet according to a survey of high school English teachers conducted by the ACT testing organization, only 69 percent teach grammar and usage.  The tally for punctuation posted higher at 83 percent, but that still means that nearly one fifth of all high school English teachers don't teach their students the basic mechanics of writing.  These figures don't account for teachers and schools that include but minimize instruction in these areas.

This neglect isn't accidental. The National Council of Teachers of English has consistently opposed the teaching of grammar since the early 1970s, advising that teachers "should not fret over grammar mistakes when evaluating papers."  Ken Goodman, the father of whole language, condemned teaching kids how to use punctuation, which he found "virtually impossible to teach anyway," a remarkable confession for a model English teacher.  He also rejected teaching spelling on the bizarre and entirely erroneous grounds that kids' "misspellings are mostly confined to words being used for the first time."  Many like-minded English brass hats echo Mr. Goodman's views.  Less than two centuries after Webster compiled his dictionary, they regard spelling as a "waste of time in the classroom" and a concern for the mechanics of writing as a "drain."  After all, argues one consultant, "even accomplished professional writers have an editor."

Memo to consultant: Most of the kids in my seventh grade class aren't going to wind up with editors.

The widespread adoption of instruction based on the "Writing Process" has contributed to the problem.  This method, endorsed for decades by the English establishment, purports to break the act of writing down into the steps that "real writers" follow, like brainstorming, drafting, and revising.  Despite this common sense and hardly original foundation, the process pretty quickly runs into trouble.  First of all, most kids aren't real writers.  Also, real writers don't always follow the official steps, especially the steps that process devotées have larded on.

For example, the process requires that students, many of whom can't write well, meet for editing "conferences" with other students, many of whom also can't write well.  Not much good can come when the blind lead the blind.  Process boosters also encourage students to ignore spelling and punctuation in their draft "sloppy copies."  In theory, they're supposed to make corrections later.  Unfortunately, later often never comes, and even when it does, kids frequently haven't been taught to recognize and fix their mistakes.

English is an adventure.  It cries "Havoc," over Caesar's body, and it ranges the moors with Heathcliff and King Lear.  It's Cal East of Eden and Hamlet mad north-northwest.  It's Fitzgerald in Paris and Thoreau at Walden Pond.  It's Coleridge and Whitman, Aeschylus and O'Neill and The Human Comedy, star-crossed lovers and Sons and Lovers.

But English is first a code, a code we have to share in common if it's to make sense to anybody.  That code has to rest on uniform spelling standards, punctuation rules, and grammar conventions.  Otherwise the code breaks down, and our written language remains a foreign language, a degenerated collection of indecipherable marks on a page.

I want to inspire my students.  But my duty is to teach them the code.  Otherwise they'll be in the dark forever.

Back in 1974 the National Council of Teachers of English recommended that teachers ignore writing errors in the name of "Students' Right to Their Own Language."  This view prevails in many quarters today.  The trouble is, when you have your own language, you're the only one you can talk to.

©2003, Peter Berger
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.

The IP comments: This semester the IP is teaching a second semester introductory physics laboratory.  Most of the students are either college juniors or seniors here at Krispy Kreme U. majoring in biology, or biochemistry.  Every week the IP grades 24 brief lab reports that are written in class.  Most of the students grasp the important concepts from the experiment.  However, their ability to communicate this understanding is far weaker than one would expect from college juniors and seniors.  Spelling and grammatical errors are common.  Students have a difficult time expressing themselves in complete sentences, and many make egregious spelling errors.  For example, about half the students in the class have the Dan Quayle affliction.  They regularly add an extra "e" to words.  "Lense" seems to be their favorite.

It is even more astonishing to the IP that our "Faculty Development Center" here at Krispy Kreme U. has found it necessary to offer writing seminars to junior faculty members.  These seminars (hopefully) are not exercises in creative writing, but rather are aimed at improving skills in ordinary expository writing.  These are the skills that one needs to write a grant proposal or a scholarly paper.  In an earlier day, one might have expected that someone boasting a Ph.D. degree in an academic discipline would already have those skills.  But, we have to remember that many of our younger faculty are the products of the "whole language" movement.

Finally, the IP would add to Poor Elijah's conclusions the notion that the ability to speak and write standard English should not be looked upon as denigrating a student's right to his own cultural background.  Instead, it is the liberating force that allows the student to be able to communicate with those who do not share his or her particular dialect.

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© 2003 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.