Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Ready for college English?

Eighty percent (that’s 80%) of high school juniors in California "are not ready for college English." "The scores reveal what I’ve been saying all along," said Jack O’Connell, state superintendent of public instruction. "We must make our high schools more rigorous if we want our students to be prepared."

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I am shocked but not surprised. The educational establishment in English is generally pretty horrible. Of course, my own field of history and politics fares little better. Here are the likely suspects:

1. Students often simply do not read great books. Rather, they read unchallenging pablum that passes for young adult "literature" or modern fiction. Students often spend a lot of wasted time on articles about teacher’s political biases on multiculturalism, race, or pro-choice than meaningful works. To wit, a teacher at my school recently watched Monty Python’s Holy Grail in one class and read about anti-abortion fanatics in a mythology class. The Inferno or classic mythology might have served them better. Reading poor books or no books at all will not promote critical thought or teach students the beauty of language.

2. There is little rigor in the expectations for writing. Students are assigned to write diaries or "creative" essays with little regard for proper sentence structure or grammar. Opinion trumps judgment, relativism trumps truth, and feelings trump thoughts on difficult questions.

3. Students rarely get meaningful feedback correcting grammar and logical thought. My students in history have their papers thoroughly marked up until they get it right. Meanwhile, down the hall, they are receiving 99% on every English assignment with the only red marks smiley faces.

This is obviously not the case for every English teacher and every school. But, it is true of my "rigorous," "college-preparatory" school. I can only imagine what it is like for lesser schools. The statistics don’t lie. And, this will probably get worse before it gets better unless radical changes are implemented.

As a math instructor in a public university, I find language skills to be a massive barrier for my students. It seems they are nothing more than to read easy fiction and to express their emotions using a word processor. What is missing is the ability and self-discipline to read a simple paragraph and to understand precisely what it means. They are unable to put instructions about a subject they are familiar with into clear simple English that someone else could understand.

This comes, I think, from the supression of formal instruction in grammar and an obsession among high school English teachers with self-expression as the goal of writing.

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