College comp teacher Kim Brooks has an ancient complaint: The kids these days don't know a participle from a predicate.
[In high school] I lived for English, for reading. I spent so much of my adolescence feeling different and awkward, and those first canonical books I read, those first discoveries of Joyce, of Keats, of Sylvia Plath and Fitzgerald, were a revelation. Without them, I probably would have turned to hard drugs, or worse, one of those Young Life chapters so popular with my peers…
Only now, a decade and a half later, after seven years of teaching college composition, have I started to consider the possibility that talking about classics might be a profound waste of time for the average high school student, the student who is college-bound but not particularly gifted in letters or inspired by the literary arts. I've begun to wonder if this typical high school English class, dividing its curriculum between standardized test preparation and the reading of canonical texts, might occupy a central place in the creation of a generation of college students who, simply put, cannot write…
Was it really so essential that these students read Faulkner? Most of them, frankly, seem to struggle with plain old contemporary prose, the level of writing one might find in, say, the New Yorker. Wouldn't they have been better off, or at least better prepared for the type of college work most will take on (pre-professional, that is), learning to support an argument or use a comma?
I'd go further than Brooks. I question whether teaching "canonical" books and teaching English usage are part of the same general subject area. The only thing James Joyce can teach you about the comma is how to avoid using it. What book has ever been loved for its correct grammar?
And should accredited high schools be teaching a canon of literature at all? It's not the business of the state to be imposing taste on the citizens. Or worse, killing the taste of citizens: Although I learned to appreciate The Great Gatsby as a grownup, my first love was spoiled by a likeable English teacher with a genius for zeroing in on the most boring aspects of any text, who persuaded me that the book is about a giant pair of eyeglasses.
But it seems vain to blame high schools for poor reading and writing skills. Age of instruction influences your likelihood of becoming proficient in a second language. It makes sense that there a would be a similar dynamic at work for fluency in a first language, in which older kids have already passed their prime for two-Rs English instruction.
Disclosure: I am generally impressed with the ability of my fellow Americans to read and type out intelligible sentences. To get the difference between the nominative and the accusative is to grasp big ideas about action and existence, and I'm grateful so many people can pull that off. Following my general theory of 33.3, some portion of the population is never going to be comfortable with such concepts as number vs. amount or the diagramming of sentences. (I pour out a 40 in honor of that lost art.) But grammar proficiency seems like a subject that would mostly get harder as students age – regardless, irrespective and irregardless of the relative talent levels of the students.
In fact, I'm going to say the quality of English spoken in the United States has improved dramatically since the 1970s. I'm not referring to the lamentable spread of Britishisms in U.S. English, with once-decent Americans saying things like, "I rather feel that the run-up has been spot-on, full-stop." I mean if you ran the numbers you would find higher levels of proficiency than you did forty years ago.
Among the many things the Department of Education is not doing with its $77 billion budget is gathering evidence on first-language proficiency, which hasn't been measured since the National Assessments of Adult Literacy in 1992 and 2003. I hope there are better studies out there but haven't found any yet. In the absence of survey results, I argue from anecdote: When I was a wee lad, you heard people saying "ain't" and "youse" every day. (Not in our house! But every day.) In 2011, if a person says either "ain't" or "youse," there is a high probability he or she is fronting. Meanwhile, petty tyrannies such as the prohibitions on split infinitives and terminal prepositions have collapsed like communism.
David Mamet, the canonical and post-grammatical playwright, gets an interesting profile from Andrew Ferguson in the Weekly Standard. Mamet's attack on American universities raises the disturbing possibility that trying to teach composition to late-blooming business majors is not the only useless activity on campus:
"If we identify every interaction as having a victim and an oppressor, and we get a pellet when we find the victims, we're training ourselves not to see cause and effect," he said. Wasn't there, he went on, a "much more interesting … view of the world in which not everything can be reduced to victim and oppressor?"
This led to a full-throated defense of capitalism, a blast at high taxes and the redistribution of wealth, a denunciation of affirmative action, prolonged hymns to the greatness and wonder of the United States, and accusations of hypocrisy toward students and faculty who reviled business and capital even as they fed off the capital that the hard work and ingenuity of businessmen had made possible. The implicit conclusion was that the students in the audience should stop being lab rats and drop out at once, and the faculty should be ashamed of themselves for participating in a swindle—a "shuck," as Mamet called it.
Ferguson keeps priming the reader for a payoff in which leftwing academia savages Mamet for what we are told is a recent turn to the right. The savaging never really arrives, and I think Mamet – whose work was taught to me in a college class in the eighties – is not going to get the blacklisting the Standard promises. I don't see how anybody familiar with Oleanna or The Untouchables could have thought Mamet was ever a reliable comrade of the New Left.
Meanwhile, our former [and future?] colonial masters are still arguing over another ancient koan: Are Asterix comics or the sports page more appealing to boys than the works of Mr. William Shakespeare, Ms. Jane Austen and Mr. Chuck Dickens?
The Daily Telegraph reports that a mere nine percent [per cent?] of British [English?] boys aged 11-14 named English [British?] as their favo[u]rite subject in [at?] school. "If you have a 13 year-old who won't read then sit him down with the sports section of a tabloid," a professor of educational psychology urges the paper. "It's more important to get their reading level up than to try and get them to read great literature."
When asked to name a work or writer they did not like, however, 20 percent of UK boys were apparently able to name one of Shakespeare's plays, "including The Tempest, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream." So in that respect they still seem to be ahead of us.