Voluntary newspeak: What happens when our students don’t know anymore

by Mr. Sheehy

We get hemming and hawing in my English department about what students know or don’t know and what they can and cannot do. We love our students, so these truly are not kid-bashing sessions. Usually, these conversations are attempts to comprehend the whole, to ask fellow teachers if they are seeing the same things.

To take an example, one thing that seems to have dropped off in the last half-decade is our students’ comprehension of grammatical structure. That is, folks ain’t rightin’ wright. The speculation enters when we guess at the causes, but the base observation is there: ask a student what a preposition is or to find the object of the preposition, and you have likely stumped the high majority of the student-body.

I reiterate, our students are not stupid. However, these appear to be the facts.

What are we to do about this? In answering the question we English teachers splinter again and fall all over the place with answers. Some want to send their students back in a time machine to their own 7th grade English teachers, others want to forget it and move on because the curriculum standards that stare us in the face are already too much to deal with, and I, often times, am tempted to agree with Calpurnia from To Kill a Mockingbird, who explains the following approach to Jem and Scout concerning her speaking with a grammatically improper dialect to her friends and family:

Folks don’t like to have somebody around knowin’ more than they do. It aggravates ’em. You’re not gonna change any of them by talkin’ right, they’ve got to want to learn themselves, and when they don’t want to learn there’s nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut and talk their language. (126)

Grammar is not the only area where we observe trends, however. The other major area is in students’ reading abilities. Perhaps they have better abilities than they let on (I personally suspect this), but I would guess most of my colleagues would sign off on the following statement: The majority of our students are not willing to work independently through texts that are complex or difficult, even if they know how to do so.

This is an important point that emerges often–particularly when the American literature teachers get to Poe–and the other day I stumbled across a nice articulation of the situation. The observer is Timothy Keller. He is a pastor in New York City, which means that, like a teacher, he is greatly interested in communicating his message effectively, no matter what that means. He does not consider himself a writer , by which I mean that though he has written books he is not going to say things the way he thinks they should be said and doggedly stand by his way because it is aesthetically best. He is more interested in the message he is passing along than the manner in which it is passed.

Asked in an interview about the difference between his audience and C.S. Lewis’s audience in the 1940’s and 1950’s, this is part of what Keller observed:

When Lewis was writing, people were able to follow sustained arguments that had a number of points that built on one another. I guess I should say we actually have a kind of rationality-attention-deficit disorder now. You can make a reasonable argument, you can use logic, but it really has to be relatively transparent. You have to get to your point pretty quickly.

That’s not a light claim, but Keller does not make it in the context of generation-bashing. He makes it to explain why he felt a need existed to essentially re-write some of the ideas Lewis put down in his book, Mere Christianity:

In New York City, these are pretty smart people, very educated people, but even by the mid-nineties I had found that the average young person found Mere Christianity—it just didn’t keep their attention, because they really couldn’t follow the arguments. They took too long. This long chain of syllogistic reasoning wasn’t something that they were trained in doing. I don’t think they’re irrational, they are as rational, but they want something of a mixture of logic and personal appeal.

I know for a fact that Lewis was just heavy sledding for even smart Ivy League American graduates by the mid-nineties. One of the reasons I started doing this was I thought I needed something that gave them shorter, simpler, more accessible arguments.

The overall effect in our day, Keller explains, is something that even Lewis saw beginning to develop as early as World War I, and the end result was that folks were not going to pick through difficult books anymore:

Even Lewis, in his Weight of Glory series, Lewis said that, before World War One, the average educational experience was twelve or thirteen people sitting in a room listening to a paper by one person then tearing it apart till 2 a.m. in the morning. And he says, now, the quintessential educational experience is listening to a celebrity lecturer, with a hundred or two hundred other people taking notes and then taking an exam. Even he said, between the wars, he saw a diminishment in people’s ability to really think hard and long about issues.

People want you to get to the point quickly. And they want you to tell them what’s going on quickly. And they just don’t have the attention span. You can look at television, you can look at the Internet, you can look at the so-called rise of narrative and loss of trust in logic—I think it’s cumulative . . . I don’t want to say it’s all relativism or all the Internet because people don’t read long articles anymore. But I just know that it’s very hard to find people who can wade through—unless you’re a professional academic, you’re not going to wade through these books anymore.

One of the things I like about Keller’s observations is that he is not out to explain the situation and rail about “kids these days” or how awful our culture is. He does not even extend a solid theory about how it got to be the way it is. He simply makes a straight-forward observation about the way things are, and I haven’t found anyone yet who disagrees with him about that basic observation (though I’ve found plenty who agree).

That leaves us English teachers with a bit of a task: our classrooms are full of students who no longer know the structure of the language they use and are not willing to apply themselves (or maybe are not able to apply themselves) to the reading of complex texts.  My worry as a citizen is that a trend like this could lead to the existence of a manipulable population who could unknowingly be held hostage by a powerful Elite. It feels like a voluntary adoption of newspeak, or a slow crawl back into Plato’s cave. Unfortunately, in a few years–or this year?–it may be that the only people who will know what that last sentence says are those who are qualified for the elite.

On a daily basis we teachers have to maintain sanity by focusing on one simple task: trying to do the best we can for the people before us. Somehow, and someway, however, we have to probe for ways to reacquire our high standards, so our schools can produce not schooled graduates, but educated ones.