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How About Those BritCons? Remember the Fallen

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US Can't Pass English 101

by Christopher Chantrill
May 24, 2008 at 1:29 pm

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MOST AMERICANS can’t write a decent college paper. It’s not exactly news. Half a century ago Bernard Malamud, smart Jewish kid from Brooklyn, taught English out at Oregon State University. He found the experience so grueling that he wrote it up in A New Life. His fictional hero, Levin,

lectured his students on this thinness of their themes, for their pleasant good-natured selves without a critical attitude to life.

Then he wondered why “people disappeared from his classes” and transferred to other courses.

The boneheadedness of the average college student is, of course, a favorite theme of the educated classes, so it is not surprising to read in the June Atlantic the lament of an adjunct college instructor. In “The Basement of the Ivory Tower” we learn of the experiences of “Professor X” teaching English “at a small private college and at a community college.”

Professor X is not teaching the children of The Atlantic readers. He is teaching evening classes to other peoples’ children, students whose college applications showed “blank spaces where the extracurricular activities would go.” Nor are many of the students children. Many of them are health-care workers, would-be police officers, and municipal employees who need college level credits to “advance at work,” or, in short, get a raise.

The students’ chosen path to increased emoluments is not easy, for many of them are not well prepared for college work. Never mind the agonies of the “compare-and-contrast paper, the argument paper, the process-analysis paper... and the dreaded research paper.” Many of the students “cannot write a coherent sentence.”

Professor X wonders when he’s going to get a note from the college to pass more students, and he worries “about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass.”

Since we are worrying about “larger implications” let us escape from the bell jar of liberal thinking and wonder why it is that after a century and a half of “free” public education so many students present themselves at college unable to write a coherent sentence. If you read the latest National Assessment of Adult Literacy you will find that only 13 percent of US adults are rated “proficient” in prose literacy, e.g., “comparing viewpoints in two editorials.” We are not talking here about 87 percent of Americans lacking the skill to write a scintillating article comparing foolish liberal with wise conservative viewpoints on education. We are talking about 87 percent of adults being not quite up to the task reading a couple of editorials and getting the point.

Could it be that the vast majority of Americans aren’t particularly interested in reading and writing? Could it be that they don’t really need advanced literary skills in order to hold down a decent job and enjoy a comfortable life in these United States? The “larger implication” of unprepared students attempting entry-level college English is that maybe the program of universal K-16 education is fatally flawed, for it suggests that for an unknown proportion of students the program of compulsory bums-on-seats education that is a central article of faith for the governing elite is a mistake.

If we have made a mistake in the development of our government education system we ought to do something about it. Liberals were properly outraged that President Bush tolerated two years of failure in Iraq before he would agree to change his strategy. For some reason they are not in quite such a hurry about the K-12 education system that was excoriated over twenty years ago in A Nation at Risk.

But if the current education system is broken what should we do to fix it? Laurence Gonzales’ intriguing Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why suggests a different understanding of learning. Gonzales warns that you cannot confront the crises of life with just book learning. If you fall down a crevasse on a mountain or your yacht sinks a hurricane you need more than a rational appreciation of natural hazards to survive. You need practice, and actual experience in decision-making under duress so that your rational knowledge becomes internalized as an instinct. That’s the way they teach you to fly airplanes. When the weather starts to close in good pilot must combine knowledge, skill, experience, and judgment to make the decisions that will get him out of a jam. The same applies to ordinary life crises like losing a job or getting divorced.

The day will come, perhaps sooner than we think, when the American people will be ready for education reform. Yet after a century and a half of government stasis it is difficult to know what to do. There is not even consensus on the notion of a “learning style.” Perhaps the only thing to do will be to let the American people decide for themselves.

One thing is certain. The future of education will not have much to do with forcing government bureaucrats to jump through hoops in order to get their next raise.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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Chappies

“But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.”  —Freddy Arbuthnot
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison


Civil Society

“Civil Society”—a complex welter of intermediate institutions, including businesses, voluntary associations, educational institutions, clubs, unions, media, charities, and churches—builds, in turn, on the family, the primary instrument by which people are socialized into their culture and given the skills that allow them to live in broader society and through which the values and knowledge of that society are transmitted across the generations.
Francis Fukuyama, Trust


Hugo on Genius

“Tear down theory, poetic systems... No more rules, no more models... Genius conjures up rather than learns... ” —Victor Hugo
César Graña, Bohemian versus Bourgeois


Education

“We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.”
E. G. West, Education and the State


Faith & Purpose

“When we began first to preach these things, the people appeared as awakened from the sleep of ages—they seemed to see for the first time that they were responsible beings, and that a refusal to use the means appointed was a damning sin.”
Finke, Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990


Conversion

“When we received Christ,” Phil added, “all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems the preacher was right there to give us the answers.”
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh


Postmodernism

A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ’merely relative’, is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.
Roger Scruton, Modern Philosophy


Faith and Politics

As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the principal focus of her interventions in the public arena is the protection and promotion of the dignity of the person, and she is thereby consciously drawing particular attention to principles which are not negotiable... [1.] protection of life in all its stages, from the first moment of conception until natural death; [2.] recognition and promotion of the natural structure of the family... [3.] the protection of the right of parents to educate their children.
Pope Benedict XVI, Speech to European Peoples Party, 2006


China and Christianity

At first, we thought [the power of the West] was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity.
David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing


Religion, Property, and Family

But the only religions that have survived are those which support property and the family. Thus the outlook for communism, which is both anti-property and anti-family, (and also anti-religion), is not promising.
F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit


Conservatism

Conservatism is the philosophy of society. Its ethic is fraternity and its characteristic is authority — the non-coercive social persuasion which operates in a family or a community. It says ‘we should...’.
Danny Kruger, On Fraternity


US Life in 1842

Families helped each other putting up homes and barns. Together, they built churches, schools, and common civic buildings. They collaborated to build roads and bridges. They took pride in being free persons, independent, and self-reliant; but the texture of their lives was cooperative and fraternal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism


presented by Christopher Chantrill

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