It’s always amusing to find professors confront the fruits of their ideological views. Ponytailed colleagues who had protested and marched in the grand old 1960s have often shared with me their dismay at the deteriorating writing of students.
In similar fashion, writing instructor Kim Brooks in a recent Salon column
expresses shock and dismay that her students don’t even know how to write a sentence, much less a coherent paper.
Brooks claims that in the 1990s her high-school English classes saved her probably from “hard drugs, or worse, one of those Young Life chapters so popular with my peers.”
Well, there were too many riots and skirmishes going on in my high school to really focus on literature (and I wish there had been an evangelical group like Young Life there way back then), but I carried over my love of reading from elementary school. It had been a fight to get into school (I had to wait until first grade despite my protestations to my immigrant parents) and I had to wait until second grade when I got my library card before I could have books at home.
Like many others, I was saved by books, and by elementary school teachers who believed in maintaining order, presenting material objectively, and rewarding individual accomplishment. Books provided hours of opportunity to escape.
When we got to diagramming sentences I found the material familiar, a codification of what I was used to seeing for hours each day. It was the same for spelling.
Now, I will ask my college students if they’ve had the same experience of getting “lost in a book.” Ninety-nine percent of them look at me as if I’d just stepped out of a spaceship.
It’s not their fault, though. Parents give in and buy them the electronic gadgets that offer them 24/7 brain candy. The latest in electronic technology is also supposed to save failing schools. And the prevailing philosophy among the National Council for Teachers of English is that all “literacies” are equally valid.
Video making, acting out scripts, rapping, and Power Point presentations as assignments are all part of the effort to further democratize education. The project began in earnest in the 1960s and was continued on by such radicals as Bill Ayers who, after a career as a domestic terrorist, enjoyed an esteemed place in the education department at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The anarchism in the street was carried over to the halls of academe. When I entered graduate school in the early 1990s I was dismayed at the reading I was assigned. It attacked such things as “logocentrism” (the notion of truth) presumed to be the defining trait of a patriarchal, imperialistic Western culture and therefore to be demolished. Feminist writing pedagogues attacked grammar and thesis statements as aspects of “masculinist writing.” Jesse Jackson’s famous chant of “Hey, hey, ho, ho Western civilization’s got to go” in the 1980s at Stanford has been taken up by noted rhetorician Peter Elbow who celebrates the end of “white” standards of writing.
The “processes and collaboration,” “peer review,” and informal ways of writing cited by the department chair of a high school in Brooks’ column are all outcomes of such pedagogical theory. The goal is to produce “change agents” through fun, group activities.
Clearly, these progressive methods have not been working. Would professor Brooks go so far as to agree on the need for educational standards and traditional pedagogy?