Death to High School English, Thanks to Radicals and Progressives

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? 


  • Mary Grabar

    Mary Grabar is a visiting fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization.

7 thoughts on “Death to High School English, Thanks to Radicals and Progressives

  1. Yes, a few years ago I’d have several students mention Harry Potter, but not much any more. I think only one student mentioned Harry Potter last semester.

  2. diagramming sentences were fun. Spelling is fun too. Reading is fun too.
    The teachers in the fifties were excellent. In the seventies the public schools became mediocre or worthless. Too many teachers were dumb. A dumb teacher can’t educate a student.
    Teacher tenure protects dumb teachers. Most public schools give equal raises, regardless of ability.
    The USA should the voucher system. Competition will improve education.

  3. This is a generation that grew up on the Harry Potter books. Are you positive that almost none of them has ever gotten lost in a book? I’m sure that writing standards have declined, but as for reading, I know that my niece, who is now a sophomore in college, would get each new Harry Potter book and wouldn’t put it down until she had finished it.

  4. You know, Mary…I remember years ago discovering my teenage daughter spelling words the way they sound. I was horrified to learn that this is the way she was always taught in school. Then I remembered when I was in kindergarten in the yearly fifties when my mother took me out of school to teach me phonics. They were abandoning phonics then!! Later though I was relieved when my daughter decided to learn the proper way to spelling and grammar. She learned very quickly to change. Kids can change, they just need the help from adults who care. I was convinced many years ago that the enemy was allowed to fester in our schools with the help of some of our politicians in Washington D.C. The enemy you may ask? Our old friends the Russian secret service. Once in awhile someone in D.C. will bring up the topic of putting our secret service to snoop around our educational system and nobody hears anymore about it. Our most vulnerable part of the population is our kids.

  5. Seems like the aim of one in the 1800s and five, circa 1906, to rid America of the Bible and destroy the American Educational system had pretty well succeeded by 1980, when the president of an educators organization crowed in the San Diego paper, “Well, we finally got the Calvinists out of education. Now we can do whatever we want to do.” The present state should come as no surprise. After all, it was planned, and one can find plenty of documentation to establish the fact. Dumbing down allows the elite to govern more easily by intimidation, fear, and manipulation. But a Third Great Awakening among the poor masses should be the off-setting factor, an awakening that will continue for a 1000 generations.

  6. Ah, the cruelty of standards – and, worse, expecting other to learn and use them! Child abuse will be the battle cry of the silly and supercilious against such horrors. Gag.
    Thanks as always, Mary, for the update (albeit a dreary one).

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