Our Kids’ Vocabularies Are As, Y’Know, Bad As Whatever

This next bit worries me almost as much as last week’s story (about Minnesota’s “social studies standards” being turned into nothing more than lefty indoctrination).

The English language, as taught in our schools, is dying:

I was a teacher in the inner city between 1992 and 1996 and immediately realized that those unfortunate kids could not read anything, because nearly every sentence had at least one word they had never seen before. This went for magazine and newspaper articles as well as traditional English stuff. I was not shoving college chemistry texts or The Fall of the House of Usher at them. (Read Poe to a 16 year old today and you will get the glassiest stare imaginable; in Usher, there are 20-25 words in the first paragraph, as well as a round-about way of expression, that would totally defeat all but the brightest teen.)

Now, I”m not sure how many teenagers could follow Usher even 30 years ago.  Still, there’s no question; literacy is receding in our country:

They said they don’t like black and white films, and they didn’t, but I truly believe they didn’t like how much people talked. Watch a Bogart film and see how much of the action is moved by dialogue, sophisticated and adult dialogue, and compare the number and length of words to a contemporary film.

And it’s not just schools or pop culture:

Or, my personal favorite annoyance, my church sings all Contemporary Christian Music, what I call Sesame Street music. There are few words of more than one syllable. I

It’s one of the reasons I seek out churches whose hymnals include no music written after 1880.

 How does one reverse this? I spent a long time encouraging them to see the value of having more tools in their linguistic tool box, but when f*** is their primary adjective and adverb, when using “big” words is excoriated, and every “art” form they enjoy diminishes rather than exalts language, what could I do? Read to them, put lists of words they would never see again on the board, encourage expression with some complexity. Not generally fruitful options.

On the one hand, while it was an awful movie, I did like the Leonardo DiCaprio/Claire Danes MTV-friendliy version of Romeo and Juliet if only because it demanded its audience keep up with Shakespearean vocabulary and pacing (which may be why it flopped, but work with me here).

On the other?  I despair of anything getting any better.  Our nation’s media, academia and too much of our ruling class benefit from dumb subjects.

17 thoughts on “Our Kids’ Vocabularies Are As, Y’Know, Bad As Whatever

  1. Students suffer from a lowest common denominator approach to education. Because educators have been encouraged by parents and politicians to not segregate students by ability (no child left behind), most educational material has been made easy enough for 99% of the students to get through. That has two effects. First, getting top grades requires doing a great deal of easy work perfectly, rather than doing a moderate amount of difficult work well. This separates the industrious from the lazy, but many very bright but non-industrious students fall by the wayside (mostly boys). Second, it is impossible to cover all of the math and science that should be covered in high school while keeping it easy, so they don’t.

    Schools at the primary and middle school level need to challenge students with difficult material, particularly in science and math, but also in teaching them to write effectively. High Schools need to start segregating students based on their capabilities, and challenging those focused groups. We don’t need 100% of students to learn more math and science, we need the 30% who will really use that knowledge to be taught separately and intensively to prepare them for STEM programs at University. We need students who aspire to high skill but non-university careers as technicians and high skill laborers to have clear career paths that start at 15 or 16.

  2. Emery, I agree completely, but with the collectivist mentality that exemplifies the teachers union and modern education theory as taught at university, none of what you suggest is possible. Select Private schools, home schools (sometimes) or parent supplied adjunct tutoring are the only recourse.

  3. Suburban schools full of white kids in college prep courses, inner city school kids learning how to weld. The education establishment will love that.

  4. Good post, Mitch. Meanwhile, Emery the threadjacker sez:

    High Schools need to start segregating students based on their capabilities, and challenging those focused groups.

    This has been happening for years. One of my kids is in 7th grade and is taking 9th and 10th grade-level math.

    We don’t need 100% of students to learn more math and science, we need the 30% who will really use that knowledge to be taught separately and intensively to prepare them for STEM programs at University.

    We need someone to choose their career path for them, apparently. After all, screw-up high school kids never mature or gain new interests after they leave high school.

    We need students who aspire to high skill but non-university careers as technicians and high skill laborers to have clear career paths that start at 15 or 16.

    We need Emery to sort it out for everyone. And by the way, referring to college attendance as “at University” betrays a European affect. As does Emery’s reasoning.

    And of course, the point of Mitch’s post isn’t STEM or Emery’s social engineering schemes. However, Emery’s threadjack is a good example of what happens when reading isn’t taught correctly. We don’t learn how to read and absorb the writer’s point any more. We just use the “text” as a jumping off point for whatever we choose to discuss. If students can’t read The Fall of the House of Usher, it’s much easier to usher other things in, e.g., Howard Zinn fever dream social studies requirements.

  5. The first paragraph of Usher contains no antique words. They are all in modern usage. There are some 3 & 4 syllable buggers in there, tho.

  6. can’t imagine y u wld think that, mitch, lol. srsly?

    In seriousness, from the article:

    “Watch a Bogart film and see how much of the action is moved by dialogue, sophisticated and adult dialogue, and compare the number and length of words to a contemporary film.”

    Of course, the greatest film ever made, “Casablanca”, is a masterpiece of black and white cinematography as well as of dialogue. So is the second-greatest film ever made, “Citizen Kane”.

    “Or, my personal favorite annoyance, my church sings all Contemporary Christian Music, what I call Sesame Street music. There are few words of more than one syllable. I”

    Here is an example of one of the world’s unintentional edits, which proves a much larger point. The next word in Leef’s commentary was “It”, which means, Mitch, that you added an extra letter. Yet that proves a much larger point — Sesame Street music in church is all about “I”, and not about the reason people should go to church in the first place. If you want to know why we’ve got such problems in society, look at an edit that Mitch didn’t mean, but which speaks volumes.

    We’re officially dumbed-down. As parents, we fight against indoctrination in the schools and we try to teach them right from wrong while we try to encourage them to write in complete sentences so they can communicate as adults.

    “lol. srsly.”

  7. Very astute observation, Colonel! I was constantly after my own kids for their grammar, spelling and speaking skills. I also challenged more than one of their “English” teachers/indoctrinators because they missed key errors in those disciplines, asking them where their “teaching” actually came into play. Only one of them apologized and embarrassed, thanked me for calling it to their attention. The other two acted like victims and went on the defensive. Go figure!

  8. As long as Johnny can correctly identify the date of the Stonewall riots, most of the parents that pay any attention to what’s going on in the government schools are happy as clams.

  9. How very typical of a wise American. Mr. D appreciates that he has gained wisdom, but because he has gained it through personal experience, views his wisdom as anecdotal and idiosyncratic. It is very likely that most of what he considers wisdom would apply to most people, but Americans are uncharacteristically modest with regards to sharing wisdom because … Americans, particularly younger Americans, will uniformly critique and dismiss that wisdom unless it comes from someone who is held in very high regard (most parents don’t qualify). Older Americans do not offer wisdom unless the audience is receptive, and those audiences are few and far between. The disrespect for tradition, history, and established wisdom is a two-edged sword which both makes America fresh and new, and leads it to make the same mistakes over and over again.

  10. kel,
    Most teachers are decent, reasonable people, who try to do their best and aren’t any more lazy or stupid than the rest of us. Collectively, however, they stand in the way of reform because of the inexorable logic of the closed shop union. They must join the union to get a job. The union is run by those who have been there the longest without advancing, who of course highly value seniority, conservatism in all matters, and lack of pressure to perform as they get close to their pension. Teachers need to act like professionals, but they’re stuck in unions that force them to act collectively like assembly line workers. Teachers do need unions, as they are facing a monopoly employer (the state), and often get caught between parents and the school system in battles over individual children, battles which people rightly take very seriously. But the teachers’ unions should be more like professional associations than industrial unions. Allowing teachers to join whichever union or association they wanted, including none at all, would be a big step forward towards reform. When teachers become valued professionals rather than unionized laborers, teaching will once again attract bright and motivated graduates.

  11. Mr. D.
    We need to stop telling students and parents that getting a bachelor of arts degree is the path to success and riches. Different educational paths lead to different careers and different salaries, and children and parents need to be told the hard truths, starting as early as age 12-14. The education establishment has responded to 50% of the population entering University by enlarging liberal arts programs and ill-defined but easy degrees like commerce and business while lowering standards. Governments need to wake up and understand that with such a large fraction of the population entering post-secondary education, public universities must make their primary mission job training, and they must carry out that mission cost effectively. Every university president tries to make their university into Harvard. All of the incentives for faculty and administrators are to pursue sexy research and provide creature comforts to students, rather than teaching valuable skills to undergraduates. We don’t need more Harvards. We need efficient low cost schools that churn out professionals with marketable skills. Not just STEM skills, although we need more of those. But any graduate who receives a degree but possesses no marketable skills has been cheated by the education system.

  12. Emery said “Teachers do need unions, as they are facing a monopoly employer (the state),”

    No they are not! Their employer is the local school district which is administered by the local school board.

    Also private schools have non-unionized shops and you don’t hear Regime Radio or the Red Star moaning about how badly those teachers are treated and you don’t see bi-annual stories about how the teachers in a particular district are striking unless the proceeds from the previous years bond levy are all redirected to their pension funds.

    in short Emery, Teachers Do Not Need Unions!

  13. Emery, my issue isn’t with your prescription, but with your presumptions. It’s worthwhile to identify talent in young people, but the channeling of people at an early age is a real problem, because interests change. My 7th grader excels at math and science, but is only moderately interested in those subjects — she’s significantly more interested in writing and music than in STEM. I have no doubt she could pursue a STEM career path and be successful at it, but it might not be the highest and best use of her skills.

    Because she is so good at math and science, she belongs in the advanced classes she is taking. She would be bored out of her mind in the regular math and science classes. But if she pursues a career path that isn’t in STEM, is her presence in the class essentially cheating another talented kid, who doesn’t quite score as well, out of a chance to pursue his/her dream?

    It’s always tempting to play chess with other people’s lives, especially when you can envision a potentially desirable result. Fortunately, anonymous internet commenters rarely have much influence in the world.

  14. kel,
    I mostly agree with your premise regarding teacher unions

    Schools do many things: lecture, tutor, teach life skills, supervise individual work, and maintain civility and order amongst the little monsters. Lecturing should be a highly paid specialty limited to true experts. Tutoring requires lesser skills, and deserves lesser pay, particularly one on one. Teaching life skills does not require a lot of training, nor do the babysitting parts of the job. We pay teachers to do all of those tasks now, which is horribly unproductive. Schools can be re-organized to let teachers specialize. We just need to be willing to take the plunge and do it.

  15. Mr. D.
    To your earlier question. American raised in Canada.

    I am a chemical engineer and in manufacturing and there are real shortages out there in any profession that requires lengthy and difficult training. Chemical engineers (most engineers, really)are in short supply, in part because engineering grads often leave the field because banks, med schools, law schools, and most white collar professions would rather take a rigorously trained engineer over someone with a BA any day. Good instrument technicians, electricians, mechanics and pipe-fitters, all of which require long apprenticeships plus in-class training, are very hard to find.

    We tell 18-year-old students to do what they love, and they take that advice and create time for an active social life plus video-game time by taking an undemanding major. Consequently they find they love college but are unprepared for life afterwards. The advice that I give my teenage kids is that by the time they hit 25, they need to have acquired marketable skills, through a professional degree or some other form of training. Those without marketable skills should be prepared to find employment unsatisfying, sporadic, and financially unrewarding. By all means, find something you enjoy doing, but don’t forget you need those marketable skills. Life is not school. School is what you do before life really begins. Choose your school path to create the life experience you wish to have, not the school experience you enjoy now.

  16. Emery wrote:
    . . . there are real shortages out there in any profession that requires lengthy and difficult training.
    Yes, there are, but ‘lengthy and difficult training’ is a selection criteria. I would love to see a chart of SAT scores vs. degree major. Many of the people who are enrolled in undemanding majors simply couldn’t make it through a program in the STEM disciplines.
    Apropos of nothing, here is a chart I find interesting: http://www.iqcomparisonsite.com/occupations.aspx
    It graphs occupation against IQ range. The data (I refuse to say ‘these data, ‘data’ is an aggregate noun, not a plural) reveals nothing terribly surprising. I think a similar graph, if it could have been made five hundred years ago, would have shown a similar relation between occupation and IQ.

  17. SAT tests have been very substantially dumbed down over the past 4 decades. In fact, the American Mensa organization ceased accepting high-threshold SAT scores as a pathway to gain Mensa membership as of 1994. Prior to that, there was a sufficiently solid correlation between IQ and SAT scores. After 1994 there is not. Thus, SATs are likely not presently doing much by way of measuring the capacities of the very highest ability individuals. In other words, if IQ is no longer very correlated with SATs, this implies that many people can simply be prepared/trained to do well on these exams somewhat independently of their true native ability. (By contrast, the Miller Analogies is likely a far better tool for distinguishing different levels of ability among the very highest IQ individuals.)

    http://psychcorp.pearsonassessments.com/haiweb/Cultures/en-US/site/Community/PostSecondary/Products/MAT/mathome.htm

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