A week or so ago, Dom sent me this article—on one of my favorite subjects, ill-prepared college students—from the Washington Post.
We were talking informally in class not long ago, 17 college sophomores and I, and on a whim I asked who some of their favorite writers are. The question hung in uneasy silence. At length, a voice in the rear hesitantly volunteered the name of . . . Dan Brown.
No other names were offered.
The author of “The DaVinci Code” was not just the best writer they could think of; he was the only writer they could think of.
Color me not surprised.
A few years ago, I began keeping a list of everyday words that may as well have been potholes in exchanges with college students. It began with a fellow who was two months away from graduating from a well-respected Midwestern university.
“And what was the impetus for that?” I asked as he finished a presentation.
At the word “impetus” his head snapped sideways, as if by reflex. “The what?” he asked.
“The impetus. What gave rise to it? What prompted it?”
I wouldn’t have guessed that impetus was a 25-cent word. But I also wouldn’t have guessed that “ramshackle” and “lucid” were exactly recondite, either. I’ve had to explain both. You can be dead certain that today’s college students carry a weekly planner. But they may or may not own a dictionary, and if they do own one, it doesn’t get much use. (“Why do you need a dictionary when you can just go online?” more than one student has asked me.)
Yes, I’ve caught myself dumbing down my vocabulary, avoiding problematic words. In fact, I do it almost unconsciously.
And my favorite: “Novel,” as in new and as a literary form. College students nowadays call any book, fact or fiction, a novel. I have no idea why this is, but I first became acquainted with the peculiarity when a senior at one of the country’s better state universities wrote a paper in which she referred to “The Prince” as “Machiavelli’s novel.”
I’ve heard that one too. Ah, I thought it was unique to my students. Evidently the rot is more extensive than I guessed.
But, alas, I’m not surprised. I had students who’d never finished a book in their lives. One girl who called novels “chapter books”, as in the term used for little kids to distinguish them from picture books.
and it won’t be long before one professor whispers to another: Did no one teach these kids basic English? The unhappy truth is that many students are hard-pressed to string together coherent sentences, to tell a pronoun from a preposition, even to distinguish between “then” and “than.” Yet they got A’s.
How does one explain the inability of college students to read or write at even a high school level? One explanation, which owes as much to the culture as to the schools, is that kids don’t read for pleasure. And because they don’t read, they are less able to navigate the language. If words are the coin of their thought, they’re working with little more than pocket change.
Say this—but no more—for the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act: It at least recognizes the problem. What we’re graduating from our high schools isn’t college material. Sometimes it isn’t even good high school material.
The source of all my frustration teaching freshman English. How can you pack four years of high school English into one semester and get them up to speed on college requirements too? Can’t be done.