There have been some curious discussions of pedagogy of late, from 2+2=5 to whether the rules of grammar should be abandoned, in recognition of diversity and inclusiveness. Or, as the more blunt put it, anti-racism. The math issue, where values were conveniently altered to prove the point, was the sort that served only those who desperately sought to argue their point.
But what if you use base 8? Huh? HUH?
But what if it’s 2 apples plus 2 oranges? Then you don’t have four of either. SEE?!?
Except you have four pieces of fruit, the common denominator, because 2+2 still equals four. Yes, in base 10, which is our norm, because without norms, even in such mundane subjects as math, we would be incapable of communicating. Change the values, the base, and you change the equation. These are the shared rules by which we understand each other.*
In fact, you can read these words and, I hope, understand them because of rules. Without these rules, spelling and grammar, communication would range from difficult to impossible. Obvious, right? Not in the Garden State of Pedagogy.
Just when it seemed that academia could do nothing further to devalue the degrees it confers, Rutgers University proved everyone wrong. The English department, of all places, announced that it will de-emphasize “traditional grammar rules” in its graduate writing program so as not to put students with poor English backgrounds at a disadvantage. Instead it will incorporate “critical grammar” in its pedagogy.
Was it mere coincidence that we adore the Elements of Style by Strunk & White? White, get it? Well sure, it was E.B.’s last name, but if we can’t call the big bedroom “master” anymore, even though we have no slave bedrooms and never did, what difference does it make why you’re triggered as long as you know you should be.
In the paragraph above, the sentences were structured with subjects and predicates, connected by verbs. The title of a book is in italics. Proper nouns were capitalized and questions ended with a different mark then non-questions. This is so we can communicate. I, the sender, and you, the receiver, are able to transmit ideas across the universe through the means of words, punctuation and structure.
Yet, Rutgers would accept tuition, or to be more precise, impose debt on students that won’t be its problem later, without teaching them these skills.
According to Rebecca Walkowitz, the department head, the goal is to make students aware of the variety of choices available to them. Exactly what that means is unclear. What is evident, however, is that the department will adjust its standards to comport more closely with existing proficiencies, no matter how minimal they are.
“Existing proficiencies” is a euphemistic way to express students’ lack of skills. What she’s trying to cover up is that students entering college lack the tools to communicate in standard English, leaving pedagogues with two choices. Students were coming to college without the basic skills needed to perform what had previously been considered college-level writing. Either colleges would have to remediate them, teach them from 8th Grade English forward, or come up with an excuse to change the paradigm so that the inability to communicate in English was no longer a deficit.
The former was not only harder, but impossible, as was learned in the CUNY experiment of open enrollment. The latter, however, was suspect. What sort of school gave students a college diploma when they couldn’t even spell “diploma”?
It’s all part of the way that cultural, business and journalistic institutions in the country have abandoned standards in their rush to appear anti-racist. But colleges and universities are unique in one respect. Their fundamental purpose is to pass on knowledge and skills. By lowering standards, they call into question their very existence. That’s particularly the case with English departments, where the need to be able to express ideas clearly in writing is paramount.
Some describe this phenomenon, the lowering of standards until the lowest common denominator is capable of meeting them, as “the soft prejudice of low expectations.” The issue isn’t that black students aren’t necessarily smart enough to learn standard English, but that they weren’t taught (or didn’t learn, according to which side of the equation one looks at), but that making up for whatever failures they carried with them to college was too hard. If they can’t meet the college bar, lower the bar.
But there was an additional concern that’s rarely raised, that not everybody is “college material.” As the notion that everyone should get a college degree became the working assumption, it failed to recognize that there was smarter and less smart people out there. Some are dumb. Some don’t have the chops to do college-level work. But by lowering the bar to whatever they could do, the dream of a college education was suddenly available to everyone. Sure, it rendered the degree less valuable, perhaps worthless, but at least everyone could have one, right?
Not exactly. The students who were either unprepared to perform at college level, or just not up to the work, were finally accommodated, but the smarter kids, the ones who worked hard, tried to learn, wanted to achieve, were screwed.
Politicalizing pedagogy shortchanges precisely those students it is most intended to help. When graduates who are never taught proper English enter the workplace, they will soon find that they are ill-equipped to communicate in writing. Their deficiencies that were never remediated in high school and overlooked in college will leave them resentful.
That’s understandable. But the fact is that too many of them were never college material in the first place. Their high school counselors should have steered them to a vocational program, coupled with an apprenticeship. Instead of a reality check, they were fed what Charles Murray in “Real Education” calls educational romanticism. Not surprisingly, they end up sullen and bewildered.
There are many at fault for this state of affairs, students arriving at college incapable of putting together a cogent sentence in standard English. It’s unpopular to “blame the victim” at the moment, but even the best teacher can’t force an unwilling, or incapable, student to learn, particularly when there is no interest or support from parent(s) in education.
But there is only one party at fault for dumbing down the curriculum to achieve the desired racial graduation rates without students walking out without the skills necessary to communicate in standard English. They got their money and cheated their students of an education. This wasn’t how diversity was supposed to work.
*For those who would argue that “shared rules,” by definition, constitute a “social construct” and thus disprove that rules are anything more than norms imposed by one group upon another, the contention is unhelpful sophistry. What matters isn’t the name we give to a thing, but that we all use the same name if we’re going to discuss the thing.
How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg?
Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.
–Abraham Lincoln, more or less.