Friday, April 3, 2009

Education Limbo: How Low Can You Go?

Am I the only one who has an agonizing physical reaction to reading poor grammar, misspellings and random punctuation in the literature that our schools produce? It starts with a sharp, stabbing pain behind my left eyeball and leads to fits of screaming, accompanied by an unavoidable urge to throw things.

The “dumbing down of America” is a reality, and I blame the educational system.

Our school district’s newsletter arrived in the mail last December and, as always, started with our superintendent’s report: “The holiday’s allow us to spend time with our family and friends… Students have been involved in food drives… giving tree, and various other projects…” Holiday’s? Is that possessive? If so, what belongs to the holiday? Is it a contraction? Did he mean to say the holiday is allow us? And what does he mean by our family and friends? Is there only one family among “us?”

What about giving tree, as opposed to the Giving Tree Project? Is it some new oral sex technique I am not familiar with? Pretty soon, teenage boys across the country will be rating girls based on rumors like, “I hear she’s great at giving tree.”

A few weeks ago I read a story that contained this sentence: “Little did he know what was in store on that faithful day.” I’ve never thought to describe a day as faithful. In fact, I’ve had plenty of days that made me feel every bit a woman scorned. I suppose the writer could have capitalized the phrase and fooled me into thinking Faithful Day was a new national holiday, petitioned by James Dobson. Naturally, the new holiday, in the interest of equality (and by ACLU petition), would have to be balanced by observance of Unfaithful Day. Imagine your best girlfriend cheerily reporting, “I knew he wanted to do the dirty with his secretary, but he waited until Unfaithful Day. I am so lucky! He’s so romantic!”

When my son began elementary school, he did so a year early and with test results that placed his vocabulary on par with an eighth-grader. I wasn’t an alpha mother who sent her kid to a Mensa-approved nursery school. The truth is, as a single mother, I didn’t have anyone else to talk to; so my son became the full-time recipient of my nonstop babbling. He picked up new words and ideas with ease, and I always encouraged him to use proper grammar.

At the point that writing was introduced in his classroom, I dutifully helped him with homework and showed him how to use a dictionary to look up words he found difficult to spell. Little did I know that I was at odds with a classroom instruction technique that would give me heartburn for years to come.

During a parent-teacher conference, my son proudly showed me a story he wrote. I read it with great interest, praising him for his creativity and use of vivid words. When I spotted a misspelled word, I said, “Oops! Can you think of another way to spell that word?” just like at home. The look that my son’s teacher gave me is exactly the one I would expect if I had said, “Hey! Let’s go home and skin your kitten alive!”

“We encourage creative spelling,” the teacher informed me. “There is a lot of good ways for children to learn to spell, and creative spelling is one of them. It helps them to learn phonics.” Really? I wanted to ask. IS there a lot of good ways? Are you encouraging the “creative” use of the English language by refusing to properly identify plurals when you speak? There ARE a lot of a good WAYS, you ninny!

Of course, I didn’t say that. Instead, I smiled stiffly, said, “Of course,” and resigned myself to the fact that spelling and grammar must be taught at home, like butt wiping.

I freely admit that the spell-check feature of my word processor has saved me on many occasions. Thank you, Microsoft. The only catch for users is that they have to use it in order for it to be effective. Our preschooler’s holiday program boasted a song titled “I Want a Hippoptamus for Christmas.” What, exactly, is a hippoptamus? Maybe I want one for Christmas, too, and I just don’t know it yet.

Of course, spell-check won’t catch correctly spelled, but incorrectly used, words. The program instructed audience members to join in the singing of “Hark! The Harold Angels Sings.” Who are the Harold Angels? Are they crime-fighting, feathered-hair vixens played onscreen by Hollywood darlings? Or, should I ask, who is the Harold Angels, since he or she sings? Certainly, if the Harold Angels were plural, they wouldn’t sings.

I thought maybe the preschoolers actually crafted the program, until I read the production crew notes on the back, where I learned that the program author was Mrs. So-and-so, one of the most highly respected teachers on staff. My husband had to nudge me when our daughter walked onto the stage, because I had my pen out, editing the offensive program. I can’t help it. It’s a reflex.

The movie Idiocracy (starring Luke Wilson) parodied the rapid generational decline of intelligence until the population was so stupid that no one could fathom even the most basic societal functions, like growing food and managing trash. The movie was, in my opinion, not even that entertaining, but it did trigger a steadily growing alarm in my brain. When are our children going to be taught the difference between “lay” and “lie?” When will they learn to spell correctly? When will grown adults stop writing “it’s” (it is) when they mean “its” (possessive)? When? When? When?

Our educational system is an example of a good idea taken too far. What started as an across-the-board effort to encourage children who struggled has now become a credo: We can’t correct our students. It would make them feel bad. As a result, many teachers have adopted relaxed grading systems. Some give fewer tests, and others assign less homework.

One of our sons actually had a sixth-grade teacher who defended his “progressive” choice to assign absolutely no homework by explaining that it was unfair to students whose parents were not invested in the educational process and therefore would be less likely to lend assistance with any homework assigned. The effect of the homework-free year was undeniable when we moved to another school district and our son started middle school. His grades were abysmal, and he struggled with any sort of structured homework routine. Hooray for progressive education.

When will educated people stop addressing holiday envelopes to “The Wright’s?” Our WHAT? I don’t even read the cards inside. I make my husband do it. My theory is that the overuse of apostrophes will be corrected in the next generation, since today’s youth compose more text messages than term papers, and I don’t know many who actually waste the thumb energy to hit the apostrophe key. Maybe even the correct uses of apostrophes will disappear, and contractions and possessives will just run together and become accepted.

When popular culture takes over the written form of the English language, words like “henceforth” and “forthwith” will become obsolete (or at least become “henc4th” and “4thwth”), and attorneys will become unnecessary. No one will need to go to law school, so academic competition and ambition will decrease. Universities and colleges will respond to the waning interest by relaxing course requirements. Entrance standards will have to be lowered, of course, because demanding an excellent high school transcript will seem a little silly, considering that higher education will no longer be teaching any stringent courses. High school students will stop working toward honors because they will no longer need them to get into college, and the high schools will respond by…

It’s not a pretty picture.

Thirty years from now, there will still be a few holdouts – serious eggheads who love the English language too much to desecrate it – but they will be regarded as freaks who may as well be ordering a Big Mac in Shakespearean English. I will be the only one who still writes out “Christina-Marie Wright,” because everyone else will have shortened my name to “crstnamrie rit.” There will be no more capital letters, no hyphens, and very few vowels. Silent letters will be recognized for the waste that they are and eradicated.

get redy 4 the rvolushun.