March 26, 1996 in City

An Awful Bunch Of Gobbledygook

John Leo Universal Press Syndica
 
Tags:column

I visited the Barclay School in Baltimore the same day the new national “Standards for the English Language Arts” arrived on my desk in New York. This produced what the authors of the new standards might call “dissonant cognitive-process diversity” - or what an English-speaking person would call “a jumbled mind.”

Barclay is a rigorous, structured, back-to-basics public school which combines confidence-building with high expectations. It gets results that elite private schools would be proud of, and it gets them from inner-city students, 85 percent of them black, 60 percent to 65 percent from single-parent homes.

While Barclay insists on plain English, the new standards are written in mind-bending jargon. They talk about “word-identification strategies” (reading) and the use of “different writing-process elements” (writing). But nothing directs teachers to teach specific rules of phonics, spelling, grammar or punctuation (though the text says students “may wish” to explore ways of using punctuation more effectively).

However, at Barclay, these things are pushed hard and early.

All consonant sounds are mastered before the first grade. In the kindergarten I visited, a girl was sounding out words for her classmates from a written list. In the first grade, I flipped through assignment booklets hanging on a wall. All had well-written, grammatical one-page essays in clear, attractive handwriting.

The standards, on the other hand, feature a picture of a third-grader’s rather crude one-paragraph essay. It has 20 mistakes of grammar, spelling and punctuation. But in current educational theory, these aren’t errors - just alternative expressions and personal spellings.

Barclay, however, aims at perfection, so these would be errors there. Any mistakes found in homework are corrected immediately the next day.

The standards dismiss “prescribed sequences,” but Barclay is built around them: Parents are told exactly what their children will learn there each week and how they must help their children.

Barclay’s approach is a rebuke to the reigning theories at our schools of education. It ignores whole-language theory. It believes in “direct instruction” (a dismissive educational term for actual teaching). It doesn’t build self-esteem by excusing or praising failure. It ignores “learning strategies” and multicultural claptrap. All it does is churn out bright, achieving children.

Unlike the notorious national history standards, which were overly long and grandly contemptuous of the West, the English standards are short (one page, but with 69 pages of tortured explanation) and have been attacked on all sides as unreadable. They are the dubious work of the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English.

These people are teaching our children how to write English?

It’s a sign of the times at the National Council of Teachers of English that every key word in its title except “council” is under attack from its membership: “national” (too nationalistic), “teachers” (should be “facilitators” or “guides”) and “English” (non-inclusive of other languages).

After reading the report, I’d take the word “English” out, too, as deceptive advertising.

But the problem goes well beyond prose style. As so often is the case, bad prose hides bad thinking.

Buried in all the gobbledygook is a theory of education derived from literary theory and the deconstruction movement on college campuses. It goes like this: Schools treat literature and history as texts, but every form of expression is an equally important text worthy of study - compact discs, television, movies, comic books, ad slogans, graffiti, conversation. Children must explore all these texts in personal searches for meaning. This meaning is not inherent in any text - it personally is created in the mind of each child.

So, books have no inherent meaning, and nobody can say that William Shakespeare is more worthy of study than a baseball card or a cola ad jingle. There are no hierarchies of value, and nobody is right or wrong about anything.

In this meltdown of traditional learning, the teacher, of course, can’t teach. He or she acts as a marginal but friendly guide to “critical thinking,” which turns out to mean not the development of sharp and logical critical skills but the easy accumulation of “divergent” views on all matters. Learning becomes just another matter of “choice,” a marketplace view of thought without thinkers.

With Scholastic Aptitude Test scores so low and our public schools in deep trouble, this is not a very good time to convince students that reading comic books is just as good as traditional schoolwork.

The good news is that the publication of the new English standards is exposing this awful stuff to a broad public for the first time. It has hummed along in the background without much opposition, mostly because few of us had noticed it and fewer yet were inclined to demand an English-language version. But now it’s out in the open, and we all can throw mud pies.

xxxx

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Leo Universal Press Syndicate


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email