December 7, 2011

Article on The End of Deep Literacy

The End of Eloquence?

By Andrew Pudewa

“Most of the young people we have to hire these days really can’t communicate clearly. They can’t speak three sentences without saying 'like' and ’cuz' and 'stuff' several times. They can’t write two complete sentences with correct grammar and capitalization . . . and forget about punctuation!”

Traveling around the country, I meet professionals from all walks of life: managers and business owners, teachers and professors, supervisors and graduate students. Though their histories and circumstances are often quite different, they all have one universal frustration, which when voiced, sounds very similar to the statements above. Now while it’s true that older adults have always complained about young adults, it seems undeniable that at this time things are really worse than ever before.

In Mark Baurlein’s 2008 book The Dumbest Generation, he argues forcefully that the digital age is stupefying young Americans and jeopardizing our future. His examples of profound ignorance and inarticulateness now ubiquitous in schools and workplaces are so convincing that one wonders if there is any remedy, or are we really at the end of a literate, educated America? While some readers contend that Baurlein’s causation argument is lacking, virtually no one argues that the problem is not acute.

As an observer of people, a student of the times, and a teacher of English, I must concur; technology is having a viscerally negative effect on the linguistic skills of students. Inundated by TV and music with marginally correct usage and syntax, young people today are constantly amused by the ever-present entertainment of Internet and video games. This, when reinforced by constant peer interaction, results in an environment that practically prevents a teenager today from developing any type of sophisticated use of words. We couldn’t have contrived a worse language development environment had we tried!

But some of us just won’t give up. We are the hard-nosed adults who are willing to be despised for demanding that students write—and speak!—in complete sentences. And we are the lovers of language, who strive not only to model correct usage, but who devote extra hours searching for the best ways not just to restore basic reading and writing skills, but to help our students cherish words and appreciate great writing.

We need more leaders like Frederick Douglass, the illiterate slave boy who grew up to become one of the finest orators of all time; and how did he achieve such eloquent use of language? In great part by memorizing dozens of famous speeches found in one of his few and precious books!

But beyond that, we must consider the effect of language on the mind and soul. Being human, we think primarily in words; we express and preserve ideas with words; we build civilization with words. Words are the tools of thought, and the more words we have, the more thoughts we can think. As language becomes less complex, so does thinking, and as thinking becomes simplified, people become simpletons, easily conquered or controlled.

Economically allocating every moment of time, every square inch of resource, and every erg of energy available to us, we must fight heroically against the digital armies of text and chat, the warheads of Halo and Hello Kitty, the silent espionage of Facebook, and the anthrax of apathy.\