Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Not college material

The Washington Post had an interesting opinion piece on college students' deficiencies in English.

Writing Off Reading by Michael Skube

    'In our better private universities and flagship state schools today, it's hard to find a student who graduated from high school with much lower than a 3.5 GPA, and not uncommon to find students whose GPAs were 4.0 or higher. They somehow got these suspect grades without having read much. Or if they did read, they've given it up. And it shows -- in their writing and even in their conversation.

    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.

Here's some more words that made Professor Skube's list of words college students no longer understand: Advocate, Derelict, Satire, Pith, Brevity,and Novel.

I'll admit that I didn't really know the definition of the word "pith" either, but I easily recognized the rest. These vocabulary challenged students acquire college degrees without actually getting a college level education. The same is true for today's high school graduates. Giving a student a piece of paper that says he has a college degree or high school diploma doesn't magically transfer the knowledge that that piece of paper used to represent. It doesn't make her successful. It merely perpetuates a fraud.

    "What we're graduating from our high schools isn't college material. Sometimes it isn't even good high school material."

So why are we spending so much effort to make it look like students have an education when they, in fact, do not? I propose that one motive is that it makes people feel better. It is easier to give students grades and diplomas that they didn't earn than to admit some students will fail no matter what, the government school system is grossly ineffective, or that many students are just not college material.

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Spunky said...

My daughter and I read the article as well. She couln't believe that none of them could name a favorite author.

I can't say that much has changed from when I went to school 25 years ago. I remember when my first college prof handed me a sylabus with a book list a mile long. I was shocked. Where was the textbook? You mean we actually had to read a "great book"?

Queen of Carrots said...

A few months ago I was tending to a sorely-overdue diaper and muttered to the child: "You have such a derelict mother."

And then, a moment later, "BUT, at least I use big words!"

Anonymous said...

My husband asked his college students to write one paragraph summarizing a news event. One paragraph out of 50 was cohesive: main idea, support, wrap-up. The rest looked like what used to be 5-8 grade writing. He had shown them the paragraph house from my elementary material on over head projector, BEFORE the assignment. The college administration is asking all professors to push English skills, regardless of the (real) class content. I was very shocked by those students' writing skills: it's downright frightening!

Karen said...

When I graduated from the Univ. of Texas at San Antonio with a Bachelor's degree in English, I did so after taking exactly NO math classes. I also never took any kind of course dealing with grammar. In fact, the last time I had studied grammar was in sixth grade, when our "backward" teacher made us do sentence diagramming.

People are lazy and will generally do no more than the minimum. When a college says you can get a BA without any math courses--how many people do you think will take a math course?

By the way, do you ever watch the jaywalking segment on the Tonight Show? Jay asks people on the street things like to identify pictures of Colin Powell. He's always talking to people in college or recently graduated, who are awfully unashamed at their ignorance. It's really not a funny segment--it's almost painful, actually.