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Oxymora in Academia

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It is no secret that I share, with many Americans, concern about our educational system and the fact that so many people in this country are not properly literate.

That’s an oxymoron, you know. But more of that later.

To me, you are either literate or not. That means, you can read and write and talk the English language and deal with it on a human basis. Now, you will find surveys which tell you that 99 percent of Americans are literate. But are we?

Surveys also show that a huge percentage of those admitted to institutions of higher learning can not deal with the reading and writing necessary to survive in college. In other words, after 12 years of being taught, they have not arrived where they should be. Why not? Are these students considered literate?

Many decades ago, for one semester, I taught a remedial English program at Queens College. When asked to do this by a friend who was a long-time member of the English faculty, I thought that it was absurd. Remedial English at Queens College, one of the gems of higher education? Come on.

As I recall, I had about 12 students, all but one from public schools. The other was a graduate of a parochial high school. These were all bright, good kids. They needed help. I hope they got it.

But clearly, things have not gotten better in our nation. Study after study indicates our failings. That 99 percent figure may mean something, but it is not clear what it means, given the facts. Research paper after research paper tells us how it can be fixed.

I don’t know how I learned to read and write, but I recall that I had a fifth grade reader (this was in Borough Park, before we moved to Elmhurst) and there was an essay by Victor Hugo (in English translation) about the fall of Carthage. I still remember this line describing the fall of Carthage: “Every step onward was a step downward.”

Then, there was a marvelous story about a house cat, left on a vacation island, when it went missing, and managing to live through the winter and joyfully greeting the family when it returned the next summer.

Another piece was about a young American engineer in London. It includes the British museum, much medicine and Housemaid’s Knee. Intrigued? Another time, perhaps.

I met Nathaniel Hawthorne in a wonderful story called “Feathertop.” This was a scarecrow created by a witch, Mother Rigby, who was implored by her work of art to be a human being. She made it so. Alas, a sad ending, but it made me realize — snot-nosed kid that I was — that there was something in the world called literature, even if I couldn’t name it then.

In a recent column about the lack of arts in schools, I mentioned that I had read a poem by Robert Frost, when I was at JHS 73 in Elmhurst and that a tune rang in my windy mind. I told the music teacher this and she set it down when I sang it to her. She had it sung in an assembly. Imagine, Robert Burns. The poem is “Highland Mary.”

All of this stuff, clearly, ruined our young minds forever.

No teacher thought, as far as I know, that the children given these books could not deal with them. I don’t know what “methods” they used to teach us to read and write, but they worked.

Today, everyone has a theory (save this writer) about how to salvage our once great American education system (which taught born Americans and immigrants together, remember), but none seem to work. And they all have names like military operations: No Child Left Behind; Common Core; Race to the Top; and on and on, signifying little. Makes for good back and forth comments and notes in academic publications. Publish or perish, all ye who seek tenure, et al.

The latest oxymoron we have heard about is “Balanced Literacy.” Think about that for a moment.

Doesn’t it seem that literacy is just that? It doesn’t need an adjective. The framers of the Constitution could get away with “a more perfect union,” even if they knew better. It’s the exception that should prove the rule.

But “Balanced Literacy?” Come on, people, let’s get real.

We have brought up and are bringing up generations of young people who are not literate enough to deal with the world around them. Stop crystal-ball gazing and get down to what is happening and do something about it.

Recently, Alexander Nazaryan, a senior writer at Newsweek, wrote a scathing attack on this new oxymoron. He was 10 when he had to leave the Soviet Union and wound up in Connecticut. Here is what he said about learning:

“I landed in suburban Connecticut in the English-as-a-second language classroom of Mrs. Cohen. She taught me the language in the most conventionally rigorous manner, acutely aware that I couldn’t do much until I knew the difference between a subject and a verb. Mrs. Cohen was unbalanced in the best possible way.”

Nazaryan is also the founding English teacher at the Brooklyn Latin School.

He recently reviewed for The New York Times, “The Teacher Wars,” by Dana Goldstein. He gave it high praise. I would imagine that anyone who cares about education and wants to do something about it would want to read it, based on his comments.

I don’t expect everyone (or perhaps anyone) to speak or write perfect English (no comments about this piece, please), but I do expect that in the richest country in the history of the world there should be little or no oxymora (plural) in academia about “Balanced Literacy.”

Is that really asking too much?

Updated 12:32 am, July 10, 2018
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