It's happening again. I'm sitting in my English Department office, staring at an undergraduate composition class paper a summary of the short story the class has been reading and I read: She seek Connie Dad, he was the man who kill her boyfriend. This is not a freshman paper; not a paper by a recent immigrant but one American born and educated, if that's word I want; the student in question is about to graduate in a few months' time as a political science major. I can feel my head throbbing with rage. But who is there to kill, or even to berate? Not the student, who tells me in dignified but tearful outrage, when I point out her errors (all of the same sort as the sentence quoted), that none of her other professors have complained about her written English.
As she says this, I definitely want to kill somebody. This morning, in the quad that graces our campus, a line of Muslim students were arrayed on the grass, a row of them, shoulder to shoulder, looking alarmingly like the imminent victims of a firing squad. Then they knelt and bowed their heads to the ground, bowing to … the college library, apparently, which rose before them, stately, golden. Are they sure, I asked a few observers, among them campus security officers, infidel students, and secretaries taking a cigarette break, that Mecca lies behind the college library that's to say, in that general direction? No one was amused. Now, with my barely literate student sitting before me weeping at the unforeseen assault on her human worth, an assault delivered by my red, insultingly correcting pen, I should like to line up in the quad, in place of the worthy, devout Muslims, every teacher the student has ever had; every professor; her parents, even … no, of course it's absurd, as well as gratuitously sadistic. What have all these lazy, inadvertently callous people these criminally lazy and callous people been doing except congratulating themselves on "enfranchising" a student from a poor background, by passing them on to the next level, with certificates, degrees, applause, hats flying in the air?
Trying to calm my fury which by apologetic smiles I am also trying to disguise from my student I picture my colleagues, this student's professors, beaming with pride at Commencement, as another political science major marches off into the world unable to master grammar that would pass muster in the work of a child, but laureated with the paper accolade of a Bachelor of Arts. This thought might feed my fury, but instead the vision of all those hundreds of happy and well-meaning pedagogues and parents reminds me of the futility of resistance.
When will it change? Need it change at all (since employers of all kinds must long since have recognized the existence of an American graduate underclass of illiterates)? Shall we, rather, treat Masters' programs as the place where American young men and women struggle toward what should have been a high school level of literacy? Will this do, perhaps, in a socially and culturally stunted America that hardly dares compare itself to other countries with regard to many aspects of civilized life, including levels of literacy indeed levels of general knowledge right across the board: history, geography … you name it, Americans don't know it. How might it change, even if America wanted it to change? This is no time to be naïve about the powers of legislation. American schools will not be redressed by imperial fiat, for one simple reason. There aren't enough "good" teachers with whom to replace the "bad" ones. At the rates of pay and the crippling hours, who, except martyrs (and there are always a few) and those so desperate and academically unsuccessful that they can think of no other work to do to avoid winding up working at a checkout, would become a teacher? In New York City, too, many, young and old, are themselves semiliterate. The young ones, from whom we might hope for better things, are the inheritors of illiteracy: they are the grandchildren of the educationally catastrophic 1970s, when edicts were issued replacing the old-fashioned concept of learning, by rote, the traditional essentials, and in their place introducing classroom discussion and freedom of expression. The New York public school system has yet to revoke their now almost forty-year-old edict proclaiming uniformity of spelling to be a tool of patriarchal hegemony, an instrument of class division. Spell any way you please! Freedom dawns, across a thousand unshackled classrooms! Of course hardly anyone entirely believed in this delirium, but it was a declaration of chaos that permitted overworked, underpaid, and exhausted public school teachers to avoid imposing on their students the dreariness of grammar, syntax, and punctuation. One less battle to fight. Who can blame them? (I can. I wouldn't shed a tear if they were all dismissed. I do sympathize with them, as I sympathize with lazy scoundrels of all kinds. But they should be eradicated like the cultural vermin they are, for the crime of disenfranchising two generations two, so far of young minds.) Few teachers entirely gave up mentioning the rules of grammar and syntax; but even fewer continued to insist on them. The mood in classrooms had changed, decisively. And not just in America. My wife, a high school teacher, has experienced visits from German teenagers who report what amounts to anarchy in German classrooms. German classrooms! Mein Gott, does anyone remember how mediaeval in their authoritarianism they were, even in the mid-twentieth century? With the Herr Professor on a dais like a god? Now, the few young Germans interested in conventional learning sit at the front, while the bulk of the students sit behind them watching videos and doing each other's hair.
So, once again: if we wanted things to change, how on earth would we do it? The teachers my students have experienced before they reached college barely knew how to write "correct" sentences themselves; and the older generation are precisely those who grew to immaturity in the 1970s and now run Education Departments with the same cruelly mindless, supposedly well-intentioned agenda (at least in their own minds) that they learned in the years of shame.
What on earth, you may wonder, as I do, do these people think they're doing? The students they graduate and the student teachers they graduate are bereft of what remain the conventions of written English as the better public prints deliver it (a little ragged round the edges but more or less holding the line for conventional grammar and syntax) and are going to hit a wall of disapproval if they seek jobs in the realms of the better educated. Please tell me, I beg my classes, that you are going to spend your life tagging wolves in Montana or sailing the South China Seas with the pirates; that you are going to be a rock star discovered on American Idol, a sporting hero, an illiterate millionaire businessman, an actor; bring me a notarized statement to this effect that's to say, a vow never ever to darken white-collar towels unless you could buy the entire building that houses them and I will pass you gloriously, with a rosy grade, through this composition class.
They laugh along with me. What else is there to do? I explain to them that going out into the world (into certain worlds, at any rate, the kinds of worlds to which a college degree is intended to supply an entrée) with the grammar and syntax they have been taught is like going out with your zipper undone, educationally speaking. I'm continuing to try to be "amusing." But is there any point in being gothic about it? Threatening them with … well, with what? They know what they believe they need to know in the twenty-first century: the names, shoe sizes, and birthdays of the musicians and actors they love; how to avail themselves of shortcuts in employing computers, iPhones, BlackBerries (maybe it's "BlackBerrys"). They know the acronyms and the s that mark them out as smart cookies. And they have this … this certificate thing, from a college, that delights their parents. How on earth might I get gothic with them? (Of course a few years ago many of them were gothic already. That had a certain punkish, macabre irony to it. Where did that go?)
Oh the hell with it! Simply the hell with it. How soon one's enervated spirit succumbs to cynicism, the very crime for which a moment ago I was prepared to wipe out two generations of teachers. Never mind my poor witless student (She seek Connie Dad that one); she may be a deeply resourceful person who will perhaps, as a poli-sci graduate, emerge on the international scene with a brilliant, persuasive plan to resolve the tensions in the Middle East between countries whose names she cannot spell and whose place on the topography of the globe she could not locate. Who knows? Destiny works in strange ways, and certainly doesn't obey the requirements we teachers, intellectuals, and ideologues regard as helpful to social advancement and economic security.
Item: a visit this morning from a very different kind of student. Let's call him Bill. He is a young white man with a buzzcut that suggests Aryan Supremacy. He is in fact coming to me for letters of recommendation to law school. This afternoon Bill is going to show these letters ("I recommend to you with the utmost confidence this steady and brilliant student …") to his probation officer. I like Bill a lot. He shows me videos on his CrackBerry, I'm sorry, BlackBerry, of himself and his friends on a backyard shooting range upstate, firing their semiautomatic rifles. Bill has been a regular in my classes for three years and more. He used to be the leading teenage drug dealer in Brooklyn. Then he got into trouble with the dangerous people he owed money to and was unable to retrieve money owed to him, so he kicked a door down, the cops arrived, and Bill wound up in Riker's, remanded on a charge of burglary. One weekend in Riker's turned him around. "This young man will go far," it says in my letter; I mean it, and for "far" I don't have Sing-Sing in mind. Bill will make a dynamite lawyer, grammar or no grammar.
In this life, which actually is much the same as life has been since the dawn of time and I truly don't mean this as a cynical observation society will always make way for the purposeful, the strong-willed, and the lucky. Also the visionaries; the spirits so resourceful they would thrive in any environment you put them in; and those who, like myself, are fortunate enough to have been born with a vocation. My first novel I wrote at the age of eight.
We should, of course, care for those, the great majority, who drift. Must they drift, as in America now, into the class to which half-baked uneducation consigns them the in-between class, between, on the one hand, the Scylla of those (themselves a majority of Americans) who dropped out of high school or somehow never made it to college, and themselves drift, sometimes profitably, sometimes gloriously, mostly tediously and ingloriously, in the world where dull, menial jobs can only be transcended by will or luck or the emergence of an unexpected talent, and, on the other hand, the happy Charybdis of the expensively educated who rule the land? Amid this ruling class, of course, plenty of rogues surface, some who have faked their credentials, others who are sociopaths as well as lords of the earth. But the classes reinforce themselves daily indeed, the class divisions in America today would make an Englishman blanch. It makes this Englishman blanch. As long as society requires individuals to perform dull, menial tasks all week, all year instead of behaving rationally and apportioning these tasks to everyone, without exception, for two days a week we need those who drift in tedium. And if, as the democratic spirit willed it in America, we try to bring "higher" education to the many, the sheer paucity of "higher" jobs will render it not only futile but, you could argue, cruel to graduate genuinely educated people by the million, when the greater portion of them would have to waste their finely tuned grammar and their sharpened punctuation on jobs that require no more "education" than my hopeless under-educated and over-certificated political science student possesses. You could further argue: economically speaking, she has been correctly (if inadvertently) educated to the appropriately low level of attainment a case of water finding its own level, a feature of the involuntary power of economics as a reflection of capitalism early or late for the job market opportunities that she and most of her peers will confront. Ergo, we don't actually need "public" education at all. Sometimes it seems to me as if there has in fact been no education of my students, other than keeping them off the streets for certain periods of time; the crazy alternation of classes about different topics and different eras ensures what a colleague of mine calls the magic eraser: students remember nothing of their "education." So, in effect, "public" education has already been largely abolished (you could say it never truly existed) and exists now only as theater. Meanwhile, the expensively educated, in the correct number to provide the nomenklatura, continue to proceed from culturally enriched homes to private schools to fancy colleges; and a few unstoppable individuals, a Carnegie here, a Bill Gates there, emerge from the fog of incomplete education to take a place among the lords of the earth. Thus it has always been; and thus, until we entirely rethink society's distribution of labor, it will always be.
Forgive me. An aside a baleful, offensive aside, for those who believe the election of President Obama marks a new dawn: whereas my optimistic wife notes encounters with African Americans formerly more shy, now bolder in the shadow cast by the miracle (and it seemed a miracle to me, the happiest public event of my lifetime, at which I cried like a baby), I have less blissful public progress to report. The few ragged threads that attach my students, black and white, to a sense of history, seem to me to have been loosened by the triumph over history that President Obama's victory undoubtedly represents; what I find in my classrooms is that ignorance of the history of racism, ignorance of the history of slavery, already chilling, has been given license. Why remember something that's now formally over? Incredible to think that anyone in this country could suppose racism to be over; but what we're talking about here is license not to bother with knowledge that pertains to the past. Or indeed to the distant; yesterday a highly intelligent Bangladeshi student in my English Modernism class, a boy who came to the United States when he was 5, was baffled by a reference I made to North Africa. Where? He said, and insisted, even when the region was identified for him, that he'd never heard of this "North Africa" (which I think sounded to him oddly like an oxymoron). Anything that permits my students to discard another tiresome marker in time and space, be it slavery or the location of another part of the world, is gratefully accepted. A year or two ago, some of my African American students were sufficiently ignorant of the history of slavery, and sufficiently muddled by African American Studies classes to which they'd lent half an ear, that they were surprised when I explained that if they traveled to the American South they need not expect to be lynched. They seriously believed that we were still in the age when Southern whites picnicked under trees burdened with black bodies, took photographs and sold them as postcards. Their misconception was strangely moving, since to think that for them lynching was not a bygone thing but ever-present, in their imagination, spoke of a readiness, a wariness, it seemed, an awareness that racism was far from over; of course it was no such thing it was simply a deluded fantasy that enjoined them never to travel south. Had they truly believed in the contemporaneity of the lynch mob culture, their relative indifference would have been shocking. But belief was not really at issue; it was just another free-floating fact (from now? From then? What difference?), no more noteworthy than reports of Bigfoot in the far north-west. And in the brave new world of 2009, for my students to pass from this shallow, confused overstatement of the manifestations of racism in contemporary society to a shallow proclamation of the termination of racism seems to be not even a step, just a barely perceptible shuffle. Every day, in every way, it seems, history is taken from us; and with history, our present and our selves; all we have is a future ever more clearly delineated in the rearview mirror as we drive on into that very past to which we have been cursed by failing to confront or understand it.
Carey Harrison's novel Richard's Feet
So: education. What to do? How to promote it, how to achieve it? Each in our corner, we work, inshallah (please picture those Muslims fearlessly bowing on their prayer mats, in our quad), to make tiny holes in the great dykes of class. The student I mentioned earlier? The one who seek Connie Dad? She refused to come back to my class, so shamed was she by my corrections of her written English. So we work together now, in my office but outside class. She is a young woman with a child and with a job (like so many of my students), and it's easier for her to work with me around her schedule; mine is more flexible. I can't do this with every student. Nor, if I'm honest do I believe my tutorial work with her will have even so much as a cosmetic effect. How Late It Was, How Late, the title of James Kelman's wonderful novel, comes to mind. It's late. Too late. Not even drills, repeated exercises, will alter my student's habits of grammar (and speech); they're like breathing. She will graduate tattooed, as if, when her tasseled cap flies into the air at Commencement (Termination might be a more suitable word, The End Of The Innocence), a brand were to stand revealed on her forehead, marking her incompletely educated. The brand of the Bar-Ed ranch.
Inshallah she will find a job she likes and performs with wit and satisfaction. Why not? Not everyone has to wind up writing briefs for Supreme Court Justices, or Op-Ed pages for the Times. Let her be. Bless her, on her way to whatever destiny wills.
But as for her past teachers and professors, let their paths never cross mine. She seek Connie Dad, he was the man who kill her boyfriend.