At the community college where I teach—actually in the state capitol two hours away—a massive overhaul of the English curriculum is underway. As I understand it right now, a diagnostic test will determine student placement, and three levels of developmental reading and writing are being added for those with low scores. Those students will be taking nine credit hours, almost two hours a day five days a week, of developmental reading and writing.
Faculty members are groaning—two retired the week the changes were announced—but what I haven’t heard is anyone saying there isn’t a problem. I remember the essay, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” in The Atlantic in 2008, in which a professor claimed many of his students were close to being functionally illiterate.
The changes we are seeing at my school seem to indicate that it hasn’t gotten any better. Kids are coming out of high school without basic language skills.
In my experience, in an average class of twenty-two to twenty-four students, about a quarter will be placed in developmental classes, many only a small step beyond that. I would say five or six are adequately prepared for the rigors of college reading and writing.
I tell them it is important to know how to read and write. I say, “You need this to communicate effectively. To be successful. To have a rich, full life. To know who you are and what you believe about the world. To not be duped by charlatans and con artists.”
They listen quietly, looking at me as if I’m the one trying to sell them a bucket of bunkum, while trying to discreetly text under the table. Though they cannot read or write, they certainly don’t seem to be having any trouble communicating.
And they have this new language they use, one I’m only slightly familiar with. This makes me nervous. Am I really the one who’s being left behind? Are they the ones moving forward into the future of communication while I’m pounding the pulpit, trying to teach equestrian skills in the age of the automobile?
Jonathan Safran Foer wrote a story called “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease” in which he starts substituting small shapes and pictures for words and phrases. By the end of the story, he and his father are having a non-conversation conversation using a string of these symbols and no words at all. If you’ve paid attention, you know exactly what’s being communicated. It’s a clever story that, among other things, shows how easy it is to substitute a symbol for an object or concept—which is what written language is, after all.
I’m wondering if there might be a new alphabet developing right under the teachers’ noses, a whole new language, one better suited for the world we are hurtling headlong into.
This does bring up deeper questions about what language is in the first place. Is it, like the Chomskyans say, innate, a part of our genetic makeup? Or is it, as Daniel Everett claims in his new book Language: The Cultural Tool, well, a tool?
I’m not equipped to enter that discussion. What I do wonder is if people really are not reading like they used to. I’ve seen plenty that seems to indicate they are not. But does it mean, as many claim, that we’re headed for a Fahrenheit 451 hell in which people don’t know who they are or what’s going on in the world or why any of it matters in the first place, and they are happy to be told what to believe by some unseen authority because no one can be bothered to read?
Remember, before reading became illegal in Bradbury’s dystopia, most everyone had already given it up; they were busy watching interactive reality TV on screens that filled whole walls of their houses, and didn’t give a damn when books started burning outside those walls.
Then again I don’t know. I took heart when I read Peggy Rosenthal’s Good Letters post about loving to read, and read long novels at that. But doesn’t that just mean she’s a print-reading dinosaur like I am?
Wait, all my children read. Both of my boys have recently finished doorstop novels—one was Douglas Adams’ collected Hitchhiker’s Guide, and the other Stephen King’s It, but still—it isn’t just them. Their friends read too.
So maybe the fear is not as justified as I might think. Maybe the young people who are inclined to read are going to read. And it’s reading more than anything else, after all, that both teaches one how to write and plants the urge in the soul.
And it is stories that most often set that urge on fire.
I teach a world literature survey, and I go back to Gilgamesh in the fall and start moving forward. At the end of spring semester, I am again at contemporary literature. And again I am struck with how, though forms and mediums and languages change, one thing remains: from cave paintings to cuneiform to electric blips, we have always found ways to tell stories. Language might be innate, or it might be a tool, but I believe story is innate.
So everything will be fine no matter what our language looks like in fifty years, or a hundred years, or whenever we can finally see this swirling change in language start to take some shape. Story will be there intact; it is hard wired into us.
At least that’s how I console myself. And to get to this consolation, I did a lot of reading.