Thomas F. Bertonneau
The thesis of this essay is simple: in the field of wreckage that is contemporary American higher education, few have done more damage intellectually to students than the avant-garde in charge of college-level writing programs. It is worse than that, because the distorted models of writing-instruction ensconced in the programs dedicated to freshman composition and related courses have long since filtered down to the elementary and secondary schools. The mischief begins early and at no stage, save in a few cases, does anyone step in decisively to undo it. At stake is the understanding of what literacy is and what acquiring it entails. Permit me to begin with some pleasant reminiscence.
When I taught freshman composition, I always asked my students, on the first day of class, to respond to a brief assertion by an author unfamiliar to them: "All men should speak clearly and logically, and thus share a rational discourse and have a body of thought in common," this authority wrote, "as the people of a city are under the same laws" (Herakleitos and Diogenes 25). The author, Heraclitus of Ephesus, flourished in the fifth century B.C., not so long after alphabetic writing established itself in the Greek world. The English version of Heraclitus's dictum comes courtesy of Guy Fox. Jonathan Barnes gives a slightly different rendition in which, however, the meaning remains unchanged: "Speaking with sense, one should rely on what is common to all, as a city on its law" (Early Greek Philosophy 109). To literates, Heraclitus's assertion seems obvious. The written language is necessarily a common one, with rules well known to all, rather than a dialect or an idiolect whose grammar and logic (if those terms be applicable) are relative and variable. Yet the literate's appreciation of the Ephesian's statement is not, in historical terms, inevitable (no more so than the statement itself); it is, rather, something hard-won which would prevail in neither the long chronology of the pre-literate societies nor in those portions of existing humanity where a high degree of literacy does not obtain. My students, for example, rarely shared my sense that it could not be otherwise than as Heraclitus had put it. The typical response to him over the years has consisted of a bristling denial that anyone should do anything, usually in the form of the rhetorical question, who is Heraclitus to say that...? Students also typically deny that there is anything universally qualifiable as logical or sensible. They feel that what is logical or sensible to one person might not be to another, and that to force someone to accept a rule amounts to a species of tyranny.
Needless to say, students express these notions awkwardly, often with deficient grammar and syntax, and with little subtlety in their diction. (They can learn these things well enough, but they do not bring them out of their K-12 experience.) Although Heraclitus speaks to the idea of logic, implying that his pronouncement is analytically unavoidable, students react to his words emotionally. Here are three representative responses culled from the years:
 I feel that this statement is invalid. All men should speak clearly and logically, but not all men should be in the same body of thought. All people need to think seperately [sic] using their own body of thought. All humans perceive the world differently and are therefore in their own body of thought. Ideas can be shared from one body of thought to another, but no one is in the same body of thought.
 I believe, first of all, that Heraclidus [sic] himself needs to view the world more open-mindedly. He is making an invalid statement when stating the first few words "all men" This is so because not "all men" are the same. Every human being including "all men" are different in their own way so that is why this statement starts off to be invalid just by stating "all men" in the first line. This statement is also invalid in such a way that he seems to know all including what people think; somewhat like a god figure. My conclusion to these fragments given by him is that they are merely full of opinions on how he feels about men and how they view the world.
 The assertion is invalid. If every man had the same discourse and body of thought in common there might not be new discoveries. Columbus made an assumption that the world was round and no one believed him. If he wouldn't have spoken out we would still think the world was flat. Because of people thinking different and speaking out we have made discoveries.
The first writer exemplifies the affective style of contemporary first-year college students; in addition to being tripped up by his emotions, he also has trouble with the metaphorical character of the phrase "body of the thought," a "body" for him being something that one occupies, so that one is physically "in" it. Nor may any two bodies, as this writer sees it, occupy the same space at the same time. Everyone must keep immaculately within his own "body of thought." The relativism confidently espoused by this writer ("all humans perceive the world differently") reigns almost universally among young people and might even qualify as the foundation of their worldview. The second writer ("Heraclidus [sic] needs to view the world more open-mindedly"), who in some ways seems to be attempting an argument, nevertheless confuses the empirical with the moral. That Heraclitus concedes different perceptions but seeks a means to reconcile them constructively escapes him. He likewise misapprehends in the Heraclitean "should" a demand for intolerable conformity while he himself furthers the paradoxically conformist notion that everyone is "different" from everyone else. (Just not so "different" that they respond differently to a call for intellectual clarity.) For the second writer, Heraclitus's prescriptive formula can only result from a delusion of godhood. This is a variant of the "who is he to...?" response. The third writer likewise confuses the recommendation that people need to share logic in common with the demand (as he misperceives it) that they should all think the same mandatory thoughts.
The diagnosis that these emotive responses constitute mere freshman confusion and nothing more is easy to make but, I would argue, insufficiently rigorous. The flaw in such a diagnosis lies in the tacit assumption that clear thinking, the very "logic" on which Heraclitus insists, is to be written (so to speak) on a blank slate ready to receive it, or that it emerges ex vacuo in a presumed natural course of educational development. The prior state to an internalization of orderly thinking, of literacy, is not, however, a cypher; it is something quite specific and quite robustly resistant to the adoption of the sequential style of reasoning that stems from literacy. Walter J. Ong, Jr., names this prior state "orality." "Fully literate persons can only with great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like," Ong says, "without writing, words as such have no visual presence, even when the objects they represent are visual" (Orality and Literacy 31). For the "oral" person, words are necessarily "spoken, sounded, hence power-driven" (32). And, by definition, "an oral culture has no texts" (33). Thus, for the orally determined mentality, words always belong to a first or a second person; they always partake in the clash of persons, and they designate items, necessarily on hand, of mutual interest or contestation.
It is furthermore the case that "in an oral culture, the restriction of words to sound determines not only modes of expression but also thought processes" (33). Because thinking, in an oral culture, "is tied to communication" (34) and depends therefore the presence of an interlocutor, it tends to follow the limitations of talk and falls subject to interruption through divagation, personality conflict, and the inability of the conversants to recall in later stages of their dialogue what they said in earlier stages of it. So oral cultures tend to do their thinking not afresh and by means of careful analysis, but "in proverbs which are constantly heard by everyone so that they come to mind readily and which themselves are patterned for retention and recall" (34). Ong finds that oral thought, in distinction to literate thought, is "additive rather than subordinative" (37), stringing out items of interest in arbitrary sequence with little attempt to link them hierarchically or by the principle of causality. Moreover, "traditional expressions in oral cultures must not be dismantled" (39) or subjected to logical analysis: "An oral culture may well ask in a riddle why oak trees are sturdy, but it does so to assure you that they are...not really to question or cast doubt on the attribution" (39). Oral cultures, and those immersed in them, remain "close to the human lifeworld" (42). Thus, as Ong puts it, "in the absence of elaborate analytic categories that depend on writing to structure knowledge at a distance from lived experience, oral cultures must conceptualize and verbalize all their knowledge with more or less close reference to the human lifeworld, assimilating the alien, objective world to the more immediate, familiar interaction of human beings" (42). Oral cultures exhibit a markedly emotion-driven style: "Many, if not all, oral or residually oral cultures strike literates as extraordinarily agonistic in their verbal performance and indeed in their lifestyle" (43). Whereas writing "separates the knower from the known" (44), orality entails the subject's "achieving close, empathetic, communal identification with the known" (45). Oral thinking also tends to be "situational rather than abstract" (49) and take its context in what Ong calls the "verbomotor lifestyle" (68).
The student responses to Heraclitus, although they represent the expression of people who have to some degree assimilated the practice of writing, nevertheless exhibit numerous features of a residually "oral" attitude toward the world. The "agonistically toned" flavor of oral contestation makes itself evident in all three. The second writer's awkward cognition of the phrase "body of thought," which he treats as though Heraclitus were writing about human physical corporality, suggests his closeness to "the human lifeworld" and his distance from abstraction. The recurrent claim that, as the formula invariably puts it, everyone is different is a standard plea purely and simply, invoked not logically but as an item of certain authority useful when someone asserts the antithesis. The third writer tries to find an objective reference to back up the formula (hence his invocation of Columbus) but cannot successfully work it out. The writers of the three responses do not display the signs that would mark them as having mastered the literate world of "autonomous discourse" (Ong 78), in which, as Heraclitus says, thinking is not subjective but takes heed of a set of external rules that govern the legitimacy of each instance of argument. The thought processes of the literate, furthermore, "do not grow out of simply natural powers but out of these powers as structured, directly or indirectly, by the technology of writing" (78). Ong argues adamantly that "without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does, not only when engaged in writing but normally even when it is composing its thoughts in oral form" (78). Thematic grammar, discernment in vocabulary, reference to an archive, and the ability to construct complex arguments, the parts of which cannot be kept simultaneously in mind, all belong to written language and offer themselves to the individual only to the extent that he has internalized the technology of the written word:
Written words sharpen analysis, for the individual words are called on to do more. To make yourself clear without gesture, without facial expression, without intonation, without a real hearer, you have to foresee circumspectly all possible meanings a statement may have for any possible reader in any possible situation, and you have to make your language work so as to come clear all by itself, with no existential context.... (104)
Writing makes possible increasingly articulate introspectivity, opening the psyche as never before not only to the external objective world quite distinct to itself but to the interior self aginst whom the objective world is set. (105)
As many have argued in other venues, American education at all levels and for at least twenty-five years has engaged in a utopian and in some cases perverse denial of the fundamental difference between the world of the oral person and the world of the literate person. At the K-12 level, this takes the form of an abandonment of thematic grammar, a relinquishment of difficult reading, and the predominance of the "whole language" and related approaches to literacy-instruction in the primary grades. At the college level, the same anti-literacy (as it ought to be called) gained a foothold in the ascendancy of the "process" approach to composition, which dissociated itself from literary studies (cleaved apart reading and writing) and opened up English 101 to the sloganeering of politics.
Heather MacDonald describes the current state of college-level writing-instruction as "an indigestible stew of 1960s liberationist zeal, 1970s deconstructivist nihilism, and 1980s multicultural proselytizing" (MacDonald 3). The modern pedagogical derailment began, Mac Donald argues, "in 1966, [when] the Carnegie Endowment funded a conference of American and British writing teachers at Dartmouth College...The Dartmouth Conference was the Woodstock of the composition professions: It liberated teachers from the dull routine of teaching grammar and logic" (4). It also effectively liberated students from learning those same dull, but powerfully generative, routines. One result, as MacDonald notes, is that "American employers regard the nation's educational system as an irrelevance" (3). In "elevating process," the compositionists have, in MacDonald's words, "driven out standards" (5), and employers have noticed it. MacDonald cites an example of student prose from a City University of New York writing class that she visited while researching her article. The student took his cue from the question, "Do you think the personal life of a political candidate...should be considered a factor in determining his or her ability to do the job?"
We are living in a world that's getting worse every day. And what are we doing nothing, just complaining about the other person life. We should stop because if we don't stop by looking on every candidate lifestyle and focus more on how, we could make it better. We all gonna die of, hungry, because we wouldn't have nothing to eat and no place to life.
People tends to make mistake in life. We all are humans. That's why we should never judge a person for the cover of a book. People change in life, most of them tends to learn from their mistake. We live in a world that we should learn to forgive and forget everyone mistake and move forward. (6)
Like the respondents to Heraclitus on the necessity of logic, MacDonald's student subscribes to a form of relativism, but relativism belongs, part and parcel, to orality, with its invariably subjective and agonistic orientation. People, even educated ones, mistake relativism for a sophisticated doctrine. It is not. As Ong remarks, and as Eric Havelock has shown at length, the emergence from relativism only becomes possible when an objective world becomes available to reason by virtue of the written word. Prior to that, there is only subjective opinion backed up by loosely applicable formulas. Notice the salience of clichés and ready observations in MacDonald's sample of student prose: the world is "getting worse every day"; "don't judge a book by its cover" (but deployed in a mangled form); and "forgive and forget...and move forward." This writer thinks not at the level of objective analysis but at the level of the proverb, albeit deficiently. (It is a case both of poor literacy and of insufficient orality.) Asked to make an analytical assessment of some kind, he can offer only a random sequence of ready, but imperfectly memorized, sayings that bear obliquely, or by tenuous association, on the topic. His grammar is much worse than that of the commentators on the Greek aphorism. The current mean of grammatical competency among entering freshmen probably lies somewhere between theirs and his. I submit that whether it occurs at a mid-tier state university in the Midwest or at an urban school like one of the CUNY campuses, literacy of so low a level represents an intolerable disservice to students on the part of people who receive a salary, generally out of the public purse, on the payer's assumption that they will make students linguistically competent. I submit further, that the current dominant model of composition instruction, through its reinforcement of affectivity and orality as the bases of discourse, is linked directly to the failure of students to pass from adolescent incoherency into some semblance of adult mastery in their prose.
I am able to offer some additional evidence to support the contention, evidence that corresponds more closely, if yet imperfectly, to the controlled and experimental. In 1997, shortly after the publication of my study on Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities, I was invited to participate at Central Michigan University in what the administration billed as a "community conversation" on questions raised in my report. In effect an informal debate, the event featured handouts for the audience detailing the questions to be put to both sides in the order in which they would be asked, projections of the questions on the proscenium while the debaters discussed them, and extremely clear management of the proceedings by a CMU administrator, Provost Richard Davenport. The event was open to the public. Several score of students were in the auditorium that afternoon, including twenty sent there by their social sciences professor with the assignment to make a report summarizing what had taken place. The professor, whom I shall call "Smythe," later gave me photocopies of these student reports, with names blanked out, on the thought that they might interest me.
What is significant is that the course in question belonged to the upper division. Students enrolled in it can be presumed to have taken, and to have passed through, Central Michigan's freshman composition requirement; it is less certain, but by no means improbable, that many of them have also taken the mandatory advanced composition course. Central, like virtually every institution of higher education in the United States today, has given its writing program over to the professional compositionists, and the model firmly in place there is the "process" model. If this model conduced to student literacy of a high level, we would expect to see the result in student prose. The specifics of the assignment went as follows: "(1) Make a careful statement of the issue; (2) rehearse the specific arguments made by each of the opposing sides; (3) comment on the arguments and evidence; and (4) come to your own conclusion about which side had the most persuasive case." These are by no means burdensome stipulations. I recall similar assignments when I was in high school (1969-72) as well as when I was in college and so, very likely, do many readers of this essay. How did Smythe's students fare?
Literacy, as Ong amply demonstrates, inclines the subject to abstract from concrete experience and deal with categorical essentials. Professor Smythe's students by contrast tend to operate, as do persons not yet released from the intellectual closure of orality, at the level of personal narrative, where the subjective and the concrete are uppermost. The student whom I shall name "Alpha" indeed rehearses a personal story, built around a few lifeworld details: "I attended a debate at the University Center Auditorium on Wednesday April 12th," he writes. "It was kind of neat because I had never been to the auditorium before. The room was set up very formal and it looked nice in there." Alpha notes that "a whole bunch of...questions were asked and some arguments were started." Note the indeterminacy of the phrase "a whole bunch." The same imprecision will be seen to mark all of the responses. A true child of the therapeutic approach to education, Alpha complains that "the men and women on stage didn't act very professional," and this is because these panelists "were more concerned with winning their argument then [sic] with other peoples [sic] feelings." This construction exemplifies Ong's remark that the world of the oral personality is one of agonistic reflex; not only does the oral personality himself react to argument agonistically, he interprets argument in and of itself as a bellicose phenomenon. Alpha has considerable trouble with detail. He confuses CMU Provost Davenport, the moderator and examiner of the affair, with one of the panelists, Dennis Toffolo, a special assistant to then CMU President Leonard Plachta. As do all people in casual conversation, Alpha identifies the (misidentified) person by his first name: "The debate started off by Dennis asking the question, What is the evidence for concluding that college graduates are less prepared today than they were in the past?" True enough. Provost Davenport did ask that question in more or less those words. But how much credit should one extend to Alpha for correct reportage? In fact, as previously mentioned, all questions posed by the Provost were flashed on a screen at proscenium height and remained visible for the ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes that it took to discuss them back and forth. Such apparent structure as Alpha exhibits in his essay stems largely from his reliance on external crutches. And that is to say that education has failed him. The problem is his, but the blame must go, in part at least, to others.
When Alpha reports the answer given by the panelist to whom Davenport directed the question, the prose suddenly breaks down: "Thomas Bertaneau [sic] a faculty member at CMU simply stated that it is due to failure in American higher education." What I actually said was that falling SAT scores, widespread complaints about student competency, and low levels of performance on instrumental assessments of the literacy of four-year college graduates all constituted the evidence that modern students have achieved much less than their historical counterparts. Note that what the question solicited was evidence in support of a statement, while Alpha's attribution to the respondent invokes a vague "it" said to stem from "failure in higher education." There is a startling inability here to deal in effective analysis of even the most rudimentary type. Evidence for a drop-off in student preparedness (for life after graduation) and failure in higher education would, of course, be two names for the same thing. Logically the one could not be construed as evidence for the other. If Alpha's training had inculcated a sense of logic, however informal, he ought to have sensed some propositional dissonance in the conjunction of the Provost's question and the answer that he attributes (mistakenly) to the respondent. If (a) I had said what Alpha claims that I said, and if (b) Alpha's teachers had helped him to attain a minimal sense for informal reasoned analysis somewhere in his education, then he would have written that the witness answered the question in an evasive and inadequate manner. No such minimal critique is evident. Alpha concludes with this observation: "The good thing about going to the auditorium was, I got to see what the President of Central Michigan University looks like. In my opinion he seems a little old and we need someone younger who can relate to college students." Note again the translation of a complicated argument into a personal observation--one that changes the subject and at the same time invokes communal solidarity of the young against the old.
The master syllabus of CMU's English 101 course stresses, as do all such documents nowadays, the notion of "critical thinking." The NCTE booklet on Standards in the English Language Arts also makes much of "critical thinking," which it defines as "the thought processes characteristic of creativity, criticism, and logic in literature, the arts, science, and other disciplines; divergent thinking" (71). But these appear to be so many empty words. Alpha's essay, in any case, offers precious little evidence of a capacity for anything that might genuinely be called critical. It exemplifies unconfronted adolescent prejudice (President Plachta "seems a little old"), it is full of vagueness ("a whole bunch of questions"), and it relies on emotion ("other peoples [sic] feelings") rather than ratiocination. It corresponds not to the model of a primarily literate text, but to that of an awkward transcription of things that the writer might say in an informal oral disquisition. Yet even as an oral utterance, it lacks coherence. Almost fully stimulus-bound, Alpha feels the pull of the physical features of the scene and misses the dialectic altogether.
"Beta" likewise depends heavily on the borrowed framework, and as soon as he departs from it, his prose begins to disintegrate; he also deals in vagueness and cannot escape the passive constructions that mark an impoverishment of vocabulary. Thus "10 panelists were introduced and some of them were from different departments of the school." Note the paratactical construction, another mark of oral formulation. In fully self-conscious adult prose, the statement would read: The Provost introduced ten panelists, some of whom were CMU faculty. Note also the indeterminate "some." Given that there were only ten panelists, a more definite statement would not have been beyond calculation. But oral language does not deal in quantitative niceties; it deals rather in indefinite masses. Beta continues, "The discussion started off with college curriculum and instruction," and "this of course led to other topics," and again "throughout the discussion there were many positive and negative parts." In the matter of vocabulary, Beta exhibits his reliance on a certain minimal lexicon of pseudo-sophisticated words available to young people in a post-literate age, "positive" and "negative" being two oft-used constituents of the set, sometimes conjoined with the noun "aspect." Like Alpha, Beta deals uncertainly with possessives: "The whole discussion," he writes, "opened peoples [sic] minds." (We saw this same ignorance of how written English forms the genitive in the sample of student prose from CUNY cited by MacDonald.) In both cases (Alpha and Beta), the apostrophe has gone missing. Lest this complaint meet up with the irate objection of pedantry or trivial-mindedness, consider that correct punctuation (like correct spelling), however wildly arbitrary it might be, nevertheless provides a model for order, for punctiliousness, and thus also for communicability. Postmodern "standards" for rhetoric anathematize punctiliousness--and thus deprive students not only of the practice, but of the concept.
Some of Beta's sentences draw on the account of the merely banal, some present an incomprehensible muddle, while others manage to combine inadvertent frankness with frustrated resentment: "There [were?] many topics discussed therefore many opinions were heard. Although all things may have an upside, there are downsides too. With good topics and good opinion mentioned, the way in which the discussion was held was sub par. When questions were asked, the panelist made it too complicated to understand the answer." This passage merits analysis in Ongian terms. Beta's paired "upside" and "downside" represent a highly colloquial, perhaps idiolectic, variant on the pseudo-sophisticated "positive" and "negative" of Alpha and others. Beta's essay remains nebulous throughout ("many topics," "many opinions") and achieves specificity nowhere because its writer could not prescind the opposing views expressed by the contentious panelists--despite the external supports to understanding made available in the context of the event. As he candidly divulges, the discourse of the "community conversation" occurred at a level "too complicated to understand," and this justifies his assessment that the debate was "sub par." Unable to report meaningfully on an argument, clear enough in its own structure and terms, which he has nevertheless failed to understand, Beta falls back on a merely ad hominem ploy. The panelists "made" their answers difficult, and the faults of opacity, vagueness, or evasion thus lie with them. The accusation, for that is what it is, corresponds to the agonistic strain of oral language. A difficult argument appears as threatening or belligerent, and the subject responds to it mimetically with a like belligerence. The oral person takes everything personally and, indeed, can hardly conceive of the impersonal. Orality thus directs powerful suspicion towards the types of abstract argument that lend character to the higher forms of literate consciousness. Beta offers a case in point.
"Gamma" leans heavily on the structure supplied by the event itself. As do almost all others, he depends on passive constructions to convey causality: "There were four important issues discussed...the first issue was college curriculum and instruction...the second issue that was discussed was English composition...the third issue that was discussed was foreign language. . .the last issue that was discussed was about teacher education." But passive constructions do not clarify but obscure causality. Here, they serve to disguise the fact that Gamma's education has not prepared him to refer the parts of a conflicted exchange to their specific advocates in the dispute. In Gamma one thus discovers another common feature of the twenty essays. These student writers--even those who discern that some panelists disagree with other panelists--attribute a false univocity to the dais: "Most of the panelists stated that the assignments that are given to college students today, were given to them in high school." Ignoring the comedy implicit in the syntax, note that most panelists did not say what Gamma claims them to have said; rather one did (myself) while at least two others, the English chair and a representative of the Education Department, emphatically claimed otherwise. For Gamma, however, there is only the anonymous "they" of the panel, which remains murkily undivided in Gamma's vision. Gamma's prose also reveals the widely remarked replacement of the verb to think by the verb to feel, a substitution which accurately reflects the emotive orientation fostered by the postmodern literacy curriculum (emphasis is added): "Some of the panelists felt that foreign languages will be necessary in the future. Some of the panelists felt that students need to take more classes in their subject." Gamma offers as a conclusion his feeling: "I feel [that] public colleges seem to be doing a good job when it comes to educating students."
"Delta" combines the standard oral predilection for the sensorium (Ong's "lifeworld") with the penchant for passive construction: "It is felt that kindergarten through twelfth graders put social goals first in today's society instead of the importance of verbal and thinking skills." This statement misreports Professor Koper's asseveration that postmodern pedagogy (he placed no blame on students) puts social goals ahead of intellectual ones. Delta later writes that the panelists "all across the board" favored more courses in multiculturalism and diversity. The only panelists who addressed this issue, however, found much to criticize in multiculturalism and diversity and spoke against the proliferation of such courses. Again, the failure merely to hear correctly is poignant. So is the attribution of a vague and counterfactual univocity to the panel ("it is felt," "all across the board"), which tells of an incapacity to deal with multiple, conflicting claims in a forensic setting. Delta exhibits vocabulary problems as well, using the adjective accused, which for most adolescents boasts an affective connotation having to do with parental authority, where normative diction would put the much cooler alleged. Says Delta, the debate concerned "the accused declining standards at Michigan public universities." Delta is a curious case. He suspects that all might not be perfect in the world of his coursework: "It is not that students today are felt to be uneducated, but they are not considered to be linear in their education." (This comes in response to an educationist's claim that contemporary students differ from students of past decades because they do not think in the traditional "linear," or causal, pattern.) On the topic of the dumbed-down freshman composition course (which was much discussed during the event), Delta writes these mildly defensive words: "Students seem to spend more time in the classroom exploring creative 'let it all go' writing instead of practicing the use of grammatical rules and syntax which is important in the understanding of the English. Yet this writing gives students a chance to enhance their own personal thought process on paper." Generally, his constitutes a response to my remarks during the debate on freshman composition, but it also springs from the propagandizing that goes on in writing classes. Delta appears to be paraphrasing from the raison d'être, given by an instructor, for the endless "journaling" that students undertake nowadays in composition courses.
"Epsilon" deals entirely in generalities, so much so that his teacher must suspect him of having skipped the debate. "Zeta" refers to "multiculture authors who discuss oppressed or nontraditional lifetstyles" and invokes "the negative attitudes that were discussed about institutions." (Attitude is another workhorse word in the student lexicon, one, like accuse, with strongly subjective connotations related to parental authority.) Part of the problem, Zeta states, is "poor area of youth," a construction which defies any ready gloss. "Eta" notes that, in the question and answer which followed the main presentation, "a member of the audience who happened to be of the female persuasion [made an observation] regarding the fact that the composition of the panel was characteristic of CMU's (perhaps subconscious) attempt to make its enrollment unrepresentative (or biased). Interestingly, the 10-member panel consisted of but 2 women and of but one minority; the other 7 were white males." One notes in Eta's remark several prominent topoi of the postmodern dispensation, thereby confirming MacDonald's remark that propagandizing has replaced substantive instruction in most composition classrooms. "Theta," like so many of the others, attributes a non-existent univocity to the panel: "There was a meeting of minds at the University Center Auditorium," he says, whereas the two sides clashed tensely. Theta reports that "there were several positive aspects of the improvements that were discussed." "Iota," too, thinks that the panel as a whole expressed concern about the level of literacy of contemporary college students: "These individuals also realize that students are not reading and writing at the same level as twenty years ago." Professor Koper and I staked this claim, and Doctor Richard Cutler (who at the time was President of the Michigan Association of Scholars) might have added his voice; those on the defending side denied it. "Kappa" spells the word professor with a u, professur; and the word effort with an e, effert: "Alod [sic] of students lack effert and just dont care." Kappa also turns in this non-sequitur opinion, flawed possibly for not having been proofread, but equally undermined by purely invented spelling: "We are in an era of advanced technology, we must be knowledjable [sic] students to run this country." "Lambda" shows fewer basic-language inadequacies but cannot escape the truisms of the current regime. On the need for students to know something about Western history (one of my topics), Lambda writes that "we [students] need to analyze these people from the past and learn from their mistakes and follow their leadership. We need to know about everyone's past and how they believe now. This needs to be done to live in a diverse world."
"Mu" notes the claim made by panelist Rita Kramer, author of Ed School Follies, that graduates of teacher education programs appear, on inquiry, not to know much of substance: "That is probably true because if the education in the university's [sic] is declining then where are we suppost [sic] to get our teachers from?" Note the attempt at syllogism, the abortive if-clause. In two or more years of attendance at college, someone might have helped Mu to understand how a syllogism functions. It appears not to have happened, and the young person is that much cheated through the lapse. "Nu," like so many of his peers, heard only a single, collective voice coming from the dais: "They also believe...they said...they also claim...they blame." At one point, however, Nu had an inkling that the two sides had staked out genuinely conflicting positions, and the sudden perception produced this: "They asked if it was good to teach different views in the classroom and how much diversity there should be in the curriculum. I don't know whether these were in opposition or defense, but here were the arguments." A genuine pathos lurks in that fleeting but dim recognition that there were arguments. Recall similarly Beta's inadvertent frankness about the difficulty of the presentation. Nu, like Beta, knows that something is happening beyond his limited ability to sort out, and he is a bit perturbed by it. I say that, like Mu, he deserves a better learning opportunity than he has evidently received. It is Nu who supplies the title for the present essay. Invoking his version of a claim that I hear constantly from teachers of education and other defenders of the postmodern curriculum (from whom he must have gotten it), Nu writes that "they [Bertonneau and Koper] said traditional means good, but it may not because we have a rapidly changing world. Others said that we all have our own brains and can think for ourselves and too much diversity is never enough." Nu expresses his disappointment that the panelists were not more "open minded" about each others' opinions, the same response made by one of the students who, in my composition class, commented irately on Heraclitus. "Xi," for his part, obviously did not attend the debate, but did glance at Declining Standards, giving readers of his essay a chance to measure how well one of these young people can read. The answer is, in a barely adequate way, subverted everywhere by an intensely emotional response to criticism construed as personal: "My belief about this survey [Declining Standards] is that it is totally and unstationally [sic] false, and almost in every respect." The report, Xi writes, "tries to justify that it is correct to judge different generations together...so right there it should invalidate this survey as having any merit because not everybody had the same educational level as earlier in this century."
"Omicron" varies Beta's "upside/downside" opposition by writing (somewhat asymmetrically) about the "downfalls on...the specific issues [which] were discussed throughout the meeting." (One wonders what the opposite of a "downfall" might be. An "uprise"?) To his credit, Omicron does make out that some of the panelists hold opposing points of view, as over teacher education: "One concern was that teachers were lacking in knowledge in the subject they were to be teaching. This concern was later said to be false because the teachers were to have known the material, but just have troubles putting the material into practice." Note the garbled tenses: "The teachers were known to have the material," which they nevertheless cannot transmit to their charges. Note also that, in reporting defensive comments by a representative of CMU's Education department, Omicron ferrets out the educationist's tacit acknowledgment that the way to teach things to students is by an act of transmission, not in the hope that some vague "process" will end in the "construction of knowledge." But the educationists, allies of the compositionists, remain rhetorically opposed to the "transmission model." As Delta honestly reported, the writing instructors at Central Michigan favor the "let it all go" or "constructivist" or "process" approach. Another apparent failure of tense-differentiation on Omicron's part occurs in the following sentence: "Literacy is also a big topic which is to be declining." It might be argued that this is not in fact a tense problem; so perhaps, then, the oddness of the sentence stems from the careless omission of a word, whereupon the minimally corrected sentence would read: Literacy is also a big topic which is said to be declining. Yet carelessness blemishes all twenty essays, each of which illustrates that in the pedagogical failure of contemporary education there lurks, like a shadow, an ethical failure. In reporting my statement, made during the debate, that plenty of empirical evidence exists to document the declining competency of four-year college graduates, "Pi" referred to "massive imperial evidence" (on the model, I suppose, of the armor-clad imperial storm-troopers in Star Wars). Pi offers a variation on the general incapacity to tell that an argument is taking place between two strongly distinguished sides. He sees, in my copiously stated agreement with Rita Kramer that teacher education is in dire straits, an instance of disagreement. When Kramer made her remarks, writes Pi, Bertonneau "contradicted with" other information. Pi, like Xi, reacts emotionally to criticism construed, though by no means intended, as personal: "How do they know what we're learning and what not? Who better to decide how to get teachers to teach than the people who have to learn from them, the students."
Professor Smythe, as noted, directed his students to list the arguments on both sides of the debate. Students tend to translate this into a taxonomy of "pros and cons" or of "positive and negative aspects" or of "upsides and downsides." They experience difficulty, moreover, in making out clearly that there really were two sides in forensic opposition to one another or, should they vaguely make a distinction, of what the two sides consisted. "Rho's" opening comment grows out of just this difficulty: "More of the actual substance behind the issue of broad education seemed to be spoke of [sic] instead of the real question being asked." For Rho, criticism is nothing but a "con." "The types of questions asked tended to focus on the irrelevant or else con side of the issue. Thus I am forced to focus mainly on the negative." Note that Rho is "forced" into his discussion of a problem by the implied dourness of the presenters just as, for Beta, the argument was "made" difficult by the alleged obstreperousness of the same. Once more, a certain irritation inhabits the phraseology while morphological problems stand to the fore. Rho cannot form the complex sentences requisite to accurate reporting of a public argument. "An example of a question is evidence that students come to college not knowing basics in high school and they are forced to learn it in college which causes teachers and students in class to agree to help those who are behind according to Mackinaw [sic] Center Report." At the semantic level, Rho confuses questions with answers. To his credit, he really has succeeded in mapping out a portion of the critical argument (someone asked a particular question), but in a crude way (he remains confused about the response) so that no one could decipher who had not participated in the event and who therefore lacked a context to aid in the decipherment. Dismissing Professor Koper's statement that one way to build up the linguistic competency of students is to make them read challenging texts that take them out of the contemporary scene, Rho invokes the anonymous "some" of oral contestation who, in this case, he alleges to have wondered "if the readings of the past are relevant to today's world."
These samples of student prose do not constitute fully scientific evidence for the linkage of the postmodern pedagogy of writing to the widespread functional illiteracy that now shows itself among entering freshman across the country. A much wider sampling under more controlled conditions would be useful. I repeat, however, that all of the students in the sample must have passed out of Central Michigan's freshman composition requirement, and that, if this pedagogy, which happens to be the standard "process" pedagogy, under which that requirement operates were effective, then the students should exhibit basic linguistic competency. Clearly they do not. I advert once more to MacDonald:
With its emphasis on personal experience and expression, the process school forgets that the ultimate task of writing is to teach students how to think. In the personal essay, assertions need not be backed up by anything more than the author's sincerity. According to Rolf Norgaard of the University of Colorado, evaluation then becomes a judgment upon students' lives, their personalities, their souls. But how can you tell a student, he asks, that her experiences or family life were not terrribly interesting or striking? (9)
Professor Smythe's students might well be trying to think, but in the end they know only their personal, largely emotional, reactions to exterior events. No doubt every one of them is "nice," but none is a competent writer, which we ought normatively expect twenty-year-olds to be after two years of immersion in a massively tax-subsidized state university. Meanwhile, as MacDonald notes, "professors are expending vast amounts of energy making excuses for their students" (12). The NCTE, for example, assures us that that there is no such thing as incorrect English ("no single 'standard' of English exists" [Standards 22]) and that correcting students is tantamount to oppression (20). The Colloquium on College Composition and Communication is even more adamant on this issue. In an earlier article, "Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition," I quoted numerous examples of the hostility toward literacy now commonplace in the discourse of the compositionists.
Here is a question. Should Rho or Delta or Beta or Alpha serve on a jury in a case which turns on the juror's good understanding of complex argumentation about DNA as an identifier of the one who has committed a particular crime? In an earlier article on the college-level literacy crisis, "Epistemological Correctness in English 101," I argued that the postmodern literacy curriculum at the college level took as its primary concern not the elimination of teacherly quibbling over superficies such as perfect spelling or punctuation, but rather the prevention of students from acquiring, in the first place, the noetic techniques that characterize Western thinking. A second article, "Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition," asserted that thinking, in the most rigorous sense, springs uniquely from alphabetic literacy and its attendant developments. Literacy furnishes the tool-kit, so to speak, of logic and argumentation. Among its tools are concepts, abstractions, causal analysis, the correlation of statements with evidence, and the ability to distance oneself from a polemic exchange. By contrast, the postmodern literacy curriculum praises and fosters, under rubrics like "home language" and "student centered instruction," the untutored, and therefore presumably authentic, thought processes that characterize orality. The postmodern curriculum privileges the idiolect over the normative written language (see "Ebonics"), it encourages emotive participation and pays little heed to unbiased analysis, and it stigmatizes unstructured expression over controlled composition. Feel, feel, feel, students say. They say it because they have been taught to say it. Regrettably, where it concerns their written expression, they have been taught little else.
But the NCTE statement on Standards, too, insists that such things as "non-print texts," including "spoken texts," form "an essential part of students' reading experience" (28). Neither looking at pictures nor listening to casual conversation constitutes, however, what educated people have traditionally meant by reading. It seems that the NCTE seeks to create, as part of its agenda, an equivalency between cognitive rudimentariness and cognitive sophistication and to do this for the sake of the former. While the NCTE prescriptions apply specifically to K-12, they derive from schools of education, which communicate with college writing programs, and the discourse of college-level writing instruction repeats such prescriptions endlessly. In any case, from kindergarten on, Professor Smythe's students have emerged from the developmental path laid out for them by the NCTE and its legion of followers. Their incapacity suggests the efficaciousness of the method. For contrast, consider Cynthia Ozick's account of how her non-English speaking Russian immigrant mother acquired literacy in the public schools of New York City in the early part of the twentieth century. Students read difficult, literary, material and responded to it. Thus,
[In Sargent and May's schoolbook The Etymological Reader (1870)] a fraction of the offerings had a heroic, or monumental, quality.... They stood for the power of civics. But the rest were the purest belles-lettres: and it was belles-lettres that were expected to be the fountainhead of American civilization, including civility. Belles-lettres provided style, vocabulary, speech itself; and also the themes of an educated tongue. Sentences, like consciousness and work, were demanding. (qtd. in Washburne and Thornton 78)
Ozick writes that "a year or so after my mother stepped off the horsecar into Madison Street, she was given Sir Walter Scott's 'The Lady of the Lake' to read as a school assignment.... Mastering it was the triumph of her childhood" (78). Xi, one of Professor Smythe's students, could not even make sense out of the bland but factual prose of my report on Declining Standards. This is despite the fact that Xi was already the beneficiary of allegedly college-level writing instruction. The other students could barely understand an oral argument framed within super-title topics flashed in large letters on a screen.
The conviction has increasingly grown on me that fostering traditional literacy is not, in fact, the intention of the postmodern writing curriculum. I believe that the explicitly anti-Western rhetoric of the compositionists and their "cutting-edge" allies elsewhere in the education establishment should be taken seriously and even literally. Richard Weaver noted as early as 1963 that the "progressive education" of the time disdained the existence of "a body of knowledge which reflects the structure of reality and which everyone therefore needs to learn" (Visions of Order 120). The NCTE's claim that "any given text can be understood in a variety of ways, depending on the context" (27) implies precisely the same position. That is to say, students like Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and the rest have a putative right, under the NCTE regime, to persist without interference in their condition of marginal literacy. Student relativism, while it is probably part of a native orality, also receives reinforcement from a pedagogy founded in the NCTE's anti-literate premises. The de-emphasis of cognitive rigor (or more accurately, the making of an anathema out of it) that issues in the limited reading and writing skills exhibited by contemporary college students follows from this denial of any knowledge related to a stable, external reality. For if grammar arbitrarily imposes ruling-class whims and refers only to class-structure rather than to reality-structure, then there is no reason to suppose that learning grammar will sharpen a student's perception of the manifold of objects. On the contrary, learning grammar will only enthrall the student to the existing apparatus of oppression. Students must therefore construct a new reality on the basis of their own idiolectic notion of language. But one does not speak, in pointing as I do to the linguistic limitations of student prose, of a merely cosmetic problem. The garbled language reflects garbled thinking. Students who have been told, either directly or by powerful and continuous implication, that the external reality conforms to the subject and that order and meaning are determined by each individual percipient have gained no incentive to pay close attention to the details of the extended world. Leonard Peikoff's words beg to be quoted:
Grammar is the study of how to combine words--i.e., concepts--into sentences. The basic rules of grammar--such as the need of subject and predicate, or the relation of nouns and verbs--are inherent in the nature of concepts and apply to every language; they define the principles necessary to use concepts intelligibly. Grammar, therefore, is an indispensible subject; it is a science based entirely on facts--and not a very difficult science, either.
Our leading educators, however, see no relation between concepts and facts. The reason they present material from subjects such as history without conceptualizing it, is precisely that they regard concepts as mental constructs without relation to reality. Concepts, they hold, are not a device of cognition, but a mere human convention, a ritual unrelated to knowledge or reality, to be performed according to arbitrary social fiat. (The Voice of Reason 218)
The historian of Greek literacy Eric Havelock notes, in his Preface to Plato (1963), that alphabetic literacy, followed by the invention of non-metric genres like prose, which are peculiar to the written text, constituted a psychic revolution the like of which has been seen neither before nor since. Writing liberated the subject from his immersion in a pure sensorium, enabled him to achieve distance from his lifeworld, to mount to new levels of abstraction, and to discover objectivity. The Greek literacy revolution "announced the arrival of a completely new level of discourse which, as it became perfected, was to create, in turn, a new kind of experience of the world--the reflective, the scientific, the technological, the theological, the analytic" (267). The continuity of Western Civilization rests to a large part on the psychic foundation described by Havelock and, therefore, on the modicum of philological rigor described by Peikoff. Given their announced hostility to the copiously excoriated "logocentric oppressions" of the West, the "cutting edge" attack by compositionists on linguistic discipline makes sense since this discipline generates the type of thinking that differentiates moderns from primitives, literates from illiterates, the bourgeoisie from the proletariat. The withholding of literacy produces the politically authentic because of that cognitively inadequate consciousness which my coinage "epistemological correctness" attempts to designate. I have also suggested (see again my "Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition") that an ideology of illiteracy now prevails in the service courses of America's humanities departments and can be gleaned from professional journals like College English and College Composition and Communication.
Hundreds of thousands of American students have by now paid the price for this experiment in social manipulation. Consider what the lifeworld of Professor Smythe's students--and by extension a vast mass of others--is like. As the failure to differentiate separate positions and to abstract basic concepts from the flow of discourse shows, in situations outside those of their day-to-day social activities, these students face the blooming, buzzing confusion which the raw stuff of existence is supposed to be, according to one school of philosophy. These students remain rooted to concretes in a pronouncedly dependent way, as indicated by their erroneous imputation of univocity to the panel at the debate. Faced with one dais at the forefront of the auditorium, these students heard for the most part a single collective voice which stubbornly refused to differentiate itself into parts even when its monolithic "they" articulated non-compossible positions in sequence. Professor Smythe's students cannot depersonalize information for the sake of analysis. Given the brute fact that they are current (but transient) participants in a particular educational experience, they receive the critique of that educational experience as an attack on their own personal worth. They respond with resentment, expressed in irate rhetoric like the figurative question put together by Pi: "How do they know what we're learning and what not?" Unable to perform analysis, they tell stories, as in Alpha's childish narrative. Going to the debate "was kind of neat because I had never been to the auditorium before." Like Protagoras, the first theoretician of relativism, every man Jack of them makes himself the measure of all things, so that President Plachta of CMU becomes too old to be a satisfactory CEO holding sway over twenty-year-olds, and evidence of declining standards, evidence in the abstract as a foundation of rational argument, counts for nothing. Unused to establishing precise and subtle taxonomies, Smythe's students must rely almost completely on generalities: "A whole bunch of questions were asked," "some arguments were started," and "this of course led to other topics."
The victims of "cutting edge" instruction not only do not think in sophisticated categories (preferring to feel and emote), but they likewise never attribute thinking to anyone else. Their assumption appears to be that everyone is engaged in the same emotional Schwärmerei as they: "I personally feel that a foreign language would be an advantage in the future, yet I feel that it should not be mandatory." Little enough evidence exists to suggest that any of these students has ever read a book or engaged in any other intellectually serious endeavor. Pandered to and propagandized for years by advocates of the postmodern project, the students "know" that the important things are (1) their own uniqueness and (2) the diversity of the collegial milieu. To "let it all go," in Delta's words, "gives students a chance to enhance their own personal thought process on paper." "We need to analyze people from the past," says Kappa encouragingly, only discouragingly to add that "this needs to be expanded to a diverse world," whatever that phrase means. Nu's dictum sums up the tragedy most cogently, collapsing the intangibility of the spirit into the concreteness of a bodily organ: "We all have our own brains."
To answer the question earlier posed, none of these students should, morally or intellectually speaking, ever be permitted to serve on a jury; and yet such service can hardly be prevented. This, too, is a price to be paid for "cutting edge" instruction, and not just by students. Another question occurs to me. Who among the educated, having escaped from the unformed world in which these young people live out their externally conditioned lives, would willingly return to that world, shedding his intellectual achievements along the way? The answer, I imagine, is no one. Not even the educators who think that it is wonderful that the same students remain mired in their swamp of unstructured feelings and precarious half-thoughts. Why then do those educators not remediate their students? Because the power of analysis, the ambit of an adult vocabulary, the salvation implicit in a skill at concepts--all of this represents the bourgeois consciousness that the "cutting edge" wishes to suppress in favor of sub-proletarian authenticity. The creation of this huge class of matriculants and graduates who have been led, unwittingly, into the state of epistemological correctness represents the radical revenge against the civilized order perpetrated by would-be revolutionaries who spurn any demand not their own. Affective agendas, like those of multiculturalism, feminism, and "sensitivity," stand to gain in an environment from which ratiocination has been expelled. Where raw emotion has been tamed by the power of reason, such movements must answer to criticism, a confrontation that their adherents seek assiduously to avoid.
Barnes, Jonathan, editor and translator. Early Greek Philosophy. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.
Bertonneau, Thomas F. Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities. Midland, Michigan: Mackinac Center for Public Policy, 1996.
---. "Epistemological Correctness in English 101." Academic Questions vol. 10.1 (Winter 1996-1997).
---. "Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition." The Montana Professor (Spring 2000).
Davenport, Guy, translator. Herakleitos and Diogenes. San Francisco: Grey Fox, 1979.
Farstrup and Meyers, editors. Standards for the English Language Arts. National Council of Teachers of English & International Reading Association, 1996.
Havelock, Eric. Preface to Plato. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap, 1963.
Mac Donald, Heather. "Why Johnny Can't Write." The Public Interest (Summer 1995).
Ong, Jr., Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen, 1986.
Ozick, Cynthia. "The Question of Our Speech: The Return to Aural Culture." In Dumbing Down: Essays in the Strip-Mining of American Culture. Edited by Katharine Washburn and John Thornton. New York: Norton, 1997.
Peikoff, Leonard. "The American School: Why Johnny Can't Think." In Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff, The Voice of Reason. New York: Meridian, 1990.
Weaver, Richard. Visions of Order. The Cultural Crisis of Our Time. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964.