Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Common Modern Writing Errors And Their Solutions

Many of the writing errors that are legion in electronic forms of communication stem from laziness but not all do.  A heavy reliance on things like autocorrect and spell check features result in numerous typographical errors that could be resolved simply by re-reading the text in question.  Other errors, like deliberate misuse of punctuation, stem either from a blatant disregard for proper grammar and punctuation or, more likely, a lack of proper instruction in said areas of writing.  In the interest of offering something useful to supplement my previous rant, I will point out the most common errors and how they can be rectified.

#1 Overuse of the Ellipsis

One of the most common errors that I see is also one of the most frustrating: the incorrect, improper, over usage of those dreaded triple periods.  The primary purpose that the ellipsis serves in writing is to indicate an omission of a section of text, particularly when it pertains to quotations.  If one wanted to quote Oscar Wilde to imply that sincerity is fatal, one could alter this original quotation, "A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal" by utilizing an ellipsis in the middle, thus transforming the quotation into, "A little absolutely fatal."

A secondary usage of the ellipsis is when a writer will end a sentence with one, in which case it can be called a "suspension point" instead of an ellipsis. The writer's intention in so doing is, unsurprisingly, to build tension by effectively trailing off the point, leaving the idea unfinished and/or allowing an implication or inference to be drawn by the reader.

I see an atrocious overuse of the ellipsis on Facebook where people will insert them haphazardly into a wall post.  Here's a fictitious example:

"OMG...I am SO done with that show!!!  They killed off my favorite's can you DO that when he was EVVVVVVVVVERYONE'S favorite!?  It's ridiculous..."

I think the reason that people do this is either because they are attempting to elicit a greater amount of emphasis from what they are saying (implying, therefore, that they are not confident that they have conveyed their true degree of emotion effectively).  It could also be that they are made nervous by the natural space between words or simply by the use of a period.

Another example of the misuse comes from the people who use the ellipsis only once but at the end of every sentence:

"Thanks for the birthday wishes..."  or  "It was great hanging out with you..."  and of course "I love the photo you posted..."

I find this to be far more obnoxious than the "I'm-going-to-insert-it-everywhere-in-the-sentence" person because you can never truly know what the author's intention is.  Is she being sarcastic?  Does she like the photo?  Was it great to be hanging out?  You'll never know.  The same can be said for the person who runs through a sarcastic or passive-aggressive run of text only to end it with a smiley face.  It's the same issue: being non-committal with your emotions.

"Maybe if you work a little harder next time you will actually get the job. :)"

The only solution that can be implemented here is simply to stop using the ellipsis.  Period. (Get it?)  It's only necessary when one removes a portion of a quotation; at any other point, it's merely used for effect.  I say everything is fine in moderation so just stop using it all the time and save it rather for the important points that truly benefit from additional emphasis.

#2 Triple Punctuation

In a way, this is an issue that is analogous to the overuse of the ellipsis (which, ironically, is three periods slung together).  You see it mostly with exclamation points but sometimes with question marks as well (or even a combination of the two, which is its own issue).


Again, the motivation behind this is a lack of confidence that one is effectively conveying the proper amount of emphasis and emotion.  The exclamation point (arguably the most overused punctuation mark in the English arsenal) exists solely for demonstrating a heightened level of excitement--one that a period, alone, cannot display.  Using multiple exclamation points might show that you are really excited about something, but is it truly necessary?  Especially if you're a chronic over-user?  Just stick with one and be done with it!  (See!?)

#3 The Period After The Punctuation Mark

Sticking with the punctuation errors, my mind is perpetually boggled by people who place a period after another punctuation mark.  The purpose of an exclamation point, a question mark, a closing quotation mark or parenthesis is to end a sentence; placing a period after one of these is just wrong.

"Yo bro you wanna go see a Rangers game next week?  They're doing GREAT this season!!!."

I've also seen people who use a semicolon like a period or who treat it like a period and then follow it with a period.  A semicolon is meant to serve as a hybrid between a comma and a period (thus its appearance as such).  Like a comma, it separates two clauses in a sentence but ones that can exist independently and that are indelibly linked by a common thread in the sentence.  Usually, the semicolon is used to draw attention to this connection by way of emphasizing the first half of the sentence through the second.

"Jimmy suffers from voice immodulation; he is one of the loudest guys on the team."

You cannot use the semicolon purely as a period because it doesn't separate two sentences but rather links them.  That is why this would be incorrect:

"I love going to Clove Lakes Park; Tomorrow is Eleanor's birthday."

You would never capitalize the first letter of the first word following the semicolon much like you wouldn't if it was following a comma.

The reason people place a period after another mark of punctuation is simply a lack of understanding of grammar and punctuation.  The solution is just to pick one and to stick with it.  In fact, the only time you would even consider adding a punctuation mark is when you are attempting to state a question emphatically via an exclamation point and a question mark, though it would still be advisable not to pair them as such.

#4 Split Infinitives

This one drives me absolutely bat shit crazy when I see it in a professionally published article, or even in one that is affiliated with a major website like IGN or ESPN.  The infinitive verb tense is simply the root verb preceded by the word "to."  Some examples are, "To be; to run; to fall; to swim."  A split infinitive occurs when the infinitive verb form is invoked and then broken apart by another word, most often an adverb meant to enhance the verb.  Here are some examples:

"He wanted to quickly run to the store."

"She tried to not be upset when she heard the news."

The reason people write like this is because they speak like this.  I hear "to not be" spoken very often and yet it's utterly incorrect.  An easy way to understand why is that in these instances the infinitive verb form is being used.  Again, that is the word "to" followed by the verb itself.  Since the words "quickly" and "not" are not verbs, it is impossible to use them that way in a sentence.  You cannot not much like you cannot quickly; you'll never see someone notting or quicklying.

The easiest way to fix this from a writing perspective is simply to re-read one's writing and to keep a close eye on one's use of the infinitive form.  The more effective way is to stop speaking that way as well.  It's lazy and improper so why not just make the adjustment?  To, then the verb, then the adverb.

#5 Only / Just

These are two of the most incorrectly used words in the English language.  People understand their purpose (to imply an instance in which there is one and only one set of circumstances) but not their implementation.  Here are some examples:

"I only want to go to see Kelly Clarkson to pick up chicks at the show."

"I want to just curl up in a ball and die I am SOOOOOOOO tired!!!"

"Don't you just want to punch him for being such an asshole with all of this writing correction bullshit!?!?"

Both words modify the word that comes immediately after them.  Therefore, if you want to say that the reason for going to see Kelly Clarkson is to pick up women, you would write it as such:

"I want to go see Kelly Clarkson only to pick up chicks at the show."

The way it is written in the first instance implies that you only want to go to see Kelly Clarkson.  You don't want to swim to go to see Kelly Clarkson nor do you want to cook to go to see Kelly Clarkson.  In that first example, the verb "want" is being modified and thus makes absolutely no sense.  When the word "only" migrates to its proper position, it becomes obvious that the only reason this person is going to the show is "to pick up chicks."

The same issue occurs with the next two instances.  In the first (second, chronologically), the split infinitive results in a misplacement of the word just.  Since it is impossible to "just," the proper placement would be before the word "to," thus rendering the sentence, "I want just to curl up in a ball..."  This person wants only one thing: to curl up into a ball.  Therefore, the word just must appear precisely before this action.

The third example is yet another iteration of this problem.  You can't "just want" because that doesn't make any sense.  What does make sense is saying that you want just to punch him by writing it as, "Don't you want just to punch him..."

The reason these errors happen is mostly because it is a common and commonly accepted speech error that is reflected in one's writing.  The easiest way to emend this is to look at what comes immediately after the word "only" or "just."  If it's a verb, is it in the correct form?  If it's a noun, is it where it should be?

"I only want a new bike for my birthday and nothing else."

Really?  You only want a new bike?  You don't bake a new bike or recite a new bike?  In this case, the verb is "want" and it is being modified incorrectly. 

"I want only a new bike for my birthday and nothing else."

You want only a new bike for your birthday?  You don't want an iPod or a tablet?  No, only a new bike.

Usually, the solution involves only moving the word one or two positions forward or back in the sentence; just try to be careful in the future.

"U Mad Bro?"--The Degradation of Modern American Literacy

Not even six hundred years ago, literacy was a privilege for the rich in Europe and a foreign concept for most of the peasantry.  Less than two hundred years after the invention of the printing press, the first American colony was formed.  These inchoate Americans were far more educated than their European predecessors but were also still a far cry from the level of literacy that would be developed over the next three hundred plus years.  Collectively, we went from barely being able to write our names to being able to purchase and understand literature like Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.  In a way, we've taken our advanced literacy for granted, which might account for the state of affairs we face today.

Reading and writing well is quickly becoming a lost art.  In the age of instant communication, things like punctuation and grammar have been thrown to the wayside in the interest of quaint acronyms and autocorrected sentiments.  Worse still, point out an error in said punctuation or grammar and you're labeled a "writing snob" or the "grammar police."  Or, maybe--just maybe, you'll get hit with that inimitable phrase of consternation:

U Mad Bro?

The average American--hell, even the poorest of Americans--has access to tremendous amounts of reading and writing resources and enjoys a well-above average level of literacy compared to their kin of even a hundred and fifty years ago.  So why, then, is the overall-American writing ability so piss-poor?  Part of it stems from education.  In the average, urban school (which are legion in our great nation), it is possible for a student to graduate with reading and writing levels that might not even be up to the junior high school equivalent.  I once co-taught English to a tenth grade student who was as close to completely illiterate as I have ever encountered not just in my professional career but in my entire life.  He could barely write his name let alone a complete sentence...and yet there he was sitting in my tenth grade class.  I could not in good conscience let this student move on to the next grade...and yet there he was, in the eleventh grade the following year.  And why was he passed?  Because he showed up, didn't cause any problems, and he had made it that far (so spake the teacher in charge of assigning his grade).  I'm not sure if he ever officially graduated but I do know that he made it into the United States military.

Think about that: right now, there is a man defending our country who, if his life depended on it, couldn't read the written instructions for a mission or even, perhaps, the name on his fellow soldier's uniform.

God bless America!

I'd like to think this is an isolated case but I'm not so sure that it is.  One need look no further than Corporate America to find an eerily similar state of affairs.  You have executives--men and women in charge of companies worth many millions of dollars (if not billions) who cannot draft a simple, coherent e-mail let alone a report.  Most of these people made it through four years of college and some have even earned graduate degrees from online universities, which terrifies me to no end.  Not only are people being pushed through the public education system but, evidently, you can graduate from an accredited four-year institution without being able to write at an undergraduate college level.  And don't even get me started on so-called PhDs that are earned online.  I think that Internet education is a great idea and a practical one at that--something that can truly help someone make up for a gap in their academic experience, ..but there are some places that these degrees should not go.  Certain professions and certifications are wonderfully amenable to Internet work but then there are others that simply cannot produce a graduate of the same caliber as a traditional program.  The experience of sitting in a classroom with equally-skilled peers and engaging in mutual discourse with a professor who is clearly an expert in his or her field cannot be approximated by online web-discussions and paper submissions.  Quite a few of these accredited institutions are as interested in their students' money as they are in the quality of their education, which explains why there are borderline-literate people waving the PhD certificates they printed online.

But that's speaking of those who at least try to pursue advanced education.  What about everyone else?  In the era of Tweeting and texting, it would appear that proper writing is a use-it-or-lose-it affair.  For many people my own age, the last time they wrote a paper or any sort of lengthy formal piece of writing was a minimum of five years ago if not longer.  How many texts and Facebook posts have they penned during those intervening years?  Probably enough to fill a dissertation.  To be fair, though, there are many people who still punctuate properly their texts, wall posts, and e-mails, it's just that there are myriad more who do not.

I suppose what ultimately bothers me is that the access to both information and forums for communication has opened up the door for people to become self-appointed experts, both in a given field and in terms of writing in general.  The fact that anyone can start their own website and claim whatever they wish about themselves is scary enough but the fact that few people call this into question is downright unsettling.  My writing partner for my beer blog had someone correct her about her misuse of a word.  Though he was right in that instance, it was the fact that his reasoning for pointing out her error was that he had been blogging for five years.  That was it--that was all he said: "I've been blogging for five years."  What was implied, I assume, is that because he had been blogging for five years, that he had become some sort of expert or learned sage in the field.  I went to both his blog and his website and was sickened by the blatant disregard for the most basic writing tenets that he was demonstrating.  So here is someone who couldn't even use periods and commas properly correcting a complete stranger about her misuse of a word that is, in and of itself, less than a decade old.  Classy.

It's reasoning like his that sickens me as a literate person.  Apparently our standards have dipped well below what I would consider the threshold of balanced levels of literacy.  People who are barely competent at crafting simple let alone complex sentences suddenly feel empowered (or entitled) to label themselves as experts or writing gurus and yet when someone with actual writing credentials does the same thing, they're labeled, as I said earlier, as a snob or the grammar police.

At the end of the day, it just comes down to people being lazy and frankly not giving a shit, which is sad because we have the opportunity, collectively, to be so much better than we are.  When called out on their mistakes, people hide behind flimsy excuses or wave degrees that are barely worth the paper they are printed on.  Typos, improper punctuation, and incoherent sentences are becoming the norm and it's a shame because, in my eyes, it shows an utter lack of regard for one's own self-worth and work.  I liken it to cooking: would you serve a half-assed meal to your friends with meat that is burned on the exterior and raw in the middle?  Would you just toss everything into a single bowl for Thanksgiving dinner and microwave it for forty-five seconds and call it a feast?  Of course not, because it would essentially be an act that says, "I don't care about me and I don't care about any of you."  When someone writes something that is rife with errors and then publishes it in a public forum, they are, in effect, saying the same exact thing with an additional "I'm too lazy to check/fix this and I know that you're too lazy to correct me, so, since we both know what I mean, let's just call it a day."

Funny how taking pride in one's work, whether it's written, cooked, or performed, has become passé in our so-called modern world.  I wonder what will happen if this trend continues.  Will we wind up once more facing a situation of two classes of literacy: the competent and the rest?  I shudder to think that such might ultimately be the case as children are now growing up in the Apple/Twitter/Facebook era. 

Guttenberg's probably rolling over in his grave regretting that he ever placed that damned hashtag on his printing press.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Proposed Solution To The Education Problem

I apologize for any lack of cohesion with the arguments I made in my previous entry; my impassioned burst of writing was fueled by some very strong feelings and was typed well beyond the cloak of midnight had fallen on the Isle of Staten.  As a result, I failed to mention a few key points that I feel would have helped to focus the thrust of my argument and, more importantly, provide a proposed solution or at least an idea of how we can tweak the current system.

Though I spoke generally of the education system across the board, I will admit readily that there are undoubtedly exceptions to the rules I laid out, whether they are schools or individual teachers.  These bastions of sensibility, sadly, are not in the majority, particularly when it comes to disadvantaged schools and their students.  Some teachers might try to tie in things like personal finance into their courses but again these cases are in the minority; too many students graduate without even the slightest understanding of what credit is, why it is important, and how they can go about maintaining and improving their own.  Though a given subject teacher can offer a rational and reasonable explanation for why he or she teaches a particular element, it still doesn't explain why it should be taught instead of something that might be of far greater value to a given student.  Teaching some abstract mathematical theorem might be useful in the sense that it helps a student learn how to think differently or more efficiently but when that student is in the eleventh grade and cannot add and subtract let alone grasp side-angle-side, the issue becomes one of relevance.  Another example from my own subject would be teaching the nuances of metaphor to a twelfth grader who is reading at a fifth-grade level or going over critical lens essays for the English Regents with a kid who cannot write a complete sentence or read at all (that one's from personal experience; that same kid is now in the military and he managed to make it at least to his senior year without being able to write more than a simple sentence or read anything more complex than a picture book).

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that we are focusing on preparing kids for college and basically shunning the rest.  When it comes to a school filled with disadvantaged, disenfranchised students who have been pushed along through the system for ten or eleven years without picking up even the most basic skill set, one has to ask: what is being done to help them?  For the kid that is going to graduate but for whom college--even a community one--simply isn't an option, what life-skills are they being instilled with?  If they can't even fill out an application for a job at a fast food restaurant, then what was the point of their thirteen years in the school system?  It's kids like that that keep me up at night, wondering what I can do to make a difference not just for any one in particular but for the vast majority that I'll never get to teach or even to meet.

Take a look at what's being taught in the New York City public school system.  What types of courses are these high school kids taking?  The answer is: the same ones kids in 1912 were taking.  You've got math, science, English, history, gym, lunch, and the occasional arts-related program or elective.  THAT's what is comprising their entire education just before they enter adulthood.  What sense does that make when the things that are important in today's society--the types of jobs that are available or opportunities that are open have almost nothing to do with those things?  Where are the courses in graphic designing?  In psychology?  In software development?  Hell, even marketing and the other business-related fields!?  What preparation are these kids getting for the jobs they'll most likely be filling assuming they even go to college?  Where is the guidance and grooming for students who are better suited for civil service jobs?  And what about trades?  How about the kid who failed every single math and English course he ever took but is an absolute prodigy when it comes to assembling and disassembling things?  Where's his mechanics training or engineering experience?

I propose that we induce softer change in the earlier grades and more radical adjustments in the later ones.  Let's teach more generalized material throughout a broad cross-section of subjects to our elementary school students; it would be not unlike the first two years of college during which students take "core" courses.  Let's ratchet up the sophistication and complexity of the things we're teaching them and stop coddling these kids and treating them as if they can't handle the loftier areas of a given subject.  Why not teach calculus in fourth grade?  Why can't we delve into Shakespeare with a bunch of eleven year olds?  Just because we haven't doesn't me that we shouldn't or couldn't.

So the elementary school students gain exposure to a broad array of subjects and topics.  By the time they reach middle school, they've begun to develop a sense for where their strengths and interests lie.  If you have a kid who is gifted in math, why not introduce her to other more focused math-related courses?  Let her explore physics and statistics while supplementing that with enough of the other things to ensure that she is well-balanced.  Teach the basics of reading and writing across the board; use social studies to introduce simple counting and other mathematical concepts.  Elementary school teachers are already well-versed in a multitude of subjects, why not just increase the level of their experience?  High school subject teachers are already trained to a greater degree in their respective areas, so why not have them delve even deeper into them?

Middle school can be used as an opportunity to help direct students towards their ultimate courses of study.  The subjects that they encounter here should be more specialized but still general enough to help them to gain a better understanding of where they want to wind up.  Math and humanities are great but they won't necessarily help a kid determine whether or not he or she wants to become an economist or a dermatologist.  Let's use these intervening years to provide them with insights into different fields, maybe include observations or tag-alongs with various professions to give them a better perspective of what it means to be a surgeon or a state trooper.

High school, ultimately, would be a precursor to college.  Here, they would focus mostly on the subjects that are relevant to the fields that they'd like to pursue and would be provided with an equal amount of real-life preparation.  Instead of having personal finance electives, make them not components of a given course's curriculum but mandatory courses in their own right.  For kids who aren't learning many of these things at home perhaps due to their socio-economic standing or a situation where their parents simply do not have the time or ability to teach them, high school could be the time that they pick up the necessary life-skills to succeed.  If by the time they reach high school it's clear that they are not destined for greatness, then why not utilize those four years for helping them to prepare for whatever employment it is that they are best suited for?  Provide them with transferable skills and experience that they could use to enter the workforce and then move their way up to bigger and better things. 

All I'm saying is that there are far too many students, at least in New York City, who graduate high school with no clue as to what they want to do with their lives and a dearth of relevant life-experience that will help them to function sufficiently on their own.  The paucity of knowledge that they leave school with is in no way enhanced by the drivel that they are fed in their subject courses but is rather diminished by it; instead of learning about things that would help them to lead more productive and satisfying lives, they spend their time memorizing things they will ultimately forget and will wind up none the better-off for learning.

Let's stop being afraid of change and embrace it on our own terms.  We've gotten lazy as a society and the most we do is bitch about the laws and changes that are handed down to us; even our protests have lost the fervor and zeal they once had.  Remember: there's safety in numbers.  If enough people feel the same way about something and band together, then it becomes possible to effect change.  Maybe the problem is that everyone's too busy nowadays to make that kind of emotional and temporal commitment.  They're more interested in their phones and tablets than they are about the futures of their kids.  And I hate to break it to these folks but when it comes to fixing our education system...

there isn't an app for that.

The Disservice That Is The American Education System

Our education system is a joke.  We are clinging to an antiquated system that serves to teach our kids almost nothing truly of value in the twelve or thirteen years that they are imprisoned in it.  What's sad is that there is a strong movement among teacher-education programs to inculcate cutting-edge teaching approaches and techniques but at the same time the subject matter--the true core of what a teacher is expected to impart in terms of knowledge--hasn't changed, in many ways, for almost a century.  Instead of worrying about which industries and fields are serving as the gateway(s) to the future, administrators and politicians like our beloved Mayor Mike are obsessing instead about such trite and useless things as Regents examinations and other standardized tests. 

This might come as a surprise but kids who do well on the chemistry and physics Regents do not necessarily go on to become elite NASA scientists and engineers.  In fact, those who are becoming the leaders at the forefront of the American technological movement, particularly in the sciences, aren't even American by birthright!  Instead of focusing on grooming our own future physicists, chemists, and engineers, we are, for all intents and purposes, stealing them from other countries!  Okay, perhaps stealing is a bit harsh.  Maybe we can go with "borrowing" or at least "luring" instead.  Don't believe me?  Listen to what Professor Kaku has to say on the issue:

We should be educating our students about things that are far more salient than the current trend of nonsense that fills our curricula.  School, in its most ideal American sense, is designed to groom our children to be fully functional, productive citizens who can enter the workforce and make effective and efficient contributions to improve our country and the world at large.  How the hell can we expect that to happen when we (as teachers) spend our time "teaching to the test," running through the same type of material that our grandparents learned as children, and ultimately wind up ignoring the subjects and real-life experience that will help to edify our students in ways and to degrees our current system couldn't possibly achieve?  Our history teachers waste time providing instruction about the War of 1812 and the Magna Carta when they could be focusing on the cyclical nature of history and what we can expect to face in the coming years.  Our English teachers ignore or are unable to cope with the fact that their kids cannot write at a sufficient grade level and choose instead to keep plowing through novel after novel, preparing their students for the English Regents but not a job interview.  Instead, you have teachers like my friend Mr. Adrian and myself who are forced to teach in spite of the mandated curriculum that gets forced down our throats.  Though I've never sat in on one of Mr. Adrian's history classes, I can guarantee you that, even when he covers the "material" in the textbook, he does so in a way that truly educates his students.  He uses his time to teach his kids about life--about how to be better people and why the world is the way that it is.  He gives them the tools to help them to transcend the labels they've been given or the futures that have been prescribed for them.  We could have classrooms filled with insightful, thought-provoking men and women like Mr. A and instead we have elementary school teachers who continue to spoon feed our kids the same pointless lies about Native Americans and pilgrims.  We continue to twist the truth but to what end?  To shield our children from the horrors that are our true collective past?  Face it kids: Thanksgiving never happened the way you've been told it did!  Columbus and his European pals came to this continent and wiped out an entire race of people.  Deliberately.  Shove that up your horn-of-plenty!

My own experience with teaching high school helped me to see first-hand how ridiculous our education system is.  The most important parts of that experience--indeed the most rewarding aspects came not from having my students learn about literary elements or understanding the themes in Cry, the Beloved Country.  No--the most critical things that happened were more intrinsic and certainly not part of the state standards.  They were the times that I listened to a kid who was having trouble at home or when I said, "Good morning" to a student who, to that point, felt invisible not just in school but in his or her life.  They were the moments that I spoke to my class about life and got them to think, truly and deeply, about themselves and their futures.

But that kind of stuff isn't part of the standard lesson plan format, now is it?

We continue to follow the same inane format that's been in place since the beginning of the twentieth century...but to what end?  In English, we still teach poetry and have our kids read novels from the same list of poets and novels that's been used for fifty years.  In math, they're still teaching things that, despite the assertions of the well-meaning teachers, most students will never use in their lives!  Don't even get me started on history and science (or the lack thereof as it pertains to the latter).

So what should we be teaching?  How about things that will help our kids figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives or at least get them moving on a productive path?  More importantly, why aren't we teaching things that will help our kids live better lives, period?  We teach them how to write a five-paragraph essay but not how to craft a solid personal statement that they can use when applying for a job or for college.  They learn geometric proofs but not how to manage their own personal finances, for crying out loud!  And we wonder why debt among eighteen to twenty-four year olds is so high!  Have you ever noticed that when a kid turns seventeen, all of a sudden they begin to get mail from credit card companies?  Or what about those same companies that set up booths or sign-up stands outside of colleges during the first few weeks of the semester?  In both instances they lure kids in with language that they couldn't possibly understand (how many eighteen year olds know what it means to be pre-approved or pre-qualified for a credit card?) and promises of the ability to increase their purchasing power exponentially (at the cost of their credit and future income).  What kid is going to read the fine print on those "checks" that credit card companies send out from time to time, promising free money in exchange for nearly usurious interest payments on said cash advances?

It doesn't stop just with the typical subject teachers.  How about gym teachers?  Instead of teaching the most basic skills in a broad cross-section of sports, why not focus more on the importance of proper nutrition and eating habits?  Why not focus on explaining why fast food is so bad for you or pointing out that a single can of Coke has the equivalent of ten packets of sugar in it?  Then again, it looks like an uphill battle, especially when Congress is trying to establish the tomato paste used on those god-awful cafeteria "pizzas" as a vegetable!

And so I'm forced to ask this question: just what exactly are we doing through this so-called education that we are giving to these kids?  What do they walk away with from their thirteen year stay?  A confused jumble of information that they'll likely forget by the time they're twenty, if that long?  What transferable skills do they have?  What direction do they graduate with?  I just finished tutoring a really bright kid who is now halfway through his senior year of high school.  He has no idea what it is that he wants to do with his life...and how could he be expected to?  In all his time in school, what has he learned about the myriad fields that are available to him?  How can he decide whether he wants to be an architect or an astronomer, a brain surgeon or a busker?  Why aren't we spending more time on exposing these kids to as many different career possibilities as we can instead of wasting our time reading Jane Eyre and harping on the French Revolution?

You could say that we should start in elementary school but, in many ways, that's where things are the worst right now!  Thanks to a ridiculous wave of pacifism and a penchant for political correctness, our kids are becoming softer with each passing day.  Instead of helping them to build up their self-esteem through valuable life experiences like failing a test and finding redemption on the next one, we're trying to shield them from the very things that will ultimately serve to build them up.  Rather than tapping into the inherent but occasionally latent competitiveness that exists in all of us, administrators are seeking to end the use of number grades and switch instead to a gentler system that still upholds the students' fragile self-confidence.  Bullshit!  Give me a break!  You know who wants change like that?  The parents of the kids who aren't getting high grades.  Rather than encouraging their kids to try harder, to seek out additional help, and, ultimately, to challenge themselves to find a way to succeed, they choose to alter the system to mollify the dangerously-breakable spirits of these children.

Now before you start citing all sorts of papers dedicated to proving why the use of grading in school is counterproductive or inefficient, let me remind you that grading occurs everywhere in life.  In some places, it's more overt like companies that have an Employee of the Month award, but in most it's more subtle and yet ever-present.  What sort of preparation for the real world are you giving to a kid by constructing this fallacy that everyone is intellectually equal and that seventh place is just as good as first when that's not how it is in business or in life?  It's going to come as a rude awakening to that kid who joins a rotation at a huge investment bank and then finds out that he or she is the only one who wasn't given an offer for long-term employment.  What will that kid or those parents do then?  Sue the company?  Blame unfair comparative practices for their inability to measure up to the competition?

In some schools, they're even removing such vaunted honors as valedictorians and salutatorians.  I'll tell you right now--I would be pissed beyond words if my kid busted his or her ass for four years (or however long) and earned the highest average in the entire school only to be denied the honor of being named valedictorian because some other sissy kid's self-esteem might be damaged because he wasn't named valedictorian.  What happened to merit-based rewards?  And what's next?  Will children's sports be the next field to take a hit?  In five years will games be played without any points or scoring so as to ensure that all the players feel an equal level of self-actualization?  My, my!  Bless their little palpitating hearts!  Will everyone come in first place because no standings were kept?

As teachers AND parents, we need to stop being so goddamn passive and start acting and effecting change.  We need to fight to get the curriculum changed--not just a little bit but a complete overhaul.  Let's stop outsourcing our "geniuses" and start focusing on developing our own!  Let's prepare our students for college, for the job market, and for the rest of their lives instead of handing them their diplomas and tossing them out on their asses with a "Good luck, Chuck!" mentality.  Let's put more emphasis on helping these kids to develop respect for themselves as well as for others--for their minds, their bodies, and their spirits.  Let's teach them the importance of proper nutrition, proper rest habits, and proper exercise routines.  We need to give them the skills that will help them to succeed in life instead of sitting back and letting them grope about blindly in the dark.  We need to tell kids who are failing that they are failing and then give them the support, encouragement, and guidance that will help them to succeed.  We need to stop worrying about offending people and protecting everyone else's feelings and start toughening up instead of using carefully crafted terminology when referring to certain types of people.  Saying "handicapped" or "handicapable" (or any of the myriad politically correct terminology that exists today) won't change the physical limitations that have been placed upon that a given person; only his or her spirit, will, and desire to succeed will determine whether or not they rise above the lot they've been given.  And if they are offended or disheartened by an archaic referential term then they need to reassess both their priorities and the direction into which they are putting their energy.

So let's stop coddling our kids, let's stop regurgitating the same banal material, and let's start figuring out how we can help our students and children reach their full potential not in math, science, or English but in life.  Isn't that what being a teacher and/or a parent is all about?  We need to take ownership of the state of our education system and resolve to engender transformation as a result of our action.  Let's turn our pacifism into anger and that anger into something productive: the courage and motivation to fight for an end to the disservices that are being done to our kids in the form of the modern American classroom.

"Man...I see all this potential and I see squandering. Goddamn it--an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war--our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off."  --Tyler Durden

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Going Against The Grain or "A Condemnation Of The New-Era Yuppie Parent"

My two year old son--not a school-age child!

In the past four days I have twice been engaged in conversation about my son and the fact that I should be enrolling him in a pre-school program as soon as possible.  During both instances I informed the other party that he had just turned two and was promptly told that I should get him into a program as soon as he turns three if not sooner.  I bit my tongue both times and have decided to transform the negative energy that has persisted into something positive by expressing my thoughts and feelings here in this blog entry.

I'm not entirely sure of when it happened but it seems as if sometime over the past decade or so there has been an inexplicable rise in interest in pre-school programs.  Well before I became a parent I can recall hearing stories of couples signing their children up for waiting lists to be put onto a waiting list for a pre-school program.  The presumption on my part is that these seemingly well-meaning lunatics want their children to be in the "best" programs around, which I can understand...I just can't reconcile that "best" with "pre-school."  Pre-Kindergarten programs are designed to help to expose the child to the structured environment that they will be entering for the next thirteen years, to assist them in their socialization and conditioning as students in said environment, and to help them to build simple skills like sharing, obeying commands, following directions, and indulging their creative sides through various art and music exercises; I didn't realize that pre-k groomed a child for BC Calculus and AP Physics.

I haven't been a parent for very long (two years and five days) but I have been a person for quite awhile (and a pretty observant one at that).  From what I have seen in terms of the people who are obsessing about their children beginning school as early as possible for the purpose of helping them to succeed presumably in life as well as school, I feel like I can conclude confidently that the majority of these neurotic parents are a part of what I am terming the New-Era Yuppies.  On the surface, a person who wants only the best for their child seems like a wonderful ideal to which to aspire...but when one digs deeper the ugly truth makes itself apparent (get it?  A "a parent.")  These Yuppies don't want what's best for their child, they want what they've been told is the "best" for their child.  This new generation of high-strung, overachieving, perfectionist Yuppie has also been imbued with a tremendous guilt complex.  If you so much as imply that they are failing their children or that something else is better than what they are doing, the new Yuppie perfectionist parents have meltdowns and obsess over this newer, better thing.  Thus the prevalence of the Mommy & Me, Gymboree bullshit that you're seeing nowadays.  Baby Bikram Yoga, My Baby Can Read, and countless other trendy and ultimately unnecessary programs have been springing up and persisting mostly because of the aforementioned guilt complex.

"Oh?  You don't take your son or daughter to Baby Yoga?"


This obsession with enrolling children into school or academically oriented programs at ever-decreasing ages seems to be symptomatic of the pursuit of perfection that this new generation of parents seems content to engage in.  When did kids stop being allowed to be kids?  Why are you making them grow up at an accelerated rate and to what end?  I hate to break it to you but putting your kid in school at three or two isn't going to help him or her to succeed in school or in life down the road!  As far as your child's academic success goes, it's called potential and personality.  Your kid can be the brightest student in the room but if he's stuck with a crappy teacher in a crappy school, his performance is going to suffer; ditto for the slow learner in the best possible environment.  Personality is huge too because if your kids are lazy or is disinterested in school...guess what?  They're not going to do well unless they have natural talent for a given subject (see: potential) or they are in the right type of school environ!

Let me make something clear: putting your child in school at an early age does have its merits but that's not what I am arguing here.  My bone of contention is the seeming need to put said child in said school.  What kid wouldn't benefit from spending time with other kids, learning how to share, learning self-discipline, and learning structure?  As much as that's a rhetorical answer, I do have one of my own: your normal, everyday kid!  Do you know why Yuppies are so obsessed on exposing their children to these things in school?  Because as parents they aren't doing it themselves!  You want your kid to spend time playing with others?  Take them to a playground.  I don't mean some time-structured, rigid "class"--I mean an outdoor play area where kids run around and be kids.  You want your kids to learn how to share and how to sit still for more than ten seconds?  DISCIPLINE THEM!  I'm so friggin' tired of hearing shit like:

"Tucker--you are devaluing that little boy by taking his organic juice box without his permission.  You need to stop and think about whether or not you are invading his personal space."


"Connor--we don't want to elevate our voices in anger, do we?  What should we do with our negative energy?  Should we return it to the environment with some deep breathing?"

Part of the problem with the New-Era Yuppie Parent is the mollycoddling and ridiculous pacifism that they employ in terms of how they interact with their children.  It's become nigh unthinkable to use words like failure and disappointment--basically any word with a negative prefix attached to it.  The fear is that this next generation of children will be emotionally damaged and scarred for life, presumably because that's precisely what happened to their Yuppie parents.

Newsflash!  There is nothing wrong with being honest with your child and letting them know in a constructive way that they've failed or have done something wrong.  Giving trophies for seventh and eighth place is counterproductive.  Instead of using that result as an opportunity for edification, they are falsifying reality for those children by demonstrating to them erroneously that they will succeed simply because they tried, regardless of whether or not they tried hard enough or had any sort of success as a result of their efforts.  Sheltering children from rough language and harsh words does them a tremendous disservice because it oversensitizes them.  When it's time to enter the real world, usually in the form of public school, they're grossly underprepared for what they face.  You wonder why bullying is in the news so often these days?  It's because there is a generation of kids who have absolutely no coping skills for the realities of life.  When they've been shielded and sheltered their entire lives from the roughness of reality, their ears filled only with words of empty encouragement and their minds filled with an overinflated sense of self-worth and value, they wind up lacking the emotional toughness and mechanisms for dealing with being told no, that they're not as good as they've been told they were, and that the world in many ways couldn't care less about them.  These children, ironically enough, wind up lacking the self-esteem necessary to deal with what the world throws at them because they've been swallowing nothing but placebos of love and encouragement.  

What these Yuppie parents are ultimately concerned about and consumed with is artifice; they don't care about whether or not their children are living their lives to their utmost--achieving their ultimate potential.  Their primary aim is to make it look like they are.  They fill their children's lives with structured activities under the guise that they are enriching their children and exposing them to things that are beneficial to their growth and development...but these things are nothing more than a house of cards.  As parents, we are meant to serve as teachers and guides to our children--not travel agents plotting out the itineraries of their lives!  Kids should be allowed to live their lives in such a way that they can experience ups and downs and thus build the requisite skill sets for dealing with both.

The parents themselves seem terrified of being disliked by their children; they're more concerned about being viewed as a friend than they are an authority figure and disciplinarian.  They often fail to reprimand their children adequately for things out of a fear that their children won't like them or that they will be somehow diminished in their children's eyes.  I've always felt that there is a parallel between teaching and parenting and that is no more apparent than it is here with the parallel I am about to draw: the Yuppie parent is the same as the teacher who never yells at her class, brings them candy and treats all the time, and who is more concerned about being popular among her students.  Both the parent and teacher ultimately fail in their respective jobs because of a lack of self-confidence.  You're the parent/teacher--act like one!  Step up to the plate, take ownership of your position, and do what you have to do.  

I would never advocate spanking or raising one's hands to one's child but there is definitely middle ground between the two extremes of being violent and being passive in this new-era Yuppie sense.  It's okay to yell at your kids, to correct them when they make mistakes, to punish them when they deliberately do something wrong, and to put them in time out (if such is your wont) when they disrespect you or the rules that you lay out for them.  It's how they learn!  I see parents whose kids are literally tearing up a house or running amok in a store knocking things off the shelves and all the parents do is offer a meek "No..." or "Stop..."--a passive reaction to a very active behavior.  How can you expect your children to learn things like respect for themselves, for others, and for property not to mention self-discipline when you're not setting clearly defined limits and establishing consistent consequences for overstepping those bounds?  These things happen at home NOT in school!

And thus we return to the pre-k situation.  Most of the things that my kid will supposedly be benefiting from by enrolling early in a program are things that my wife and I already address and take care of now.  The most important difference will be exposing my son to the school environment and schedule...but he's two right now and I intend fully to allow him to enjoy this time.  He's going to be in school for almost a decade and a half not counting any higher education, why should I rush him into it?  The presumption is that a kid who starts school earlier will be more successful.  No offense to the kids that I grew up with that went to Nursery School but I turned out as good or better a child as they did and I developed into an arguably more successful and better prepared adult who started school at four and a half than a number of them who began at three or earlier.  Again, it's all about potential and frankly I do not believe that that potential can be tapped or be manipulated at such an early age.  Your kid's eighteen months old and he can read?  Great!  Come back to me in another eighteen years and let's see how much further ahead he is than the kid who starts reading at four or five.  Your kid can add and subtract at two?  I'd love to see how that head start helps her with calculus in another fifteen years.

The bottom line is that my son is going to be a great student or he's not going to be.  I'm not going to obsess about putting him in the "best" schools because if he's meant to be academically successful, he'll turn out that way whether he's in the worst school or the so-called best.  Don't believe me?  How many Macaulay Honors Students came from Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, and Bronx Science?  A bunch.  And how many came from schools with less illustrious reputations like Curtis and Townsend Harris?  A few as well.  Now for the million-dollar question: which batch of kids is more successful?  The answer is: there is no collective answer.  It depends on the individual students.  Two of my friends who were members of the Macaulay Class of '10 attended one of the schools of diminished stature and now they are tremendous successes not just in a professional sense but in a human one; they have truly become citizens of the world and are more civic-minded than many of the most academically talented students produced by schools like NYU and other prestigious educational institutions.  They thrived and continue to thrive because of themselves, not because of some dopey new age propaganda or toddler-education programs.

I'm sure that I'm coming across as disgruntled and in many ways I am but my disdain for this new wave of parents and my seething misanthropy stems from what I view as a generation that has lost its sense of self and sense of respect.  Communication--arguably one of the most important aspects of our humanity--has become so distant and desensitized as a result of our ever expanding virtual presence on websites like Facebook and through the use of devices like smart phones that people seem to have lost sight of what's appropriate and what isn't.  People are quick to offer unsolicited opinions on things that we post online or through text messages and that lack of a filter seems to have found its way into our interpersonal communications in public.  For example, I'm tired of being given unsolicited parenting advice from anyone other than my parents, my family, and my friends who have children and with whom I have already talked about different parenting situations.  The two words that fill me with increasing ire every time I hear them are, "You should..."  I hear them from the register woman at Met, from the people my wife and I see in stores or at the mall, and from the people I encounter when I'm out on my walks.  I'm not sure of what compels people to offer unsolicited advice or to make corrections to things that they seem to think need correcting but they clearly do not take into account that when you approach someone and immediately begin telling them that they're doing something wrong, you're being both obnoxious and presumptuous.  You have no idea why I'm doing or not doing whatever it is and you can't possibly know whether or not you're more qualified than me to reach such a judgment or conclusion.

Here's a list of things that I am tired of:

People adjusting my son's zipper on his jacket if it's slightly open or closed all the way.  When you do that you're implying that you know what's better for him than I do and you're wrong.

People touching my kid.  It's slightly less obnoxious when it's an elderly person but when it's someone between the ages of thirty and sixty?  It's grounds for me getting my scream on.  You wouldn't appreciate it if I walked up to you and patted you on the head, squeezed your cheeks, or tugged on your hands, right?  So stop doing it to someone's child that you do not know!  Ironically enough, people under thirty seem not to engage in this behavior and, surprise surprise, neither do people who have toddlers and young children, themselves.

People offering my son things in front of me.  I am his parent and I make the decisions for him at this stage of his life.  If you want to give him candy, ask me first.  If you want to offer to clean his hands (the single oddest thing I've seen yet), ask me first (or, preferably, don't ask at all--just go away).  When you offer something directly to a two year old you're simultaneously disrespecting and devaluing me as a parent and calling into question your own judgment because, well, you're offering something to a two year old and are expecting that toddler to have the faculties necessary to make an informed decision.

People offering me parenting advice.  Though there's an outside chance that you actually have some sort of Master's or PhD in parenting, I'm going with the safe bet that you're just an overbearing, obnoxious asshole who thinks that a) you know better than me and b) that what you have to say is worth hearing.  I've never offered unsolicited advice to another parent even if I felt that what they were doing was wrong because, in the end, it's really just a matter of preference; whatever they are doing might not be how I would do it but that doesn't make it incorrect.  Parenting is an organic endeavor; what works for one kid, individually, might not work for another and what works in one instance or situation might not work in the next.  It's not only pompous to think that you know better than the child's parent when you offer that advice, it's pure idiocy.  You couldn't possibly know whether or not what you have to say has any merit because you do not have the information necessary to draw a reliable conclusion.

People who insist on specifying which parent the child resembles most.  This started literally the day we brought Timmy home and, fortunately, I was able to tell right away that you cannot put stock in what anyone else says about your child.  Some people said he looked only like me, others that he looked only like my wife Heather, and a few (the smart ones, truthfully) who said he looked like an even mix of the two of us.  It doesn't annoy me so much when people say "Oh, he definitely looks like his dad/mom" it's the people who insist on it--the ones who press the issue and say such asinine things as, "SORRY MOM BUT HE LOOKS 100% LIKE HIS FATHER.  HE DOESN'T HAVE ANY OF YOU IN HIM AT ALL!"  Now this has happened both to Heather and to me so it doesn't bother me at all (if it happened only to one of us I'm sure that person would have developed a complex about it) but it does annoy the piss out of me when someone makes a comment like the one quoted above, which, sadly, is precisely what happened at a supermarket a week or two ago.  How blatantly rude can you get?  First of all, when you're saying shit like this in front of the other person, how do you think that they feel?  Second of all, are you that unaware of how awkward you make the situation when you say something like that?  And lastly, who gives a shit which parent a child looks like more!?  My answer is: he looks like Timmy.

I swear, I wish I had the balls to have looked that woman square in the eye and say something like, "This woman isn't his mother" or "His mother left shortly after the birth.  This is my cousin" just to see what her reaction would have been.

So to tie this whole thing together, I must share an epiphany that I had earlier in the day while thinking about this entry.  I've always gone against the grain, throughout my entire life.  I've never been a rebel in any sense of the word but have been unconventional or eclectic in my approach towards and personal view of life.  People who love me understand and accept this, and, in many ways, fuel it with their own eccentricities.  I do not like following the status quo, especially when I feel opposed to it.  I keep my mouth shut when it comes to the affairs of others and offer my input only when asked for it.  I keep my hands to myself unless I'm invited to do otherwise.  I offer encouragement whenever I can and I always make sure that it's constructive and genuine; if my son fails I can still support him by helping him to see the positive in the experience and to suggest that he use the situation as motivation to try harder the next time and to learn whatever he can from what happened.  I don't sugarcoat things and I don't spew sycophantic platitudes simply as a way of endearing myself to another person; I'd rather that person respect me for my honesty and objectivity than for my hollow attempts at kissing their ass.  I disagree tremendously with what I view as the Yuppification of the next generation of children but I would never out-and-out tell someone that what they are doing with their child or how they are parenting said child is wrong because it's not for me to say; my acerbic venom here is a reaction to people telling me to my face how I should be raising my child.  To these people--the ones with a preternatural preoccupation with staying on top of whatever the latest trend is, the ones who value artificial perfection over the realization that perfection is divine and is unachievable by mere mortals--I offer the following in conclusion:

"Fuck off with your sofa units and strine green stripe patterns.  I say never be complete.  I say stop being perfect.  I say...let's evolve--let the chips fall where they may." --Tyler Durden