Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"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.