Campus Scenes

Screwing Up

Why Joe College can't read (or write).

By 9.11.06

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Most of the students staring back at me last week, the first week of Fall classes at the State University school at which I teach, were born in 1988 -- six years after I began teaching remedial English to college freshmen. If you do the math, that means I've been at it for a quarter century. As usual, this semester's crop will spend the entire first session in a state of hurt and bewilderment. How is it possible, they'll wonder, that after 12 years of elementary, intermediate and high school English classes, they still screwed up an English placement test that requires them to demonstrate only a minimum proficiency in reading comprehension, grammatical correctness, and paragraph structure?

There's plenty of blame to go around: Some belongs to the students themselves who don't read newspapers or magazines, avoid books like Dracula avoids sunlight, and whose only regular writing consists of text-message shorthand and "freestyle" poetry. More blame belongs to their teachers who reward formless, cliche-ridden expressions of adolescent angst and victimology but neglect the fundamentals of reading and writing in order to pump their students full of self-esteem -- an attribute which, ironically, correlates more closely with criminality than with high test scores.

Today, however, I want to focus on the third partner in the miseducation of American students: Parents. It's difficult, of course, to criticize parents without sounding judgmental -- always a faux pas in an age of moral relativism. But it strikes me that there's a cause-effect relationship between bad parenting habits and the lack of intellectual discipline in college freshmen that culminates in a remedial English placement...and in that hurt and bewildered stare the first week of classes each semester. Here, then, are several general guidelines.

* If your child has a cell phone with a monthly plan, but not a personal computer, you're not doing your job. (Ditto a Play Station, X-Box or whatever the latest gaming contraption is nowadays.)

* If your child has never seen you look up a definition in a dictionary or a synonym in a thesaurus, you're not doing your job.

* If your child doesn't know how to Google information on the World Wide Web, or if he's never used an online encyclopedia to do a homework assignment, you're not doing your job.

* If your child has passed through puberty and still hasn't mastered standard English syntax and verb conjugation -- if he asks questions like " What movie you seen last night?" and " Whose house we going to?" --you're not doing your job.

* If your child doesn't understand that not all language is appropriate in all situations -- if, for example, he habitually curses in front of you -- you're not doing your job.

Your child's education is an ongoing, full time project. It's not limited to what occurs in the classroom. Your child has serious work to do. So do his teachers.

But so do you.

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About the Author
Mark Goldblatt teaches at Fashion Institute of Technology (SUNY). His latest novel, Sloth, was published last year by Greenpoint Press.