Dear Extra Credit:
Your March 12 column ["Proper Grammar Is Not a Prerequisite for AP English"], about two students who broke rules of usage while speaking in class, made me spit nails. What is the point of an "advanced" course (for college placement or otherwise) if the students in it aren't required to have previously mastered the basics?
No, it's not strictly necessary to have learned standard English grammar before studying Shakespeare or Morrison. But it is necessary to learn standard English grammar, and that's something a distressing proportion of our high school students -- and even those in college -- have not achieved. They should be required to learn the basics before being allowed to take any advanced courses. It's very simple: You have to learn to walk before you can run.
And if basic (non-AP) classes are classes in which, as you said, "they are not asked to learn very much," then maybe the school systems should concentrate on improving those classes instead of pushing non-gifted, non-advanced students into advanced classes. In the case of English, particularly, they should be "asked to learn" (required to learn would be better) basic grammar first, and only then allowed to study Shakespeare or Morrison or creative writing or business writing or anything else.
Many readers shared your frustration, but I wager that very few of them have been teachers. You should talk to educators who work with average students before making up your mind. What is most important in learning, they will tell you, is that each student make significant progress each year. By "mastering the basics," do you mean knowing them all? Few of us ever achieve that level of knowledge. So where do you draw the line? Teachers will tell you that as long as students have the skills to progress -- particularly the ability to listen to, read and understand new material -- you should let them move forward, while working on their weaknesses.