IF YOU THINK America's English teachers have gone "back to basics" and are solving the literacy problem everyone began shouting about in the 1970s, think again.
Recent studies show that English teachers know little about the language they're supposed to teach. They get poor training in writing at college and, as a group, are bad writers. Many have sold out to pop courses in film-making, "visual literacy" and "values clarification" -- simply ignoring language and writing in the process.
University of Illinois researchers Arn and Charlene Tibbetts visited schools in every part of the country before writing "What's Happening to American English?" Their findings, published last year, expose some of the incompetence in the profession:
"We didn't know what to teach," said one instructor, "so we didn't teach anything." An experienced teacher said of recently trained English majors, "They can't begin to tell students what to do about problems." Another said, "Even if the new teachers wanted to do basics, most of them couldn't."
A 1980 report from the Educational Research and Information Center (ERIC) shows that college English departments are still spending almost all of their time on literature and ignoring writing and language training for new teachers. Only about 5 percent of new teachers' preparation is devoted to writing. Practical language training is even worse. "Research shows," says the ERIC report, "that language is the least well-taught of the English instruction components."
Studies reported in a recent issue of English Education magazine echo those findings. "Teachers," said one researcher, "still are not adequately trained in the teaching of language and composition." Another said flatly that writing and language training for teachers is "ineffective."
Officials in the Pinellas County, Fla., school district announced that between 1976 and 1980 about 30 percent of newly trained teachers applying for jobs there flunked a district literacy test -- and several of them were English majors.
Why after all the public outcries in recent years, do colleges still require few writing courses of English majors? The answer is simple. Most college English professors do no writing themselves. They know little about putting words on paper, and teaching writing scares them to death. They're much more comfortable -- and secure -- teaching footnotes in literature.
When professors do teach writing, they usually make a mess of it. Here's what the director of writing programs at the University of Illinois and a national leader in writing instruction told teachers at a campus where I worked: "Nor is sentence combining always an option, even if we assume a plentitude of ideational content in the writer's intention since semantic constraints governing the grammatically hierarchical arrangement of the content require that much of it occur as subordinate inclusions within the boundaries of orthographic sentences."
That's not all. He also talked about "semantic structuration of discourse," "composing behaviors" and "inta-sentential deployment of syntactic structures." He told teachers to pay attention to these things and ignore the advice of E. B. White, Edwin Newman and others who talk about things like clarity and simplicity in writing.
Such gibberish is common from authorities in the business. Another professor at the University of Virginia received a $137,935 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a "relative readability" measure for writing. His conclusion: "A text's intrinsic effectiveness is the proportion between its effectiveness and that of a synonymous version which is optimally effective." Perfectly clear.
Listen to a tenured English professor at the University of Wisconsin's Milwaukee campus: "It seems pretty clear that students can't write -- or speak, in some cases. Sometimes they are illiterate in writing and incoherent in talking. But those are not areas that I stress very much . . . My goal is to change them rather than teach them how to write a complete sentence."
And how does he change them? Students in his class listen to record albums by Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. They discuss, for instance, Dylan's unsuccessful relationships with women and analyze his craving for "mothering and nurturance." They do this to "confront the masculine and feminine sides in themselves" and to understand male stereotypes. The professor says he seldom teaches the same course twice, doesn't know what's going to happen in a course and isn't concerned about it. "Confusion," he says, "is a very healthy thing."
That's an English course. There are many like it in high schools and colleges across the country.
Examine any list of courses in an English department and you'll find several titles like "Sexual Awareness Through Literature," "Literature of Evil" and "Futuristic Literature." You'll have to look hard to find a writing or grammar class; but everything else will be there, from "Star Wars" to the "Gong Show." And if you want to see a real live Gong Show, attend a professional conference and watch English teachers seriously discuss topics like: "Same-Sex Relationships in the Contemporary Novel"; "Being Open and Creative About Gayness"; "Literature and Lore of Bituminous Mining"; "Ya, Ya! Yawn! Now Here This!" Those topics aren't made up. They all appeared at a recent teachers' convention in New York.
There are, of course, some good English teachers. In the 14 years I recently spent in the college business, I knew several who were excellent. But the profession as a whole is shot through with incompetent people who found English an easy major in college. For the past 10 years or so, it hasn't attracted bright, capable students -- mostly because the pay is low and the jobs are scarce. It has appealed to losers. The English department gladly accepts them to boost declining enrollments.
In these times, teachers should be helping students deal with such matters as racist slurs, sexist usage and deceptive language practices in politics, advertising and other professions. Instead, they're turning out language dupes. The kids are growing up unable to recognize the deception and nonsense in expressions like "radiation enhancement device" for neutron bomb, "therapeutic misadventure" for medical malpractice, or "counter-factual propositions" for lies.
They will see nothing wrong in referring to gangsters as "members of a career offender cartel," which is what the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement calls them. How could they? Their English teachers speak the same gobbledy-gook daily.
"The purpose of this class," reads a Brown University course description, "is to establish that the reader of fiction must himself be activated in dramatistic terms, set into motion and theorized . . ." Another Brown professor says students in his course will learn the value of "positing dialectical relationships between texts." They will also "engage in semiotic activity" and learn to "situate the text."
Those PhDs have, since the 1960s, been teaching college language courses with obscure titles like "Stratificational Grammar," "Firthian Linguistics," "Tagmemics" and "Transformational-Generative Grammar." Those PhDs are still in charge of language training at colleges, and they will fight to the last man to keep traditional usage or any other practical study out of the schools.
Lately they have been trying to convince teachers that language is a "science" and that there is no such thing as good or bad usage, no correct or incorrect grammar. This view is now officially sanctioned by the National Council of Teachers of English, which insists that "all students have the right to their own language."
That means the most illiterate, ghetto slang is as acceptable as any other level of usage. For example, the statement "We was there" is as correct as "We were there." NCTE's official statement on this says teachers should "accept as valid all the regional, ethnic and social dialects of American English."
The NCTE doesn't actually say all levels of usage are "correct." The linguists refuse to use words like "correct" or "right" and "wrong."
High-level, academic linguists have done a disservice to America by insisting on impractical theories of English instead of helping us deal with the realities of English. They have diverted our attention from important language matters that affect our personal, political and economic lives. We're being lied to daily by politicians, manipulated by advertisers and fed nonsense by professional people and public officials.
Because Americans are not taught how to handle language, they're victimized by it. Medical researchers at the Pennsylvania University cancer center have found that hospital forms patients sign giving consent to surgery are so confusing that many people have no idea what they're agreeing to. Former Internal Revenue Service commissioner Donald C. Alexander said Americans are victimized by complex language in tax laws that "are almost indecipherable to the human mind."
The Central Intelligence Agency covered up brainwashing experiments at Cornell University Medical Center by calling its program the "Society for Investigation of Human Ecology." Nuclear power-plant officials devise cover words like "rapid disassembly" (explosion) and "reportable occurrance" (accident) to hide their actions and mistakes. In nuclear arms limitations talks, both U.S. and Soviet officials devise harebrained, hairtrigger terms like "acceptable destruct level" and "mutual assured destruction."
If the holocaust ever comes, at the bottom of every gap will lie the skeletons of innumerable fools who couldn't tell the difference between honest language and insane babblings.