Robert Green, president of the University of the District of Columbia, has been getting a bellyful of free advice ever since he announced plans to "loosen" the school's graduation requirements.
On the outside chance that he still has room for one more tiny spoonful of unsolicited counsel, I commend to him a front-page newspaper advertisement I came across the other day.
"Shamed by your English?" the ad asks in bold letters, before going on to tout a course devised by a "world-famous educationalist."
Readers who take advantage of the self-instruction course are promised not only freedom from fear of "those embarrassing mistakes," but also the ability to "command the respect of those who matter . . . (and) to cut through every barrier to social, academic or business success."
What struck me about the ad was not its blunt appeal to those whose poor English leaves them insecure, nor even the excess of its promise, but the fact that it appeared in the Manchester (England) Guardian.
Now I don't know whether the "educationalist's" correspondence course is any good or not. And I certainly don't mean to imply that most UDC students have reason to be "shamed" by their English. But the fact that the ad was addressed to the readers of a literate, upscale English newspaper ought to help drive home a point that often gets lost: Proper use of the language is routinely accepted as a mark of intelligence, the first basis on which we are judged by those whose judgments matter.
If it is true that poor English is a barrier to social, academic and business success for the mostly white readers of the Manchester Guardian, it is truer still for the graduates of a mostly black, open-admission university in America.
I don't mean to underplay the importance of subject-content mastery. Obviously, skills and knowledge -- competency -- are vital to career success. But so is facility with the language. You may be quite a decent computer programmer, but few prospective employers will believe it if you speak poorly. You may have the skills necessary to become a first-rate manager, but if you can't write a decent memo -- if your words are imprecise, your thoughts unorganized, your syntax muddled -- you are likely to be thought incompetent. And it helps if commonplace historical and literary allusions don't leave you looking lost.
So while Bob Green is worrying -- and announcing public hearings -- over changes in UDC's graduation requirements, my advice is that he pay special attention to English. If he wants to reorganize the requirements so as to include more job-specific skills, he won't get a fight from me. If he wants to eliminate the present foreign-language requirement, I won't argue; most college students who study a foreign language only because it is mandatory don't learn enough to make it worthwhile anyway.
But any time saved by eliminating or reorganizing other courses ought to be devoted to additional emphasis on reading, writing and speaking English.
It's such an obvious thing, when you think about it. We regularly make judgments as to the brightness, the competency and the intelligence of the people we meet -- not by giving them examinations in their specialties but by observing how they use the language. The lady over here may be an incompetent idiot, but if she speaks like Barbara Jordan, we'll give her instant credit for intelligence. The gentleman over there may be as smart as a whip, but if his diction evokes Mr. T, we will insist on some further evidence.
That's true for all people. As the articulate Bob Green knows, it's doubly true for black people who, too often, imagine that admonitions to improve their language are suggestions that they learn to "sound whit As the ad in The Guardian makes clear, the point isn't to sound white, but to command the respect that comes with sounding well educated.