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For the week of Sept. 1, 1999 through Sept. 7, 1999

Some dimensions of literacy: a rant

Commentary by DICK DORWORTH


The school year begins. The young people of America are returning to classrooms with the intention to learn, and of course they will. Exactly what is learned in school depends on a multitude of factors and forces and people so enmeshed in our society in the academic system that to separate any one of them out for praise or criticism is incomplete, even if valid.

It was discouraging that a recent widely distributed back to school primer printed in the Idaho Mountain Express media dwelled on the latest fashionable clothing styles for school children and a recipe for an innovative way to prepare a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for your child’s lunch. Every adolescent wants to look cool, and peanut butter and jelly is the best; but they are hardly the stuff of education, literacy, the ability to read, write, spell, count, think and to understand and articulate issues more complex than the cardinal points, numbers or virtues.

Apparently, the education received by today’s students reflect the values of today’s society where self-confidence is gained through fashionable clothes and care is expressed by the cuteness of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich of such complex synthesis that a recipe is required for its construction.

A few years ago I was driving through Twin Falls on Blue Lakes Boulevard when the Denny’s Restaurant sign caused me to stop the car and pull over. It wasn’t in order to purchase one of the inimitable gastronomic items on the Denny’s menu that caused me to stop, but, rather, to photograph the sign itself. I got the photo published in a national newspaper, High Country News. The sign read "try one of are hot new melts." I dared not, especially since one n in the gastronomic recommendation was reversed, so I limited my appetite to taking the photo and moving on down the road in search of more literate provisions. The editor at High Country News wrote back asking, "How our you?" and we shared a good, literate laugh.

But we laughed in the knowledge that it really isn’t funny.

I think about that sign and what it means, as I will probably think about what it means to create a recipe for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in a back to school check list.

What was the person who put that sign up doing during the time he or she was attending school? What were that person’s teachers doing? How did that person come to be chosen to write and put up in public view "try one of are hot new melts"? Was that person the manager, and, if not, did the manager notice? More important to the larger society of which every one of us is a member, is there a relationship between "try one of are hot new melts" and the lawsuits brought against Denny’s last year for racial discrimination?

The ability to think clearly is affected by the language we use. Ignorance always muddies the waters of thought.

It seems to me that lucidity in language is a goal of education in this and every year. For a variety of reasons, not all of them the result of the current American system of education and the largely unappreciated and inadequately compensated teachers who keep it running, this goal is not being met, nor has it been for some time. More than 30 years ago as a graduate student I taught freshman remedial English at a university in exchange for tuition and enough money to almost cover the rent. Most of my students had somehow passed through the system and arrived at the university level with the language skills of an 8th grade C grade student. A few, alas, had the language skills of a 5th grade D grade student. Some passed freshman remedial English and many did not. Since language is fundamental to communication, to the ability to learn and articulate the complexities of life, to our common humanity, lacking the basic skills of language is a tragedy affecting more than the skilless. Like most teachers, I did my best; but to correct in one semester the negligence of 12 years of an education perceived as economic utility and public process instead of respect for learning was beyond my abilities. In truth, alas, it was also outside my interest.

One of my duties at the Idaho Mountain Express is to proof the entire paper before printing for grammatical, factual, spelling and all the other sorts of errors that creep into the printed word and act as barriers to elucidation, communication and accuracy in both complex and straight forward writing. This includes the letters to the editor written by people who have important, deeply felt, complex and relevant issues on their minds.

In this community where the average level of education is far higher than in most of America, all too many of those letter writers use ‘our’ when they mean ‘are,’ ‘your’ when they want to write ‘you’re,’ ‘their’ when ‘there’ is the word they need. Some of these artists use syntax as linguistic abstract expressionism, grammar as pop art and punctuation as free form cubism. Realism suffers. Communication weeps. Language mourns. Intellect dies of malnutrition.

Like most proof readers, I do my best. I don’t think there was a single mistake in the peanut butter and jelly sandwich recipe, and I don’t think I’ve ever harmed the intent of a letter with changes of punctuation, spelling or sentence structure.

Like most writers, I do my best to make readers care about the issue, in this case literacy in our society. A people and a society who do not care about literacy regress, no matter how cool and fashionable their clothes, no matter how much care and cuteness go into the making of sandwiches for the children.

 

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