Archive for the ‘Literacy’ Category

Over at Gin and Tacos, the blogger has an interesting take on perverse incentives that function to inflate grades (and undermine learning), partly by encouraging teachers to give higher grades than deserved at the first hint of pushback from consumers students, parents, or administration. The blog post is more specifically about Why Johnny Can’t Write and references a churlish article in Salon. All well and good. The blog author provides consistently good analysis as a college professor intimate with the rigors of higher education and the often unprepared students deposited in his classroom. However, this comment got my attention in particular. The commentator is obviously a troll, and I generally don’t feed trolls, so I made only one modest comment in the comments section. Because almost no one reads The Spiral Staircase, certainly no one from the estimable Gin and Tacos crowd, I’ll indulge myself, not the troll, by examining briefly the main contention, which is that quality of writing, including correct grammar, doesn’t matter most of the time.

Here’s most of the comment (no link to the commentator’s blog, sorry):

1. Who gives a flying fuck about where the commas go? About 99.999999999999999% of the time, it makes NO DIFFERENCE WHATSOEVER in terms of understanding somebody’s point if they’ve used a comma splice. Is it a technical error? Sure. Just like my unclear pronoun reference in the last sentence. Did you understand what I meant? Unless you were actively trying not to, yes, you did.

2. There’s are hundreds of well-conducted peer-reviewed studies by those of us who actually specialize in writing pedagogy documenting the pointlessness of teaching grammar skills *unless students give a fuck about what they’re writing.* We’ve known this since the early 1980s. So when the guy from the high school English department in the article says they can’t teach grammar because students think it’s boring, he’s unwittingly almost making the right argument. It’s not that it’s boring–it’s that it’s irrelevant until the students have something they want to say. THEN we can talk about how to say it well.

Point one is that people manage to get their points across adequately without proper punctuation, and point two is that teaching grammar is accordingly a pedagogical dead end. Together, they assert that structure, rules, syntax, and accuracy make no difference so long as communication occurs. Whether one takes the hyperbole “99.999999999999999% of the time” as the equivalent of all the time, almost all the time, most of the time, etc. is not of much interest to me. Red herring served by a troll.

/rant on

As I’ve written before, communication divides neatly into receptive and expressive categories: what we can understand when communicated to us and what we can in turn communicate effectively to others. The first category is the larger of the two and is greatly enhanced by concerted study of the second. Thus, reading comprehension isn’t merely a matter of looking up words in the dictionary but learning how it’s customary and correct to express oneself within the rules and guidelines of Standard American English (SAE). As others’ writing and communication becomes more complex, competent reception is more nearly an act of deciphering. Being able to parse sentences, grasp paragraph structure, and follow the logical thread (assuming those elements are handled well) is essential. That’s what being literate means, as opposed to being semi-literate — the fate of lots of adults who never bothered to study.

To state flatly that “good enough” is good enough is to accept two unnecessary limitations: (1) that only a portion of someone’s full, intended message is received and (2) that one’s own message is expressed with no better than adolescent sophistication, if that. Because humans are not mind readers, loss of fidelity between communicated intent and receipt is acknowledged. By further limiting oneself to lazy and unsophisticated usage is, by way of analogy, to reduce the full color spectrum to black and white. Further, the suggestion that students can learn to express themselves properly once they have something to say misses the whole point of education, which is to prepare them with adult skills in advance of need.

As I understand it, modern American schools have shifted their English curricula away from the structural, prescriptive approach toward licentious usage just to get something onto the page, or in a classroom discussion, just to choke something out of students between the hemming ums, ers, uhs, ya knows, and I dunnos. I’d like to say that I’m astonished that researchers could provide cover for not bothering to learn, relieving both teachers and students of the arduous work needed to develop competence, if not mastery. That devaluation tracks directly from teachers and administrators to students and parents, the latter of whom would rather argue for their grades than earn them. Pity the fools who grub for grades without actually learning and are left holding worthless diplomas and degrees — certificates of nonachievement. In all likelihood, they simply won’t understand their own incompetence because they’ve been told all their lives what special flowers they are.

/rant off


My work commute typically includes bus, train, and walking legs to arrive at my destination. If wakefulness and an available seat allow, I often read on the bus and train. (This is getting to be exceptional compared to other commuters, who are more typically lost in their phones listening to music, watching video, checking FB, or playing games. Some are undoubtedly reading, like me, but electronic media, which I find distasteful, alter the experience fundamentally from ink on paper.) Today, I was so absorbed in my reading that by the time I looked up, I missed my bus stop, and half an hour later, I nearly missed my train stop, too. The experience of tunnel vision in deep concentration is not at all unfamiliar to me, but it is fleeting and unpredictable. More typical is a relaxed yet alert concentration that for me takes almost no effort anymore.

So what sent me ’round the bend? The book I’m currently reading, Nick Carr’s The Glass Cage, takes a diversion into the work of poet Robert Frost. Carr uses Frost to illustrate his point about immersion in bodily work with manageable difficulty lending the world a more robust character than the detached, frictionless world experienced with too much technological mediation and ease. Carr does a terrific job contextualizing Frost’s lyric observations in a way quite unlike the contextual analysis one might undertake in a high school or college classroom, which too often makes the objects of study lifeless and irrelevant. Carr’s discussion put me unexpectedly into an aesthetic mode of contemplation, as distinguished from analytic or kinesthetic modes. There are probably others.

I don’t often go into aesthetic mode. It requires the right sort of stimulation. The Carr/Frost combination put me there, and so I tunneled into the book and forgot my commute. That momentary disorientation is often pleasurable, but for me, it can also be distressing. My infrequent visits to art museums are often accompanied by a vague unease at the sometimes nauseating emotionalism of the works on display. It’s an honest response, though I expect most folks can’t quite understand why something beautiful would provoke something resembling a negative response. In contrast, my experience in the concert hall is usually frustration, as musicians have become ever more corporate and professional in their performance over time to the detriment and exclusion of latent emotional content. I suppose that as Super Bowl Sunday is almost upon us (about which I care not at all), the typical viewer gets an emotional/aesthetic charge out of that overhyped event, especially if the game is hotly contested rather than a blowout. I seek and find my moments in less crass expressions of the human spirit.

Every blog post I write suffers from the same basic problem: drawing disparate ideas together in succinct, cogent form that expresses enough of the thesis to make sense while leaving room for commentary, discussion, and development. Alas, commentary and discussion are nearly nonexistent, but that’s always been my expectation and experience given my subjects. When expanding a blog into several parts, the greatest risk is that ideas fail to coalesce legibly, compounded by the unlikelihood that readers who happen to navigate here will bother to read all the parts. (I suspect this is due in part to most readers’ inability to comprehend complex, multipart writing, as discussed in this blog post by Ugo Bardi describing surprising levels of functional illiteracy.) So this addendum to my three-part blog on Dissolving Reality is doomed, like the rest of my blog, to go unread and ignored. Plus ça change

Have you had the experience of buying a new model of vehicle and suddenly noticed other vehicles of the same model on the road? That’s what I’ve been noticing since I hatched my thesis (noting with habitual resignation that there nothing is new under the sun), which is that the debased information environment now admits multiple interpretations of reality, none of which can lay exclusive claim to authority as an accurate account. Reality has instead dissolved into a stew of competing arguments, often extremely politicized, which typically appeal to emotion. Historically, the principal conflict was between different ways of knowing exemplified by faith and reason, perhaps better understood as the church (in the West, the Catholic Church) vs. science. Floodgates have now opened to any wild interpretation one might concoct, all of which coexist on roughly equal footing in the marketplace of ideas. (more…)

Before continuing with my series on “Pre-Extinction Follies,” I want to divert to an idea I’ve struggled with for some time, namely, that by virtue of socialization and education (and especially higher education), we train our minds to think according to a variety of different filters. Which filter is most powerful and for what objectives is a question that leads to many potential answers, such as, just for example, (1) the scientific worldview and its follow-on power to manipulate (and pollute) the land, sky, and oceans of the planet, (2) the spiritual worldview and its power to transfix the human psyche, (3) the artistic worldview and its power to resonate with emotion and intuition, or (4) the sportsman’s worldview and its power to construe the world in terms of pointless endless cycles of competitions, games, and championships. As I observed here, there is considerable overlap that makes distinguishing between competing worldviews somewhat questionable, but considering how depth and nuance is driven out of most points of view, keywords, soundbites, and dogma function just fine to separate and define people according to classes, races, demographic groups, etc.

The idea of twisted minds, never far from my thinking, came to the fore again recently because of two experiences: reading (at long last) Joe Bageant’s Rainbow Pie and getting HBO, which granted access to comedy shows (Real Time with Bill Maher and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver) that rework political and cultural news to make it palatable to and digestible by the masses. Having been a viewer of The Daily Show for some time and long before that a variety of Bill Maher’s exploits, I appreciate the acumen it takes to transmit (some of) the news comically. That particular filter is precisely why I go there. Along the way, I get exposure to lots of ideas I normally avoid (yes, I practice a form of information aversion at the same time I’m an information sponge, though not a political junkie or news hound), but I don’t kid myself as hosts of those shows sometimes chide their own audiences that I’m getting all of the news there.

Still, I can’t help but feel frustration at the way various media folks twist the news. In unscripted interviews and panel discussions in particular, ask a question of an economist and an economics answer results. The same is true, respectively, of news anchors, magazine and blog writers, and celebrities (mostly actors). They may have excellent command of the issues, but their minds reshape issues according to their training and/or vocation, which makes me want to hurl things at the screen because opinions and policy are frequently so constrained and twisted they become idiotic. An economist who promotes growth is a good example (more of what’s destroying us, please!). The worst, though, are politicians. Career politicians (is there any other kind?) are conditioned to distort issues beyond recognition and to deal with people (and their issues) as demographics to be shuffled in the abstract around the imaginary surface of some playing field. Dedication to service of the commonweal is long gone, replaced by theater, spin doctoring, and perpetual campaigning.

In contrast, someone comes along infrequently who has the wit and god’s eye view necessary to contextualize and synthesize modern information glut effectively and then tell the truth, the latter of which carries a very high value for me. That would be Joe Bageant, whose writing and perspective are fundamentally alien to me yet communicate with power and clarity, cutting through all the manufactured bullshit of trained and twisted minds. Writing about literacy, Bageant has this to say about the redneck folks (the white underclass) he knew and was part of growing up:

  1. They do not have the necessary basic skills, and don’t give a rat’s ass about getting them;
  2. Reading is not arresting enough to compete with the electronic stimulation in which their society is immersed;
  3. They cannot envisage any possible advantage in reading, because the advantages stem from extended personal involvement, which they have never experienced, are conditioned away from, and is understandably beyond their comprehension; and
  4. Their peers do not read as a serious matter, thereby socially reinforcing their early conclusion that it’s obviously not worth the time and effort ….

Elsewhere, Bageant writes about the unacknowledged lessons of class warfare that his brethren knew as a matter of intuition from living through it rather than through abstract instructions of some sociology text or teacher. We all possess that intuition about a wide array of issues, but we suppress most of it as a result of educational conditioning and conformity (the rightthink or political correctness for which we congratulate ourselves on issues such as sexism, racism, and LGBT rights). So we prefer the happy lies and fables of politicians, entertainers, and educators to the awful truth of what’s really happening all around us, plain to see. It’s a systemic fraud in which we all participate.

What strikes me, too, is that education (or literacy) does not function as a panacea for the masses. Over-educated Icelanders made that clear roughly a decade ago. Bageant decries the ignorance (“ignernce”) of his social stratum and their continuous knuckling under to their supposed betters, yet he admits they flee into the middle and upper classes when opportunity arises, social mobility usually resulting from educational accomplishment. The unspoken conclusion, however, is that the educated elite conspire (albeit sometimes unwittingly) to perpetuate and intensify class warfare and to preserve their enhanced position on the scale. And they do so with the armature of education.

Fools Rush In

Posted: July 1, 2014 in Culture, Economics, Education, Literacy
Tags: ,

Several highly publicized inventories of OECD Skills Outlook 2013 hit the media last fall and then promptly fell off the radar. They stayed on my radar, waiting for the propitious time to sort my thinking and develop a blog post. (I’m always late to the party.) The full report is 466 pp., including blank pages, extensive front- and back-matter, and a writing style that positively discourages reading except to pluck quotes or statistics, as I do below. Such reports (e.g., the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also released in Fall 2013, which I also blogged about here) take considerable effort to compile, but they always leave me wondering whether any of them are actionable or worth going to such lengths to assess, compile, and report. Even the executive summaries expend more effort saying what the reports are rather than offering a cogent conclusion and/or recommendation. This style may well be a requirement of advanced bureaucracy.

Skills assessed by the OECD Skills Outlook are described here:

The Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), was designed to provide insights into the availability of some of these key skills in society and how they are used at work and at home. The first survey of its kind, it directly measures proficiency in several information-processing skills — namely literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments.


The Word

Posted: July 14, 2011 in Consciousness, Culture, Literacy, Philosophy

I’ve struggled for a little while to know quite what to do with this quote from The Master and His Emissary, which I’m currently reading (albeit very slowly) and blogging as I go:

Language enables the left hemisphere to represent the world ‘off-line’, a conceptual version, distinct from the world of experience, and shielded from the immediate environment, with its insistent impressions, feelings, and demands, abstracted from the body, no longer dealing with what is concrete, specific, individual, unrepeatable, and constantly changing, but with a disembodied representation of the world, abstracted, central, not particularised in time and place, generally applicable, clear and fixed. Isolating things artificially from their context brings the advantage of enabling us to focus intently on a particular aspect of reality and how it can be modelled, so that it can be grasped and controlled.

After this, McGilchrist launches into a wider discussion of metaphor and symbol, which gets a little heady for the uninitiated. I say uninitiated because the insight that language is a human technology, like writing, number systems, clock time, and others, that enables us to construe reality according to certain inherently limiting principles is not altogether obvious or intuitive to most of us precisely because we are inside the bubble, working and thinking from within those limitations. For instance, the inner voice everyone hears in the mind’s ear is language based, and to think in other terms — without words — is closer in experience to feeling than thinking.

I sensed something profound in McGilchrist’s analysis, but I didn’t know how to structure my thinking. Then I saw in the comments at a recent post at kulturCritic this remarkable observation, which Sandy Krolick appears to have simply tossed off:

… the transformation of language from an oral to written traditions wrought incalculable damage not only to the fullness of words, but to the fullness of experience as well. Univocality replaced polysemy. And the power of the spoken word was emptied out in the interests of clarity, disambiguation and legalistic adjudication. Scientific control of nature and people took precedence over everything else. And life became similarly emptied as a result. Specialization in how we interacted with one another was a further qualification on this specialization in language — at the semantic, syntactic and logistic levels of communication. This was the ground work for the curriculum of the West.

Krolick’s comment meshes extremely well with McGilchrist and reminded me of a blog post I wrote more than two years ago citing Neil Postman’s discussion of “The Judgment of Thamus,” as well as another more recent blog post about language in decline. It’s all probably too much to read and absorb, so I’ll summarize.

Krolick and McGilchrist are both arguing that words get in the way of a more immediate connection with (not “to”) the world by creating screens and abstractions that allow us to understand, manipulate, and control things and ideas. Language and writing thus represent a fundamental departure from a much older, primal identification with reality. In contrast, I’ve been in the rather unfortunate position of defending language and deploring the decreasing facility with which most people use words in both speech and writing. These perspectives share a fundamental concern: the loss of meaning. But the lost meanings are quite different from each other. Preverbal cognition is experienced in the body but is notoriously difficult to access, as in the controversy over infant amnesia, precisely because it isn’t fixed in memory through language. Meaning is felt through empathetic identification, but it’s a constantly moving target. Verbal cognition is experienced in the head and essentially amounts to a powerful virtual reality that blocks or at least dominates other cognitive states. Meaning is imposed and rationalized but ultimately fails to be very convincing because it is largely fictive.

This presents a puzzle: what type of beings should we really be? Slobbering, grunting brutes who share the world (modestly) with other animals or sophisticated, thinking men who possess power to create wonders and even more immense power to destroy? History has gotten us to this second state, but it’s clear that many of us are deeply dissatisfied with our labors and wish for something more immediate and primitive. The trend toward ever greater erudition and understanding has probably only just reversed, but it’s apparent to the cognoscenti that, for the masses, being a know-nothing is preferable to being a know-something. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have to nearly so many silly fops in entertainment and government to keep us enthralled with their vapid stupidity. Whether this is an expression of the cultural mind destroying itself is a good question.

A never-ending debate rages between two camps: language mavens who are dedicated to preserving standards and language modifiers who embrace change of any sort. The characterization of one group by the other is less charitable. Mavens are called school marms, Nazis, and keepers of pointless detail. Modifiers are called philistines and ignoramuses. Can you guess which camp I’m in?

Undoubtedly, language is fluid and undergoes change as particular usages dominate or decay with time. Further, some details matter more (or less) than others. A raging debate was sparked by a recent change to the Associate Press style sheet. Many publishing organs compile style sheets to bring consistency out of chaos with respect to how certain terms are used. For example, which is correct, Web-site or website (or some further variation)? The current debate is over e-mail vs. email. Although this is not a detail worth arguing at length, it is probably worth deciding for the sake of consistency. Whereas I prefer e-mail, the Associated Press decided to change to email. Neither determination is borne out of ignorance as to how compound words are formed, but loud, vehement cries of “Who cares?” no doubt are. Those are the ignoramuses who can’t believe such detail warrants the slightest bit of attention. The keepers charge that if we don’t care about this, then why care about spelling or punctuation at all?

Even more unsettling, perhaps, is the decision of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the self-proclaimed definitive record of the English language, to include initialisms, namely, LOL, FYI, and OMG. (I was a little surprised by the word initialism, but it apparently has a long period of use.) If the OED is trying to be all inclusive, then sure, throw everything in. But if it’s trying to be definitive, admitting new words to the lexicon needs to be quite conservative. No doubt its editorial board has conditions for inclusion that lie beyond my scrutiny.

Changes in usage do not necessitate decline, but the preponderance of changes now occurring stems not from any need to express ideas better but from liberalization of expression. Shortcuts taken to accommodate texting efficiency or to meet Twitter character limits do not enhance language, though their ubiquity cannot be challenged. And as we transition from a reading public to a viewing public (as I’ve argued here, among other places), the loss of ability to decode subtle usage and indeed think sophisticated thoughts is guaranteed when our lexicon is littered with thoughtless though hip and efficient nonwords.

An article at The Chicago Tribune about libraries moving away from the Dewey Decimal System to bookstore-style shelving and organization covers the issue with typical journalistic banality: telling both sides of a potentially contentious subject (everyone being doctrinaire about nearly everything these days) without rendering judgment. Differences between research and public libraries are mentioned briefly, as well as differences between commonly used classification systems. Library patrons are also quoted for man-in-the-street authenticity. It’s virtually assembly-line news reporting — writing to a template that can be applied universally, not unlike paint-by-the-numbers movies.


The New Yorker has a rather long but interesting article called “Twilight of the Books” about the decline of reading and literacy in the modern world. The article is far reaching in its attempt to summarize information from a number of sources, notably a book by Maryanne Wolf, a professor at Tufts University and director of its Center for Reading and Language Research, titled Proust and the Squid. The article begins with a litany of statistics demonstrating that reading is in decline.

I have to pause here to chide The New Yorker about its own writing, which is the flip side of reading on the literacy coin. Don’t all articles pass over at least two desks: the writer’s and the editor’s?

In January 1994, forty-nine per cent of respondents told the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press that they had read a newspaper the day before. In 2006, only forty-three per cent said so, including those who read online. Book sales, meanwhile, have stagnated. The Book Industry Study Group estimates that sales fell from 8.27 books per person in 2001 to 7.93 in 2006. According to the Department of Labor, American households spent an average of a hundred and sixty-three dollars on reading in 1995 and a hundred and twenty-six dollars in 2005. [emphasis added]

Isn’t per cent better as one word: percent? Similarly, shouldn’t a hundred and sixty-three be one hundred sixty-three? Any experienced copy editor should know that we don’t write numbers (or numerals) the way we speak them. We may say one-oh-six, but we don’t write 1o6 (as opposed to 106 — the typographical difference is difficult to see with some fonts, but it’s there). There are lots of other style errors, contractions, and generalized clumsiness, but I’ll move on.

As I read the article, I was struck by the number of times I said to myself, Duh, that’s so obvious it doesn’t bear stating! But I realized that most of the Duh! moments aren’t in fact so obvious to anyone ignorant of even entry-level media theory, which is really what I have. So I’ll reproduce a few noteworthy items with comments. (more…)