Saturday, November 2, 2013

Why Jane and Joe College Cannot Write

The Brazilian student said that the bank was under the impression that Brooklyn College would help her learn to write, and they told her to take writing here. They are probably paying her tuition, and they think that we have the capacity to teach skills that they need in their employees.

I have had similar experiences with other students.  In 2006 a senior invited a large insurance company to come to Brooklyn for a Students in Free Enterprise recruiting event.  They agreed to come, but when the student sent them an email, they backed out. They told him that a campus and a faculty that allow students to write like him (his words to me) is not one that they will consider visiting.   This is an EFL, not ESL, student. Often my ESL students are better writers than my EFL students.  I showed you a paper a few weeks ago, John, which you assumed was written by a ESL student but in fact had been written by an EFL student.  My two best writers this semester are ESL students.

John, Diane Ravitch’s book Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform outlines a history in which  education experts have turned a simple process of learning to write into a mystical belief system.  Studies are done and educators procure large grants to solve an imaginary problem.  Educators will do everything, including sitting on the floor with the students, except the hard work of teaching grammar and grading papers.

The result is our students’ writing, which is in part the fault of progressive education theories that fetishize ignorance about grammar and the multiplication tables and which is in part due to teachers’ and professors’ laziness about grading writing, which Benno Schmidt mentioned at an American Council of Trustees and Alumni colloquium last April.  We don’t need to turn writing into a philosophical exercise.  There are a number of significant components of the problem: The students aren’t taught the rules; they aren’t given enough practice; they aren’t motivated; they don’t read.  The solution needs to address all of those concerns, including grammar.  

Our students don’t read enough, but do our faculty assign difficult readings that challenge them, or do they use easy textbooks acceptable to the AACSB’s standardized quality assurance process?  Our students don’t write enough, either.  This is what a student wrote in an online discussion about a New York Times article about the failure of business schools:

A part that I found interesting was when Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report that business majors had the weakest gains during the first two years of college on a national test of writing and reasoning skills. I believe this statement is 100% accurate. This is my second semester at Brooklyn College and i have only written 2 papers and i will accrued 25 credits by the end of this semesters, with one of those papers being from this class. Some of the classes that are taken as part of your major for business do not necessarily require you to write papers, and with it being like that we will tend to forgot certain grammatical rules. College standards have dropped but yet there is nothing being done about it from what i see. One of the problems i find is professor who teach the same course who teach two completely different ways one can be extremely easy and the other extremely difficult and it shouldn't be like that.

Lack of grammatical knowledge is a component. If the students had been repeatedly taught grammar, and if they continued to make errors like these, then your point that grammar is the least of the problems might have traction.   The reverse is true: Few of them have been taught grammar, and their writing is dismal.  The chief exceptions are ESL students who have been well trained in English grammar and students who have received grammatical instruction at home because their parents are knowledgeable enough to teach them.  

John, your recommendation is more of the same: Not teaching grammar in the public schools and at Kingsborough Community has failed for 14 years, so let’s continue to not to teach it.  As for your wife’s experiences, my 10 years of business experience were in the New York region, at Johnson and Johnson and Inco (now Vale).  My father-in-law, who cofounded an S&P Small Cap 600-listed firm with 5,000 Chinese employees, read a research report by one of my students (who works at a large money center bank) and said that the young man is illiterate, and he wouldn’t consider his investment recommendations because of it. The young man was one of my brightest students and an EFL student.

The problem goes for both EFL and ESL students. Both groups' educations are byproducts of a dismal, progressive education-based system whose primary fixations have been on failed theories and easy lifestyles for teachers and professors.