Do We Even Care
There was once a time when writing proficiency and reading comprehension were considered pretty important. In grade school all the way through high school, some sort of curriculum, some class, whether it was English, a specific reading or writing course, etc., had something to do, directly, with the subjects of reading and writing. Even math and science did not enjoy the same prominence that the written arts did.
I was born towards the end of my generation — the Baby Boomers — but it’s safe to say that the importance placed on literacy remained high probably into the 70s, maybe the early 80s. But somewhere, sometime, something changed. The evidence is clear in a number of ways. Among the newer generations — those since Gen-X at least — it can be seen in college entrance exams, in remedial college writing programs, and in college “writing proficiency” exams and “writing intensive” courses as graduation requirements. These all indicate a problem in the writing (and reading) skill of incoming college students.
But that evidence extends beyond those who are college bound. Because we live in a communication environment that is heavily text-based — much more so than when I was young — written communication is abundant… and public. We are, literally, able to self-publish ourselves to the world, without filter and without an editor and what is lacking in, and passing for, writing is glaring. I’m not just talking about the rules of grammar or correct spelling — English, especially, is fucking complicated and even those who know it well will make mistakes and sometimes argue over the finer details of correct grammar. I’m talking about the ability to put words together that actually mean something that can be deciphered as what was intended.
For Boomers and older, for Gen-Xers, and others who did learn it in grade school but never used it much since — those who have forgotten many of the regulatory conventions and correct spelling — their mistakes, too, are on full display in this modern world of public text-based communication. They were, actually, prepared for this, however, it has been a long time. They will typically struggle with the “rules,” but not so much with the content. In other words, the details that we tend to forget when not using something every day might have faded, but the core structure remains — they are making sense because when they graduated high school they had years of education in the subject. Grammar and spelling mistakes aside, we can still understand what they are saying. I have forgotten most of the advanced math I learned, but when faced with a math problem, I still think about solutions “algebraically” or “geometrically” — the rules have faded, but the core structure remains. I might not be able to explain the mathematical detail of how I arrive at an answer, but the analytical process I learned years ago still guides me there. Language arts work the same way and, clearly, something is missing.
I am not the Facebook grammar police. I do not find joy nor do I fill my days correcting others’ grammar and spelling on Facebook or other text-based mediums. If I did, that would be all I’d have time to do. I get that others see me in my job as a communication studies professor and make the assumption that I “judge” everyone else’s grammar; I don’t. I do enough of that in my job grading my students’ work. Yet, because, I guess, of these assumptions, some have taken great pleasure in finding and pointing out my own occasional mistakes. I never claimed to be perfect or that I do not make them — and I do appreciate when they are pointed out. I will always edit out errors once I am aware of them. I don’t get the glee others find in their discoveries, but this list of things I don’t understand about humanity dwarfs the list of things I do understand.
The age of information and the Internet has had the largest impact on written communication since Gutenberg invented moveable type, bringing mass-produced printed works to the masses. Literacy then, was very low, but the new printing press began a movement that changed the world. Literacy, today, is not that low, but it is, arguably, much lower than it was 25 years ago. The age of information has not shown signs that is changing. While “good writing” seems to be recognized as such (when it’s not demonized as “intellectualism”), the inability to practice it — or even care — is a very real, demonstrable problem. I see it in my college classrooms (or their pandemic virtual equivalents) every day and I see it on text-based mediums like this one even more. It won’t change unless we care. Right now, I don’t think enough of us do.