There’s Still Hope!

I meet on a regular basis with a good friend who still teaches at the university where I taught for 37 years. He teaches English and was talking about a remarkable paper written by one of his students in a Freshman Composition class. The student is a high school student taking college classes in order to reduce the time and money spent in college later on. It’s a program that Minnesota has had in place for many years now and some of our best students have been those kids who are still in high school. In any event, the paper this student wrote was so remarkable that I asked for a copy and read it with astonishment. The assignment was to go to the library, take any magazine and write what most impressed the student about that particular publication. The idea was to (a) teach the students where the library is, (b) have them read a magazine and (c) test their observational and writing skills. This student picked the National Geographic. He decided to compare and contrast recent copies with several written years before — as early as 1915.

The student was impressed with the great difference between the older version of the magazine and more recent issues. He compared the length of the articles and was struck by their simplicity and brevity. As he noted “Fewer words and more pictures.” He then went through two articles, both on Armenia as it happens, in the two publications — word by word! After the more recent article, he concluded:

“This passage contains ninety-six words, four sentences, nine commas, two colons, one pair of quotation marks, and one pair of dashes.”

He then contrasted this with an older article on the same topic and noted that:

“This passage has 146 words, four sentences, twenty-two commas, two semi-colons, and a pair of dashes. There are four lists, if groups of adjectives are not counted, and there are even instances of figurative language present in the older article that are not found in the newer one. On average, there are 4.67 letters per word in the first [newer] passage and 1.39 syllables. This is significantly different from the 5.58 letters per word in the second [older] excerpt, and the 2.26 syllables. We are simpler now than we were before. . .”

Needless to say, after this remarkable study of the particulars in the two articles he was eager to draw conclusions — as you can see from his final comment. But he shores up that conclusion with further evidence. At the very end of his paper he contrasts two passages from literature, a short story by Conan Doyle and another current one by Stephanie Meyer. His conclusion is worth pondering:

“These passages both describe characters that the protagonist is meeting for the first time. The descriptions, however, are barely comparable. Meyer is vague and barely scratches the surface of the characters, while Doyle goes in depth about his character. Meyer uses sentence fragments in her writing, while Doyle uses comprehensive sentences. The styles are not simply 2000s writing against 1910s writing; there is more to the differences than that. People do not want to read the older literature on the grounds that it is ‘too hard,’ it takes effort and time to truly comprehend Doyle’s work, where anyone could understand what Meyer writes about.”

I would also note the shrunken vocabularies and diminished imaginations of those who still read and write — a number that also seems to be shrinking.

It is possible that this student is writing what his professor wants him to say (students tend to do that) or even that he pilfered this article from the net. But that would all be sour grapes. I prefer to think that this young person has a good head on his or her shoulders and not only writes well but also thinks well. I realize, of course, as does my friend, that this student is one of those few that have slipped between the cracks of a decaying educational system. This is why we were so excited. So many of their peers in colleges all around this country prefer the picture books and the short paragraphs that demand no intellectual effort whatever. Reading, writing, and thinking have become passé.

This explains the growing popularity of a demagogue who uses small words, twists the truth around his tiny fingers, makes vapid promises he cannot possibly keep, and seems, contrary to Lincoln, capable of fooling a great many people most, if not all, the time. Still, it is delightful to read such a paper and to know that there is hope if young people such as this manage to work their way to the top and have a say about the future of this country and our besieged planet.


9 thoughts on “There’s Still Hope!

  1. Hugh, thanks for sharing this. My freshman daughter received high praise for PBS of her papers. She wrote in disagreement of a position made by the author. The professor said only upperclassmen disagree with the author. She has always been well read and very conscientious. This made me a proud parent of her efforts. I had to share this with someone who would value this news, so please forgive my being proud. Keith

  2. Thank you for this nice article. I know the student who wrote the article and it was original work. He didn’t even ask his parents to proofread a draft for him.

    I note with particular interest your comments about shrinking vocabularies. I am frequently disappointed with the exceptionally limited vocabularies of people who are college graduates some of whom also have advanced degrees. It can be disheartening and frustrating working with them.

    You might enjoy this story. I taught a couple classes adjunct at SMSU several years ago including an undergraduate business law class. One night a student came up after class complaining that the class used legal terminology that she didn’t understand. I suggested to her that legal terms might be expected in a class about the law. She said she had trouble finding an appropriate definition with a cursory Google Search. I then asked her if she tried consulting a dictionary or perhaps even a legal dictionary. She returned a blank stare, quickly concluding I must have lived concurrently with the dinosaurs, and clearly confused about why anyone would think to consult such an arcane publication. When she recovered, she retorted, confidently, that she didn’t have a dictionary. I then asked if she happened to look for a dictionary in the library, which, ironically, was adjacent to the classroom. I received yet another blank stare clearly indicating that she had made it to her third year at the university without stepping foot in the library; I was compelled to provide directions to the library which was about 20 steps from the classroom door. I doubt she ever actually actually passed through its doors.

    • Thank you for your comments — and the anecdote. It really doesn’t surprise me (as I suspect you would suspect!) and I am delighted that the paper discussed is original, though I suspected as much!

  3. As a public high school teacher and one who teaches dual credit English, I concur with the fact that many, many students have no stamina when reading anymore, let alone learning new vocabulary. This year I’ve seen even more of this in my dc juniors. What do you mean read a piece of fiction or non-fiction that is longer than 2 pages? It has been a real struggle this year. And most students are not versed in using a “real” dictionary. Sad but true.

    • Many of them don’t even know what a dictionary is!! In the 42 years I taught I saw the level dropping, year by year. There are those few who shine, but the majority are simply not able to read, write, or figure.

  4. But kudos to the student you mention in your post. There are some talented and thoughtful young people out there, but it sure is becoming harder and harder to find and inspire them.

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