In my capacity as a teacher of Michigan college students, both on regular faculty at Central Michigan University and on a continuing basis as an instructor of CMU-administered extension courses, I have come to suspect that between a third and a half of entering freshmen have considerable difficulty in comprehending an article from a news magazine such as Time or Newsweek.
The students lack knowledge of grammar, exhibit poor vocabulary, and have done little reading beyond assignments in the unchallenging textbooks that constitute the printed basis of their high-school curriculum. They find it extremely difficult to disengage from the deeply lodged habit of relying on personal narrative and subjective opinion in their confrontation with facts and the world. They react emotionally to problems that can only be solved intellectually.36 They struggle to find the right words to articulate intuitions that remain nebulous and unstated.
When CMU in cooperation with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy staged a debate in Mt. Pleasant in April 1997 on the subject of declining standards at Michigan public universities, one CMU faculty member performed the experiment of sending the 20 students from his upper-division humanities course to report on the occasion. He later let me see these documents, with personal identifications of the writers removed. Although the audience at the event was given much in the way of frameworkan outline of topics to be addressed and questions to be posed, skillful moderation, spoken summaries by the participantsthe students in question could make little out of what they had witnessed. Asked to reprise the main points of contention and sketch the arguments on both sides, they unanimously failed to do so, falling back instead on random personal observations of the physical setting and tangential expressions of their own confusion.
It therefore should come as no surprise that I endorse the findings of Dr. Jay Greene's report on the cost of remedial education to the Michigan economy. Greene paints a stark picture of the problem in economic terms. Using cautious numbers, he carefully concludes that educational failurewhich is what the large and growing need for remedial education signifiesis costing Michigan's economy at least $311 million and perhaps (still conservatively) as much as $1.15 billion yearly.
It is important to underscore Dr. Greene's careful approach. Because the actual extent of educational failure is difficult to determine and because the job of remedially educating students is likely spread throughout the economy in ways not amenable to analysis, Greene reminds us that the full cost of doing again properly what the schools have done badly is almost certainly in excess of his higher figure. To put the numbers in perspective: $300 million is more by a third than the cost of a space-shuttle mission; $1 billion is the cost of a new Seawolf submarine or Aegis cruiser for the U.S. Navy. Those are big-ticket items. Let us underscore, as well, that the costs adduced by Greene are yearly costs. As long as the need exists to make up for a failure in education, those costs will continue to mount. Everyone pays them. They add up, year after year and decade after decade.
However, the failure of our schools is not mainly a dollars-and-cents problem. The failure signified by the need for remedial education in basic verbal and quantitative subjects is also a human tragedy, hard to measure under the dollar sign, but equally worthy of consideration. It is, in fact, a measure of our own distance from an understanding of the nature of this tragedy that to have its maximum impact upon us, it must be expressed terms of dollars and cents.
Since tragedy is best expressed by means of literature, it is entirely appropriate to turn to the world of letters for an illustration. I submit to you Charles Dickens' Bleak House, a novel that first appeared in serial form in 1853. The plot of Bleak House concerns endless litigation over an inheritance. Many parties believe themselves to have an interest in the legacy and petition and cajole in order to take a share of it or get all of it for themselves.
One such character is the furtive Mr. Krook, a rag-and-bone dealer who also runs a shabby boarding house. Krook has bought up a mass of discarded documents from Chancery, the courts where civil cases are heard, and keeps them carefully secured in his rambling storehouse of junk. He fancies that they contain a secret about the pending estate. Unfortunately, his illiteracy prevents him from making any sense of them. Mr. Jarndyce, the guardian of the novel's cousinly main characters, has the following exchange with Krook on visiting his shop. Esther Summerson, one of Jarndyce's two wards, narrates:
We came into the back part of the shop. Here on the head of an empty barrel stood on end, were an ink-bottle, some old stumps of pens, and some dirty playbills; and, against the wall, were pasted several large printed alphabets in several plain hands.
"What are you doing here?" asked my Guardian.
"Trying to learn myself to read and write," said Krook.
"And how do you get on?"
"Slow. Bad," returned the old man, impatiently. "It's hard at my time of life."
"It would be easier to be taught by someone else," said my Guardian.
"Aye, but they might teach me wrong!" returned the old man, with a wonderfully suspicious flash of his eye. "I don't know what I may have lost, by not being learnd afore. I wouldn't want to lose anything by being learnd wrong now."37
Poor Mr. Krook's life is blighted not only by his inability, but by a profound ignorance which, without his knowledge, forever prevents him from improving his lot. He shows traits of meanness and cunning and looks out solely for himself. Not having learned his letters as a boy, he now finds it slow and difficult to learn them in old age. He never succeeds. Not having had any experience of orderly instruction, he indeed suspects those who might teach him. The simple matter of the rules for reading and writing remain a remote mystery to him. The loss that Krook worries about in his lack of education, in not having "learnd afore," appears inevitable.
Dickens devoted great energy to the advocacy of democratic education. The intellectual achievements of Western civilization constituted a legacy, he thought, that belonged by rights to everyone. Sensible education ought to make that legacy available to as many as possible, and in an effective way.
An author by trade, Dickens certainly held a stake in the spread of literacy. Both literacy and facility with numbers are important themes in Bleak House. In contrast to the pathetic Mr. Krook, young Esther Summerson, although an orphan brought up in a foster home, has received a decent education and can read and write with adult fluency. Dickens assigns an entire chapter to the letters that she exchanges, while ill with a contagion, with her friend Ada. Esther's capacity for self-expression aids her in coming to terms with the complexities of adult life that gradually, in the course of the novel, impose themselves on her. Esther's literacy enables her to find order in the great mass of facts and evidences that constitute the world. A minor character, Tom-All-Alone, is a street urchin, whom Dickens pictures as staring in bewilderment at the notices and advertisements of London's shops. His illiteracy shuts him out from participation in the market and all but dooms him to beggardom.
Education is supposed to do something for those who undergo it. It is supposed, by the time the student graduates with a high-school diploma, to have established the intellectual foundations of adult maturity. It is supposed to have prepared the student, not merely to enter the market with basic competency in verbal and numerical skills, but for the lifelong endeavors of continuing his own education, of understanding the many and often bewildering manifestations of culture, both high and low, and of examining himself in objective terms. Education is also supposed to give the student a basic package of knowledge, related to the traditions on which modern civilization rests, that provides him with a minimal context for understanding life, politics, and society. Charles Dickens was certainly not alone in comprehending these things. Our judgment of what it means to be literate in a competent adult fashionand therefore of what it means not to be literate in that fashionis as old as the founding of Greek education in the fifth century B.C.38
In our own century, researchers like Walter J. Ong, Jr., Alexander Luria, Millman Parry, and Eric Havelock have carefully explored the ways in which literacy transforms the way people confront one another and the world. Ong in particular, in Orality and Literacy,39 and Havelock in Preface to Plato, have shown how the acquisition of literacy entirely alters the style of thinking of the affected subject. Havelock goes as far as to assert that science, philosophy, and constitutional politics all stem from the literacy revolution of archaic Greece.40
The unlettered, as Ong and Havelock establish, do not think in terms of regular cause and effect; they do not think in abstractions or according to general principles; they do not think in precise quantities (the idea of precise quantity remains baffling to them); they do not think in objective terms at all, but relate everything to the immediate, the personal, and the subjective.41 The lettered, by contrast, acquire the ability to follow complex lines of cause and effect, to link statements with evidence in an objective way, to suppress the merely subjective for the sake of establishing external truths, and to deal with ethical issues in a distanced and principled way. Says Ong in a summary passage: "The distancing which writing effects develops a new kind of precision in verbalization by removing it from the rich but chaotic existential context of much oral utterance . . . . Orally managed language . . . is not noted for analytic precision."
One of the meanings of the word education, then, is the ability to think carefully about things in an objective way and according to abstract, or general, principles. It bears considerable repetition that the students who need remedial education need it in the areas of reading and writing and math: Their capacity for precision, for precise thinking, is insufficiently developed.
That kids have trouble reading and writing means that they must continue to rely, as do very young children, on a sense of the world structured by oral rather than written language. The primary deficiency experienced by the "more than half" of Michigan community college students who, according to Greene's findings, require remedial training is a continuing dependence (by default, because they cannot do otherwise) on oral, which is to say on non-literate, linguistic resources.
No wonder they have a hard time filling out an application or following directions on the job or making change. As banal as an application form appears to a genuinely educated person, it imposes precise demands that daunt the academically cheated. If "today's high school students are unprepared for college-level work," as an administrator quoted by Greene says, then certainly part of the reason is that their previous school experience has left them without those skills that Ong establishes as crucial for life in the modern (literacy-intensive) world.
People call the present age, "The Information Age." Perhaps it is that. But information, whether in books or in "hypertext," is available in a meaningful way only to the literate. When Greene quotes from the Michigan Career and Employability Skills Content Standards, the competencies listed as necessary to employers in those whom they hire correspond almost perfectly with the cognitive implications of literacy as described by Ong.
While Greene (rightly) emphasizes the economic consequences of the failure of up to a third of Michigan students to achieve these rather modest goals out of high school, we should not forget to imagine what life is like for someone who cannot, as the Standards say, "apply basic communication skills," "understand complex systems," or "communicate ideas to support a position and negotiate to resolve divergent interests."42 A student badly served by our education system must live with him or herself, even when the system has bestowed upon him or her a diploma. A vast range of cognitive and expressive activities taken for granted by genuinely educated people remains inaccessible to those whom education has failed.
Would anyone capable, say, of making sense of a social or political debate or of reading with comprehension and pleasure Dickens' Bleak House or simply of balancing accurately his own check-book willingly give up these abilities? No. The capacity for such endeavors is profoundly constitutive of who we are as educated people. Yet students who stand, in the bureaucratic language, "in need of development," lack that very capacity.43 The failure in their education has impoverished them intellectually. The vast range of human achievement, the entire worlds of art and literature and philosophy, remains implacably closed to them.
Greene does not speculate about causes, but something should be said in this regard. Given that the need for remedial education means fundamentally a need for higher levels of literacy in high school graduates, we should probably look to language arts (as it is called) and mathematics instruction at the K-12 level for the origin of so much student incapacity. "No matter what their grade-level," says Professor Sandra Stotsky in her recent book Losing Our Language, "most American students do not read or write very well. Nor do they know much American or world history. Their scores on nationwide assessments of reading, writing, and history knowledge are dismaying."44
The primary cause of this dismally low achievement, Stotsky argues, is a nearly universal rejection of historically proven approaches to literacy instruction in K-12 grade levels and the substitution in their place of affectively oriented, often ideologically driven, types of pedagogy. She cites that tenacious and destructive fad, "whole language," but also points to the domination of a widespread attitude that aggressively denounces grammar competency, large and subtle vocabulary, and adherence to logic, as somehow oppressive to students and that "subordinate[s] literary study to social studies in the elementary school."45 A recent Fordham Foundation report on Why Education Experts Resist Effective Practices46 noted, moreover, that even when empirical evidence refutes ideological claims, teacher-educators stubbornly adhere to ideological assertions. Says Stotsky:
Secondary and college teachers complain, with good reason, that fewer and fewer American students read demanding literature in junior or senior high school or can do demanding academic writing. One editor I spoke with believes that there is little eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature in the upper elementary grade readers not because of an anticivic perspective, and not because of a bias against dead white males, and not because their works do not relate to students' personal experience, but because many students cannot read the language of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century (or even early twentieth-century) writers anymore. Teacher-educators who cannot abandon their ideologies will continue to downgrade the English language and support the dumbing-down of its literature rather than urge the teaching of the reading skills that will enable students to read demanding literary works at a later age.47
To paraphrase Mr. Krook, "Aye, they have been taught wrong." There can be no doubt of it. Of a collection of 19th-century Michigan classroom-readers in my possession, I would argue that, in simple basic knowledge (of grammar, argumentation, sense of style) they exceed the demands typically made nowadays in college classrooms. Certainly Greene's statistics bear out Stotsky's claim that American public schools, dominated by pseudo-scientific pedagogies, no longer inculcate a high level of basic intellectual competency. Neither can it be pure coincidence that another recent Fordham Foundation report, on state education standards gave Michigan an "F" for its English and another "F" for it math standards.48 Again, I wish to underscore not just the economic cost, but the sorrowful loss in human capacity and potential.
In one of his most powerful poems, "The Keeper of the Books," the late Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1981) offers the monologue of an old man who stands watch over ruined gardens and temples. It helps to understand the poem to know that Borges, a writer and librarian by profession and a lover of books, went gradually blind in his sixties and lived out the last decade of his life in sightlessness. A profoundly literate man, he nevertheless could no longer read, but required others to read to him. It was an agonizing experience. In the crumbling corridors and alcoves of these once-proud buildings lie, Borges' watchman says, "exact music and exact words... secret and eternal laws... the harmony of the world." He means by such figures, the skills of literacy and the arts, the scientific knowledge of nature and the universe, and the accumulated wisdom of philosophy: "These things or their memory," he says, "are here in books."
In my eyes there are no days. The shelves
stand very high, beyond the reach of my years,
and leagues of dust and sleep surround the tower.
Why go on deluding myself?
The truth is that I never learned to read...
My name is Hsiang. I am the keeper of the books
these books which are perhaps the last,
for we know nothing of the Son of Heaven
or of the Empire's fate.
Here on these high shelves they stand,
at the same time near and far,
secret and visible like the stars.
Here they stand, gardens and temples.
Here then is the final summation of what I mean by the human cost of educational failure. To miss out on the basics of education is to suffer being cut off from the nourishment of written traditions; it is to be without history, without cultural context. Educational failure means that untold thousands have been cheated, and not merely out of their billfolds. It is one of the scandals of our time.