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Academics KO Grammar Again By: Malcolm A. Kline
CampusReportOnline.net | Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The academic left has painted itself into a peculiar corner. They urge the rejection of traditional grammar as chauvinistic, or, more frequently, “hegemonic.” Unfortunately for them, they eventually have to read papers by students who have previously been taught by teachers who also share this outlook.

One of the seminal texts that promotes the “grammar is dead” thesis is Preparing to Teach Writing by James Williams. “Ironically, the third edition of Williams’ book Preparing to Teach Writing appeared in 2003, the same year the National Commission on Writing made public its discovery that ‘Recent analyses indicate that more than 50 percent of first-year college students are unable to produce papers that are relatively free of language errors,’” retired English professor Nan Martin points out in a paper recently published by the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Reform. “Perhaps in response to the Commission’s disturbing disclosure, the section on usage in the [National Council of Teachers of English] NCTE’s 2004 report relents somewhat, admitting that ‘Writers need an image in their minds of conventional grammar, spelling, and punctuation.’”

“Just how they are to come by this image isn’t made clear, but the NCTE still contends that ‘conventions of writing are best taught in the context of writing,’ not by ‘completing workbook or online exercises.’”

Ms. Martin taught writing at Meredith College in Raleigh for two and a half decades. In her study, English 101: Prologue to Literacy or Postmodern Moonshine?, she looked primarily at two North Carolina colleges.

“From my conversations with senior faculty at both North Carolina State and UNC, I learned the following,” she reports. “The new English 101 is a continuation of the ‘disastrous’ public school trend to have students work in groups.”

“The new English 101 continues the public school trend to go easy on grammar gaffes, so enrollees in upper level classes have ‘startling’ problems with correctness.” She means linguistically, not politically.

New Jersey widower Van-Ness Crawford is going to court to bring attention to the failures of that state’s public schools. “Not only for his family.” The New York Post’s Andrea Peyser reports, “But for more than 60,000 students—the vast majority of them poor and minority—attending 95 rotten Jersey schools, the worst of which have failure rates of 87 percent in standardized English tests. And a 90 percent failure rate in math.” “He is the lead plaintiff in a groundbreaking lawsuit filed yesterday [July 13th] in Newark against the New Jersey education department.”

“It seeks a remedy that makes the educrats—who’ve ruled the schools for decades too long—absolutely insane. Crawford wants to take the $16,351 in taxpayer dollars that are squandered each year in the name of educating each of his kids, and use the money for a private school.”

For its part, the ACT [America College Testing] surveyed college composition teachers and found that they place a premium on correct language usage. But those professors, even if they are grammatically dedicated, do not usually write the textbooks or design the composition courses that students in American colleges and universities are forced to use.

When we covered the Modern Language Association’s annual convention, we attended about half a dozen panels on composition and language. Despite its name, these few were about all of the hundreds offered at the annual conclave on the subject that would seem to be central to the MLA’s mission.

Thousands of English professors attend the event, leaving most colleges and universities in America represented there. The six composition and/or language séances, in turn, featured only a dozen or so professors and panelists from across the country.

Of these, one third had written widely-used textbooks on composition and language, and another professor/participant edits a journal on rhetoric and composition. That would be Deborah Holdstein of Northern Illinois University. “Holdstein, of Oak Park, has been active for many years in the Conference on College Composition and Communication, a national organization that supports and promotes teaching and scholarship in the study of writing,” according to the university web site. “She is a member of the organization’s executive committee and, in 2004, was appointed editor of its flagship journal.”

“She also served a 4-year term on the publications committee of the Modern Language Association.” Overwhelmingly, Dr. Holdstein and her colleagues were actively hostile to the idea of reviving the teaching of grammar and determined to resist its comeback.

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Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.

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