Jan 1 1998

Schoolhouse Crock

Right-wing myths behind the 'new stupidity'

How much change should you get back after putting down $3 to pay for a 60-cent cup of soup and a $1.95 sandwich? Would you believe that exactly 56.3 percent of American college graduates were unable to figure this out?

Would you believe more than half can’t even read a bus schedule?

Syndicated columnist John Leo, writing for U.S. News & World Report (4/21/97), thinks you should. He says it’s all a consequence of the “new stupidity.”

Last April, copies of Leo’s “The Answer is 45 Cents” began showing up in teachers’ mail slots. My wife got one. All the composition teachers did. Is this supposed to be a message?

Leo’s been reading “the latest in a long line of depressing reports on the condition of our colleges,” a document by the Mackinac Center For Public Policy that finds this new stupidity showing up in freshman writing classes where something called “process writing” dominates. Standards, grammar, grades and judgment are bad, students talk about their “personal spellings,” are told “not to worry about syntax, logic or form.” Michigan’s state universities suffer “from a general erosion of academic standards and a radical polarization of the undergraduate curriculum.”

Want more? A report on New York’s state universities says much the same thing, according to Leo. More? A “devastating” analysis prepared by the National Association of Scholars (NAS) shows how the modern curriculum bulges with things like “queer theory,” the works of Peewee Herman and watching Oprah for credit.

Professors disparage “the myth of basic skills” and “traditional grammar books,” and speak of standard English as “an instrument of domination.” Even the 90,000-member National Council of Teachers of English puts out a set of standards which Leo describes as “goofy.”

In Public Interest (7/95), Leo finds an authority on English composition, Heather MacDonald, who says pointedly (if not particularly grammatically): “Confronted with a barrage of students who had no experience in formal grammar or written language, it was highly convenient for professors to learn that students’ natural way of speaking and writing should be preserved, not corrected.”

According to Leo, the repercussions of this anything-goes movement can be seen in a study by Michigan State professor L. Patrick Sheetz that finds not enough graduates have the ability to write, speak, reason and relate to others in a manner satisfactory to hold down a job.

“Should we correct this, or just order up more feel-good anti-English theory in colleges?” Leo asks.

U.S. News & World Report thought enough of this piece to illustrate it with a cartoon showing several befuddled students signing their names with X’s.

Eerie similarity

My wife brought her copy home. “This doesn’t sound right to me,” she said.

And it isn’t right.

First of all, Leo’s “long line of reports” mostly come from a small group of ideologically and often financially related sources. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy turns out to be a right-wing think tank, founded in 1987 with the aid of John Engler, the present “New Republican” governor of Michigan, champion of school vouchers and privatization.

The 3,700-member NAS, while presenting itself as non-partisan, and “the only academic organization dedicated to the restoration of intellectual substance, individual merit and academic freedom in the university,” was founded with the aid of and receives funds from the right-wing John Olin Foundation, promoter of such school-bashing books as Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education, Charles Sykes’ Dumbing Down Our Kids and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind.

Public Interest is another conservative magazine funded by the same John Olin Foundation, which also helped found the Manhattan Institute, at whose magazine, City Journal, Heather MacDonald is a contributing editor. That New York survey seems to have been done by a chapter of the NAS.

As Jay Leno might put it, these attacks upon higher education have an eerie similarity. The Mackinac Institute’s report concludes that the core curriculum at Michigan’s public colleges has been replaced by a “smorgasbord of trendy courses which often push a political agenda” and that students who need to be well-versed in grammar and classical literature are failed by the “process approach,” which doesn’t provide these things. The NAS attributes the so-called decline in higher education to a lowering of standards, and lack of “rigor” in the core curriculum, where requirements have nearly vanished and colleges are “abandoning” English Composition.

Heather MacDonald begins this way: “American employers regard the nation’s educational system as an irrelevance, according to a Census Bureau survey released in February 1995.” “Every writing theory in the last 30 years,” she continues, “has come up with reasons why it is not necessary to teach grammar or style.” Whereupon MacDonald, who speaks of college English departments as “one overlooked corner of the academic madhouse,” joins the general attack on process writing, something that must be bad because it began in the terrible ’60s.

But process writing is nothing more than a broad range of strategies that include pre-writing activities such as defining the audience, using a variety of resources, and planning the writing, as well as drafting and revising. Moreover, the Department of Education, which so defined it, conducted a nationwide survey involving almost 40,000 fourth graders, eighth graders and high school seniors, and found that students whose teachers used process writing had the highest writing scores.

And the Census Bureau, contacted by e-mail, flatly denied that its 1995 survey, “A Reality Check: First Findings from the EQW National Employers Survey,” showed that employers thought the nation’s educational system was an irrelevance. The survey rated what employers value most in this order: attitude, communication skills, previous work experience, recommendations, years of completed education, interviews, academic performance, reputation of applicant’s school, and recommendation by the applicant’s teachers. To stretch this into irrelevance is to stretch the truth indeed.

Anecdotes about America’s educational failures are a hot commodity. Authors like D’Souza, Bloom, Sykes and others hold or have held fellowships in the big conservative think tanks where right-wing policy is made. One could fill a shelf with works subsidized by the Olin Foundation and its allies, books with titles like Back to Basics, The Limits of Social Policy, Slouching Toward Gomorrah, A Nation of Victims, The Destructive Generation, Values Matter and, yes, The Bell Curve, all focused upon the loss of values, all angrily attacking affirmative action, radical feminism, political correctness and multi-culturalism. Not a one of them fails to take a shot at our schools. What are we to make of this?

Mark Twain once said “You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, and I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.” Should we not say the same?

Literacy by the numbers

So what about the 45 cents? Although John Leo does not identify the study he is citing, how many government studies can there be involving menus and bus schedules? It would appear he’s drawing on the 1993 National Adult Literacy Survey, “Adult Literacy in America.” Right-wing pundits and school-bashers worked this material for all it was worth when it first came out, and the mainstream press did not fail to buy in. “Study Says Half of Adults in U.S. Lack Reading and Math Abilities,” the New York Times headlined (9/9/93).

But before we can say that, we should at least try to understand what the government meant by literacy. It would appear this is more complicated than the likes of John Leo would have us believe.

The NALS broke down literacy into three categories: “prose,” or the ability to understand and identify information found in a specific text; “document,” or the ability to process information from charts, maps, and the like; and “quantitative,” or the ability to process information from a single source and use it to perform multiple tasks. Simply put, people were not merely asked to “read” a bus schedule, but to answer questions drawn from a facsimile schedule, fine print and all, and the math examples involved something far more complex than simple addition and subtraction. “When the numbers to be used must be drawn from different types of documents,” the authors of the survey explain, “the tasks become increasingly difficult.”

The NALS scored this test by a formula that permits comparison between a person’s actual score and the difficulty level of an individual task. Both “tasks” and individual scores were rated on a scale of 1 to 500, 250 presumably being the average. One of the tasks used to determine quantitative literacy was to “determine correct change using information in a menu.” This task was rated at a difficulty level of 331. Two bus schedule tasks show up in the document section, one rated at 314, the other at 352. Other tasks around the same level of difficulty included “using information provided in a news article, calculate the amount of money that should go to raising a child” (320), and “identify information from bar graph depicting source of energy and year” (277).

How did our college graduates do? On the prose scale, persons with a four-year degree averaged 322, on the document scale they averaged 314 and on the quantitative scale they averaged 322—nine points below the level at which figuring out change at a restaurant is rated. When we look at the scores for graduate students, we find they did slightly better.

What does this prove? Given the nature of the survey, it’s highly unlikely that the menu question was as simple as John Leo wishes us to believe. Nor ought we assume that any given average on the overall test means the tested individual actually failed to correctly answer any individual question—and the authors of the survey specifically warn against drawing such a conclusion. Unless Leo has access to another Department of Education survey showing half the class bombed on that menu question, worded pretty much as he worded it, it is hard to avoid the impression that what we have here is one more deliberate attempt to spin the facts and advance someone’s political agenda.

As for L. Patrick Sheetz and that Michigan State study which showed how disappointed employers were with college grads, Professor Sheetz was easily reached by e-mail. “Prospective employers,” he replied within an hour, “were generally pleased with the new college graduates interviewed by their organizations on campus.”

So why do people put so much faith in all this quoting from unreliable sources, snatching soundbites out of context and picking through government documents that never were meant to be used that way? Why not, before pinning John Leo up on the bulletin board, try the obvious?

I asked my wife to take Leo’s question to her city college freshman composition class, as multi-cultural a group as anyone might hope to find. “How much change should you get back after putting down $3 to pay for a 60-cent bowl of soup and a $1.95 sandwich?”

One student, who has not yet mastered the English language, answered $30.

As for the other 50-odd students, every single one–the answer was 45 cents.

Paul Pekin is a Chicago freelance writer who has done his stint in academia. A version of this article appeared in the Chicago Reader (9/12/97).