By Michael Skube
Sunday, August 20, 2006; B03
We were talking informally in class not long ago, 17 college sophomores and I, and on a whim I asked who some of their favorite writers are. The question hung in uneasy silence. At length, a voice in the rear hesitantly volunteered the name of . . . Dan Brown.
No other names were offered.
The author of "The DaVinci Code" was not just the best writer they could think of; he was the only writer they could think of.
In our better private universities and flagship state schools today, it's hard to find a student who graduated from high school with much lower than a 3.5 GPA, and not uncommon to find students whose GPAs were 4.0 or higher. They somehow got these suspect grades without having read much. Or if they did read, they've given it up. And it shows -- in their writing and even in their conversation.
A few years ago, I began keeping a list of everyday words that may as well have been potholes in exchanges with college students. It began with a fellow who was two months away from graduating from a well-respected Midwestern university.
"And what was the impetus for that?" I asked as he finished a presentation.
At the word "impetus" his head snapped sideways, as if by reflex. "The what?" he asked.
"The impetus. What gave rise to it? What prompted it?"
I wouldn't have guessed that impetus was a 25-cent word. But I also wouldn't have guessed that "ramshackle" and "lucid" were exactly recondite, either. I've had to explain both. You can be dead certain that today's college students carry a weekly planner. But they may or may not own a dictionary, and if they do own one, it doesn't get much use. ("Why do you need a dictionary when you can just go online?" more than one student has asked me.)
You may be surprised -- and dismayed -- by some of the words on my list.
"Advocate," for example. Neither the verb nor the noun was immediately clear to students who had graduated from high school with GPAs above 3.5. A few others:
"Derelict," as in neglectful.
"Satire," as in a literary form.
"Pith," as in the heart of the matter.
"Brevity," as in the quality of being succinct.
And my favorite: "Novel," as in new and as a literary form. College students nowadays call any book, fact or fiction, a novel. I have no idea why this is, but I first became acquainted with the peculiarity when a senior at one of the country's better state universities wrote a paper in which she referred to "The Prince" as "Machiavelli's novel."
As freshmen start showing up for classes this month, colleges will have a new influx of high school graduates with gilded GPAs, and it won't be long before one professor whispers to another: Did no one teach these kids basic English? The unhappy truth is that many students are hard-pressed to string together coherent sentences, to tell a pronoun from a preposition, even to distinguish between "then" and "than." Yet they got A's.
How does one explain the inability of college students to read or write at even a high school level? One explanation, which owes as much to the culture as to the schools, is that kids don't read for pleasure. And because they don't read, they are less able to navigate the language. If words are the coin of their thought, they're working with little more than pocket change.
Say this -- but no more -- for the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act: It at least recognizes the problem. What we're graduating from our high schools isn't college material. Sometimes it isn't even good high school material.
When students with A averages can't write simple English, it shouldn't be surprising that people ask what a high school diploma is really worth. In California this year, hundreds of high school students, many with good grades, faced the prospect of not graduating because they could not pass a state-mandated exit exam. Although a judge overturned the effort, legislators (not always so literate themselves) in other states have also called for exit exams. It's hardly unreasonable to ask that students demonstrate a minimum competency in basic subjects, especially English.
Exit exams have become almost a necessity because the GPA is not to be trusted. In my experience, a high SAT score is far more reliable than a high GPA -- more indicative of quickness and acuity, and more reflective of familiarity with language and ideas. College admissions specialists are of a different view and are apt to label the student with high SAT scores but mediocre grades unmotivated, even lazy.
I'll take that student any day. I've known such students. They may have been bored in high school but they read widely and without prodding from a parent. And they could have nominated a few favorite writers besides Dan Brown -- even if they thoroughly enjoyed "The DaVinci Code."
I suspect they would have understood the point I tried unsuccessfully to make once when I quoted Joseph Pulitzer to my students. It is journalism's job, he said, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Too obvious, you think? I might have thought so myself -- if the words "afflicted" and "afflict" hadn't stumped the whole class.
Michael Skube teaches journalism at Elon University in Elon, N.C.