It’s, like, a real bummer, dude

Katherin Kersten’s column in the StarTribune today laments the fallen state of youthful language skills, citing overheard examples of overused words (“awesome”), trite expressions and ubiquitous cursing. Her take, with which I generally agree, is that we are losing our appreciation for language due to a diminishing common experience of seeing it used well.

Today, teens aren’t the only ones who have lost the ability to speak and write with vigor and eloquence. Folks of all ages are reading less — especially the classics, whose authors wielded our language most powerfully. As a result, our ability to express ourselves is diminishing, because we can’t draw on their example for inspiration.

Indeed, there has been quite some cultural devolution from “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known,” to “Don’t have a cow, man.” That doesn’t necessarily mean that people, especially young people, are less intelligent or less stimulated; they have shown an amazing ability to adapt to the high-speed inundation of the digital, text-messaging world with it’s word and number contractions and abbreviations, and some hip-hop rapping is remarkably facile and creative. What is missing is a certain cultural currency of universal themes and ideas. Kersten cites one example of an attempt to bring this back:

Last month, Diane Ravitch, an eminent historian of education, provided the perfect antidote: “The English Reader: What Every Literate Person Needs to Know.” In this anthology, she and her son Michael Ravitch have gathered what they regard as the most memorable speeches, poems, essays and songs in the English language.

“Today, our common cultural reference points come from the visual culture: Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez,” Ravitch told me last week. Our schools could help remedy the problem, but often don’t, she says. That’s because “‘relevance” is now the watchword in education.

In textbooks, teens tend to find countless stories about young people much like themselves, according to Ravitch.

“How much richer it is to be able to use your imagination — to communicate with people who lived 200 years ago and come away with something that remains in your head and your heart,” she adds.

Norman Fruman, an emeritus English professor at the University of Minnesota, agrees. “Good literature deals with ideas, as well as emotions and the psychology of human behavior,” he says. “It records our greatest tragedies and our highest aspirations.” During 40 years as a teacher, he saw a steep decline in students’ knowledge of their literary heritage.

Having a collection of inspiring prose and oratory in one volume is a timely start. According to a Wall Street Journal article from January 3rd (HT: Port McClellan), the classics are being removed from what many might consider their last public refuge: libraries.

Checked Out
A Washington-area library tosses out the classics.

BY JOHN J. MILLER

“For Whom the Bell Tolls” may be one of Ernest Hemingway’s best-known books, but it isn’t exactly flying off the shelves in northern Virginia these days. Precisely nobody has checked out a copy from the Fairfax County Public Library system in the past two years, according to a front-page story in yesterday’s Washington Post.

And now the bell may toll for Hemingway. A software program developed by SirsiDynix, an Alabama-based library-technology company, informs librarians of which books are circulating and which ones aren’t. If titles remain untouched for two years, they may be discarded–permanently. “We’re being very ruthless,” boasts library director Sam Clay.

According to the article, books by Charlotte Brontë, William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust and Alexander Solzhenitsyn have already been pulled to make more room for more books from the recent best-seller lists. As in the schools, “relevancy” is puddle-deep evaluation that goes into giving the “customer” what they want, rather than what they ought to have. Granted, the argument, “It’s good for you” has never been especially persuasive to me whether the subject was books or vegetables, and there is quality in many of the newer works. My contention is, however, that we may focus too much on the pretty, colorful fish in the shallows and never venture into deeper waters where there are some truly awesome (in it’s literal sense of the world, not the teen version) creatures.

While there are times I would like to take others by the hand long enough to place a good book there, I look realistically to where I have the most influence: in my family. Reading has always been a favorite pastime for our children, starting with my wife and reading to them when they were still infants. Both my daughters read from an early age, and Tiger Lilly was especially motivated to learn her letters well before she started school. The television has never been a big focus for the two of them (in fact, I probably watch more tv than they do) and I think this shows in their writing and vocabulary. There are still opportunities to go deeper, though.

Tiger Lilly is our sole student in our little home-educating academy and she checks out staggering numbers of books from the local library. I am casting about right now, though, for a suitable classic and I’ve about settled on “The Count of Monte Cristo”, one of my favorite books when I was her age. I think she has the taste for adventure and righteous outlook to become absorbed in the story while absorbing and appreciating the themes of liberty and justice — and the well-turned sentence.

3 thoughts on “It’s, like, a real bummer, dude

  1. My initial reaction is that it’s a travesty that they are taking the classics off of the shelves, but that’s probably a bit overwrought. I read a lot as a kid because it was something enjoyable and it gave me a sense of pride to exceed the expectations of adults. Computers provide so many ways to entertain (and even edify) yourself. Plus, it’s pretty easy to impress many adults with superior technoligical expertise. Mocha-momma had a pretty good idea the other idea that might lead to a bit more book readin’. She declared a computerless day at the house. That’ll learn ’em.

    The Count of Monte Cristo is excellent! Some other ideas are To Kill a Mockingbird, Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allen Poe.

  2. Great call on “The Count of Monte Christo” If you see in my profile, that is my favorite book of all time, along with Lord of the Rings. All of Dumas’ books are great.

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