Fighting illiteracy starts at home with the TV set!

The front page of today's Inquirer highlights the very unpleasant fact that public schools are cranking out illiterates:

Tens of thousands of Pennsylvania high school seniors who failed state math and reading tests got "empty diplomas" last year because they had not learned basic skills, Pennsylvania Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak says.

Statewide, 45 percent of the 127,000 seniors failed the tests, leading Zahorchak to lament that diplomas were awarded to many who "show up and shut up."

Naturally, many are complaining, with some blaming "No Child Left Behind," others for attaching so much importance to tests, and others saying it's "unfair" not to allow a student to graduate after having gone to all the trouble to attend school.
Asked about the proposed requirements, Philadelphia and suburban students didn't like them.

Jamillah Hannibal, a college-bound senior and student activist at the the Kensington International School of Business, Finance and Entrepreneurship, said she had not passed her math PSSA. "I'm not educationally challenged. I can do the work, but tests are not my strong point," she said. "I've worked my four years so hard to graduate, and [under the proposed regulations] I couldn't see my diploma because of one test? That's wrong."

Yes, but would she be able place the apostrophe after the word "that"? (More later; a test is coming, so be prepared!)
At the West Chester Area School District's Henderson High School, senior Sanjay Kataria said no "empty diplomas" were granted there. "Teachers will make sure that if students are to graduate, they deserve it," even if a student can't pass a state test, he said.

About 30 percent of the district's graduates failed 2006 math or reading tests, state data show.

Classmate Deanna Talbot agreed: "Graduation should be a completion of everything you've learned. . . . Not being able to graduate because of some number [on a state test] is probably one of the most horrible things that could happen to a student."

Many employers have a different view. Tracee Hunt, vice president for human resources at the Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Co. and a member of the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board, a government-chartered organization that studies employment issues, said she "wholeheartedly" favored the tests. "You end up hiring individuals who have a high school diploma, and when you start to go through the training process, you find out that they will not be able to handle the job, based on their competency levels," she said.

Many students entering college also lack skills. Only 21 percent of students applying to four-year institutions nationally are college-ready in all areas, Edna Baehre, the president of Harrisburg Area Community College, told the state Board of Education last week.

At this rate, pretty soon it will be considered "discrimination" for employers to refuse to hire functional illiterates.

If I were an employer and thought I could get away with it, I might have applicants take the PSSA test that has the educrats in such a tizzy. Sample tests are available here, and I thought I'd share one question from the 11th grade reading proficiency section. First the passage:

1 Although the octopus is often viewed as a vicious monster, it is actually a gentle and intelligent creature with many interesting characteristics. 2 While some octopuses in the extreme depths of the ocean reach gigantic proportions, most are three feet or less in diameter. 3 Many could fit on the tip of a persons thumb. 4 Large or small, an octopus has the ability to camouflage itself by changing colors to match its surroundings. 5 This talent is not confined to a single color either; an octopus can match color patterns and even mimic surface textures. 6 Imagine a polka-dotted octopus!

7 Another fascinating physical ability of these animals is that they can flatten themselves and "ooze" like jelly through small cracks; octopuses as large as three feet across can slip through a crack 1/8-inch thick!

8 Furthermore, these animals are easily trained. 9 In one trial, a scientist continuously prodded an octopus in an attempt to elicit color changes. 10 The octopus refused to cooperate and was finally lifted from the tank. 11 As soon as the irritated invertebrate was in position to take a direct shot, it sprayed ink all over the scientist who had been annoying it. 12 There was no doubt about the octopus's intentions as it only sprayed one person. 13 Even though other team members were within close range.

OK, now come the questions and answers, so you can test yourselves at home:
1. Which word should contain an apostrophe?

A. persons in sentence 3
B. its in sentence 4
C. textures in sentence 5
D. animals in sentence 8

2. Which sentence would best conclude this passage?

A. In the Pacific Northwest, there is an octopus that spends most of its life in trees.
B. There are similarities between a squid and an octopus, but they are very different creatures.
C. Octopuses are intelligent and fascinating creatures and undeserving of their false reputation.
D. The man who was sprayed is Dr. Thomas Cerny, an expert on octopuses and squids.

3. In sentence 8, the word Furthermore could be replaced with which transitional expression without changing the meaning of the sentence?

A. In other words
B. In addition
C. On the other hand
D. As a result

4. Which is an incomplete sentence?

A. sentence 5
B. sentence 6
C. sentence 11
D. sentence 13

While the answers are all as obvious to me as they would be to readers of this blog, I think they would also be obvious to many sixth graders. I cannot imagine the suffering of having to endure being in school day in and day out with people who are destined (for whatever reason) to never be able to write a simple English sentence, but whose teachers are required to devote years trying to persuade them to learn the purpose and mechanics of an apostrophe. I'd go crazy, and act out, drop out, whatever. One Size Fits All solutions fail to help the chronically illiterate while punishing the already literate.

There's plenty of irony in my argument, though. Because, while I may be literally literate, in many ways I am a cultural illiterate.

I don't mean to sound like a snob here. Far from it. I have pointed out a number of times that I never read science fiction. Many of my friends not only read it, but over the years when I've gotten together with them, I've noticed that they can engage in long conversations comparing what they've read, urging each other to read this novel and that novel, or this writer and that writer, and expressing occasional surprise on learning what someone or other has actually dared to not read. (I can always beat them to the punch on that one. They might as well be talking about obscure Sanscrit texts.) Whether they are better for being scifi literate -- or I am worse for being scifi illiterate -- is not the point; it's simply a statement of fact. (I'm well-read in history, trained in the law, and know all about pit bull pedigrees, though.)

If you think science fiction illiteracy is bad, there's another area where my cultural literacy is shockingly bad. (And it is sometimes embarrassing.)

Television. My problem is that I hate it. I find most of the people on it annoying, I don't like having my mind led by others, and I just don't have the patience that is required to get past the loud and annoying commercials. Occasionally I'll turn something on, but the first commercial makes me turn it off. My television set is there so when duty calls I can always tune in and watch important breaking news or political debates (much as I hate the latter), but for entertainment purposes, it's either Turner Classic Movies or DVD rentals. The one exception was that I used to watch the Sopranos (I'm a Godfather fan, and when a friend found out I'd never seen the show, he came over and gave me his collection of tapes, and kept bugging me to watch them until one day I was snowed in with nothing to do, and I spent two days falling in love with the series. Best of all, it had no commercials!) That aside, there's no TV in my life.

Now for the embarrassing part. Whether I like it or not, because this culture is largely a TV-based one, I am regularly reminded that I don't have any idea what people are talking about. There was a show called "Friends" that was on for quite some time. I used to sit there cluelessly when people talked about it, for I never watched a single episode. That seems to have died down, and I think "Friends" is off the air, because I think I read about it in the newspaper. (I just checked, and yes, I did. So that part of my cultural illiteracy is fading away as fewer and fewer people discuss the show....)

But there are plenty of times I am in situations where people take it for granted that I, a reasonably informed and apparently intelligent person will understand what they're talking about, and I just plain don't.

I have never watched American Idol. My knowledge of the show consists of tidbits I've heard about and read about. It's apparently a listener-interactive amateur contest consisting of awful singing. I'd never turn something like that on, even if there weren't commercials (which I'm sure there are), because I can't stand hearing stuff like that.

So yesterday I read this: one pays me to blog "American Idol."
So says Ann Althouse (a blogger I greatly respect) about her decision to stop blogging about the show.

While I certainly understand the feeling of obligation (or "blogligation"), it warms my heart that there is such diversity, because I don't think I could blog about American Idol. Having never watched the show, how could I? This is part and parcel of my cultural illiteracy, and it is a fact of life. The only way I can change it is to turn on the TV.

As if I needed another reminder, Glenn Reynolds recently linked a very interesting post about the pitfalls of excessive irony.

The ironic man, whom Mr. Purdy personifies as the sitcom character Jerry Seinfeld . . . is an outright menace. With his ''style of speech and behavior that avoids all appearance of naivete -- of naive devotion, belief, or hope,'' the individual armored in the irony . . . has withdrawn from the political arena just when it needs him most.
Geez, a menace? Shouldn't I be Googling this Seinfeld guy right now? As to "avoiding all appearance of naivete," in this instance I am not only admitting my naivite, I am confessing it, admitting it, even advertising it. Yet the sense of creeping irony is overwhelming. (Shouldn't I be more ashamed?) Later in the post, there's even a discussion of "unwanted overtones" -- a classic damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't that I often go to great lengths to analyze or eradicate without success!

See what I mean?

Regular readers know that irony is not normally an alien topic to me, but here it was. Now I have to worry that an important irony may have been largely lost on me because the discussion assumed fluency with Seinfeld -- a show that (probably ironically) I do not watch.

Yes, here I go again.

I have never watched an episode of Seinfeld.

I've had an occasional glimpse while flipping through the channels (or seeing a YouTube segment), and along with hundreds of thousands of people, I know he uttered the famous "Not that there's anything wrong with that" about homosexuality (which doesn't matter or something), but beyond that, I'm incapable of understanding the nuances of serious Seinfeld discussions. (Hell, another time Glenn compared Scalia to Seinfeld -- and I'm sure there's not anything wrong with that.) I could always turn to Wikipedia, and I'm sure there are bulletin boards discussing the show, but would that really make me literate? I mean, in the TV context, isn't watching required? Wouldn't I "only be cheating myself" if I relied on the Wikipedia entry to understand the nuances of Seinfeldian irony without even watching an episode? Isn't that a little like reading CliffsNotes (or even Classics Illustrated) instead of the literature itself?

Much irony is probably lost on a self-cheating cultural illiterate like me.

And that's tragic, isn't it?

(It better be, or there goes my moral equivalency argument!)

posted by Eric on 01.17.08 at 09:32 AM


I don't know. I got Cs and Ds in high school English. I only recently learned how to use its and it's properly. (I'm 63).

And yet I got A+s in AP math and physics and chemistry. I had 4 1/2 years of math in high school including calculus and solid geometry. Always got As.

My spelling has always been poor. Thank the maker for Netscape 9.0 which flags misspelled words.

If I had to pass that test to get a job I might not have gotten it either.

And yet I'm a self taught aerospace engineer. Eventually through lots of practice on the 'net I taught myself how to write. A few people even like my stuff enough to say so.

My difficulty with writing is one of the reasons I tend to do shorter pieces. I like to be economical. Fewer opportunities for mistakes. Also perfect for the 'net age.

Oh yeah. I often write in fragments. :-)

M. Simon   ·  January 17, 2008 11:21 AM

I'm also a "TV illiterate." Is there a 12-step program for us?

I did see one episode of Seinfeld, but perhaps sitting in an ER trying to keep my daughter's hand elevated wasn't the best venue for detecting its no doubt timeless humor.

Years ago we discovered with our first child that if we let him watch TV at night we couldn't get him to go to bed at a reasonable time--he was too wound up. Also the whine of the flyback transformer in the TV would wake him up, so we cut way back on TV watching, and asked ourselves what was important to watch.

Cop shows or laugh tracks? They're so broken up with commercials I hardly care.

The news? TV news is flashier than the newspaper, but it turns out that a clip isn't always worth a thousand words, and I could read the paper in 15 minutes. (and sometimes even get a little context!)

Sports? Eh. Maybe if the Cubs get into the World Series...

Election night returns? Unless you stay up till 2 you don't get the returns anyway.

Loma Prieta earthquake reporting? We had friends there, and watched the day's coverage. Instead of a regularly updated damage map of the city, or even a pan of the city by the blimp, we got to watch a house burn down. They kept bringing the blimp's camera to that same stupid house most of the day. I suppose reporters are taught that people want a narrative for their news, and they decided to give us one. I wanted a scan, or a random sampling to tell us what the city was really like. (Our friends turned out to be OK.)

Reception was poor and we couldn't afford cable, so I guess we deprived our kids of a thorough cultural education. (or is it an indoctrination?)

It is funny how much our kids picked up from their friends and visits to other people's houses, though.

James   ·  January 17, 2008 11:22 AM

BTW Tom Ligon is a noted science fiction writer who gave me permission to post a piece he did that did not sell. Just something he dashed off.

So I'm going to inflict it on you and our readers. Heh.

M. Simon   ·  January 17, 2008 11:28 AM

Next time you get snowed in, you might want to give DEADWOOD a shot. It's been called "Shakespeare in the mud", for good reason. David Milch crams swear words into every line, but he does it with great eloquence.

YogiBarrister   ·  January 17, 2008 1:47 PM

I'm somewhat with you on science fiction. It can be very entertaining, but it rarely rises to the status of literature. Those who read only SF and similar niche genres such as murder mysteries are pretending to be educated and cultured. Simply reading is not enough; one has to be familiar with the great stuff.

Brett   ·  January 17, 2008 2:43 PM

Eric on Ann Althouse:
So says Ann Althouse (a blogger I greatly respect) about her decision to stop blogging about the show.

Simon also mentioned lately that he enjoyed Althouse.

Leaving me feeling that I've deprived myself of some kultshur, untl I pause and ask, "What prevailed on Ann Althouse to BEGIN blogging "American Idol"? And, is this someplace I really need to go?

I've noticed a lot of bloggers and otherwise worthwhile commenters can't (or won't bother to) learn the difference between their, there, and they're; or, where and when to put an apostrophe into "its". IMO it detracts from their commentary, but often it's worth overlooking because the commentary is valuable in spite of its flawed presentation.

I've even noticed something rare: bloggers who have improved over time.

linearthinker   ·  January 17, 2008 3:04 PM

Sorry about the missing tag up there. Insert it [] in the passage where you think it makes the most sense. Extra points may be awarded for correct answers.

{I was sure I'd inserted it.]

linearthinker   ·  January 17, 2008 3:10 PM

YogiBarrister said "Those who read only SF and similar niche genres such as murder mysteries are pretending to be educated and cultured. "

When I read SF and mysteries, it's because I enjoy the stories and the characters. Not because I'm pretending anything.

It's still possible to read for enjoyment right? :-)


Andy   ·  January 17, 2008 4:25 PM

Andy, I wrote that Eric might like DEADWOOD. I never mentioned science fiction.

YogiBarrister   ·  January 17, 2008 5:08 PM

That was me, Andy, not Yogi. As for your rhetorical question: yes, of course. I thought that was obvious from my second sentence above. I was moving on to comment on the many faux intellectuals I encounter: people who read a lot, but nothing difficult.

It's still possible to find great literature entertaining, right?

Brett   ·  January 17, 2008 6:05 PM

Tests are a multi-edged sword, from my perspective as a former math teacher. 1) Pro: Accountability. Don't you want high school grads to be able to do decimals and fractions? I knew a senior who was resentful that the only thing holding up his admission to a certain college was passing his Math Exit Exam: 8th grade level. He finally passed. 2) Con: do they really need it? These days, many school districts require practically all HS freshmen to take algebra. The public high school I graduated from many years ago had a good reputation: about 10% went on to an Ivy League-type school. Yet, ~ a fifth of the class took only a year of General Math- no algebra. As far as I can tell, they had successful lives without all that math. Not everyone needs algebra, in my opinion.

XTeacher   ·  January 17, 2008 6:15 PM

Wow.. My first comment on this site and I mess up everything! :-)

YogiBarrister.. Sorry about that. The formatting of the comments made me think you wrote that comment.

Actually Brett, you last comment brings up a good question. "It's still possible to find great literature entertaining, right?"
Yes, that is true. So, what good literature have you read lately that you can recommend?

I have a rule that I try to read some "good" books and I haven't been very good about keeping to that rule lately.

So please pass on a couple of suggestions. I am stuck in a rut right now and need some suggestions.



Andy   ·  January 17, 2008 7:18 PM

Andy, can I name a hundred titles?

In history, I've recently been reading William Prescott, who, while dated, is not superseded. His best work is "The Conquest of Mexico." Other works include "The Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella," and "The Conquest of Peru." If you've never read Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," no historian has written better.

In literature per se, there's always Shakespeare! "Hamlet" remains my favorite. Charles Dickens wrote some excellent novels: I recommend "Bleak House."

Among the Russians, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy remain supreme. "Crime and Punishment" is a great start for the first, and "War and Peace" (a very accessible novel) for the secid. I am particularly fond of "Petersburg," by Andrey Bely.

For Americans, "Huckleberry Finn" is always worth another look, as is "Moby Dick." I find William Faulkner to be our greatest novelist of the last century. His top novels are "Absalom, Absalom!" and "The Sound and the Fury." He's difficult, especially for non-southerners. I suggest "The Unvanquished" as a starting point.

I would seek other recommendations from those less given to the recondite than I am. After all, I'm the sort of odd bird who considers James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake" to be great fun. That book is more of a hobby than a read. Literary modernism went to sleep on the publication of that dreamscape. I would hold off on this one until one has "Ulysses" one's belt.

I hope one or the other of these titles will interest and entertain you. Many gems crystallize in the strata of poetry--Emily Dickinson, for one. If you've never read Homer, he's the beginning of the Western literary tradition--and he's fun, too.

Thank you for the request. Happy trails.

Brett   ·  January 17, 2008 7:57 PM

Post a comment

April 2011
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
          1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30


Search the Site


Classics To Go

Classical Values PDA Link


Recent Entries


Site Credits