Johnny Can’t Read…. or Write!

Johnny Can’t Read…. or Write! February 9, 2020

There was an excellent article in the NY times recently on the decline of the humanities on campuses all over the U.S. Indeed the article suggests it has reached crisis proportions. And partly it is because of the de-emphasis on teaching basic grammar, syntax, and even vocabulary to the young in elementary and junior high schools. When’s the last time you ran into a ‘humanities high school’ as opposed to a math and science high school? And we are paying a huge price in cultural ignorance and abysmal writing as a result. Here’s the article from the NY Times.

I personally have watched this decline over the last 40 years, even at the highest levels of the humanities. I’ve had countless masters level students who couldn’t write a decent essay. I’ve even had doctoral students that I had to send back to the writing center. They often ask me, how can I improve my writing other than getting help at the writing center? I tell them to read great literature. A certain kind of literary osmosis happens when you read great literature— Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante, Bunyan, British and American classics ranging from Dickens to Faulkner and beyond. Students arrive at grad school having managed to get little or no education in English literature. It’s a travesty, and especially so in my case, since I teach the Bible, which is— wait for it, one of the great literary classics in human history, and it, along with the Christian movement itself, shaped European and American literature including its classics. Nobody who has read Bunyan, or for that matter The Scarlet Letter, could possibly not know this. But…. I am told, ‘the kids today hardly read anything like that’. Indeed they are too busy texting, tweeting, or rummaging through websites, not to mention playing endless video games, to read great literature. Occasionally they may go to see a movie like Little Women, and then get inspired to read the book…. but it is rare.

How do we remedy this disaster? Well for a start, more required courses at all levels in languages, classic literature etc. Yes, there are some classic education schools— most are private which means most can’t afford them. Not good. Colleges should not allow students to graduate without several courses in the humanities, even if they are majoring in business or physics or the like!! Even technical colleges need to help— and require a modicum of training in reading classics and writing skills. Maybe that would begin to ameliorate these problems. We live in hope.

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