The other day I was reading one of the many and frequent news stories that describe the decline in American education, as measured by basic competencies in reading, math, and so forth. This has been going on for decades, and everyone deplores it, and great sums of money are spent with at least the partial justification that they will make it better. Yet it continues to get worse.
This is not a surprise to me. One of the factors at work--only one, but apparently a significant one--is that black students in particular tend to be behind those of other races (I think ethnicity is a better word than race, but let that go). I was, very briefly, a participant in one of the efforts to overcome that disparity.
It was in the mid-'70s, roughly a decade after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and some years into serious school desegregation. I was still living in Tuscaloosa, the town where I had gone to college. I was almost unemployable, having only an undergraduate degree in English to offer employers, and I took a few part-time jobs here and there. One of them was tutoring in what was called the "writing lab" at the university, the purpose of which was to assist students, especially new ones, in improving their writing. I thought that seemed a very worthwhile endeavor, and, since I was always something of a compulsive writer, maybe even interesting, possibly even enjoyable.
My first student was a black girl. I can't remember now exactly how the session proceeded, but it involved a specimen of her writing. And I don't remember its subject, only that it was barely comprehensible. What I remember very distinctly is the way it slowly dawned on me that she had no knowledge of basic concepts: the sentence, the paragraph. A sort of panic came over me, as I fumbled around trying to find some way to help her, some kind of place to start. And I could see something similar happening to her, as she struggled to grasp what I was talking about.
She was as nice as could be and she was willing, and I don't think she was stupid, but it was hopeless; I couldn't do it. And by that I mean that I couldn't do it. A gifted and very patient teacher with experience in similar situations could perhaps have found a way. The girl could be only described honestly as semi-literate, and I had no idea how to proceed from that starting point, how to open the road to full literacy for her.
I quit the job after the one session, if I remember correctly. I have a mental image of myself as literally running away in shock and dismay. Actual physical flight did not actually happen, but that was the way the situation felt. The writing lab was obviously not the place for me. I was astonished that someone could be admitted to college while lacking such basic competency. For that matter, how did someone who did not know what a sentence was graduate from high school?
It was no genuine service to this girl to admit her to college with a handicap so massive as to make it very unlikely that she could do the work. Well, maybe she could have gotten by in some area of study where little reading and no writing was involved. (I'll set aside the question of whether any such subject ought to have a place in a university curriculum.) Perhaps she was actually very good at math and could manage something that required much more math than language, but that's a pretty big "perhaps." If her high school education had been the failure in every subject that it plainly was in language, it was probably a failure all around.
I have no idea what became of her. Maybe she was smart and diligent enough, and more fortunate in her next tutor, if there was one, than she had been with me, to catch up and do at least well enough to earn an honest degree. Maybe she was overwhelmed, despaired, and dropped out. Or maybe her teachers, not wanting to be the bad guy and not knowing what else to do, just passed her along, giving her passing grades, until she graduated with a degree that did not certify what it claimed to certify.
Judging by various accounts I've read over the years, that last scenario has been far too common. It's only one factor in the general decline of education, but it's probably a significant one. The segregated, separate and extremely unequal education system that put so many black people in the position of my student was gravely wrong, but the response was a mistake. Perhaps in 1975 it was not an instance of "the soft bigotry of low expectations," a term put forth by some speechwriter in the second Bush administration, but to continue it for decades surely was. And inevitably the indulgence was granted to any student, of any ethnicity, who couldn't or wouldn't meet formerly expected standards, and thus the standards were simply lowered for everyone.
To admit people like that girl to college was well-intentioned, but it was misguided, perhaps in the short run and surely in the long run, and bad for both the people involved, teachers and students, and for society as a whole.
And then there's the equally, or more, gloomy picture of ignorance at the next level up, the level at which one ought to know, for instance, the basic concepts and structure of the system of government outlined in the constitution--and, maybe more important, why it's set up that way. It's not just young people there: I know people my age or close to it who seem to really think that because we describe the U.S. as "a democracy" there is something hypocritical and unjust in the fact that a simple numerical majority of the whole country does not decide every important question. Those people are much more culpable than the young, because they were probably taught otherwise in high school.