More grammar and less edu-babble please

November 28, 2013

A group of graduate students recently staged a sit-in during Professor Val Rust’s course at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). They did this to protest an allegedly “toxic” racial climate in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies.

What terrible thing happened in Rust’s class that precipitated this drastic behavior? Did he belittle minority students with racist epithets or openly defend white superiority? No, he didn’t.

According to UCLA’s newspaper, the Daily Bruin, some students didn’t like the spelling and grammar corrections Rust made on their dissertation proposals. During their demonstration, these students described Rust’s corrections as “micro-aggression.”

However, in a letter sent to his colleagues, Rust explained his side of the story.  “I have attempted to be rather thorough on the papers and am particularly concerned that they do a good job with their bibliographies and citations, and these students apparently don’t feel that is appropriate,” wrote Rust.

That explanation sounds reasonable to most people outside of education schools. All university students, regardless of their racial background, need to use proper spelling and grammar. This is particularly true in graduate school where students are pursuing masters and doctoral degrees. A student who cannot write properly is unlikely to experience much success in the academic world. One might think graduate education students, most of whom have been teachers, would understand this requirement better than any other students.

However, it is no accident that this protest happened in an education school. Education schools have long been obsessed with issues of race and culture to the detriment of the academic basics. I experienced this personally during an education graduate course I recently completed. Throughout the course, the professor and students made repeated references to “white privilege” and frequently bashed Western civilization for being racist and sexist.

During one of our discussions, the professor even suggested that there is too much focus on reading and writing in public schools. In her opinion, reading and writing was only one form of literacy and other forms deserve equal attention. Many students backed up the professor’s position. One of them went so far as to argue that the excessive focus on print-based literacy is an unfortunate example of the so-called neo-liberal agenda.

Education professors at other universities have long expressed similar points of view. Two years ago, The Globe and Mail published a letter from Heather Lotherington, an education professor at York University in Toronto, arguing that “grammatical knowledge and mastery of spelling and punctuation” are the “literacies of a half century ago.” But she didn’t stop there.

“Literacy now requires mastery over digital tools for collaborative, dynamic, multimodal communication. Continuing to test children’s formal spelling using handwriting is a speck on the team-oriented strategizing and programming abilities they will need to succeed,” wrote Lotherington

For those who don’t speak edu-babble, here’s the rough translation: “Students don’t need to learn how to spell because their computers have spell check.”

Fortunately, some teachers are pushing back against this nonsense. Last year, Jim McMurtry, a high school English teacher in Surrey, BC, wrote an op-ed that appeared in the newsmagazine of the BC Teachers’ Federation. In it, McMurtry bemoaned the removal of grammar from the provincial English curriculum. He noted that it was possible for students to “score a 100% on the English 12 exam with grammatical and spelling errors in their writing.”

McMurtry also correctly points out that it is unrealistic to expect students to use proper grammar in their writing if they never learn the components of sentences or the proper use of punctuation marks. Each of these things needs to be directly taught, but most English curriculum guides pay only minimal, if any, attention to grammar and punctuation. As a result, students may never learn basic grammar skills.

The root of the problem is that education schools, and the professors who teach in them, have long been obsessed with things like social justice and racial perspective and not basic knowledge and skills. Education schools have lost sight of what actually matters in the real world.

It doesn’t help when political leaders parrot the same edu-babble. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s recent comment to the Toronto Star that schools should focus less on numeracy and literacy and more on “higher-order skills like creativity, collaboration, community and critical thinking” is a case in point.

In reality, students would benefit from less edu-babble and more spelling and grammar in our schools. Contrary to what many education professors argue, basic knowledge and skills aren’t obsolete.