Thursday, August 9, 2012


A bit back on YouTube, a fundy atheist called me a "siccophant". Attached [sic] in bold letters, please.

At about the same time,  my ministry partner Nick Peters alerted me to an item titled "Teaching Taco Bell's Canon" by James Courter (link below). It speaks well to the problem exemplified by this incident:

One big problem is that so few students are readers. As an unfortunate result, they have erroneous, and sometimes hilarious, notions of how the written language represents what they hear. What emerged in their papers and emails was a sort of literary subgenre that I've come to think of as stream of unconsciousness.

Courter documents several hilarious spelling errors of the same sort: "inclimate weather," "poulty excuse," "halfhazard error," and so on. Courter concludes:

Among students' biggest complaints is that they have to write so much in college. In his end-of-semester evaluation, one honest soul complained that "writhing gives me fits." Sad to say, it's not uncommon to hear students remark on how much they look forward to being done with English.

Who knows what language they'll use then?

Indeed not. Courter has pinned the obvious problem: Students are not readers -- or at least, not readers of literature that would help them properly spell words like sycophant. Even a modest reader of worthwhile literature would see that, and words of similar grade, several times within a few years. The implied conclusion is that these students have only heard the word, and have never read it. They listen (and watch) far more than they read.

My mindset is such that I lose patience trying to watch a YouTube video because I can read much faster than I can watch or listen. I think that is at it should be when it comes to doing serious research. Scholarship is not hospitable to persons who are not readers by practice. It's not just spelling that will go awry under these conditions.



  1. Hmmm.... You know Holding, even though you make fun of the modern college student who doesn't read the article kinda makes you wonder if maybe ancient people were similar in how they understood and used their language. Maybe these college students would make fascinating case studies in the nature of an oral culture?=)

  2. @rolo Hard to say. Of course, the ancients had a good excuses for illiteracy -- lack of resources to mass produce books, no widespread education system, etc. Whereas these modern students aren't quality-literate because they're too busy eg, playing Skyrim.

    I think they'd be just as lost in an oral culture, though, because they don't have the trained memories needed.

    1. It is ironic that the developers of The Elder Scrolls series actually put "books" in the game for the player to read. It is no Tolstoy, but it is there. I view it as pure laziness and indicative of our culture being focused excessively on individualism( I say this as someone who believes that individual liberty is to be used for the benefit of the group).

      For crying out loud, one can simply type what looks like the word into Google to check for proper spelling and meaning. The desire for instant gratification may also have a hand in this. I thank God for being a history major as it forces you to work to improve your writing skills. You make time for what you want, and it seems like the rest of my age group (Gen Y) only wants to make money the quick and easy way and imitate Snooki as a "model for success". I hope they use you as a source among many things for when America wakes up and wonders where it all went wrong.

  3. Members of an oral culture have ironclad, extraordinary memory. The same can't be said for Americans.

  4. As another member of "Gen Y", there's a second reason for this kind of illiteracy--the constant promotion of STEM majors, while denigrating majors like English and history. It's everywhere in the culture and even promoted by our own politicians. You constantly hear Presidents (of both parties) exhorting young people to go into math and science, but when is the last time they promoted the value of, say, studying literature?

    For example, one class that everyone had to take at my university regardless of major was English 200. Basically, the only thing you did in this class was prepare for and then write a long, detailed research paper on a topic of your choosing to be turned in at the end of the semester. As part of the process we often broke up into small groups to review one another's papers.

    I can't even begin to describe the awful writing of the STEM majors, especially pre-med. At best, they had the skills to write a short, technical instruction manual. At worst, their writing skills were far poorer than some people I know who learned English as a second language. And this class was the only writing-intensive class some of them would ever have to take at the college level! Of course, these people are far from stupid, it's just that our education system and culture treats language skills as worthless and they responded in kind by never learning any.

  5. English IS my second language (my L1 is Spanish), and I'm frequently flabbergasted at the grammatical and spelling horrors of people whose L1 is supposed to be English.

    I *kind of* forgive them when they try to use phrases transferred from Latin (like when they spell "per se" as "per say" [sic.])... but when I see US native speakers butcher their own language, it's really painful to behold. The irony is...many actually THINK they are writing properly.

    And I'm saying this as a guy who learned his English while living in an island (PR) where everyone talks in Spanish all of the time. And, no, I've never lived on the continent... I've flown to visit relatives for a short while, and then again only a handful of times, so those times don't count.

    Having good reading habits DO work wonders and dramatically increase vocabulary (that was MY experience, anyway)... although I've discovered that all these years of consuming info on the Web has somehow made me a lazy reader. Maybe it's due to the sheer amount of info that forces me to skim a lot, or maybe it's just laziness on my part.