In June of 2013 the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences released a report stating the United States is losing its long-time advantage in language and social sciences.
Honestly, I didn’t need a federally mandated report to know that Americans are suffering from a chronic lack of language skills. Every day I read business letters, websites, reports, technical documentation and a mountain of other material supposedly created by professionals but which exhibit the communication skills of a seventh-grader. Even basic sentence structure and punctuation seem to elude people today. Of course, it wasn’t always so. Once upon a time, American education stressed the importance of what was somewhat inaccurately referred to as, the “three Rs” — reading, writing, and arithmetic.
In those days, being able to read and write was considered paramount to a bright future and that’s never been truer than it is today. As information technology advances via the Internet and its collective user devices, one would expect people to actually become better communicators rather than the opposite.
Despite the low-tech, no-budget educational systems of the old days, it’s entirely possible Americans living a century ago may have been far better educated and communicative. Back then students of different grades spent the early school years together in a one-room schoolhouse having the basics repeatedly drilled into them. It might have been redundant by today’s standards, but people seemed to be better able to communicate.
Remote educational technologies coupled with strings of poorly strategized legislation have led to what I consider to be the isolation of the American student. Individualized study, Internet-based classrooms, severe budget reductions in schools and a constant decrease in human interaction have all contributed to the decline of language proficiency. Many states have even removed the teaching of cursive handwriting from the curriculum, a skill, in my opinion, that helps promote a more thoughtful, creative approach to the written language.
Today, however, humanities programs have continued to lose favor, not to mention funding, to high-tech and STEM schools. If you’re unfamiliar, STEM is an acronym for Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics, and refers to a school that specializes in those fields. All well and good, particularly in today’s high-tech job market.
But if these kids never learn to properly write a letter or give a verbal presentation, what’s the point? Having an engineering background myself I can personally attest to the fact that effective writing is vitally important in high-tech fields, yet communications courses are still not a priority for many schools. Writers used to be highly respected, experienced professionals no matter what their area of expertise.
Not anymore. Just ask anyone and you can bet he or she is a “writer,” making it harder for those more qualified who are trying to make a living. I don’t work cheaply, because I have two decades of experience writing for publishers and commercial clients and I am good at what I do. Still, that seems to count for nothing when publishers are cash poor and I’m competing for work against the latest blogger cranking out poor quality content for free. Unfortunately, the ability for anyone and everyone to publish online has diminished the public’s intellectual expectations of quality content.
Qualified editors are likewise disappearing from the professional landscape. An increasing number of publishers are selling newspapers, magazines and books with scathing grammatical and technical errors making even the professionals appear amateur and sloppy. It’s no wonder these skills are dying off even more rapidly than we might have anticipated even just five or six years ago.
Increasingly, people are communicating not in words, but in a cyber-shorthand, through texting and instant messages. Words are abridged to their most needed letters making our written language read like a vanity license plate.
In order to remain competitive and relevant on the global stage, American education must enhance language and social science programs. If we put as much effort into reading and writing as we do into having the best football team, just imagine what our students could achieve.
Gery L. Deer is an independent columnist and co-founder of the Western Ohio Writers Association. More at www.gerydeer.com.