Friday, July 14, 2006

Illiteracy

If you think education is expensive, try ignorance. ~Attributed to both Andy McIntyre and Derek Bok

Many years ago, I read a science fiction story about a future where the world was made up of a small number of intelligent people secretly controlling a population of morons. The morons thought they were the corporate chiefs, government heads, and, generally, speaking, the people in charge. The intelligent types acted as secretaries and underlings but actually kept the morons from hurting themselves too badly, all while plotting to leave the planet altogether and leave the idiots to fend for themselves.

Looking back at that story, which was written in the 1930's, I came to realize it was essentially a racist story, since the population of morons came about because the intelligent people stopped having many children while the poor (who would be mostly made up of minorities) bred like rabbits. It's not that the author was an overt racist; he did not, for example, characterize the dummies as being primarily black, Hispanic, or central European. I think he had an attitude typical of the time, a sort of remnant of the "white man's burden" line of thought fostered by colonial powers. There were simply people who were superior, who happened to be primarily Anglo-Saxon types.

I wonder if the author lived long enough to see an America where stupidity seems to be an equal opportunity enterprise, crossing all boundaries of race, creed, or political belief. And it's not getting any better.

One of the hooks of the story were signs, newspapers, and books written in phonetic spelling, like "Kan u imajin a werld wher peepl kan't spel?" The author knew that if he wanted to portray a magnificently stupid society, showing that they couldn't even master the grammar and spelling of their own language would do the trick.

Well, kiddies, there are people who think that ignorance is a good thing. Of course, it is not called "ignorance". It's dignified by the term "simplified spelling." Unbelievably, a group calling itself the "American Literacy Council" favors the so-called "simplified spelling" because it will somehow make people more literate. How a person who spells "requires" as "reqierz" is going to be able to read, say, Moby Dick is rather hard for me to comprehend.

This spelling scheme was created by that well-known expert on education, Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie, who made his money in steel, got very philanthropic in his late life, in an attempt to atone for his egregious business policies, which included hiring goons to shoot at his own workers when they struck for better pay and working conditions. It is indicative of those times (as was the story I mentioned above) that a man with the intelligence of Theodore Roosevelt actually tried to get government agencies to issue reports using this idiotic scheme.

You know, I'm running out of synonyms for "stupid".

There is no such thing as a simple language. English is somewhat worse than some of the others, primarily because it has borrowed words and constructs from so many other languages. But, that borrowing also gives it power. In many languages, a word's usage can determine its meaning. Context becomes very critical, and clarity can be difficult. English has many alternative words that can be used to make sure that the meaning is precise. The fact that "comb" and "tomb" are spelled alike but pronounced differently is a small price to pay for that kind of precision.

Unbelievably, the supporters of this nonsense maintain that languages like Spanish and German are simply phonetic. I presume that they have never actually spoken or read these languages. German, in particular, with its artificially constructed words is not a simple language. The Spanish I learned in the eighth grade seemed to have a lot of variation in the way certain letters were pronounced. If they really want to look at "La Jolla" (pronounced "La Hoya") and tell me that Spanish spelling is purely phonetic, they need their heads examined.

To say that it takes American children months or years to learn to spell when it takes Spanish or German children weeks is ludicrous. American children come into kindergarten now knowing their alphabet and simple phonics just from watching Sesame Street. Has our educational system fallen so far that it can't take it from there?

For hundreds of years, children have managed to learn to read and speak the language properly despite these difficulties. Yet, according to the "simplified spelling" loons, they are now not smart enough to learn what a child in a one-room schoolhouse could master. They extol spellings like "nite" (for "night") and "donut" (for "Krispy Kreme") as major advances. In most cases, those sorts of spellings were created to fit headlines and billboards better, not because they were any sort of "improved" spelling. They ignore the fact that, while spelling evolves over time, that doesn't mean that changing all of spelling at once is a good thing.

Remember the Ebonics nonsense of the Oakland, California, school system? Rather than realize the importance of teaching inner city kids to communicate with clarity, they wanted to teach them using street slang, which changes on a daily basis and is frequently unclear even to those who use it. There's nothing wrong with slang; kids, in particular, have always used it as a way to talk in code around adults. But day-to-day slang is ill-equipped to convey complex ideas. Moreover, limiting the student's horizon to slang or some idiotic spelling scheme virtually closes the door to tens of thousands of great works.

What next? Big numbers are tough. So what say we only teach kids to count to ten. And we don't really need to learn addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division because we have computers to do that stuff. Of course, someday no one will no how to design and build computers, but, by golly, they'll be able to count to ten!

I hope they implement the math changes soon. I'll make a killing at the store "helping" the clerk figure out how much change to give me. I'd pay for a candy bar with a twenty dollar bill.

"Let's see, it says on the screen that your change is $18.75. Ummm...."

"No problem. Just give me eight of those five dollar bills and we'll call it square."

Hay, a gie's gaht too dew wot it tayks too get ahed.

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