Elitism is a dirty word in education

Everyone talks about the importance of standards in education.  Yet when it comes to teaching English, most say that teaching correct grammar is elitist (“A Style Guide for the 1 Percent,” The New Yorker, Feb. 11). Apparently, they are content with allowing students to write without any rules.

If that’s so, then why make English a required subject for graduation from high school at all?  Let students simply write whatever they want.  By the same token, let students read whatever they want.  Who cares about exposing them to the classics, which they would no doubt find boring?

I taught English at the same high school for 28 years. During that time, I saw how dumbed down the curriculum became as pressure built to make everything relevant.  You don’t have to be a pedant or snob to realize that without standards school becomes little more than a protracted playground. We talk so often about the importance of preparing students for college or the workplace.  But by abandoning standards because they are said to be elitist, we shortchange them.

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2 Replies to “Elitism is a dirty word in education”

  1. Several related but separate issues.

    Re “dumbing-down”: If tenth-grade students are reading at a fourth-grade level, assigning books traditionally read by tenth-grade students probably will not work well.

    Re “relevance”: Like many students and former students, I do not agree with requiring high school English students to read “the classics”. Granted — it’s a valid argument that students should be exposed to the same literature that their parents and everyone else in the nation was exposed to so that there is some degree of national commonality — i.e., so everyone can understand “white whale” or “scarlet letter” references. But, for the overwhelming majority of high school students, wading through Moby Dick or Hawthorne for hours is painful. The cost/benefit ratio on the classics for high school students does not work. Seems like there must be a lot of more interesting (that is, relevant) literature that high school students would find much more entertaining while still exposing the students to fundamental life questions and/or requiring students to analyze the writer’s objectives. My men’s book group has, over the years, read and discussed literally dozens of relatively interesting yet intellectually challenging books of which only one or two would appear on a “classics” list — i.e., Atonement, The Road, Unbroken, Garp.

    Re “standards”: Not sure what “standards” here refers to — 1) teaching traditional literature vs. 2) requiring that students achieve the traditional level of achievement to receive a particular grade. If the former, see the above paragraph; if the latter, completely agree, but with the caveat that a tenth grader who is reading at the fourth grade level should not be required to read at the tenth grade level in order to receive an “A”. Not sure how to handle report card grades for such students.

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  2. Labor Lawyer: As long as tracking is frowned on, then academic standards will suffer. The classics, in all their various forms, will not engage students, unless they are in advanced classes. The same holds true for grammar. I continue to believe that the obsession with college for all is a disaster. Not all students have the desire or aptitude to handle college-level work. They would be far better served by vocational classes. Out competitors abroad have no problem separating students out according to their abilities and interests. But we persist otherwise, which is why there will always be struggling schools.

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