Essay

I is We [a Short Story]

 

We have a professional military in America of a nearly incomparable size, that is, greater than almost all nations with the exceptions perhaps of China and India. This professional military, even when many are career soldiers and might presumably retire from active service without entering the job market, is a feeder trainer of many bureaucrats and other government functionaries. How anything taught by the military in its training, how any manner or behavior learned in military service could keep itself out of civilian acculturation is not possible from this imagination. Thus, we have a system of administering control, under the euphemism of supervision, that aligns itself with a program (or programmatic) of service that does not serve the people (cannot serve the people?) or no longer understands serving the people as an integral component of our democracy. This does not mean that services funded by the state are not administered, but we have all enlisted.

Any branch of the military, even in the United States, is not present to serve its individual members, but be served by them as it serves itself in all protocols and norms. How then could we expect any other way of thinking to creep into the functional mode of our government bureaus? It has become more than impractical for bureaucracy to serve anything but itself—and the state has become more overt in this since around the time of John Kennedy’s administration.

We do, though, once again, have a bureaucracy only a little more than “functionally literate;” bees in the beehive we are becoming—fast. The funny thing here is that we used to call the Soviet Union the bee hive state; yet, there is no place on earth more rapidly resembling a bee hive than our United States. We are consequently unlikely to turn out the kind of literacy in our system of education that we once sponsored as standard—and again we do graduate more students from high school than we did in the 30s or the 50s or the 60s, let’s say, and even at a higher percentage too. But I ask at what price? At what capacity do any of our contemporary graduates read, at least here in the City of New York with which I am familiar. I did teach all forms of freshman and remedial freshman composition classes in several of CUNY’s colleges. At what capacity do CUNY’s in-coming freshman read? At what ability do we, those of us who are the alleged educated elite? How many of the mass of our graduates are reading below grade is easy to discern when teaching freshman composition, how many of the students in CUNY’s remedial classes are graduates of NYC’s public schools.

Questions begetting questions—of course, I am not establishing the quantification of reading as our pedagogic normative center. Literacy is not actually something that can be quantified in the way chemical reactions can be quantified. It was not too long ago, however, that the percentage of students in New York City who graduated High School reading below grade was at fifty per cent or higher, and that was from a normative standard that required students to understand more and be able to achieve more than we require today in order to be at grade. I have noted the descent of CUNY’s admissions standards and composition placement standards for in-coming freshman, how from the WAT test in the early to mid-nineties and the passing standards that are current for the ACT test. I have seen the shift in norming from how one test was graded fifteen years ago and how the other is graded today.

We could lower standards of reading even further to ensure everyone can read on grade. What we would then expect from our students would be achieved by everybody, including all the students who would never have achieved more than reading too far below grade to graduate. Yes, we graduate more; but then we graduate students who would never have finished school twenty-five, thirty-five, fifty years ago. Nonetheless, schools are in business—yes, business, the business of empowering boys and girls, of lifting confidence, of supporting self-esteem; however, it seems as if the lessons learned for this have been taught by Madison Avenue. Moreover, the child who never fails is a model of happiness, no?.

I do understand how State tests are packaged and delivered; mostly pedantically, the plodding and sophistic built-in as elements for success—there are many students who do very well later in college who do not get 4s on the current exam. But then, they are not the ones who get 1s or 2s, either. But there is not the alarm for the student who gets a 2 as there would have been, and perhaps this student never gets above a 3 later on mostly because a 3 has become a significant feat to be applauded, met with at least moderate fanfare. But then, everyone is special in our America, even Johnny who cannot read is special, and even though he will fill the welfare rolls or the workfare roles of minimum wage jobs at Wal-Mart or McDonald’s, America’s two largest employers, he remains special. Perhaps I am not opposed to this in the manner or the matter of further humanizing our relationships among ourselves—human really does not exist without the humane and it is humane to treat every person as if he were special, as if he or she were endowed by the creator with rights that are unalienable. But special in the pretexts of one’s humanity is not the same as being special in achievement, special in skills, special in graded levels of accomplishment academically. These standards we have lowered to give every one of our students a false sense of being special, a mistaken sense of accomplishment.

Any appraisal of the reading and writing remediation that has been done in CUNY colleges over the last thirty-five to forty years can attest to just how well or poorly we educate in the Department of Education in New York City, and just what I mean by under educating. I am not advocating against open enrollment or the presence of remediation on college campuses, but am simply moderately vilifying a pedagogy that fails by design or in effect. I am not suggesting that we do what we have started to do in response to the sudden awareness that we might not be educating as well as we had thought, that we might need to do better, which is attempt to quantify literacy, reducing standards in education along arithmetically drawn equations for success—never mind any algorithm.

Again, quantifying literacy is a nearly impossible thing to do, but not impractical, especially in the eyes of state bureaucrats sitting at their bureaus, mostly all never present in any classroom. I recognize that measuring reading levels is a kind of quantification that many detractors from what I am saying abhor, nonetheless some measure must be maintained as a guide, yet, I hesitate even as I take these steps because I shudder when I think of how we could reduce all literacy appraisals to a base numericalism, an arithmetic of achievement, the same kind in currency today where teachers teach the state tests half the year, and where principals receive pay bonuses for the number of students getting at least a 3 on the state exam, which means we are paying principals bonuses for students doing what we were once expected to do without fanfare, as a matter of course in the methods teachers employed. We were expected to read at least on grade; today, reading on grade has become something to applaud. We are crippling our studetns—worse, we are crippling future citizens. The responsibilities of citizenship are crumbling.

Nevertheless what can we use to determine grade level standards when functional literacy in America is, once more, an eighth grade reading level. How much serious and important literature is beyond most of our in-coming freshman, most of our community college graduates, a good deal of our current B.A.s, certainly a goodly number of ESL directors I have worked for? Rhetorical questions born of subjectivity notwithstanding.

I witnessed a severe decline in the respect for literacy in the Community Colleges where I taught, and not just from the students who wanted quick fixes for their schooling maladies, but from the adjuncts and even some of the full–time professors who questioned what traditional literacy meant, what its sociological and socio-pedagogical ramifications were in the futures of our students, our country. We have questioned in the academy how traditional literacy might just have been part of all our societal woes, particularly racism, sexism, and homophobia. Traditional western literacy in its highest attainment has been identified as adjunct to and parallel with colonialism and imperialism.

The notion I present that reading is integral in developing the kind of individual capable of managing his democratic affairs with intelligence and good judgment, if not expertise, has all but vanished. Save for now in our lesser ability, we have succumbed to one or another cult of the expert, most of whom many of us could not afford to consult if we were smart enough to know we needed to consult them. But one of the results of lower literacy in general is a deflation of our common wisdom, for we do not have the luxury of establishing a non-literate culture within the larger culture; we do not have any connection to a folk—and this could be illustrated quite vividly by examining the ramification of the “black” Diaspora to the industrial north and what the effects were when blacks en-masse moved from their folk origins (yes, origins; yes, folk) in the agrarian south to the inhospitable concrete, brick and asphalt of the industrial and mercantile north here in the United States.

In this culture within the larger Western Civilization, if you are not folk or literate you are illiterate, and that is as criminalized as illegal, illicit, illegitimate (except for bastards—no one is stigmatized anymore by his parents not having been married when he was born or still at present).

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