Monday, November 29, 2021

Decline, fall

 Someone has seen fit to post on Facebook a statement by the late Joseph Sobran: "In 100 years we have gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to teaching Remedial English in college." 

This is the kind of trope conservatives have favored since Cicero complained that no one spoke good Latin any longer.* There is always a Before Time, often associated with the point at which the complainer reached puberty, when people were better educated and things were done properly. That everything since is degenerate, of course, bolsters the complainer's status as standing above the herd. 

Even so, a remark as fatuous as Mr. Sobran's commands attention. 

A century ago a college education was a privilege for a limited segment of the population, and students headed for college typically attended schools with a curriculum shaped toward that end. It was only after the Second World War, particularly with the G.I. Bill and increased federal aid to education that the college population expanded enormously, including students from families that had never previously aspired to a university education. To speak sweepingly of two quite different student populations, with different backgrounds, needs, and preparation, obscures relevant facts. 

Moreover, even in that nonexistent golden age when every high school student had conned Latin and Greek, the university faculty was seldom impressed. In an article in Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik quotes John Warner saying, "Professors lamenting about student writing is as old as professors and students. ... I have a quote from Harvard professor Adams Sherman Hill from 1878 complaining about his students 'making blunders which would disgrace a boy 12 years old.' ” As reliably as conservatives bemoan the present decadent age, university faculty members kvetch that students do not already know the things they have come to learn. 

The time to which Mr. Sobran alludes was one in which English classes taught the traditional grammar, which took with a handful of students but eluded the majority. Then in the second half of the twentieth century, as the deficiencies of that approach became apparent, many schools dropped the traditional grammar. The consequence was that students did not know technical grammar but still did not write very well. Exploring how students could be better taught would have been interesting, but belittling schools and students was apparently easier for Mr. Sobran. 

The fundamental thing that he chooses to overlook is that writing is difficult, and very few people ever become adept. We probably should have always known that, but now the internet puts the evidence before our eyes every day. And now that many publications have essentially abandoned copy editing, everyone can see how professional journalists actually write. 

In one hundred years we have come from conservatives saying the things they always say to conservatives repeating the things they always say. 

* Not a joke. In Brutus: "People in general, who had not resided out of the city [Rome], nor been corrupted by any domestic barbarisms, spoke the Roman language with purity. Time, however, as well at Rome as in Greece, soon altered matters for the worse: for this city, (as had formerly been the case at Athens) was resorted to by a crowd of adventurers from different parts, who spoke very corruptly; which shows the necessity of reforming our language, and reducing it to a certain standard, which shall not be liable to vary like the capricious laws of custom."