Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Loss of Excellence

The Way We Were Was Better

If you ever watch Judge Judy on TV then you know that people are far less educated than they used to be, say 15 or 20 years ago.

I watch Judge Judy and I also watch some old game shows on TV. The difference in how people communicate is striking. First of all, quite a few immigrants show up in old game shows, such as "You Bet Your Life" with Groucho Marks. These contestants are impeccably dressed in suits, ties, dresses, hats. Their hair is carefully combed and the ladies are usually wearing pearls or some other nice jewelry. They are in public, so they are showing their best face to the world. They speak in whole sentences, and although English is often their second language, they speak eloquently and politely. It's truly a revelation to see how Americans used to be. I suppose that's how we gained our reputation as a civilized country where people can seek and find better lives.

Contrast this to Judge Judy where contestants often show up in clothing better suited for the beach. It's not unusual for Judge Judy to chastise someone for wearing shorts and a tank top into court or for having boobs largely on display. She has been known to send them out of the court room or ask women to borrow a sweater or shawl to cover themselves so that we won't have to stare at their breasts spilling out over their plunging necklines.

These modern day contestants mostly grew up speaking English, but it's difficult to believe because they don't speak in full sentences or use actual words. Very often people on Judge Judy say, "My car was tooken by the tow truck." Judy will admonish, "There is no such word." This is received by a look of confusion. "Oh. Okay. Anyway, it was tooken by the tow guy." Duh.

Or they will say that they "borrowed someone some money." No. You "loaned" money to someone. The other person "borrowed" it from you. Again, total confusion ensues.

Litigants will declare that they "conversated" with their friends. Judge Judy will point out that there is no such word as "conversated." She might even acknowledge that some dictionary publishers have caved and included this bastardized version of "conversed." But Judy, bless her, refuses to allow this horrid non-word to exist in her courtroom. I want to yell at them, "Just say, 'we talked, moron!'" Because I can't stand hearing "conversated." There is nothing sadder than a poorly educated person trying to sound educated by using a made-up word. Only geniuses like Shakespeare are allowed to get away with that.

Statistics show that America has slipped down, down, down in the world education scale. I think we're around #26 now with Asian countries holding top spots. I hear people talk about classrooms being too crowded and teachers being too over-worked and under-paid. The latter, I can understand. But too crowded?

I went to school with Baby Boomers. Our classrooms and graduating classes were huge. I never felt deprived of an education. In Tulsa Public Schools in the 1960s and 1970s I had the choice of taking general math, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. I chose from French, Spanish, Latin, German, and Russian. I could elect to take band, orchestra, choral music, or speech/drama classes. I had English classes and advanced English classes along with newspaper and/or yearbook classes. I had civic classes and geography classes, classes in economics and world and American history. In gym, we even studied interpretive dance along with gymnastics. I couldn't swim when I was 16, so I was given swimming lessons in high school. (The pool at Will Rogers is closed now, but it was used every day when I was in school there. We were taught to swim and dive. Those who already could swim were taught competitive swimming and diving.)

By the time I graduated, I was well-versed in arts and sciences and ready for college, having all the credits needed for any university. I wasn't a straight A student or "gifted." I was ordinary, run-of-the-mill, average. I struggled with math, so my parents enrolled me in summer school for math classes so I could concentrate on that one subject in a smaller class with more individual teacher attention. It worked because I made As and Bs in those math classes (before I was making Cs and having a devil of a time keeping up!).

Public school options have changed and, evidently, not for the better. Students are graduating with much lower standards and spouting words like "tooken" and "conversated" with aplomb. They haven't studied any other language, which is good, I suppose, since they haven't mastered their own. They have indulged in the arts only through MTV, YouTube, and going to concerts. 

We are a nation of people who have accepted less and less and now aren't surprised by having it. The top one or two percent receive the best the country has to offer, including education, and the rest of us cater to them and pretend we still have a thriving middle class and that we're not slipping farther and farther down the "dumbing down" ladder.

I write this with a wince, knowing that I sound like an old lady shaking my finger and whining, "In my day . . . "

But, hey. In my day it was much, much better. We spoke and wrote with confidence. Reading newspapers, magazines and books was something we saw our parents doing every day and so we did it, too. Knowing who was president, vice-president, our state representatives, our governor, our mayor -- these were things that we all knew because we were expected to know them!  Not knowing showed that you were ignorant and lazy. Even people who couldn't read made it their business to know such things because they wanted to be aware and involved.

Before we point all our fingers at the education system, maybe we should look at ourselves. Children copy what they see. How often do you read the newspaper? What magazines do you read regularly? How many books do you read every year? Do you ever discuss civic matters with your children or in front of them? Do you take an active interest in their homework and how they execute it? What kind of role model are you?

Granted, we don't have to wear dresses and pearls every day or three-piece suits, but we should take pride in our outer appearance and our inner deportment and character. We should never allow "tooken" and "conversate" to be spoken without a cringe and a correction! Complacency breeds mediocrity. We're already at mediocre. You want to go lower?