This week a few of my friends have been having a discussion. It started innocuously enough. “What have you learned this year?”
It didn’t take long to segue into a discussion of reading levels, reading skills, word power, and has “the system” been dumbing down the youth of our society in recent decades. If you ask some of the older, former teachers that have gone into writing, you will see this discussion frequently.
One such former teacher indicated that she’s appalled at the level to which some books are pitched today as Middle Grade and would have been second, third, or at most fourth grade level material when she was in school. I have to say, I agree with her.
In point of fact, I got my hands on a copy of an 8th grade final exam from 1895. It’s been going around the web for over a decade to elucidate this very point. It begs the reader to take the test and see if he/she can pass it. This was an exam which determined those who would go on to high school and those who didn’t.
Having said that, I must remind everyone that during that period in our history and well into the late 1920′s, a high school diploma qualified an individual to teach K thru 12. They went on to teach the generation that fought WWII and the Korean War. Some even taught through the fifties and into the 60′s. The expectations of an education were different then and with different reasoning.
My little brother had a teacher, whom he loved, who began her teaching career at the ripe old age of 16, in a one room schoolhouse in the country. We lived, as she had, in the rural midwest. She was in her 40′s by the time he had her during the late fifties. She was training kids to the very best of her ability through the sixties and retired as a model educator. Her flare for teaching brought out the very best in her students and her expectations were very high.
But then the expectations and standards were very high for all of us in that school system at that time. By third grade we were building detailed early American historical-based dioramas to authenticate our social studies work. Fourth grade had us learning public speaking and performance each week. That went along with creative writing, singing, dance and art. Our Fridays were very lively at Jones Elementary.
Fifth grade I took at a rural school where K-12 occupied the same building. We did 10 page research papers. My class was studying the ancient Middle East-Asia Minor then. We had to write on one culture assigned to us and how and why it functioned the way it did. I drew Syria as my subject and chose to write on the trade routes coming into the Damascus markets and how the trade influenced the living conditions of the people of the city. I remember because I loved the subject and did well on that first research paper.
Also, we had guest speakers that came in for advanced subjects such as the Earth’s electromagnetic field and how the whole world of magnetism worked. That was for science class. Fifth grade health, for both boys and girls was when we all learned how human sexual development came into play, what to expect, what not to “catch”, and how to handle the subject when it came up. I guess they figured since most of us were farm kids and saw stock breeding all the time anyway with the resultant birthing processes, we might as well get to know our own bodies and how they functioned.
Sixth grade was treated as Middle school at that facility, so it was multiple classrooms, lockers, etc. like it is now. Curriculum expectations continued with US History, State history, advanced math, etc. The highlight of seventh grade for me was being asked to the Freshmen Prom. [Dad didn't feel I was old enough for that.] Eighth grade moved me back to the former school system.
That eighth-grade year all girls and boys were required to take both Home Economics so that we could “do” for ourselves later in life, and shop so that we could take care of those little crises that happen around the house. Each student had one semester of each subject.
High school allowed us to differentiate somewhat, though expectations of performance was still in place. But here, the culture dictated somewhat as well. Unless a girl intended to go into the sciences like nursing in college, she was discouraged and sometimes prevented from taking most of the higher sciences except for math. Which is why I didn’t get to take physics or chemistry. I still managed to cram in two majors, two minors, and a full-time job the last two years of school. As I’ve said before, it was a classic education and I loved it. Really disliked Dickens, though. Never could feel any warm fuzzies for his works. Driver’s Ed taught us as much freeway driving as street and how to maintain a car, change a tire, the oil and check other fluids, etc. We got the whole gamut.
Our schools taught us how to live in the world once we left their halls as much as how to real, write, and do our math. It prepared us to be and function as adults. Considering that the last functional illiteracy rates I’ve seen for this country stood at just over 50%, I don’t think we’re doing a very good job of educating our generations anymore. We’ve slipped down the scale of advanced cultures below a few of the “third world” countries, even in infant mortality rates.
So where are we heading with our kids that can text faster than most people can talk aloud and drink to excess, etc.? For what did we really prepare these last couple of generations? And as writers we help educate the readers whether they know it or not. Do we as writers have a responsibility to help the reader stretch his/her ability to read as well as entertain with our stories?
Not many years after my class’s graduation, the school’s expectation levels and standards dropped until twenty years later, I didn’t recognize them. The school has many programs and opportunities that weren’t there when I went. However, the standard of performance has lessened, I think. The ranking may still be the same, but the standards of achievement have dropped.
Today I look at the children’s books being marketed. Many are beautifully written and do the industry proud. Others are a travesty, and I wonder what publisher had put them out in good conscience. MG books that read like those for 8-9 year olds stump me. YA novels that are geared to be read by 12-13 year olds drive a wedge into my heart.
I see bright, inquisitive kids whose only desire is to soak up every piece of knowledge that they can find, and they’re handed books that treat them like struggling remedial students. And yet, for the average teen, the books would have been below level. There’s nothing wrong with that. Ask any children’s writer what they read and most will say they read anything for kids, from picture books to YA novels.
It’s true. One has to research what’s in the market from the past, what’s there now, and what’s projected for the future. It’s part of the business. But also, we have to find out what level kids are reading consistently.
If you’re writing middle grade novels and using language too adult or advanced for the average MG child, the publisher will tell you to rewrite to level or to take your work and leave. If you write too low, the same thing will happen. You might also get told to study the market more completely before you submit anything again. It’s a fine-tuned balancing act of what kids are capable of and what they’re fed.
So, think about this question. Given TV programming today, educational expectations vs. school’s shrinking budgets, the reading material being made available on the stands, are we, as a society, dumbing down our population with each generation? If you look at the stats and the studies, you might be surprised.
Now that you have the question, watch Jay Leno’s Man on the Street question sessions. See if you come to some of the same conclusions many of us have. What I shake my head at are the college educated, teachers and professionals among those answering. Have fun. Enjoy.