Friday, June 6, 2008

The Decline of Civilization

It appears as though my college alma mater isn't the only learning institution that can't spell. Timothy Freeman, principal of Westlake High School, near Cleveland Ohio said today that he's embarrassed that the 330 graduates of the high school received diplomas certifying their "educaition".

Freeman said that the diplomas were sent back once to correct other spelling errors; nobody caught the mispelling of education on the first pass, and nobody rechecked on the second round to ensure nothing was missed.

I don't know that I'd call the two incidents a pattern (and the word "graduate" misspelled on a college website is nowhere near as egregious as misspelling "education" on a high school diploma), but it does seem worrisome, that learning institutions seem to have such a hard time getting the words right.

It's a societal trend, I think. I wrote, some months ago, about a phenomenon that I call TXTing-lish--that horrible language that TXTers use to send messages, in which nothing is fully spelled, and words are purposely spelled incorrectly (in order to shorten them). We have come to accept misspelled words as a norm.

Lest you think a college website and a few hundred high school diplomas are no more than anecdotal, consider this: the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) published the results of a study this year in which they found that 35% of newspaper readers find spelling or grammar errors in their newspaper at least once per week. 21% see them almost daily. A newspaper, every word of which is written by a professional writer, and double-checked by an even MORE professional writer. That's startling.

There has been a gradual degradation in the overall spelling ability of our population. The Scripps National Spelling Bee has, since 1925, been the granddaddy of all spelling bees. It's open to students, nationwide, through eighth grade, and routinely attracts the very top spellers across the country. It's winner is generally accepted as the national spelling champion.

The Scripps website lists some general statistics from 1988 through last year. Some selected data is shown below:



The startling truth is that, even though the bee has steadily grown in number of contestants, the number of words that the contest goes through has declined rapidly. In fact, in 1988 there were an average of 4.68 words used per contestant. By 2007, that number had declined to 2.23 words per contestant. In twenty years, the number of words that each contestant is able to spell correctly (on average) has declined by over half!

What does all this mean? Is it a result of this TXTing-lish? Are our schools just not teaching as well as they used to? Does it matter? Christine Urban, president of Urban and Associates, stated in the ASNE article describing the results of their study that:

"Even seemingly small errors feed public skepticism about a newspaper's credibility."

The report went on to say that:

"Each misspelled word, bad apostrophe, garbled grammatical construction, weird cutline and mislabeled map erodes public confidence in a newspapers ability to get anything right."

And that's true isn't it? How comfortable would you be with sending your son or daughter to Westlake High, home of the best "educaition" in Ohio? You see? You don't realize, but it matters. Yet we're doing nothing about it if our children--the BEST of our children, those who make it to the national spelling bee--have regressed by half in the last twenty years. With the advent of TXTing-lish, and ever diminishing educational standards, where will we be twenty years from today? Will the language even be recognizable?

There are some standards worth adhering to. There is much to be lost by allowing the standard to flag when it comes to our language. I wonder, sometimes, if those ancient languages that we found engraved on the Rosetta stone weren't lost over time in much the same way as this? Did someone relax, say "it doesn't matter", stop pushing the kids to get it right? Then, one day down the road, wake up and realize that there was no longer any common language?

I recognize that it's not, in most minds, an imminent threat; I mean, how can I be talking about misspelled words being a threat while Osama bin Laden still lives, right? And I also recognize that many will feel that I'm overreacting. But consider this: according to Wikipedia, "writing is considered a hallmark of civilization and appears to accompany the rise of complex administrative bureaucracies."

Could it be that with the fall of a written language comes the decline of the associated civilization? When one considers that the entire basis of a civilization--its codes of conduct, its social and legal hierarchy, its laws and method of recording ownership of property and its primary method of transferring information--is entirely dependent upon a common language, it would follow then that in the sudden absence of that common language, the civilization would erode into anarchy.

This utter decline in the quality of our language is, in my opinion, far more dangerous to our long-term security as a civilization than is some unseen terrorist who hides in a cave in some middle-eastern desert. It's far more dangerous than undocumented workers picking grapes in our agricultural areas (although, one might say that those workers, many of whom speak no English, contribute to the overall decline). It's more dangerous, even, than homelessness and many communicable diseases. For without an intact language, there is no civilization for those threats to tear down.

What, I ask, have you done to reverse this horrible decline? You and I are, when all is said and done, the guardians of the language, and thus of our civilization. The decline can be blamed on no one but you and me and the countless others like us. It can be reversed, though. From this point forward, consider your every word--spoken or written--and say them well. And as you write, write well. Spell each word correctly, place each punctuation mark appropriately and build sentences that are meaningful. Spend the time that the language warrants to ensure you do it justice. Email this post to everyone you know. And teach your children well. Cause them to respect our language, to spell correctly and speak and write appropriately.

And in doing so, we'll save our society.

2 comments:

Katie Booker said...

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commontater said...

Wow. You have really nailed it. Excellent! The general decline of excellence in education has been going on for 25+ years, I'm afraid. When my son was in middle school in one of the most prestigious counties in Northern Virginia, I was appalled while checking his homework; he misspelled so many words and the teacher didn't seem to be catching them. I went to see his teacher and she told me teachers were less concerned with spelling and more interested in the student's creativity. I got dizzy and lightheaded from her words and told her what I thought of her philosophy - it stunk! She seemed so offended by my candid opinion and we had a rather cool relationship after that, but to her credit she didn't take it out on my son. He was a very likable kid..:)

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