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Literacy Among Today's College Students

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Why such a decline in college literacy? Students' overexposure to the mass media and commercials could be to blame. Chaz Austin takes a look at these factors and outlines his approach to teaching effective written English.
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At a presentation I delivered last month at a dinner meeting of the American Society for Training and Development in Los Angeles, I talked about a growing problem I experience first-hand when I've found the time to teach: the shocking decline in literacy rates among college students.

I began teaching five years ago, in order to share what I'd learned in the multimedia business during the past ten years, and in traditional media (network television production, post-production, and home video) in the decade prior.

While teaching multimedia courses including Electronic Commerce, Web Marketing, Business of New Media, and Career Survey of Media Arts, I've assigned essays to my students. I began to realize that they possessed woefully underdeveloped skills in written English (which, by the way, is virtually a different language from spoken or "street" English). I decided that if they couldn't write, there was no point teaching them multimedia (or anything else), so I began teaching English.

Students have been asked to write papers of certain lengths all through the lower grades, so what they've done is to put a required number of words on a page without caring what it said, and rarely, if ever, re-reading what they'd written. For them, writing has never been about communicating, but about filling in the white spaces on a paper in order to complete an assignment.

I teach English in an unorthodox manner; I don't focus on spelling, grammar and punctuation, the traditional way to teach the subject. Instead, I stress the importance of written English as an essential tool in the business world, and retrain my students' ability to perceive what they've written. My philosophy is that all writing needs to address only two issues:

  1. What are you trying to say?

  2. Who's your audience?

There are three simple steps to writing anything:

  1. Take a few minutes to plan what you want to convey.

  2. Just write, without any editing.

  3. Edit, edit, edit, edit . As Aristotle said, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."

The most valuable tip I give them in order to help them get what's in their heads onto the paper, is to read what they've written aloud. Through my method, they have discovered the power and joy of using the English language to connect with their readers.

While I continue to teach adults at UCLA and Loyola Marymount University, my main contact with college students occurs at Brooks College, a two-year design school in Long Beach, CA, and The Art Institute of California Los Angeles, a four-year design and culinary institution in Santa Monica.

While my findings are largely anecdotal, they are first-hand reports "from the trenches" and do reflect statistical data about declining literacy rates in higher education all over the United States. As the Los Angeles Daily News recently reported: "Fewer than half of the Los Angeles Unified School District's high school students passed the English portion of the state's high-stakes graduation exam."

Seizing on the district's abysmal showing, Roy Romer, Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, proposed adding a 13th year of school and extending the school day for the struggling students. "What we see here is obviously disappointing results of 10 years of failure of urban districts," he said. "We have a system in which the culture has been give them a ŒD' and let them pass."

No wonder.

  • They read poorly, and less than prior generations did at their age.

  • Electronic media are a drug for them; they love their "eye candy." As real candy rots the teeth, so eye candy rots the brain.

  • They have shorter attention spans (due to Sesame Street, MTV and the Internet, in turn)

  • They are distracted by the assault of commercial messages from all media at all times, and thus are less aware of current events.

Of thirteen students in one of my English classes, only one voted in the recent off-year election! I wanted to know why. Was it because Bush had "stolen" the 2000 presidential election and they felt their vote wouldn't matter? No, they told me; they didn't know the candidates or the issues - and didn't care.

How much of a "media assault" are college students and the rest of the population being subjected to? Consider the following:

  • The average American is exposed to 3,000 ads per day on television, radio, bus benches, billboards, etc.

  • The average physical mailbox receives 150 pieces of commercial advertising per month.

  • Internet surfers are exposed to 950 banner ads per day.

  • 270 billion coupons are delivered to American households each year.

Compounding the problem is that today's college students are casualties of the school systems in California and elsewhere that handed them diplomas and pushed them out, to get ready for the NEXT grade's students.

These students carry with them a sense of entitlement and anti-intellectualism. Many don't want to know what's going on in the world; they've told me it's too depressing. So their source of news is often word of mouth. In other words, they rely on reports from their equally ignorant friends. Some have never heard of Auschwitz, Jonas Salk - or even Enron! When I asked one class what happened at Pearl Harbor, they confused it with Hiroshima and informed me that "that's when we dropped the big one."

The ubiquitousness of media has deformed their ability to perceive what truly matters in life; many value money and celebrity above all else, and think life is a movie where somehow something will turn up and make them successful, with only a minimal effort on their part.

As Neal Gabler said in Life the Movie (How Entertainment Conquered Reality) "Education, a prime conveyor of ideas, felt the tug of entertainment as soon as child development experts began researching efforts to make learning more fun ... It was this effort that gave birth to Sesame Street with its skits, songs, jokes, cartoons, puppets, commercials and hyperkinetic tempo, all designed to stimulate even the most incurious and apathetic preschooler, and that would later yield educational computer software which was designed to turn learning into a game.

"But however valuable entertainment may have been as a vehicle to convey information to very young children, the movement didn't stop at primary or even secondary education. Having grown up within the bubble of entertainment and having been educated at least in part through the methods of entertainment, more and more university students were arriving on campus with the expectation that their college educations would be entertaining as well."

So if it's not entertaining, they're not interested.

What today's students receive with their high school diplomas is a strong antipathy towards learning in a classroom environment. The American educational system has succeeded, in the space of a few decades, to turn the joy of learning into a completely unpleasant experience for the student. For them, the classroom is a place where a teacher spits out information, most of which is irrelevant to their lives (that sense of irrelevancy can be compounded when the teacher is Caucasian and the students are Hispanic or African-American), and their job is to regurgitate the information at the end of the course, get a grade, forget anything they were taught - and then do it all again next term.

Like it or not, all teachers now compete with Britney Spears and every other form of electronic entertainment (MTV, ESPN2, The Matrix, video games, Flash sites on the Web, etc.) for their student's attention. Teachers have to be as compelling in the classroom as Eminem is in concert - just to get their attention.

So how does one reach these kids?

Since as a group they don't read as well - nor as much - as prior generations, the answer is talking and pictures; we need to reach them through stories told, and movies shown.

But why will they be willing to learn now, after sliding through the lower grades? I've found that the great motivator is money. I'm confronting a generational attitude that essentially says, "I paid for my degree. Teach me only what I need to know in order to make money." As an educator, I use anything I can think of to motivate my students, therefore I design all my course material to be relevant and have practical applications for their lives in the workplace.

If in the course of my work with them, should they happen to embrace the idea of learning for learning's sake, they will have truly grasped what it means to have received a "higher" education.

They would not be receptive to that idea, however. So let's keep that secret between us, shall we?

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