Writing Off Reading

Michael Skube:

In our better private universities and flagship state schools today, it’s hard to find a student who graduated from high school with much lower than a 3.5 GPA, and not uncommon to find students whose GPAs were 4.0 or higher. They somehow got these suspect grades without having read much. Or if they did read, they’ve given it up. And it shows — in their writing and even in their conversation.
A few years ago, I began keeping a list of everyday words that may as well have been potholes in exchanges with college students. It began with a fellow who was two months away from graduating from a well-respected Midwestern university.
“And what was the impetus for that?” I asked as he finished a presentation.
At the word “impetus” his head snapped sideways, as if by reflex. “The what?” he asked.
“The impetus. What gave rise to it? What prompted it?”
I wouldn’t have guessed that impetus was a 25-cent word. But I also wouldn’t have guessed that “ramshackle” and “lucid” were exactly recondite, either. I’ve had to explain both. You can be dead certain that today’s college students carry a weekly planner. But they may or may not own a dictionary, and if they do own one, it doesn’t get much use. (“Why do you need a dictionary when you can just go online?” more than one student has asked me.)
As freshmen start showing up for classes this month, colleges will have a new influx of high school graduates with gilded GPAs, and it won’t be long before one professor whispers to another: Did no one teach these kids basic English? The unhappy truth is that many students are hard-pressed to string together coherent sentences, to tell a pronoun from a preposition, even to distinguish between “then” and “than.” Yet they got A’s.
Exit exams have become almost a necessity because the GPA is not to be trusted. In my experience, a high SAT score is far more reliable than a high GPA — more indicative of quickness and acuity, and more reflective of familiarity with language and ideas. College admissions specialists are of a different view and are apt to label the student with high SAT scores but mediocre grades unmotivated, even lazy.

Bill McCoy has more.