Jewish World Review Oct. 5, 2004 / 19 Tishrei, 5765

Joanne Jacobs

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Consumer Reports

Short Answers, Importing Science; Fun With Grammar; more | Teachers no longer assign research papers of more than a few pages, writes Leigh Muzslay of the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in southern California. Teachers don’t have the time or energy to grade research papers, he writes.

There are too many state-required lessons to plow through and too many kids to teach. And more and more, students lack basic writing skills.

. . . (Fred) Franke's U.S. history students write no more than a page.

"Even in some cases, it's difficult to get a complete sentence," Franke said. "If it's multiple choice or matching they'll do it, but if you give any kind of homework assignment that requires them to read and answer questions, they won't do it. It's unbelievable."

Three-quarters of high school seniors never get writing assignments in history or social studies, according to a 2003 report.

Even in their English classes, many students only get short writing assignments. A few weeks before Rachel Vosika graduated this year from Pacific High School in San Bernardino, she worked on the biggest research paper she'd ever been assigned -- a three-page biography of Virginia Woolf. She needed at least four sources, all of which could be from the Internet.

The effects of this trend show up in college classes. Fewer than half of students turn in papers relatively free of language errors, according to a 2002 survey of professors at California's public colleges and universities.

On his blog, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Weintraub argues state standards aren't crowding out research papers. In fact, the standards call for teachers to teach these skills.

The reason they're not doing it is because neither the schools nor parents nor the community demands it, and the skills required to produce such a paper have slowly drifted out of the curriculum.

The California standards for 11th grade history include 11 separate benchmarks, each with its own set of sub-topics. If each of those 11 standards is given equal time during a school year, each one could take 14 days of class time, and the teacher would still have several weeks to spare for assemblies, testing, and time wasted at the start and the end of the year.

Weintraub lists the standard for history students studying World War II. There are plenty of good topics for a research paper.

Fun With Grammar

Erin O'Connor, who's gone from teaching at Penn to teaching at a boarding school, has fun with grammar, a subject her students don't know because they've never been taught.

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The parts of speech are largely mysterious to them; the rules of punctuation and agreement are likewise unfamiliar. Semi-colons, colons, and dashes do not come into play in their writing because they do not know what they are for. Sentence fragments abound because many do not know that a sentence requires a subject and a verb, nor can they tell reliably when something is a subject and when something is a verb. Forget about objects and indirect objects, simple and compound sentences, subordinate clauses and participial phrases: such terminology is Greek to the vast majority of them.

Don't get me wrong. Kids today are as smart, creative, and sharp as ever. Their grammar deficit is not their fault. They can't be blamed for what they were never taught. It's increasingly unfashionable to emphasize grammar and the rules of syntax in school, the reasons ranging from the hang-loose notion that the rules of usage are confining and binding and irrelevant anyway since language is a living, breathing thing, to the feel-good notion that grammar is boring and mind-numbing and kids will be turned off to reading and writing forever if they have to learn it.

Students don't like not being able to write correctly, O'Connor says. They're eager to learn.

I'm still puzzling over one of the dubious sentences she gave students: "Driving along the road, the scenery was beautiful." I know there's some rule about gerunds involved, but it just seems like a miscast sentence to me.

Science is the New Latin

Samizdata links to an article by a science professor named Christie Davies, who argues science is the new Latin, an arcane subject schools force children to study even though they hate it and have no use for it.

Science we are told is something that every child should and must study. Most children hate it, fail to master it and never use it or think about it again after they have left school. It is forced upon unwilling and inept pupils because it is supposed to be good for them. Science is the twenty-first century's version of Latin.

A knowledge of science we are assured is essential for a proper understanding of the modern world. It is not. Very few English people whether adults or teenagers have any serious knowledge of the sciences but this does not hinder them in any way when it comes to earning, buying and selling, taking care of their children, playing elaborate games on their computers, tinkering with their car engines, giving up smoking or choosing between one fool and another at election time.

Davies takes on field trips, labs and tendentious environmental science courses. Yet he concedes we need scientists. Immigration is the answer, he writes.

By long tradition anything disagreeable in Britain is always done by foreigners, so why not science? For talented scientists in poor countries or ones where there is little personal freedom the tedious work done in a laboratory in free and wealthy England is an escape to paradise. All they need are scholarships, contracts and visas. I look forward to having 100,000 new Hindu and Chinese neighbours.

He's kidding, in the style of Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal, about not bothering students with science.

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JWR contributor Joanne Jacobs, a former Knight-Ridder columnist and San Jose Mercury News editorial writer, blogs daily at She is currently finishing a book, Start-Up High, about a San Jose charter school. Comment by clicking here.


© 2004, Joanne Jacobs