CAN'T FIND THE WORDS TO SAY

Posted in Rants on March 21st, 2016 by Ed

Most of the rants you will encounter about The Kids These Days focus on their supposed sense of entitlement, their sensitivity, or their shortening attention spans. Over the past five to eight years I've noticed consistently something much more worrisome.

Having taught an Intro to American Government course at least three times per academic year, and sometimes four, for some time now I know which parts of the course students will get easily, which ones will take a little more effort, and where some of them will fall off the bandwagon. Increasingly I've come to realize from blank stares that there is a basic problem in some cases with understanding the language I use in class. I don't mean that I have a dense accent or that I mumble; I mean over time I've realized that entire classes of students will be ignorant of the definitions of fairly basic terms. For example, I have had entire classes – and it's not just that they don't want to speak in class, since I call on them and try to make them come up with an answer – unable to define the following:

– Deference
– Meritocracy
– Contentious
– Bicameral
– Substantive
– Precipitate (as in to cause an event)

Of those, only bicameral could be considered a Term of Art unique to the subject. The others are just..words. They're words that I use without conscious thought and the idea of any adult high school graduate being unable to make sense of them doesn't occur to me. And without getting into specifics, this is merely a sample of words I have to stop and define routinely and for which entire classes are unable to divine the meaning. On an individual basis I get asked to define words on an exam or in a lecture all the time, some of which…I mean, if a student does not know I'm glad that he or she asks to have it defined, but…I've had to stifle the "Are you serious?" reaction a handful of times. You would too, trust me.

The issue is, I have no desire to talk down to college students, treat them like kids, or dumb things down to reflect lowered expectations. So part of the problem might be that I simply talk to them like adults who are in college – at a good school; not Harvard, but certainly no worse than Good – and that assumes that they came to college with a basic level of knowledge from high school. Given what goes on in high schools, that may be a flawed assumption. On the other hand, part of me looks at that list and thinks, c'mon…

So add to the litany of problems with The Kids a shrinking vocabulary. Despite the anecdotal nature of this post, the data reinforce my conclusion – vocabularies are getting worse with time. It may not be rocket science; students' attention spans shrink, the amount that they read decreases (unless you count Snapchat, YouTube videos, and memes), and they simply aren't exposed to many attempts to communicate with them on an adult level in writing. And that's where you learn words. You learn them by reading, and reading things that aren't crap. We simply don't do that much anymore as a society. It shows.