Friday, September 23, 2011


On Highway 80, there is an Apostolic church that we routinely drove past going to and from the interstate when I was young.  For years, their sign read "If you stand for nothing, you will fall for anything."  Their steadfast refusal to change the sign became a joke in my family to the point that one day, my dad stopped the car and took a picture of my sister & I standing in front of the sign to show our friends the Leasures that the sign had not been changed in the many years since they moved away from Louisiana.

I probably passed the sign hundreds of times before I considered its meaning.  There are examples all around us of what happens when you have no standards ( Example #1Example #2). Not having any standards, or significantly lowering them, is often cloaked in the phrase "being tolerant."  We are told to teach our children that all things are equal, that one religion is as good as another, that all ideas and lifestyles have value, and if you say otherwise, you're being intolerant.  To be intolerant is apparently the only true sin in American society today.

Perhaps they got a new church secretary or formed a 'sign committee,' but the church sign was eventually changed.

I recently shared this article with my English students.  It's an editorial that was published in the August 29, 2011, edition of The Seattle Times.  The entire article, titled "We shouldn't settle for substandard English," is excellent, but it caught my eye because the author quotes a man named William Raspberry.  I attended Ouachita Christian School where I was blessed with superb English teachers.  A woman named Sue Clausen taught me English in both the 9th & the 12th grades, and on the front of her podium was this quote:

Good English, well spoken and well written, will open more doors for you than a college degree . . . Bad English, poorly spoken and poorly written, will slam doors that you don't even know exist.

William Raspberry said that while delivering a commencement address years ago at Dillard University in New Orleans.  In the same speech, he said this:

Two of the greatest lessons every student should learn are the rules and the music of language. Grammar alone isn’t enough.  No matter how much they teach you about the mechanics of music, you have to hear the music in order to make the music.  In just the same way, you have to hear good English in order to produce good English.

Some of my English students have reached college and have never heard English spoken correctly, and they don't read, so they've never been exposed to correct English in any form.  I have to find polite and inventive ways to tell them that their parents, friends, and, in some cases, high school teachers, do not speak standard English.  I wish I had a dollar for every 'We was' and 'They is' I have slashed through with red ink.

These students text and use slang and curse with ease and rapidity; their English, both spoken and written, is a garbled, unorganized mess that I cannot possibly sort out during the fifteen week semester.  More than once I have been told by students that they "write how they talk."  Indeed, they do.  Oddly, they think this is a valid excuse for their inability to string coherent sentences together and organize them into what is known as an 'Essay.'  I guess they think my grading options are 'A,' 'B,' 'C,' or "he write how he talk."

In the absence of standards, anything is permissible.  I gripe about the erosion of the English language because I'm confronted with it day after day, but standards are disappearing across the board.  Language is culture; it is one of the most (if not the most) unifying aspects of and ways to define a culture.  American culture is being redefined as rapidly as the English language, and neither is moving in a positive direction.  The author of the aforementioned article cites Warriner's English Grammar and Composition and McGuffy's Reader as former classroom standards for the teaching of the English language that are long gone, replaced by anything and everything in the same way the Bible has been tossed aside and even openly ridiculed.

More than once during last night's GOP debate, Ronald Reagan's name was invoked.  Politicians have various reasons for using his name, not all of them admirable, but Reagan is generally the standard by which conservatives (not Republicans, unfortunately) measure other candidates.  You don't hear the names Nixon or Ford or Bush mentioned for a reason.  Listening to the debate, one thing I didn't often hear mentioned was the Constitution, another standard that has been tossed aside by those who deem themselves and their selfish whims the ultimate law of the land.  I don't know what kind of president Ron Paul would make, and I doubt I'll ever find out, but the man is right about the Constitution and I greatly admire his fight for it.  A great many of this nation's problems could be resolved if politicians were held to the standard that once guided our nation, the U.S. Constitution.

Oddly enough, if students today were required to read, understand, and articulate the meaning of the Bible and the U.S. Constitution, they'd be better off in every imaginable way, as would society as a whole.  I read the Bible to Reagan.  I've also begun reading her portions of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (because it's just fantastic, & his use of short, declarative sentences is a good way to ease her into longer works of fiction).  Perhaps we will work the Constitution into the rotation.

So, a quick recap . . . standards: Bible, Constitution, Ronald Reagan*

*Reagan made the list because he read the others on the list

As a bonus, you can learn all you need to know about correctly using the English language from any one of the three.

If someone tells you you're being intolerant or demanding or your standards are too high (or you're a snob), consider it a compliment, and maybe even say Thank You.  I do.


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