Thursday, May 3, 2007

Listen To What I Mean, Not What I Say

If I were more blog-savvy, I'd find the screen shot I want from last night's American Idol and post it here for you. But I'm not, and I can't, so I haven't.

What I wanted to post was a shot of an audience member proudly waving a sign that said something like:

"Blake, your #1."

Perhaps it said, "the best" instead of "#1," but it definitely, and without a doubt, said "your" instead of "you're." I rewound it and paused on it to be sure that there wasn't something hidden on the bottom of the sign, like the word "fan" or something. There wasn't.

It used to be that if you noticed and pointed out an error like that, you were considered a normally educated and reasonably literate person, and perhaps even a concerned citizen. These days, you're considered a pedant, an elitist, and, perhaps, an asshole.

I remember walking into a McDonald's near my apartment back in Brooklyn. There was a big banner on the wall with an egregious misspelling. I can't remember what it was. It may have been as bad as "Frys" instead of "Fries." At any rate, I pointed it out to someone who worked there--pleasantly, I thought. I said, "I know you guys don't make these things, but we're right next to a middle school, and it's terrible to have misspellings and bad grammar right where the kids are going to see it (every single day of their lives) and believe the mistake is correct."

I assumed I'd receive one of the following responses:

1. Thank you, sir. We'll fix that right away. (unlikely)
2. I'm calling Corporate right this second. This is an outrage! (highly unlikely)
3. Yeah, that's really embarrassing, but there's nothing I can do about it. We have to have it up on the wall or we get in trouble. (most likely)

Here's the response I received:

4. Fuck you.

I find the fuck you response really interesting. I'm pretty sure there was a time when store owners or employees would have been at least mildly embarrassed to discover a mistake in their signage. It looks bad. It makes you look bad. Nobody wants to look bad. But that time is gone. I think the dynamic has changed pretty dramatically. Being grammatically correct is now no longer a virtue--it's an actual vice. It smacks of effeteness, of elitism, of over-education. And anyone who actually cares about such things gets dismissed with a contemptuous Fuck You, if not pushed down a flight of stairs and called names.

I exaggerate. But not much. I've been in schools where teachers have posted on their bulletin boards examples of student work that are rife with errors. Uncorrected errors. I have conflicted feelings about that. Part of me feels that only error-free work should be displayed, and that students should be encouraged to keep working on something until it is right, rather than accepting less-than-right and a bad grade. In other words, everyone should be on the road to an A--the only differentiation is how long it takes to get there. The other part of me suspects this is unreasonable, and knows that students need to see their good work displayed, even if it isn't perfect. But why must that work be displayed as though it were perfect? Do we really want a classroom that is decorated with uncorrected errors? It's not shameful to have good-not-great work up on the board, with marks showing what you got wrong. I wouldn't want a D or F paper up there, but where's the shame in posting my A- or B work, with a few red marks on it? I can still be proud of that.

But no. The rules of self-esteem seem to demand that I be praised indiscriminately and without qualification, regardless of the quality of my work.

Has anyone stopped to think about how difficult this makes the teacher's job, when she tries to get kids to work harder, to revise and improve their work?

I hear people rant similarly about invented and cutesy spelling in text messages. I couldn't care less about text messages, and I have no problem with cutesy abbreviations. And I have no problem with kids talking or even writing using slang or street talk. But everyone should know when it's appropriate to switch over to standard English, and have the tools to do so. Not to have those tools and that knowledge is instantly to be denied access to certain parts of the world. It's fine for that McDonald's manager to say Fuck You to me--but that's why he's a McDonald's manager and won't get far beyond that world. Which is fine, if that's what he wants. But not so fine if he aspires to something different.

Being ignorant is no crime. Learning is an endless process, and everyone has some areas of ignorance. That's why being corrected shouldn't be embarrassing--it just helps you learn something new. But being wilfully and arrogantly ignorant....that seems to be me to be the New Bad Thing in the world.

Or maybe it's a very old bad thing.

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