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March 28, 2004
They can't write!

Today I attended the fortieth birthday party of my friend Alastair James, at his home in south London and I write in haste, to have something up here today even though it is Sunday.

I got to know Alastair via libertarianism, the Libertarian Alliance - to which, among much else, he contributed this LA publication. (Link to the LA website not now working, link to follow.) He now works for Deloittes, in the management consultancy bit, and he has recently been interviewing the Deloittes graduate intake.

He said that the quality was very high, and that they were all intensely focussed and ambitious, and that they had all been doing all manner of extra-curricular activities like white water rafting up the Zambezi etc., which would look good on their CVs, and because they would look good on their CVs. Their business acumen and general level of managerial savvy was remarkable, and far higher than that of Alastair's own generation, or of the generations before that. But ... they couldn't write.

Not couldn't write as in couldn't write as well as Charles Dickens or Edward Gibbon (I cross-examined Alastair on this exact point), but couldn't write as in couldn't communicate clearly in writing, to anyone, not even to each other. Their grasp of English grammar was tenuous to non-existent. Not having actually read anything these crown princes had written I can't quote you chapter and verse, but that was the guts of Alastair's complaint.

I asked Alastair if they could they speak clearly. A bit more clearly, but not very, was the answer. Alastair explained how he got them to say what they had been trying and utterly failing to say in writing, and he then said: go away and put that, and then come back and we'll see how you did. And they couldn't do that either. They couldn't write clearly, even when they were stressing and straining at it flat out, not as if their futures depended on it, but when their futures actually did depend on it.

These are not underclass rejects. Quite the opposite. This is the cream of the crop, the human fizz on the champagne of Western Civilisation. Graduates. Post-graduates. Super-graduates. The next generation of leaders. And they can't communicate properly.

Depressing. And in fact Alastair later told me that the state of education is indeed one of the things about the world which now most depresses him.

I get the feeling that I may end up as a teacher of English grammar. Maybe, when I've mastered the art of teaching English grammar, I'll apply to Deloittes for a job. The subject I will teach will be called "uncreative writing".

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:37 PM
Category: Literacy

I never cease to be amazed at the poor grammar and the wider lack of a grasp of the English language among my fellow students, even the historians. However, unless the teaching of grammar is improved (nay, reinstated) then there is not likely to be an improvement in the near future.

Comment by: Jason Holdcroft on March 29, 2004 07:52 AM

Here here. I am a mature 46 year old doing English/History and teaching at university. The majority of younger (under 25) , not the minority, on my course are semi-illiterate (and ignorant), with appalling spelling and grammar, unable to write or even discuss things argumentively and what is worse they feel they should not be penalised for it! And they have spellcheckers on their laptops for goodness sake. I have had them whinging at me because I complained on a forum about the spelling.

There needs to be proper A Level exams and entrance tests should be brought back in so that at least the students who then appear at university can write properly. I have had a clot in my class, allegedly with 4 A* passes who could not even engage in a sensible conversation and his knowledge of history was so low as to be non-existent. How did he get A* passes? The university seems to spend the first YEAR (sometimes more) trying to get them to up to a minimum standard that is way below anything I was ever taught at school. Even now in third year the standard is appalling.

Mind you, the advantage I have of having been taught grammar etc is that my essays are easy to do and I have yet to be stretched. So I am cruising through when I should be under pressure and pushed harder and harder so I learn more. I had a TEACHER in a recent school visit who did not know what vermillion, legion, battalion and pillion were! He though the latter was for conveying electricity rather than conveying my wife on the motorbike.....

Comment by: dave on March 29, 2004 04:37 PM
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