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What did that say?

By Remy Benoit

I read a line in a political science textbook this weekend that was so poorly constructed that at first glance it appeared to say the opposite of what was intended.

This AP piece does not come as a surprise.

From the AP and MSNBC Report: States pay $221 million for bad writing.

Now that the SAT people have decided that an essay will be required, it once again will fall on the desk of the teachers to "teach to the test."

Writing skills are not a new issue.

When my children were in middle school, I discussed this with the principal. Early years can be dedicated to the structure of simple and compound sentences; the later years to narratives, the wide variety of essay types, dialogue, etc.

Yet the problem is more basic that it first appears.

The real problem is that reading skills, a love of reading, indeed, a life time commitment to living a life enhanced by reading the words of those who have come before, of reading words just for entertainment, are falling by the wayside. They are being replaced by “reality TV.” Please, in the name of the heights we have achieved, even if we seem intent on destroying them all, and the planet, spare me that.

Year after year, student reading lists have been stripped of classics, refurbished with political correctness, and, yes, "short" books. I am aware of all of the arguments concerning books by "dead white men," but attempts to "balance" reading too often leave the reading lists of pudding consistency.

Reading is an essential part of writing skills. Developing a child's interest in reading is the responsibility of the parents; the teacher can build on it, expand it, but it must come from home initially. The buck starts there.

Strong skills, strong ideas, are transmitted in words with spine.

"It was the best of times....A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

“What was the worst thing you’ve ever done?” Ghost Story, Peter Straub

"Call me Ishmael." Moby Dick, Herman Melville

“Even in high summer, Tintagel was a haunted place; Igraine, Lady of Duke Gorlois, looked out over the sea from the headland.” Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley

“By the ninth of July 1967, I thought of myself as a battle tested combat soldier.” Searching for the Good, Thomas A. Brewer

“Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley.” Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

“THE BLOOD is still rolling off my flak jacket from the hole in my shoulder and there are bullets cracking into the sand all around me.” Born on the Fourth of July, Ron Kovic

“In Order to Form a More Perfect Union...”

“When in the Course of Human Events...”

The above opening lines take you “there” immediately.

What if the “letter” read:

Hey George,
The way you are running things is the pits.
Leave the colonies or we will kick.....

That is a direct way of stating it, but it is certainly not an exposition of position, nor timeless and universal in its appeal. It is slang, given to a particular time and place.

I agree with the AP piece that sloppiness is a factor. We are very sloppy with language; have been barraged with advertising, political hype, so we respond, or not, without responsibility.

How many have actually considered what, exactly, the phrase “a war on terror” means in all its ramifications?

How many go beyond the three letter word “war” and ask what that really means?

How much consideration has been given to the term “poverty?”

How much consideration is given to what Killed in Action, Wounded in Action, Missing in Action really, really mean not only to the individual but to all those who love him, and the country that suffers the loss of what might have beens?

These are words we see each and every day but we are so accustomed to them that their meaning doesn’t stick, doesn’t penetrate to our minds, our hearts, or our souls.

We need to write about these things to remind us what they mean. We need to read, we need to write down our feelings, our questions, about what we are reading, seeing, feeling.

I used the term, “the buck starts there” above. It is slang, we use it all the time. Do we even know where the term “buck” came from; how many of the young ones know what Truman had to say about the “buck?”

The bottom line, again a colloquialism, but one seemingly so revered, is that the payback of reading is enhanced communication, and some knowledge that we didn’t have before we began to turn the page.

That is Yankee Doodle Dandy with me.

Happy 4th of July


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This item is part of historian, author, editor, and educator Remy Benoit's ongoing weblog for Veterans, writers, students, and others who believe in learning from and making history; including thousands of articles and posts and the free writing seminar, Using History for Healing and Writing.

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