Every now and then something gives me hope that civilization and culture might endure a little longer before the next Dark Ages begin. That happened not long ago when my wife and I accompanied a friend to a big used-book sale. Thousands of people swarmed around tables stacked with secondhand books. Customers left the hall staggering under the weight of their purchases. Such sights cheer me.
I drifted from table to table, scanning spines and waiting for titles or names to catch my eye. I found some treasures—a nice collection of S.J. Perelman, a World War II vintage Viking Portable Library edition of Dorothy Parker's work—and picked up a few other books that I hope someday to enjoy.
Since I teach writing, I can't pass up old grammar, rhetoric, composition, and usage books, so I lingered over the table marked "Books Printed Before 1950." The name Opdycke on the faded green spine of a Handbook of English Usage caught my eye. The title page confirmed that it was by John B. Opdycke, the same professor who wrote Harper's English Grammar, the paperback edition of which is still in print. He had collaborated with someone named Henry Seidel Canby on the Handbook of English Usage, but Opdycke's name alone was enough to make the sale. The little green book's copyright is 1942.
Then I found a bigger book titled New Highways in College Composition, by Homer Andrew Watt, Oscar Cargill, and William Charvat. The admirably detailed table of contents showed that the authors used a three-part division—rhetoric, reader, and handbook—still copied by contemporary writers of composition manuals. The middle section, "The Reader," seemed particularly good, so the faded blue book went into my box. It is a revised, 1943 edition of a work first published in 1930.
At least one former owner of the Handbook of English Usage was a good student. She (the hand looks feminine to my eye) recorded more than 50 grades on the endpaper and flyleaf. The lowest grade is an 82; most are in the 90s; many range from 97 to 100. In a few spots, the student had figured her average using old-fashioned long division. (An uncharitable person might make a comparison with 21st-century students who cannot figure their averages even with a calculator.)
Someone worked hard at mastering the contents of a tough, downright stern book. Opdycke and Canby do not mollycoddle their reader. A passage on page 36 describes the difference between a barbarism ("most … result from the careless or ignorant use of words …) and a vulgarism ("an expression not necessarily coarse but below the level of what is ordinarily regarded as barbarism …"). On the next page, the authors quote Eric Partridge, himself no slouch in matters of usage: "Slang, says Partridge, is 'low, illiterate language; the special vocabulary of low, illiterate, or disreputable persons.'" In these postmodern days, that kind of talk is refreshing. And such insensitivity to the reader's feelings seems not to have discouraged the book's former owner, according to the neat columns of high grades.
My $1 copy of the Handbook of English Usage tells another story, an old one that I often repeat to students. Everything one needs to know to use the language clearly, correctly, and even stylishly is available in thousands of places, often free and rarely at a price of more than a few dollars. The nation is full of secondhand bookshops where $15 will get a used dictionary, an old copy of The Elements of Style, and a grammar handbook. Learning to write and speak clear, standard English is mostly a question of will. Some subjects require face-to-face instruction from an expert and hands-on practice under expert supervision. But when the subject is one's own language, ignorance is a choice.
Students don't like to hear that. But I figure that they will be even less happy when employers judge their characters and work ethic according to the quality of their English. Some stories—on paper or in life—do not change.
After the big book sale, we ate too much Chinese food, so that when we got home I had just enough energy to operate the recliner. Before dozing off, I spent half an hour with New Highways in College Composition. The book's structure and topics are almost identical to those of many current composition manuals. Its quality, however, surpasses that of any of the rubbish that publishers send me every semester.
The book's treatment of rhetoric would have been familiar to Thomas Paine, Dr. Johnson, Addison and Steele, George Orwell, Emerson, Swift, and probably Aristotle. The prose is lucid, plain, and detailed, with plenty of examples to illustrate the theory. Many of the suggested topics for essays are dated, though with some tweaking they could work nowadays. It might be interesting to assign a persuasive paper on this thesis, found on page 288: "Women in Politics Are Justly the Subject of Ridicule."
The section called "The Reader" contains 71 essays, stories, and articles, most of them first-rate work. One of the essays grabbed my attention right away. Called "'They Write Worse and Worse,'" it's the work of Adeline Courtney Bartlett, a professor of English at Hunter College in New York City. The piece first appeared in the June 1940 issue of Harper's magazine, but it could have been written last week.
Bartlett tackles a topic still current: the certainty that these darn kids nowadays don't write nearly as well as young folk wrote in the good old days. English teachers aren't doing their jobs; they let down their colleagues in other disciplines and send young people out into the world with inadequate language skills. This story has not changed.
Bartlett speaks from long experience (she'd been teaching for a generation by the time her article appeared), and she concludes that no, students don't write worse every year. Her claim is not exactly that students write as well now as students wrote in the past, but rather that most students have always been rotten writers, and this year's crop is probably no more rotten than their counterparts a generation ago.
"I have found students at all times and in all places to be by and large the same yesterday, today, and forever," she says. "Some are amazingly good. Some are unspeakably bad. The vast majority are, as I rather imagine they always have been, just indifferent, indifferent in both senses." Nice touch, that last phrase. Student apathy—indifference—seems to be another old story.
Speaking to an imaginary colleague she calls Professor A, Bartlett says, "When you were an undergraduate a class of twenty-five to thirty members might have had two A students, five or six B students, eighteen to twenty-three C, D, and F students. The classes you teach divide in much the same way." Almost 70 years later, her numbers match my experience.
Bartlett touches on other problems that still vex English teachers:
- The poor work ethic and inclination to cheat that students learn not from their peers, but at home.
- The ignoramus who succeeds in business as long as he (and in Bartlett's time, it was always a he) can employ "a girl to take his stuttering and incoherent dictation and effect its metamorphosis in clear and 'correct' English."
- The imaginary golden age when all students wrote beautifully and loved doing it.
- The insane demands put on English teachers.
- The folly of college instructors who, almost by definition, were good readers and writers in their youth, and end up comparing their students today with themselves.
The low value that the larger society attaches to learning, particularly in matters of language.
Thank you, Professors Bartlett, Opdycke, and Canby. Although you speak from a time when the president was named Roosevelt, you've made me feel a bit less lonely. I wish the $2 I spent on your books could somehow pay you a royalty.