Journalism students: College prep deserves ‘F’ on civics, grammar

If you think Britney Spears has problems, you should see how flabby and out of step high schools have become.

Or at least that’s the view of my Journalism 101 students after they faced diagnostic exams on civics and grammar. Overall, the students gave their public and private school teachers, from New York to California and Michigan to Texas, failing grades for teaching them the basics for a higher education, not a remedial one.

The class represents 32 communities in Kentucky, from Pikeville to West Paducah, 17 other states and the nation of Nepal (our education problems aren’t unique). Ages ranged from 17 to 24. All the students are journalism majors unless otherwise noted.

Here’s a sampling of the students’ outrage at their lack of college preparation and their calls for curricular change.

Problems: On charlatans and


“I done failed my test,” said Robert Wilhelm, 20, a philosophy and secondary English education major from Union, Ky.

“Remember the 17th of September,” he added, referring to the Constitution Day massacre when students were asked not only to recite the Preamble to the Constitution but also to recall the differences between “who” and “whom,” commas and semicolons, and “none” as singular or plural.

“The outrage that I feel toward the failure of the public education system to teach students properly the principles of American democracy and basic grammatical skills is like Thomas Paine’s outrage at the British for taxation without representation,” said Julie Rosing, 18, of Advance, N.C.

Bailey Johnson, 18, of Lexington, called the American school system a “charlatan” compared with the rest of the world, though the grass may not be greener on the other side of Mt. Everest.

Shaheen Gani, 22, of Kathmandu, Nepal, said: “The scores seemed to mock me and all the years of education I’ve been through. I wonder, was I not ready to learn, or were my teachers illusionists?”

Metz Camfield, 19, questioned his teachers in Charlottesville, Va.: “It’s as if they didn’t know anything about grammar, so they neglected it hoping an English teacher would teach us grammar next year. The problem is that the ‘next English teacher’ never picked up the slack.”

Solutions: On reforming the


Roy York, 19, of Lawrenceburg, put it simply: “I have been left behind.” Laura Newton, 19, a secondary English education major from Bowling Green, Ky., elaborated: “With the enactment of ‘No Child Left Behind,’ schools are run like corporate factories that spit out students who have little understanding of basic skills but can pass a standardized test.”

Eric Westbrook, 21, an agricultural communications major from Crawfordville, Fla., called school reform “Every Child Dragged Along.”

Elizabeth Brown, 18, a community leadership development major from Plymouth, Ind., favors the “No Child Left Inside” movement that instead of standardized testing requires students to face questions based on real-world experiences.

And Laura Chandler, 18, a journalism and political science major from Campbellsville, wondered about reformers’ obsession with math and science: “I can’t run a sentence together properly, but I can do calculus. Schools need to focus on the basics: democracy, grammar, simple math.”

Lindsey Simon, 19, of Pittsburgh, said, “Schools should make grammar and American democracy classes available to the students. Heck, why not make them mandatory?”

Why not, indeed, but do I believe all these reforms can be achieved? I’m not that innocent.

Buck Ryan is director of the Citizen Kentucky Project of UK’s Scripps Howard First Amendment Center.

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