My Sun colleague Steve Earley pointed to an article today in the Post-Examiner, "Who cares about grammar?" In it an English teacher bemoans--bemoaning being the standard mode of expression among English teachers--the way that students are "butchering" the language.
The teacher, Jason Flanagan, quotes a particularly ripe specimen of barely coherent prose in a message from a student: "Mr. flangan i did all my Assignments that i was suppose to do but i got a chance to turn it like i think to but the other i think two wouldnt let me turn them in and im coming in tomorrow to come do my last final make up so when i come in im goin to stop bye ur class room and talk to you about it because i do want to pass your class and if they didnt go in i dont want to fail because of them two things that the computer wouldnt let turn in because i did them!!"
Mr. Flanagan concludes: "I had came to a conclusion: The English language is dying. Pretty soon there will either be no need for English teachers like me, or we'll have to learn this new bastardized language we call 'English.' " (I'm taking that "came" as a typo missed by an editor.)
He gets no comfort from a professor of English at the University of Maryland who assure him that despite centuries of bemoaning about the decay of English, there is no evidence that the language, though changing, is in a decline. And then he begins to reflect, that when he was a student, there was a lot of inexpert writing, that today the Internet makes available a flood of inexpert, unedited writing, that writing is a difficult skill to learn, and that there is hope in the coming Common Core Standards to strengthen students' writing ability.
So, good for him. It is an important step to move beyond nonsense about the decline of English and chin-wagging about the Young People, and to talk about the difficulty of mastering standard written English, which is no one's native language.
Think of it this way. If a student at the piano plays a piece inexpertly, you do not conclude that music is in a decline or that young people are corrupting it. You conclude that the student needs further instruction and lots of practice. (And if the student's own tastes run to heavy metal, you do not conclude that Schubert is compromised.)
Given the wages and social status of those of us who teach English and composition, it is understandable that we would cling to our sense of superiority in mastery of standard written English, pretty much the only claim to status that we have. We have to get beyond that, as Mr. Flanagan has learned.
We are not guardians of the language. We are not grammar police. Our writ does not extend to people's conversation or personal communications. We are instructors. We know a skill that can give our students greater autonomy, more choices in life, entree into the professions and the world of letters.
Of course they aren't all that good at it yet; that's why they are students.They need our attention and advice. English can take care of itself. It always has.