Over two decades ago, when I first began to fully grasp the magnitude of the Internet, I was not particularly satisfied with this newest technology, focusing as I did on the negative possibilities and the likely changes to affect my private and professional life. As much as I resisted, however, I realized the Internet was a force of unstoppable magnitude and regardless of how I felt, the trendy future of interactivity and multimedia had already arrived.
While this new wave of transmittable information was racing ahead at an unstoppable speed, such progress did not assuage my concerns that our rudimentary abilities to communicate and compose (specifically, write or type coherent sentences) were still lagging far behind other leading world nations. For all the fanfare about being the “greatest” country on earth, we were joining ranks with some of the more illiterate populations and not finding it shameful enough to correct our abysmal failures.
In short, the lows to which we had plummeted were more than regrettable. Equally disgraceful was the lack of a budding, sustained movement from any of our socio-economic segments demanding this country’s adherence to total educational excellence. Already in the second decade of the new millennium there have only been sporadic mutterings from intermittent pockets of responsible parents and individuals. Until we translate everyone’s concerns into effective action, we will continue to feel the effects of a society out of touch with its own language and culture.
We certainly started on the right foot with our own slate of original American writers beginning with Irving and Poe, Emerson and Thoreau, followed by Twain, Howells and Faulkner, but faded far too quickly from those enlightened times. Since then, particularly beginning with the 1950s, we have allowed greed and politics to interfere with education and intellectual progress, marking our country and ourselves no better off than brazen bandits who rob from its youth its scholastic potential.
It is bad enough that American schools compare miserably to other industrialized institutions and that the political powers that could actually make a difference remain sidelined—indifferent to their populace’s academic failings. Worse are the people who have a voice—you, me, the general public—but not necessarily the means, to scream loud or long enough. Putting education on hold has never made for a healthy society and by now, we all know what its undesirable consequences can mean.
Plainly, there is neither honest concern nor real responsibility from leaders at the top, and those of us outside of Washington are perhaps gullible for thinking our representatives have any vested interest in formative education. True, there is lip service coming out the Beltway for programs to improve our schools’ structures and maintain its current curricula. But the gist of it is that an educated middle class is not perceived to be in the best interest of our Congress. The making of bright thinkers might someday change the way Washington operates and that simply is not in sync with its notion of American capitalism. Personalities irresponsibly out of touch with the working world and accustomed to gratuities and graft are not about to put their weight behind the common good when that common good—learning and enlightenment—can eviscerate, or at least hamper, Washington’s love affair with power and procurement.
Many thoughtful educators have warned for years about the appalling repercussions of not mastering, let alone advancing, our basic learning skills. I have personally experienced the results of a slipshod education in the “real world” with my own business clients and was frustrated that nearly none of these seemingly successful persons could fully articulate, let alone compose, simple papers and/or summaries about, for instance, their own company’s operations.
I do not wish to be critical, although it is both difficult and irresponsible not to be. It does not satisfy me in any way that the persons with whom I associate cannot write a company report without plugging it full of errors. At the end of the day I am surprised I do not have more headaches from all the blinking and shaking I do. This does not include the grumbling that involuntarily overcomes me. None of these tiresome gyrations, however, can mask the obvious, which is we are not a very erudite people.
Let’s cut to the chase. Good writing can only reflect well on a company and its employees. But it is a laborious process and a most unappreciated one at that. We need our wordsmiths to tell our stories. Sometimes I feel my clients (I am in advertising) truly believe that through some sophisticated wizardry, words, without much input from them, will magically morph into paragraphs and form the beginning of a new printed or Internet marketing campaign. All they have to do is jot down a few pointers (bullet points, naturally) or verbally communicate a shortened synopsis to me, and in some abracadabra fashion every written detail will systemically come together in cyber space (or in their company literature).
Similar comments can also be applied to our emails where acceptable rules of grammar are either ignored or simply do not exist. Some excuses might be made that emails do not really count since they are only emails. Whatever defense or alibi for this ubiquitous mental collapse, emails are still a form of expression and, personally, I much prefer sentences that contain words and structures with which I am familiar.
When I see short letters with no perceptible sentences, but rather basic utterances, such as: “got your email, will read in day or maybe, possibly lunch sometime” I have to wonder about the state of mind of the scrivener at the other end. To conceal my own angst I have sometimes joked about these mysterious messages and suggested that possibly next time these senders put a bit more effort into the writing. As of this writing, no new stones have been turned.
Nor have any boulders or smaller rocks been pushed aside where I work which is in the area of communication. As with the Internet and our email exercises, I have little hope that any true change toward grammatical correctness in business will happen anytime shortly. On this particular matter, I see more of a slide than a progression and am deeply convinced that I could discuss quality writing and advertising on a regular basis and not make a dent in most clients’ understanding.
Much of the reason for this, without delving too far, is the lack of exposure to any real routine, creative marketing. In other words, there is usually no solid precedent for clever regional marketing or proper writing for the client to imitate. Nor is there usually any concerted push from the business market or owners themselves to do the smart thing where their advertising is concerned. They already feel themselves in safe company since everyone else’s marketing is either flat or outright terrible. When a new idea or clever promotional concept, however, does hit the airwaves, it is still not enough to persuade most others (appreciated though this effort might be) to join the bandwagon. The mental and physical energies simply are not there.
As indifferent and out-of-touch as many small to medium size companies are to advertising, this is not surprising since we are not encouraged to be more scholarly, either. We have allowed our academic standards, or whatever is left of them, to the care of politicians and bureaucrats (astounding as that is!) for the last 60 years and have removed ourselves, (though not voluntarily) from any permanent oversight as to how our children are taught. As a result, lax attitudes have spread in the elementary levels and throughout the entire educational system, including the business classrooms where any hint of strong writing is only given scant mention. Little do our MBAs realize that in the absence of this formative tool—strong, corrective writing—many after graduation, and in the world of business, will continue to do what they have always done, which is typically very little by way of improved communications.
In some ridiculous fashion, I sometimes feel I am on a quest for clients who actually value the written word and who can effectively produce it. This is my own impossible dream, although I know too well that any compelling demand for clear writing will not strike a reciprocal chord with my Gulf coast clientele. I cannot explain this all too-pervasive lack of apathy. What I can vouch for is the regrettable notion that copywriting is an “all-but-dead” matter in the current local business environment. When clients start emailing me short pages of run-on sentences, fragments, comma splices and unrecognizable parallel structures, I have to wonder where we went so wrong.
For the most part, I have long since passed from being even faintly amused by our appalling composition. At first, I might have shown an unexpected smile at the strenuously flawed papers that came my way. I cannot smile anymore and instead just ask why.
Admittedly, it is difficult to practice tolerance for something that is falling further away from far too many of us. A few years back when I was a university instructor I noted that unless qualified teachers put the full weight of their profession towards upholding the strictest standards of education, we would remain an illiterate country among other Third World nations. It seems I was not too far off the mark.
A current report based on a book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, confirms these assumptions and points out that after two years of college, 45 percent of students learn little to nothing; after four years, 36 percent of students learn almost nothing. Startling as these figures are, I was not surprised by the results. Given the catastrophic state of schools and our love affair with gadgets and mindless amusements over hard study, how could the conclusions be otherwise?
It may not be fair to generalize, and even harder to substantiate, but an academically enlightened culture that is eluding this generation, could be linked to the way we communicate—or not communicate. We have become proficient and comfortable with Twitter, Facebook and other neighborhood Internet outlets. But our comprehension beyond the superficial, gossip-driven rumor mills and other mind-numbing channels are just that—mind numbing. If only a few wish to say it, let me again raise the point. A society of grown-ups who prefer to hide behind iPhones and not return phone calls, a generation somewhat intimidated with the written word, a culture—regardless of race, sex or age—that derives inordinate hours of pleasure starring at their hand-held phone-camera-Internet gizmo in traffic, on walkways, at physical fitness centers and, of course, at work, is a society that should start returning to basics, like writing and reading.
We have been gradually moving away from the hard strain and effort that true education demands. We clamor for novelty and invention through pictures and sound and are amenable to other approaches that will make reading and writing less taxing. So we put aside the books and listen to someone else’s voice on tape. We remove the pen and paper and substitute the computer where we can write and delete at a frenzied pace, and expect miraculous results. It is certainly less challenging to move a mouse, stroke a few keys and defer to check spelling than to confront our thoughts directly. It has taken us almost no time to master the computer. But in ramping up our desire for speed and an endless barrage of scribbled communications, we have short-circuited true learning. The alternative, for the moment, seems to be a temporary fix and not a solution to putting us back on the path that only a sound education can provide.
But most specifically, and to the problem at hand, if our adolescents continue to progress with less discipline in their formative years, those same negligent, complacent patterns will be carried over into their business careers. Moreover, it is unlikely they will ever raise themselves from this common quagmire because they simply to do not know where to begin. How could they? They have never been taught the effectual power of communication nor have they been schooled in the fundamental principles of basic marketing with its accompanying grammatical and verbal skills. Not being encouraged to think and verbalize about most topical discussions has opened a gap too wide to be filled at some later date. I know because I have tried and the chasm is still there.