THE BLOG
05/30/2011 01:09 am ET Updated Jul 29, 2011

American Education: Much Worse Than You Think

As the publisher of Watching America.com, the site that translates foreign news about the United States from all over the world, I have read dozens of applications from people who are interested in joining our ever-growing editorial team.

Some time ago, I received one from a young man who had a master's degree in International Relations from a well-known university on the East Coast, with a GPA of 3.9. I'll call him Nik to protect the innocent. As is our usual practice, I sent Nik an article to edit, explaining to him that he can take as long as he needs, as only quality -- and not speed -- is important.

It came back to me full of basic errors of grammar and vocabulary. The complete inability to use an apostrophe, and many of the other errors, suggested to me that Nik must not be a native English speaker. I couldn't let a non-native speaker with this poverty of English near the articles we publish, but I called Nik as he had other skills that we could perhaps have used in different parts of the organization.

When we spoke, Nik's English was fluent, and it turned out that Nik was American through and through -- born and bred in the good ol' US of A.

I was stunned, but should not have been surprised. I went through the article with him and pointed out the errors in the use of apostrophes throughout, and asked him to correct them. He couldn't. He couldn't even tell me the rule about their usage.

3.9 GPA - and cannot use an apostrophe. A master's degree in a subject that is completely verbal, and depends on the careful and detailed exposition of complex ideas -- and cannot use an apostrophe.

Following some soothing words to soften the blow of the subsequent question, I asked Nik how he obtained a master's degree without knowing basic grammar. He told me simply that this is how it is in American education -- that professors don't correct work. We had an interesting conversation and it was clear that this candidate was by no means dull. I told him that he had been let down by his educational institution and that, should he wish to pursue it, I would communicate in whatever form with any of the authorities of his university; I would argue with him for a partial refund of his fees, and I would make it clear that this is the stuff of national scandal. As someone who has in the past been involved in hiring for a private-sector corporation, I also told him the grammatical errors in his resume (rather than its content, which was impressive) would alone eliminate him from the running for any serious job. He was glad that I did.

Having been looking at applications for five years, I know that Nik's application was not unusual.

Would it were possible to head off the effects of the we-don't-give-a-damn attitudes of educational institutions and the so-called "teachers" or "professors" who work in them. I fear it is too late.

These attitudes can be seen in wider society. For example, signs in my local Fry's, a multi-billion dollar company, advertise "Chip's". Apparently, they can't afford someone with basic grammar to write their signs. Or they just don't really care. Fry's stores are riddled with painful-to-look-at signs with errors in basic English that would shame most seven year-olds not only in the country of my birth, but in many countries where English is being taught as a second language.

A note to mothers: be careful what you expose your children to. You thought you only had to worry about the drugs and TV violence...? Now you have to worry about your local grocery store's helping to turn your beloved son or daughter into someone with such a confused grasp of the language that he or she is unlikely to get any job -- except, of course, at that grocery store. (Anyone who can tell me why "store" has an apostrophe in the last sentence should apply immediately to Watching America for an editorial position!)

In fact, shoppers, why haven't you already reported those incorrect signs to the management for the sake of your country and its children?

I am a complete America-phile, so it pains me to ask this, but how exactly, America, do we expect to be taken seriously if our people around the table in the international halls of power, where rightly or wrongly the big decisions get made, write our own language with more errors than those foreigners who've had to learn it as a second language, or even as a third?

Last year, when I was living in Arizona, that state voted to increase sales tax allegedly to maintain schooling in the state. America, it doesn't matter how much money you throw at something if the people who are supposed to deliver the service don't know enough to do the job. It also doesn't matter how much money you throw at something if the people who know how to do the job are not allowed to put red marks on their students' papers because of some policy set by the same political class who are responsible for taking your money to fund this so-called educational system.

Shame on all politicians who just continue to throw money at a system that has seen standards decline even as funding has increased. Shame on the same politicians who implement policies that prevent the good teachers from giving their students the benefit of their knowledge -- and that prevent such people from wanting to work in the system in the first place. Shame on all parents who pay huge fees to universities and then don't demand the most basic standards from those who receive their money. Shame on all teachers who don't care enough about this problem to do anything about it, and tell themselves that it's OK because they're following whatever rules they're told to follow. Shame, too, on any union officer who is more interested in protecting the pensions of their members than in ensuring that their members have the ability and permission to deliver the education their young charges have a right to expect.

As ever, we get what we deserve. But our children do not: they are the ones who will have to compete with ever increasing numbers of increasingly well-educated young people from developing countries all over the world.

Whatever the reason, and whoever should be blamed, America needs to come together to address its taught ignorance. If our debt doesn't finish us, our education system certainly will.

America has already bred its lost generation, and given them 3.9 GPAs. What are we going to do about it?

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(Note; a reader will occasionally find errors in English in Watching America articles -- despite the various systems we have in place to ensure they never occur. We apologize for them. The difference between us and Fry's, and it seems, the American education system, is three-fold: 1) We care about errors; 2) we fix errors when they are pointed out to us and 3) WA has neither profits nor funding, so while we strive for quality, we are limited by resources and the time kindly donated by our wonderful volunteers. Nevertheless, the standards we set for our editorial team seem in some respects to be higher than those set for masters' degrees at many institutions.)