An American Editor

December 10, 2012

The Decline and Fall of the American Editor

In past articles, I have bemoaned the decline in language skills that I see in many younger editors and in authors. My bemoaning was revitalized by an article in the December 1, 2012 issue of The Economist (“Higher Education: Not What It Used to Be,” pp. 29-30), which said:

For example, a federal survey showed that the literacy of college-educated citizens declined between 1992 and 2003. Only a quarter were deemed proficient, defined as “using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals and toi develop one’s knowledge and potential.” Almost a third of students these days do not take any courses that involve more than 40 pages of reading over an entire term. Moreover, students are spending measurably less time studying and more on recreation. “Workload management,” however, is studied with enthusiasm–students share online tips about “blow off” classes (those which can be avoided with no damage to grades) and which teachers are easiest going.

(Emphasis supplied.) Only 25% of college-educated U.S. citizens are literate! How depressing is that? The article went on to note that “[a] remarkable 43% of all grades at four-year universities are As, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960,” which means that students are being rewarded for being illiterate. Makes me wonder if their professors are literate.

Unfortunately, a confluence of many factors is resulting in the dumbing down of the editorial and authorial classes in America. The decline in newspaper readership is but one symptom of this decline. It is not enough to say that readers are getting the same information from sources other than newspapers, unless you can also say that the information that is contained in a multipage newspaper article is equally comprehensively conveyed by a 140-character twit.

Discussions that I used to have about current events with neighbors have hit a dividing line. Those of my generation still engage in detailed discussions regarding topics of local interest and are informed about those topics; those of the younger generation can only discuss, at most, the headline.

eBooks are both a blessing and a curse as regards promotion of literacy. That anyone who has access to a keyboard can suddenly become an author is a curse; that readers pick up and read a lot of the produced drivel is a curse; that these same readers and authors do not recognize the difference between, for example, your and you’re is a curse; that readers are more interested in being distracted from reading than from actually reading is a curse.

On the other hand, ebooks make material to read more accessible to more people at a lower cost, definitely a blessing. In addition, because ereaders offer such things as instant dictionary access and online access to websites like Wikipedia where more information is available about a topic, ebooks can be viewed as spreaders of knowledge, which is also a blessing.

Alas, for the blessings to truly be blessings, the reader has to be open to taking advantage of them. With the trend of using nondedicated ereaders to read ebooks, however, combined with the trend to read only a very few ebooks during the course of a year, it is difficult to get the blessings to outweigh the curses.

The more insidious trend that ebooks promote is the acceptance of incorrect language use. The more often a child sees “while your driving the car,” the more ingrained it will become that your is correct. The fewer authors who hire qualified professional editors to fix grammar errors, the more standard becomes the misuse of language and the more such misuse is learned and accepted.

Compounding the problem is the discouragement qualified professional editors receive from authors and publishers. There is no reward, only punishment, for being a qualified professional editor in today’s market. The punishment is on several levels. On the most basic level, it is the downbeating of pricing. Authors and publishers rarely accept the pricing that a professional editor would charge were the editor’s services valued. Rather, the mantra is lower pricing. And to force the market to lower pricing, authors and publishers too often search the Internet for best pricing, rather than best editing.

The consequence of this downbeating of pricing is that those of the younger generations with the requisite language skills to provide topnotch editorial services do not enter the profession, or do so in a very limited way. That means that the ranks of editors are being filled by those who lack proficiency in the very skills they seek to provide. When an author whose ebooks is riddled with homophonic errors tells me that the ebook has very few such errors because they paid to have the book edited, it tells me that both the author and the editor lack necessary and fundamental language skills and that neither can recognize that lack, so both accept substandard work as standard. If you are a young learner and are subject to reading hundreds of such substandard books, you soon begin to believe that they are correct and replicate the errors in your own writing.

If you do not think repeat exposure to erroneous language use will lead to that erroneous use becoming accepted as correct, look no further than the argument regarding the age of Earth (6,000 years of age vs. millions of years of age). Or consider how advertising works (repeat exposure to a message is designed to get a viewer to believe the message’s verity; this is most clear when looking at political advertising).

The illiteracy noted by The Economist above bodes ill for American editors becoming or remaining a valued profession. It is difficult to uphold high values when you cannot recognize high values. When America’s most educated class — its university graduates — are reading challenged and language challenged/deficient, how much expectation can there be for the proficiency of those not in that “educated” class? (And think about those of the “educated” class who become the teachers of our children. Considering where most teachers are in class standing at university, how likely is it that your child’s teacher will be one of the literate 25%?) Considering that professional editors today generally come from the university-educated class of workers, how likely is it that the literacy level demanded of the printed word a few decades ago will survive to future decades? When the income levels of qualified professional editors are in a state of perpetual decline and when authors increasingly avoid using qualified professional editors, preferring to self-edit or to have “beta” readers provide the editorial review, how likely is it that the high editorial standards of past decades will carry forward to future decades?

Will we soon be reading The Decline and Fall of the American Editor in twittese? What do you think? Are you concerned?

September 8, 2010

We Can Do Better! We Must Do Better!

My earlier articles on literacy (Education, Teachers, Literacy, & the Future and Changing Educational Norms to Address Literacy) provoked some comments and the following guest article by Levi Montgomery. Levi wrote an earlier guest article (Books and Buggy Whips: Publishing in the New World). He is a novelist and blogger. His books are available at multiple places, including via his website.

______________________________

We Can Do Better!
We Must Do Better!

by Levi Montgomery

Compulsory Education is Undermining the Acquisition of Knowledge

The concept of compulsory education, intended to benefit society by ensuring an educated public, is failing because it has perverted the meaning of the word education. To educate someone should mean only to give them a certain body of knowledge and to take what steps are needed to ensure they have learned what was taught. Instead, education has become a social rubber stamp.

Every student shall go to school, the laws say, until that student has passed a certain grade or age. In addition, we have the social expectation that a student will be in a new grade each year, and that the student will have that magic piece of paper in hand when he or she goes stumping for a job. A student can’t fail; the student’s life is over if he or she does.

The solution, masterfully executed by the American educational system in the past thirty years, is to remove all actual dissemination of knowledge from the system.

Kids can’t get the hang of diagramming sentences? Toss it. They won’t read Moby-Dick? Give them graphic novels. They have trouble with the difference between nouns and verbs? Stop talking about nouns and verbs. Tell them that grammar doesn’t matter. Tell them that spelling “correctly” is a figment of the imagination of a bunch of dead white guys, that “getting your ideas down on paper” is more important than “hypertechnical adherence to outmoded rules.”

Because otherwise they might fail. The herd might break up as it progresses through the years of school. Some of the little sheep might not even get out the other end, if we allow failure.

Here’s an Idea:
Teach the Student, not the Herd

Every student can excel at something. Every student has some secret passion that he or she wants to learn more and more and even more about. Find that passion, and feed it.

Before my oldest son was two, he learned how to take his crib apart and get out. He couldn’t climb the rails, but he could unscrew the back and get out. When he was eight, he was repairing alarm clocks. But in school, his spelling, punctuation, and grammar were atrocious. Rather than do anything about it, the teachers told me that his way of writing and spelling was as valid as any other, and I should just leave him alone on it. They refused to try to teach him the basics that he would need to communicate in the world he inhabited.

In a perfect world, in elementary school he would have been given hand tools and alarm clocks and small mechanisms of various sorts. He would have been encouraged to explore that passion he had. Then they would have wanted written reports of what he’d found, and they’d require the correct spelling and punctuation and grammar, and when he needed to know the difference between nouns and verbs, they would have taught him. If he got it wrong, they would have been free to say “No, that’s wrong,” because they wouldn’t need to feed his “self-esteem.” Pursuing his passion, excelling at that, would be all the fuel his pride would need, and if he was bad at spelling or grammar, so what? He’d learn what he needed to know, in order to talk about his passion. To speak on the fine points of gear trains, he’d need math. To explore the history of clocks or typewriters or cotton gins, well, that’s history, right? And poof — he’s learning!

Compulsory Education is No Education at All

By saying “These things must be learned by all,” we ensure that the list of “these things” cannot include anything that cannot be learned by the least educable among us. If everyone has to graduate from high school, but not everyone can master calculus, then calculus can’t be required in high school. It’s still there, as an elective, but if you need time in your schedule to fit in the required course in “Consumer Economics” (how to balance a checkbook, which you’d know if you’d passed fourth-grade arithmetic), guess which one gets tossed? If not everyone can master the difference between the parts of speech, but everyone has to pass, then you can’t teach the different parts of speech.

Make education free, but optional. Or, better yet, free and compulsory, but only until you stop learning and start to fail the tests — the “standardized” tests. Give every student extensive testing on aptitudes and desires, and mold each education to the student. Because we learn best when we teach, give every first-grade student a third-grade tutor, and every second-grade student a fourth-grade tutor, and so forth. From third grade on, you would have a tutee two grades behind you. A teacher, then, is simply someone who is so valuable to the school that he or she stays on and keeps teaching. And keeps learning.

Because we need math and science skills for almost anything, and because no matter what your passion is, math and science are (or should be) part of it, we’d all learn math and science, and there would be no whining about “Why do I need to learn this? I’ll never use it!” You’re using it every day, because you need it now. We all want to talk about our passions, and in this world every student would be a blogger and a writer, and would need the skills of language.

If your passion is engines, why do you need the history of the Civil War? You’ll know everything you need to know about cannons and caissons, and the rest you google. Let someone else learn that part. It’s there when you need it, because they’re talking about it.

There would be no need for compulsion. The first time I outlined this to a friend of mine, I asked him “What would you have said, in third grade, if the teacher had brought in an alarm clock, and said ‘Let’s take this apart.’?” His face lit up, and he related the story of how, when he was nine, he had carefully broken all the glass off of a light bulb without disturbing the element, screwed it into a lamp, and turned on the lamp. Just to see what would happen. He spent the first twenty-two years of his life getting a chemical engineering degree he never uses. The system failed him. The system never saw that gleam in his eyes when the element flared out in one brilliant flash. The system never saw his passion.

We can do better! We must do better!

______________________________

One problem I see if education is not compulsory, is that it will be parents making the decision whether a child should get an education rather than the child. And we would likely see a resurgence of the attitude that “what was good enough for me (the parent) is good enough for him/her (the student).” In the parent-child relationship, it is the parent who wields the power, especially over the very young.

Another problem is that noncompulsory education would do away with one of the better things about America, the blurring of the classes. This is not to say that we are a classless society, but that there is greater mobility between classes in America than probably in any other society. It is this mobility, brought about by education, that has been the foundation of American greatness. Education is the great leveler in America.

A final thought: The one great strength, I think, of American education has been the recognition that there is a core set of knowledge that every student should master. In recent decades, education has drifted away from that concept, which has resulted in America’s academic decline. Perhaps we should work to strengthen that core knowledge while teaching to the student.

Do you agree or disagree? Do you have a different solution to or perspective of the problem? Or do you think there is no problem at all? Let us know.

September 1, 2010

Changing Educational Norms to Address Literacy

I know that readers of this blog probably assign me to the doomsayer caste when it comes to literacy based on my previous posts, but I am concerned about the state of our educational system and our decline from the world’s educational leader to a pack follower whose standing keeps receding. Today, I want to consider one possible solution to the problem I see. I want to suggest a change in how education works in America.

Everything good or bad about education boils down to the classroom. A good teacher can inspire and can educate; a poor teacher simply takes up space. The key is to make better use of good teachers and if you can’t rid the school of poor teachers, improve them. We need to remember that students spend more awake time in school, under the care of educators, and doing school activities and homework than with any other care provider or doing non-school-related activities/work.

This puzzle has perplexed greater minds than mine and perhaps I have a simplistic perspective, but I toss out these ideas as discussion starting points.

My first suggestion is to do away with “education” degrees and require every teacher to obtain advanced degrees (notice the multiple) in their specialty subject area. It is not that these advanced degrees shouldn’t include the “how to teach” aspects, it is that the emphasis should be on subject matter and not on administrative matter.

Schools should provide incentives for this, including the basic incentive of keeping one’s job. And, because time is limited, school schedules should be devised to free teachers for part of the day to pursue these degrees, not force them to do it only after school hours and on weekends. Schools also should be responsible for up to 75% of the cost of getting these advanced degrees, but under no circumstance 100%. Just as in the private sector, teachers should have some responsibility for doing what is necessary to keep and maintain their job — as long as they know about the requirement before accepting the employment.

Second, there must be a core group of literacy-related courses that every student must take and do well in as part of graduation requirements. Even students who prefer to take a vocational path rather than a college preparatory path. There is no reason why every person, regardless of his or her ultimate career choice, should not be equally literate, certainly at least through the middle school years, if not through the whole primary and secondary education career.

Third, I suggest a change to the current process where students have teacher A for kindergarten, B for first grade, C for second grade, and so on. Instead, we should divide the curriculum into broad fields — say Language Arts, History, Science, and Foreign Language — and we should create teaching teams of educators who have advanced degrees in these specialty areas. In this case, a team of 4 teachers, and this team will be responsible for student education from kindergarten through fifth/sixth grade. After fifth/sixth grade a new team would take over for the middle school years, and perhaps a third team for the high school years of tenth through twelfth grades, although we could consider returning to the current rotation system for these last years.

Teacher pay, bonuses, and performance evaluations would be team based. This would give each team member an incentive to help poorer-skilled members improve or move them out of the system. It would also enable scheduling to occur that frees a team member to pursue advanced degrees in his/her specialty. And it would encourage — if not require — team members to better integrate subject matter teaching among the various disciplines.

Consider a class on Latin American history. The Language Arts teacher could encourage students to read Simon Bolivar’s biography and discuss how his circumstances shaped his views; the Foreign Language teacher could introduce Bolivar’s writings and the writing of his contemporaries, including local newspaper accounts of daily life, in Spanish, and have the student’s read them to understand what it was like to have lived in those times; the History teacher could discuss the surrounding events and Bolivar’s place in them, the history of his campaigns as well as the history of the places where he fought and the people he inspired; and the Science teacher could discuss how technological events of the day helped or hindered Bolivar, what effect they may have had on his strategies — or the strategies of any similarly situated person, as well as on those of Bolivar’s opponents.

Or how about the Lunar Society of the 18th century. How many students (or teachers, for that matter) are familiar with either the Society or the effects it had on our knowledge. Members included, among others, Joseph Priestly, Benjamin Franklin, Erasmus Darwin, and Josiah Wedgewood; and it was multinational, not limited to the England. For Language Arts and History, students could read and discuss The Lunar Men: Five Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World by Jennifer Uglow; for Science, students could discuss how Priestly “discovered” oxygen and the scientific method of the time, as well as how the group influenced Erasmus Darwin and whether that subsequently filtered down to Charles Darwin; Foreign Language could discuss the biological classification system devised by Carolus Linnaeus and its influence on the group.

If the teachers were very creative, they could each portray a character from a different era of history from their particular specialties and have a roundtable discussion of how they viewed a seismic historical event, such as the French Revolution: What effect did it have on language? Science? History? The arts?

OK, perhaps my examples are not a great ones, but you get the idea. Students would be taught more than isolated events because there would need to be coordination among the specialties. Students would learn that disciplines are interconnected and interrelated — they do not stand in isolation. Students would learn that there are many paths to understanding a problem and to solving it. Such understanding should lead to better comprehension and, hopefully, inspire curiosity. And the better the students do, the better the team does in its evaluation.

This team approach, because it doesn’t rely on compartmentalization of subject matter, will bring a connectedness to the process of education that is sorely lacking today. I believe that as students see the interconnectedness of the various disciplines, they will strive to become more literate — they will learn the necessary analytical skills that form the core of literacy and comprehension.

Subjects, like teachers, are, today, too compartmentalized. And it is too difficult to coordinate lessons especially as classrooms shift hourly. By making teachers work as teams with a set group of students for whom they are responsible not just for an hour, a day, a week but for multiple years, schools will bring a sense of stability to student and teacher lives. Students won’t have to deal with the anxieties of changing teachers and classrooms and trying to shift mental gears as the subject matter changes. Teachers will learn about their students and will be able to focus on what is necessary to improve their comprehension skills, as well as provide any necessary individual aid.

These ideas may not be panaceas for all that ails education, and perhaps these ideas won’t work at all, but unless fundamental changes are made to what and how we teach our students and how they learn, the declining trend in comprehension and literacy will only be extended, not reversed.

August 31, 2010

Education, Teachers, Literacy, & the Future

Yesterday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited New York to publicize its winning of $700 million in the second round of the Race to the Top, which brought literacy to my mind yet again.

As readers of this blog know, literacy of the younger generations concerns me. I grew up in a time when reading comprehension was a valued skill. I remember taking an employment test after graduating college that tested my comprehension skills. I can’t pinpoint the precise reason why I am a reader and why I have what I consider to be decent comprehension skills. As with most things, I expect that there isn’t a single reason but rather a convergence of multiple reasons into a spot that is called comprehension skills.

But I think there are some obvious reasons why comprehension skills appear to be in the decline today, and many of them revolve around the role education plays in the lives of the young.

Teacher acquaintances complain that the problem fundamentally lies in the student’s home; parents fail to encourage their children to read and understand, in fact, devalue such skills to the point that teachers cannot overcome the student attitudes. As with all things, I expect there is a grain of truth in this, but not much more than a grain. I look back at my own childhood and recall that my parents were neutral about reading, neither encouraging nor discouraging. All they wanted was better school performance.

(Before proceeding further, because this has arisen before, let me define literacy as I mean it: the ability to read and comprehend what is being read. The measure of one’s literacy is dependent on age, school grade, and profession (or professional aspirations). There is a minimum level of literacy that I believe is needed from all adult citizens, regardless of profession, in order for our society to continue to function as a democracy (or republic if you prefer). That level of literacy is not satisfied by the ability to read and comprehend Superman comics.)

One impediment to stoking interest in literacy accomplishments are the teachers themselves. This impediment is built on several fronts, not least of which are the declining literacy of teachers as they mimic their own generational trends and the union insistence that all teachers must be treated equally with the standard being something other than the highest-performing teachers.

This latter insistence tends to reward the drive to the lowest common denominator and discourage rising above the average. Unlike athletes who compete as individuals and thus strive to outdo their colleagues, teachers too often see no reward in standing out: can you imagine the complaints — from fellow teachers, from students, and from parents — if one teacher were to assign and require in-depth analysis of the original Uncle Tom’s Cabin and that teacher’s other two grade-level colleagues assigned instead a Classics Illustrated/Cliff Notes version of the book? Most people, regardless of their profession, do not want to stand out from the crowd. Today’s socialization demands less individualization and more groupness.

This translates to the generational mimicking trend; that is, younger generations increasingly believe that one can successfully multitask and absorb tidbits of knowledge rather than concentrating on a task and giving it in-depth analysis. Teachers who grew up in the midst of that trend also think and teach in terms of tidbits of knowledge. Lost is the idea that if one learns how to analyze, one can then successfully analyze and learn most anything. Analysis is the foundation of comprehension and as analytical skills decline, so does comprehension.

We can see this shift in emphasis just by looking at the university degrees teachers earn. My teachers had advanced degrees in the subject area they taught; many — not all, but many —  teachers today have advanced degrees in education and other general concept areas, or if they have it in their area of specialization, the degree requirements often are less specialty rigorous and more general education concept focused than that of a nonteacher in the same specialty area. There is a disconnect and the focus is wrong.

We can also see this shift when we analyze what is being taught. I look at education books today and see lots of factoids. Students are expected to learn dates and events, for example, but not to analyze the events and the times in which they occurred. Do we no longer need to know why the Inquisition came about and how it was sustained into the late 19th century, or is it enough to know simply that it existed? Is it enough to discuss the Spanish Inquisition, or should students understand the effect it had on, say, the Aztecs and Incas?

Sadly, this trend is also reflected in the writing skills of educators. Those of us who edit books written by educators for educators can see the evidence of the literacy decline in the quality of the manuscripts submitted. Instead of all manuscripts being relatively equal in terms of quality and veering toward the high-quality level, one sees manuscripts that are all over the place with most veering toward the low-quality level. And the schism between older and younger teachers is quite apparent. (I am constantly amused by author insistence that it is not enough to write “create a sign that reads ‘Quiet,'” there must also be an illustration of a sign that says “QUIET,” the reasoning being that readers may not understand what is needed absent the illustration. Does this not reflect on the readers’ comprehension skills and the author’s mistrust of them?)

We need to view comprehension skills in light of much more than school years. We need to view it in the light of the future workplace; after all, most of us spend more years of our lives in the workplace than in the sheltered halls of academia. If students lack top-notch comprehension skills, who will make the breakthroughs of tomorrow? One needs to be able to identify a problem, analyze it, and then try to solve it; and when the resolution doesn’t work, repeat the process, perhaps innumerable times. But when we lose critical analysis skills, we also lose the necessary patience to find solutions to problems — we demand and expect instant solution (or gratification) and our attention span is very limited.

Comprehension begins with learning — and mastering — the skills of patience and analyzation. Unfortunately, it seems that our current schooling system is ill-equipped to foster those skills, and our society will suffer the consequences of the decline in comprehension for years to come. Tomorrow, one suggestion for changing our education system.

August 23, 2010

Literacy in the Graphic Novel Age

Recently, The Digital Reader ran a post titled “Ben Bova thinks graphic Novels are the death of literacy – I can prove he’s wrong.” The thrust of the article is that science fiction author Ben Bova thinks graphic novels demonstrate declining literacy. The Digital Reader’s rebuttal was to cite an article in Inside Higher Ed about professors whose students read comic books and/or graphic novels rather than standard textbooks for the courses with the result that the students understood the course material better.

The problem I see with the rebuttal is that it is not really a rebuttal but instead supports the original thesis: literacy is in decline.

The dictionary definition of literacy is “the quality or state of being literate.” Literate is defined as the “ability to read and write.” Implied in the definition is “with understanding” — I don’t know anyone who would say a person who can read and write but not understand is literate. If we define literacy as the ability to understand the written word, and the more and better you understand the more literate you are, then graphic novels and comics may be foundational (i.e., starting points) but are far from what is meant by literacy.

Think of it this way. Would you want your doctor to prescribe a surgical procedure for you based on a synopsis of your ailment found in a comic book or would you want your doctor to be able to read and understand the medical literature before making a recommendation? Would you want your lawyer to understand the terms of a contract you are being asked to sign only if it can be given to the lawyer to read as a comic book?

Graphic novels (which term I am using to include comic books) have a place in the learning system. Certainly they are useful introductions to reading and excellent companions to literature, but they are at the bottom of the ladder in terms of literacy. Although the graphic novel version of Moby Dick may be more interesting, it is not the same as reading the original text — it is simplified for understanding because it assumes that the reader would struggle to understand the original and because it is designed to “cut to the chase.”

Would I want to know that the president of the United States’ reading and comprehension abilities are defined by graphic novels? Not I. I want to believe that the president can read and understand complex economic documents before deciding what to do in the midst of an economic crisis; I want to believe that the generals can read understand Clausewitz before deciding on battle tactics.

Consider it from a different perspective. Prior generations had to gain minimal level of literacy in order to graduate from school, and they had to do so by reading the original works and the standard textbooks that it appears need to be reduced to graphic novels for today’s students to understand. Is that a sign of stable or increasing literacy or a sign of literacy decline?

Again, this isn’t a bashing of graphic novels. Rather it is a statement that graphic novels can form a foundation from which literacy can grow if — and that is a big if — the graphic novel reader moves from graphic novels to more traditional textbooks in their educational process. I would not want economic policy made by someone whose understanding of Keynesian theory is based on what he or she read in a Classics Illustrated comic book.

We need to separate pleasure reading from educational reading, not that the latter shouldn’t also be pleasurable. Educational reading is for a different purpose — it is to gain knowledge and understanding of a subject matter, preferably in-depth rather than surface knowledge. Graphic novels can provide surface knowledge but the lack of ability to understand the language of in-depth treatises and the need to rely on the surface knowledge in the decision-making process is a sure sign of a lack of literacy.

The ideal is to combine both, but given a one-or-the-other choice, I believe that graphic novels should be shunted aside in the educational process in favor of in-depth learning and improvement of literacy. That people read more because they read graphic novels is not the same as saying they are more literate. That students understood course material better when presented in graphic novel form is not comforting if these same students will be future decision-makers whose decisions will impact me rather than just them.

July 20, 2010

The Labor Market Keeps on Revolting

Recently I wrote about the labor problems at Foxconn’s China factories and my thoughts about the possible future consequences for editors (see Striking Workers and American Editors). But the news doesn’t seem to end as regards labor problems in China (see Bangladesh, With Low Pay, Moves In on China).

Although none of this is directly related to editors, as workers become more literate and able to compete for better-paying jobs, all wages will rise. I think this is the singular lesson of the industrial revolution, because the educational revolution was (and is) the mate of the industrial revolution.

Yes, it will be many more years before the “revolution” meets editors head-on, but then again, perhaps not. American editors suffer from the effects of offshoring to developing countries. It is a tidal effect in that it is the publishing jobs that require less education and lesser skillsets that enable offshore companies to package services for American publishers at a lower price than publishers can get onshore. (Take a look around: The higher the literacy the higher the wage structure throughout the society, and this is true historically.) But as wage pressure mounts from the bottom up in these offshore companies, something will have to give. I believe what will give is the significant price advantage that currently favors offshoring editorial work.

We must remember that editorial work, to be done competently, needs to be performed by literate people with higher-level skillsets. And as those on economic rungs below this level of literacy and skillset gain both literateness and skills and demand higher compensation, the pressure to maintain the distinction between the levels will increase, causing a rise in the compensation of the editorial level workers. I believe this is the singular truism of the marriage of industrialization and education, a marriage that is required to move from developing to developed.

Obviously, in the publishing world, my reference is to packagers who can underbid a panoply of services because the starting base for the most expensive portion of the package of services in the United States is so low. But just as America faced competition from China because China was able to underbid its services, China is now facing competition from less developed countries that are able to underbid China. And the reason, as noted in the New York Times article, is literacy — that marriage between education and industry.

It is the illiterate who form the low-wage backbone of the industrialization of developing nations. Yet to grow and compete, industry needs increasing literacy in its workers. Workers need to be able to comprehend computer instructions, for example. But as literacy rises, so does the demand for better wages and work conditions — and so the groundswell begins. Bangladesh, the competitor to China discussed in the New York Times article, has a 55% literacy rate, a rate that is comparable to China’s rates of the 1960s and 1970s when manufacturing began to move from made in the USA to made in China status. Now China’s literacy rate is 92%, which is giving rise to demands for socioeconomic parity with similarly literate countries, which means the developed countries of Europe and the United States.

Soon these trends, I predict, will hit India, which is currently the offshoring capital for American publishers. As Indians increase their literacy rate, the demand for better working conditions and higher pay will be felt. And as was (and is true) in western industrialized nations, the current literati will want to maintain their economic supremacy and so will also demand higher wages. At some point in the not-too-distant future there will be no financial benefit to offshoring. (As it is, I am seeing a trend away from offshoring editorial services among the companies that first thought it would be the answer.)

One other matter worth noting: With an increase in literacy comes an increased demand for reading material; books and magazines are the purveyors of knowledge, which is needed to keep moving forward. When that pent-up demand surfaces in a developing country like India, the local packagers will face the same problems American packagers face — competition for the local market.

Within the next decade, I predict the tide will turn and offshoring by American publishers will become onshoring because there will be no cost advantage to the offshoring. (We must not forget that even under the best of circumstances, offshoring is not problem-free.) I also predict that we may well see India and countries like India who currently are benefitting from the offshoring by American companies, offshoring themselves — to the United States.

January 12, 2010

Parallel Decline: Publishers & Educators

America is facing a steep decline in literacy, a problem that is reflected in publishing companies and in educators. The decline in literacy is a result of the decline in publishing excellence and the lack of literacy skills in educators whose function it is to teach literacy skills.

Normalizing deviance, a phrase coined by Alejandro Sanchez in a different context, accurately — and unfortunately — connotes what I consider the paramount problem in the world of books, newspapers, and magazines. The paramount problem isn’t too many publishers, too many books, too much greed. The paramount problem is too much illiteracy and the acceptance of declining literacy as being the norm.

Think about the changes we have seen in education in the past 60 to 70 years. When I went to college, it was assumed, even required, that I have reading, writing, and comprehension skills. There was no such thing as a remedial writing or English course. Today nearly all colleges have remedial reading and writing classes for incoming students. This shouldn’t be!

What is the difference between then and now? It is hard to pinpoint with laser precision, but I believe the root cause is a growing illiteracy among all social classes, especially among educators whose responsibility it is to raise students from illiteracy to literacy.

When I was in elementary school, we were required to read our local newspaper every day and in class we would discuss the writing of the article, look for misspellings and misuse of homonyms, identify antonyms, rewrite paragraphs for clarity, and show that we could understand the article. This was built into the curriculum and forced us to become literate, whether we wanted to be literate or not. This didn’t change when I moved up grades. The newspaper changed from our local paper to The New York Times and the approach changed, but the fundamental purpose didn’t change: We were taught to be literate.

Today, education is less focused on literacy as a goal in and of itself than on getting past the next test. This is reflected in the literacy quality of teachers. Yes, there are some outstanding teachers just as there are some exceptionally poor teachers. But most teachers are neither outstanding nor poor — they are mediocre and their grasp of the fundamentals of literacy is also mediocre.

Publishers compound the problem by setting the written standard. Publishers accept less-than-stellar editing because it fits their bottom line. But by accepting something less than quality editorial work, they encourage the lowering of the literacy standard. Publishers want to fight illiteracy but only as a public relations tool, not recognizing that as literacy declines so do their fortunes. Publishers are looking for gimmicks to increase sales instead of working to improve teacher and, ultimately, student literacy, thereby creating an audience for their publications. A person whose literacy is third grade level is not a person who will read The New York Times or The Economist, and is unlikely to be a frequent book or magazine buyer. Publishers and educators need to set an example for higher literacy, not lead the charge to lower literacy.

Publishers aren’t fighting for their future audience; instead, they bemoan the decline in readership. Publishers encourage this decline, for example, when they hire editors by price rather than by skill, when they publish error-ridden books and shrug off any criticism, and when they do not require their books to meet anything more than a very minimal level of quality.

Educators encourage the trend by not requiring every teacher, as part of their certification process or graduation requirements, to demonstrate a high level of literacy. Every teacher should be required to demonstrate a literacy level at least at the 10th grade level, if not higher. Literacy equals understanding; the less literate one is, the less one can understand. We don’t have to look far to prove that proposition.

Perhaps the time has come to rethink where society is heading and reemphasize literacy as the ultimate goal of an education. Publishers need to set an example by requiring their end product to have high literacy quality; educators need to rethink their teaching to emphasize literacy skills in students and to redesign teacher-education programs to make teacher literacy the core of the teacher’s education. In the end, society as a whole will benefit. We should no longer accept mediocrity as the acceptable standard for future generations.

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,235 other followers

%d bloggers like this: