Image by Leftsider via FlickrFor more than one generation now, it is clear to me that there has been a disastrous decline in the teaching of fundamental English grammar in high schools. The result is that we have college students, even at selective universities, who are awkward in using basic terms such as "subject, predicate, direct object, appositive, predicate nominative, predicate adjective, prepositional phrase."
OK. Is this going to be another rant about declining standards in an educational system that reflects the loose, "anything goes" mentality that seeped into American culture circa 1968? Yes and no. Yes, something very bad happened to American and Western culture circa 1968--I call it nihilism, despair about finding any kind of binding, obligatory truth, especially moral truth, a despair resulting in lives of personal chaos to this day. But I wish to go further.
Has the inability or unwillingness to transmit fundamental skills in English grammar made us think incoherently about things other than grammar? Do individuals who are never taught and raised with the fundamental logical building blocks of the English sentence think less critically, less logically, and thus less effectively about the crucial decisions of life?
If a society has a cohesive, rational moral consensus, then taboos take care of many of the risks of making catastrophic, illogical mistakes in life. So someone who does not think logically or critically can simply conform to the customary consensus and avoid a lot of problems. For example, the now seemingly ancient taboo against sex outside of marriage would have saved many adults and kids from sad, chaotic lives and tragic consequences. The most dramatic damage from violating this former taboo is apparent in the inner cities, but serious damage is also present in the many suburbs full of despair and sexual chaos. If the also seemingly ancient taboo against substance abuse were alive, then it is unquestionably true that millions would be better off today and would have been better off in past decades.
Today, the taboos that would have compensated for a lack of logical thinking have evaporated, precisely at a time when, more than ever, logical thinking is needed to navigate a world of moral and philosophical chaos. The cushion or buffer of taboos is gone. In such a time, the signal failure of our educational system to transmit the basic logical categories of our language is extremely unfortunate. Lacking those basic categories results in many individuals who cannot calmly evaluate the flood of information, advice, promises, lifestyles, and ideologies, both religious and secular, widely disseminated in the age of the internet.
Image via WikipediaAs a result, the ideal hard, clear lines of rigorous thinking are replaced by an amiable, lazy fuzziness that trivializes lives and ideals. Not surprisingly, the moral flabbiness decried by philosopher William James decades ago fills the logical vacuum and is now more apparent than ever: "The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That - with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word 'success' - is our national disease" (source link; emphasis added).