MILLER: The decomposition of the university

Commuters ride in a subway during the morning rush hour, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

The subway ride from Midtown Manhattan to Greenwich Village provides the perfect setting for observing a polyglot culture, but during last week’s trek I passed the time eavesdropping on a pair of coeds who were saddled with NYU backpacks.

I perked up when I heard one say, “Her and I’ve drank at Bar None, but the guy scene at Juke Bar is, like, waay better.”

Ten minutes later I’d had a cram course in Gen Z lingo and wondered if those specimens will be able to speak or write standard English when they enter the workforce.

Business writer Josh Bernoff says no because his 2016 survey of 547 business chiefs found 81% reporting that bad writing by new employees “wastes a lot of time” because it’s “poorly organized, unclear, and filled with jargon.”

When the Harvard Business Review published Bernoff’s findings, I hoped that tuition-paying parents would ask why many college graduates don’t write well — and why The Wall Street Journal reported that “Grammar Gaffes Invade the Office” as well.

I could answer those questions simply by noting that in some camps within the university achieving “equality” and “justice” takes precedence over holding students to strict standards of written English.

But here I shall craft a script that includes quotations from the works of certain scholars who presided over what Allan Bloom once called “The Decomposition of the University.” For about three decades they called themselves “postmodernists.” Now they’re just “woke.”

My co-stars are a tuition-paying dad and a daughter who recently completed her freshman year at the university. Let’s say that Dad has read Bernoff’s report and wants to make sure the big checks are buying first-rate instruction for his daughter. So Dad opens the dialogue by asking her about freshman composition.

“I know you took freshman comp, but I don’t see English 101 listed on your transcript.”

“Sure, I took it, but now it’s called Writing Social Justice! I loved that class because our teacher — we called him Kevin — thinks that ‘grades are antithetical to learning’ and judged us instead on our ‘volume of production’ and on our ‘self-assessment and reflection.’ Kevin stayed in the ‘background’ and let us create our own ‘playground’ of ‘belongingness.’”

“For crying out loud! Does Kevin think that your future boss will let you navel-gaze on company time? And with Kevin in the ‘background,’ who corrected your grammar gaffes?”

“Dad, grammar is soooo not a big deal anymore! Kevin told us that even the National Council of Teachers of English says that ‘the use of grammar and usage exercises … is a deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing,’ and Kevin said that ‘Correctness is simply not a value any working writer would even recognize as important.’”

“Tell that to my business partner who just turned down a job applicant because he said ‘between you and I’ twice in one interview! I hope your lit survey professor exposed you to great models of written English and held your feet to the fire when you wrote essays for that class.”

“Yeah, we read all those ancient creeps, but I sure didn’t use them as models because Dr. Brandish said that the so-called classics are really ‘a tool of oppression and exclusion’ because of their ‘complicity in white Supremacy.’”

“Wait a minute…I thought you’d signed up for ‘Survey of British Literature’ — not Book Bashing 101. So what you just described sounds like a bait and switch.”

“Relax, Dad! If I read you the course description in my syllabus, you’ll see that Dr. B’s super smart: ‘In this class we will examine how characters serve as figures of otherness, transcendence, physicality or abjection. Examination questions will concern regulative discourse, performativity and frameworks of intelligibility.’”

“Holy smoke and mirrors! Dr. Brandish may teach English, but she certainly doesn’t write it. Please say she didn’t expect you to write like that.”

“Dad, you’ve got to understand that ending Western ‘hegemony’ and ‘savage capitalism’ has to come first. Besides, Dr. B said that ‘standard English continues to be a tool of oppression because it is still privileged over other ways of speaking and writing.’”

“Can’t Dr. B see that she’s betraying the very students she means to support? Doesn’t she know that graduates who don’t speak and write standard English will be at a disadvantage when they apply for jobs?”

“I know some of this stuff is way over the top, but if I hadn’t acted like I bought it, I wouldn’t have made A’s in comp and Brit Lit! “

“What would Dr. Brandish say if I stormed her office and told her I didn’t know I’d become the unwitting patron of an ideologue?”

“Back off, Dad, or you’ll get me in total hot water! Thank goodness Dr. B is away at a conference called ‘The Whitesplaining of History is Over.’”

So Dad backs off, fearing that literacy among college graduates is over as well.

Shareholders in any other business would catch on quickly if bizarre innovations had weakened operations. Not so in higher education, where the poor value shows up long after investors’ checks have been cashed.

With patrons made wary of the penalty for dissent, a bankrupt business has continued to thrive.

Author’s Note: Quotations are from the works of scholars who teach at CUNY, the College of Charleston, Denison, Yale, Texas State University, and Stanford — in that order.