They are unable to decipher compound sentences

Saturday, August 3rd, 2019

Rod Dreher shares this email from a college professor in a STEM field:

My students are unable to analyze, follow and understand written text. To be more specific, they are unable to decipher compound sentences, understand relationship between subordinate and main clauses. They can’t grasp the logical relationship between sentences, let alone paragraphs, which are totally opaque to them.

When I started to teach (only 2 years ago), I prepared material written in normal, rational, technical prose — for adults, or as I understood they would be. Immediately, it became apparent that there was zero comprehension. Well, thought I, let’s make it a bit simpler. So I reduced the paragraphs to bullet point lists.

Still nothing? Hmm.

I started to write step by step, basically cut-and-paste instructions, highlighted the important points, wrote in notes and cross references (like NOTE: you did this in step #2 please refer to #2). Abject failure.

So, especially in the exams, I started to write in answers in the follow up questions, like so: “If you correctly answered #1 as ABC what is the cause of …?”. Basically I give them the answers in followup questions, plus cut and paste documents. My exams are open book, open notes, Internet access.

95% of them fail.

This is what I attribute this phenomenon to: I don’t think that they are able to concentrate for more that a few seconds. Hence compound sentences become an enigma. Their brains are ’trained’ to hold information for the minimum time possible and to move on the next soundbite or tweet. They are unable to hold a thought in their minds long enough to abstract it, analyze it, and form required relationships. As a result they lack the fundamental building blocks for inductive and deductive reasoning. They want to be spoon-fed without ever having to resort to a single abstract thought. They have been ‘educated’ by quick turnaround, expensive and largely incorrect multiple choice question textbooks.

Imagine how this would (and soon will) affect the medical profession. “When you treat appendicitis you will remove a) spleen, b) heart, c) appendix, d) none of the above. “Well, done!” Here is your first patient … (or, in Dr. Zoidberg’s context: Scalpel!, Blood bucket! Priest!).

Their problem is that they are unable to formulate questions. It’s difficult to come up with answers if you don’t know what to ask. So I tell them that my ambition is to teach them how to ask questions. They love my classes but I am told repeatedly: “This was the best class we have had but by far the most difficult.”

Good grief. We have totally destroyed this generation.


  1. Bill says:

    “When I started to teach (only 2 years ago)”

    I’m the last person to defend “this generatiion,” but come…2 years of experience and you’re an expert on what’s wrong with “this generation?”

    Alternate hypothesis #1: there have always been people like this, even in STEM classes, but Professor STEM hasn’t encountered them until now (having spent the last 5 or 6 years in grad school, plus the previous 4-16 in schools where everyone is above average). Where are you teaching, Prof. STEM?

    Alternate hypothesis #2: there have always been people like this, but for some strange reason (“WE NEED MORE WOMEN AND MINORITIES IN STEM”) they’ve been admitted to STEM classes at a higher rate.

    That said, I will agree that probably “this generation” has been in the main very poorly served by public schools. Public schools in the USA were never fantastic, but wokeness and the changing demographics of the student body have turned the curriculum into nothing but endless re-runs of Slavery, MLK, and the Holocaust.

  2. Harper’s Notes says:

    Education has increasingly selected for rote memorization ability at the expense of working memory ability. The listing of facts versus the integration of them into a system. Repetition versus comprehension. There’s an argument the Flynn Effect is almost entirely on the n-forward sorts of memory tests, as in remembering a forward-sequence list of things in order, but the n-backward working memory tests, or tests that require a person to actually have the elements in working memory operated on (say, sort them on some criteria and then list), have been actually declining. It seems to be a general principle that if you are selecting strongly on one thing then you’re selecting at least weakly on many other often unintended things. Like breeding dogs to look good who then have behavioral problems. We have created students who can recite lots of facts but not comprehend them.

    One of the more discouraging things about my time in academia were almost all the undergraduates were only interested in what they had to memorize for exams. At times it seems almost all of them had zero intellectual curiosity except for an occasional rare individual.

  3. Harry Jones says:

    I’m old enough to know that most people were always like that. He’s misdiagnosed the problem. The real cause of the observed phenomenon is that there are kids in STEM who just don’t belong there.

  4. Bill says:

    This one struck a nerve with me. I was an adjunct assistant professor at a satellite branch of a big university; I taught a class about computers and health care. I worked there from the mid-1980’s until around 2000.

    My students couldn’t write essays. They couldn’t envision a starting paragraph, some supporting paragraphs and a conclusion. Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell them, tell them and then tell’em what you told them. Couldn’t do it.

    But, at that point in history, they did understand bullet points. So, I structured test questions to be answered by bullet points. “State the three main reasons for …”

    So now, apparently, we’ve moved beyond bullet points. How could you structure a test for the Twittering Instagrammers of today?

    A set of completely unrelated true / false questions should work. Also, I’m imagining a set of questions that are NOT multiple choice, but multiple meme. “Which of the following three memes illustrates how doctors feel about Epic software?”

  5. Harry Jones says:

    It is a terrible mistake to dumb down material where getting it right actually matters. Bite the bullet and flunk the ones who shouldn’t be taking the course. Flunk out 85% if you have to. You’ll be doing everyone a favor.

    Many of these kids would do fine in the apprentice level trades. They’ll never be master level craftsmen, but they’ll be able to fix your car perhaps 85% of the time.

  6. Kirk says:

    Little bit of Column “A”, little bit of Column “B”.

    On the one hand, most people cannot express themselves in writing. Never have been able to, probably never will. On the other hand, we’ve really dumbed down education.

    While I was in the Army, I had officers who were theoretically college graduates, whose prose was hopeless. When you’re the mid-ranking enlisted guy, and you’re having to collate incident statements and package them for transmission forward to higher, the really disturbing thing that you would run into was that the junior enlisted’s versions of events were sometimes indistinguishable from the officers, in terms of intelligibility, continuity, and expression of “what happened”. Only exception to that was that I don’t think I ever had to go through and red-ink one of my West Pointer junior officers the way I did ROTC and OCS sourced ones.

    I grew up in a family of fairly high-functioning college-graduates; I was gang-taught by my maiden great-aunt, who’d been a schoolteacher, my grandmother who’d been a schoolteacher, and my mother, who was teaching in the same school I went to for elementary. The odds that I’d end illiterate or innumerate were infinitesimal. The problem is that most people don’t get that kind of individual tutelage, growing up, and because of that, they’re never likely to develop the skills I did in sheer self-defense–If I didn’t express myself well in writing, well… Yeah. Cue summoning spell for Grandmother, and endless, interminable hours of grammatical exercises. Poor grades…? LOL; cue hell on earth.

    End of the day, despite the really crappy high school I went to, my reading and writing was at the collegiate level (tested, verified…) before I left middle school. Self-defense.

    We’ve desperately dumbed down our education system, lowering standards and making things “easy” to keep the little darling’s self-esteem up. As a result, most of them can’t put together a coherent witness statement describing something that just happened to them, and trying to tease the reality out of a collection of such documents is enough to drive you to drink. Rashomon? Dear God, you should be so lucky–If I were to somehow be able to replicate for you the selection of statements I had to work from, in order to construct a coherent description of a vehicle accident from a training exercise that I had to put together, you’d think I’d somehow dosed you with LSD before having you read them. The really amazing thing to observe was that some of my witness statements looked as though they started out being written in crayon, and some others were quite well-done, but none of them matched the educational backgrounds of the people writing them. The clearest and best-written one was from a kid who’d been waivered into the Army with a GED, and the absolute worst was from my LT, who’d been a summa cum laude graduate from a prestigious Ivy League college that his parents had paid like $80,000.00 a year for him to attend.

    We ain’t doing education right. And, that’s all I have to say about it.

  7. Kentucky Headhunter says:

    “Which of the following three memes illustrates how doctors feel about Epic software?”

    Younger doctors don’t seem to have many problems with Epic, but older MDs are like, “Whadda ya mean I have to put in my own orders and not just yell things out or make vague scribbles on paper for people who get paid 1/10 of what I make to decipher!”

  8. Bill says:

    Kentucky Headhunter:

    Older doctors understand the purpose of Epic – to improve patient BILLING and decrease patient LITIGATION and the devil take patient CARE.

    Here’s a true/false question for you:

    There is no connection at all between these facts: Judy Faulkner was a heavy contributor to the Obama presidential campaigns, Judy Faulkner was chosen as the industry representative to the federal panel that oversaw the selection of electronic medical records software, and Judy Faulkner is the CEO of Epic software, which now holds the medical records of 2/3 of all Americans.

    Younger doctors (and medical students) have plenty of documented problems with Epic, and other EMR systems. Especially the ones who were hoping to spend time with patients, as opposed to sitting at a desk and clicking on Epic. Or who were hoping to spend time with their families after work, as opposed to spending the evening clicking on Epic.

    BTW, nice one with the old “doctors have poor handwriting” chestnut.

  9. TRX says:

    “We ain’t doing education right.”

    We incarcerate children in schools, but the purpose of schools is not to educate the children. Schools function primarily as “free” daycare and leftist indoctrination. Any “education” is strictly incidental, if not accidental.

  10. Kirk says:

    If anyone ever does a “Secret History” of our times, the way they did for the Mongol Empire, Judy Faulkner and Jamie Gorelick are two names that nobody’s ever heard of, yet will feature considerably in the accounting of what’s gone wrong in America.

    Gorelick was the lawyer who severed the connection between counterintelligence and criminal law enforcement for the Department of Justice and FBI; that policy was the reason that the reports that the criminal side was getting about flight school students wanting to learn how to fly, but not land, were never transmitted to the counterintelligence side of the bureau, which knew we likely had al Qaeda teams on the ground here in the US. She later did similar things over at the Pentagon, and was key and essential to helping stop the Bush administration from stopping the boil-over at Fannie Mae, along with Eric Holder. Gorelick has been on-scene at far too many major policy disasters for it to be accidental, and her positioning on the 9/11 Commission by the Democrats was no accident. I still want to know what the hell it was that Sandy Berger was smuggling out, and what else that crooked little bastard got his hands on–There are reportedly missing documents and data in the range of terabytes, from the Clintons, and which were never investigated.

    Mark my words: If the facts ever come out, which I doubt they will, the implications of what Gorelick was involved with are going to be epic. One time’s an accident, twice a coincidence, and three…? Three can only be enemy action. The woman has been key and critical to multiple “bad things” that have happened over the last thirty years. That cannot be an accident, unless she’s also the unluckiest federal employee in the history of ever.

  11. CVLR says:

    Kirk: “End of the day, despite the really crappy high school I went to, my reading and writing was at the collegiate level (tested, verified…) before I left middle school. Self-defense.”

    I was in the second grade when they noticed that I was maxing out their tests.

    Naturally, the school system did absolutely nothing, either to cause that or in reaction to it.

    No offense, but I doubt that the tutelage of your family had anything to do with your reading, writing, grammar, whatever. You had good genes and you read a lot of books.

    If you start from the effects of policy and work backward, you’ll notice that school is really good at inducing conformity and sucking up time, and really bad at everything else. In the past couple of years I’ve come to reorient my entire weltanshauung around what I call “interest-based utilitarianism”, which I’ve defined to mean something approximating, Cui bono?

    R.I.P. John Taylor Gatto

  12. Dave says:

    When I was growing up in the 1970s, educators fretted about the “seven-minute attention span” that children got from watching TV all day. For my kids it’s more like a seven-second attention span. Video games offer some sort of reward every few seconds to hold the player’s attention, which makes real life seem insufferably slow and boring in comparison.

    In the 1600s my Puritan ancestors had to sit through a three-hour sermon on Sunday morning, eat a cold lunch, and sit through another three-hour sermon in the afternoon. Children were expected to sit still, pay attention, and answer questions about the sermon later.

    Sounds brutal, but which children grew up into adults able to efficiently receive and process large amounts of information delivered all at once?

  13. Harry Jones says:

    I don’t think I would hold up the Puritans as an example of well-developed minds.

    The faster the feedback cycle, the faster you learn, up to the limit of your brain’s processing speed. I can certainly see how the attention span could atrophy. But consider this: most of the things we’re asked to use a long attention span for are stupid wastes of time. A far more useful skill is knowing when to blow time wasters off. That’s the theory behind the idea of an executive summary: get to the point right now, because life is short.

    “Patient people do the world the injustice of allowing it to wallow in its errors.” – John Cowan, Small Decencies

    Me, I have a shorter attention span than I did when I was younger. I have learned.

  14. TRX says:

    “attention span”

    Well, that would explain why my attention span at 60 is much shorter than it was when I was 20. “I’ve wasted too much time at **** before; skip it and move on.”

    As long as I can maintain enough focus to finish what needs to be done, I’m not going to worry about it any more.

  15. Kirk says:

    I seriously have to question this… My attention span must be really, really out of the ordinary, because as I get older, the longer it seems to get. I’ve found myself “coming to” after a deep dive into some subject literally hours after I started going down the wormhole. I don’t get this, at all–I watch the niece and nephews, and kids seem to be able to maintain hours-long attention spans in relation to games and other things that I find it incredible that they’re saying these things about “decreasing attention spans”. The depth of immersion into the games they play is extreme–More so than I remember being into books and reading at the same age.

  16. Harry Jones says:

    Kirk, this kind of immersion is immersion into a fast feedback loop. The attention span is very short, but it cycles over a great many repetitions.

    To sit and do something for hours is one thing. To sit passively and pay attention for hours is a completely different dynamic. Activity with control and feedback is engrossing. Inactivity and tedium are boring.

    Nobody wants to listen to a Puritan preacher talk for three hours, nor should he want to. The self discipline to do a pointless thing is pointless self discipline.

  17. Graham says:

    I’m torn on the Puritan preacher analogy.

    On the one hand, I rather assume that more of the audience then was actually interested in the content and believed in the tropes it was designed to convey, and that many of the preachers had been trained to and did put effort into both writing and delivery. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” wasn’t ever going to be written or delivered by the altogether limp ministers I knew in the Presbyterian Church I sporadically attended in childhood. Plus, there was often an element of entertainment in a well-delivered sermon full of fire, ironically a form of theatre. As late as the mid 18th century, Samuel Johnson still took the view that preaching should capture one’s attention and its failure to do so was a mark against the preacher.

    On the other hand, as a creature of this time I’d find all but the most esoteric one rather boring and meaningless.

    So I can’t make up my mind what would be the modern analogy for the experience. 3-hour lecture by an engaging prof on a subject I’m interested in and actually want to hear about, on the positive side. I could probably still manage that. Or 3 hour lecture on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion through Inclusion, Diversity and Equality, with special attention to how we should both condemn and embrace identity politics depending on whose ox is getting gored and how generations of powerless people need to share ‘power’.

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