Are The English Better At English?
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June 08, 2012, 01:25 PM
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Greg Cochran brings up a topic that seems like it has disappeared over the last generation: reading speed. In the old days, the immense velocity at which Democratic Presidents like JFK and Jimmy Carter could read was part of political lore. Skeptics like Woody Allen joked that he had speed-read War and Peace: "It was about Russia."

Has reading faster simply failed? Or has America just lost interest?

Cochran also asks whether different languages are read faster and slower: e.g., Mandarin versus Spanish? When I was a kid there was still some remnant of interest in the early 20th Century movement to reform the English language to make it more efficient. A century ago, for example, George Bernard Shaw, the dominant cultural intellectual of the time, campaigned hard for radical spelling reform. (Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady reflects some of GBS`s numerous concerns about the English language and social equality.) The first time I ever won a prize in a Speech tournament was around 1970 for an original oratory making fun of the complexities of English grammar. Is anybody still amused by that kind of thing?

In a comment, Education Realist brings up an interesting point: based on SAT and GRE scores, 21st Century, white Americans appear to be better at Math than at Verbal relative to mid-20th Century white Americans. When the SAT was started before WWII, it was normalized based on Eastern Seaboard preppies with 500 as average for both the Verbal and the Math tests. As it expanded to a broader market of students, average Math SAT scores dropped dropped only slightly, but Verbal scores fell substantially. In 1995, the SAT was renormed to make 500 the means again, but the same process is visible again, with Math scores now notably higher than Verbal scores. (The Asian impact obviously affects this gap, but this trend is visible just among whites.)

The Graduate Record Exam has never been renormed, and today white men average 593 on the quantitative part and 508 on the verbal part of the GRE. Education Realist, who is a teacher and test tutor, then raises a number of interesting points:
Why do we appear to have fewer high verbal achievers than math achievers? I think Murray and Herrnstein were correct when they wrote that “a politically compromised curriculum is less likely to sharpen the verbal skills of students than one that hews to standards of intellectual rigor and quality” annd that “when parents demanded higher standards, their schools introduced higher standards in the math curriculum that really were higher, and higher standards in the humanities and social sciences that really were not”. (Bell Curve, page 432-433) Without question, we have lost a couple generations of cognitively able students who weren’t given the opportunity to really achieve to their fullest capability, and we stand to lose a few more.

But I also wonder if verbal intelligence is less understood and consequently less valued. If one is “good at math”, there’s a logical progression of courses to take, problems to solve (or spend a lifetime trying to), and increasingly difficult subjects to tackle–and plenty of careers that want them. But if one has a high verbal intelligence without good spatial aptitude (which seems to be necessary for higher math) it is often described as “good at reading”, a woefully inaccurate characterization of high verbal intelligence—and then what? Apart from law, there aren’t nearly as many clearly defined career paths with a wide range of opportunities for all temperaments and interests. Most of the ones I can think of involve luck and driving ambition just to get started (journalism, tenured academia, political consultant).

For a good twenty years or so, people with high verbal skills who were indifferent at high-level math went into technology. It’s hard to remember now in the age of Google and after the heyday of corporate computing, but IBM and mainframe shops were filled with bright people who had degrees in history and English and humanities who just “didn’t like math” but were excellent programmers. I routinely worked in shops where all the expert techies making six figures came from non-STEM majors. But that time appears to be over.

Of course, doing anything about this lack of clearly defined career paths for smart folks with less spatial aptitude would involve acknowledging it’s a problem, and I might be the only one who thinks it’s a problem.

As Education Realist points out, we have lots of prestigious national science and math fairs for high school students (which are now dominated by Asians), but little of the same fame for the reading and writing set. Everybody who is anybody in America seems far more obsessed with cultivating Math and Science than with raising our verbal ability. Yet, a native command of English would appear to be a prime asset of Americans in a future globalized (and, thus, English-speaking) economy.

Presumably, it`s easier to raise math test scores in school than reading test scores, since reading scores depend heavily on how much reading the students do out of school. Still, nobody seems all that interested in trying to figure out how to improve our children`s advantages in English. It`s almost like we think it`s unfair to the rest of the world that we speak English, so we should have our children bash their heads in to compete with Asians on the culturally level playing field of math. That strikes me as a noble but stupid response.

But I want to go in a different direction with this topic and ask if there is any objective test evidence to support this idea I`ve had ever since I took American Literature in high school: historically, Americans are not as good with words on average as the British. Somehow, the Brits seem to inculcate better command of English than we Americans do. Perhaps that`s not true up and down the social scale, but it would seem to me that, traditionally, Oxbridge graduates, say, had better vocabularies and better prose styles than Ivy League grads.

This notion first dawned on me in the 1980s when I noticed a London-based firm called WPP, run by a former Saatchi & Saatchi executive named Martin Sorrell, started buying up advertising agencies and other marketing services firms. While Britain seemed economically down and out back then, it struck me that they still were better at English than we were, and that had to be worth something in an increasingly English-speaking world.. Today, WPP employs 158,000 white collar workers around the world and even owns a large fraction of all the lobbying firms in Washington D.C., Democrat and Republican.

Throughout the 18th and 19th Century, American writing just wasn`t very good compared to what the Brits were doing at the same time. Compare, say, The Federalist Papers or the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Life of Johnson, or even The Wealth of Nations. Compare American stinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson to his British contemporaries. Granted, we had people who were geniuses in their own way, like Poe and Lincoln and Twain, but they didn`t come from a culture that was as good with words as the Brits.

Even in the 20th Century, when Americans were catching up, the home team still seemed awkward compared to the visitors. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald`s The Great Gatsby is a fine book, but compared to the seemingly effortless clarity and fluency of Evelyn Waugh`s early novels of just a few years later, its prose seems provincial and striving.

I recently re-read Great Contemporaries,a collection of articles for Sunday newspapers that Winston Churchill wrote (or, to be precise, dictated) in the 1930s about celebrities he’d known. Allow me to express in my own crude, tongue-tied American way my reaction to the command of the English language exhibited in Churchill`s commercial journalism: Holy cow! For mastery of English, for vast and precise vocabulary, I can’t imagine any major American politician of the last century coming close. Teddy Roosevelt had comparable mental energy, but few read his books for fun these days. Henry Kissinger is a very smart man who writes well in his second language, but he is more functional in style.

Churchill was recognized as exceptional in his own day, but, still, other British politicians were pretty handy with words, too. In Britain, Churchill was the champ but compared to American politicians, he`s in a league of his own. (By the way, I have a vague hunch that, from the perspective of the 21st Century, the 1930s was the peak era for English prose: it`s not so far in the past that it`s difficult to decipher, but it`s far enough away that its superiority is noticeable.)

Another anecdote about the superiority of the English: A number of years ago, I dropped in on John Derbyshire and family in Long Island. We went to a Blockbuster to pick out a movie for everybody to watch that evening, so I suggested the documentary about the Scripps-Howard national spelling bee, Spellbound, which had been a big hit in my household.

Now, I`d always figured that while John is obviously my superior in math and computer programming, we`re fairly equal in verbal skills. But, when I watched Spellbound for the second time (with the closed captions off), I discovered that John could not only outspell me on words I`d already seen the first time I watched the movie, but he also knew the definitions of almost all the absurd words in the competition.

I attribute this to his having the unfair advantage of being born English.