Monday, December 01, 2008

A recent story of a vice-presidential candidate who did not know that Africa was a continent, not a country, reminded me that at this very university, many years ago (I've been told), one of our African international students told an American student that he/she was from Africa and was asked, "What is the capital of Africa?" Such general ignorance of geography in the USA is not especially uncommon; stories like this actually abound. But a story I heard today beats all; it comes from the Sociology Department, and people who know me can easily guess its source.

Students were asked to make presentations on social problems, and one group was given the task of exploring the underfunding of schools as a social problem. One student in the group began the oral part of the presentation by telling about how schools were being forced to eliminate the past tense from instruction. In the back of the room, people started conversations; the group members were horrified. The teacher suppressed laughter but said nothing until the presentation was over. What? Eliminating the past tense? It turns out the source was a story in the Onion; the student had not only believed the story, but also had not heard of the Onion, or, in any case, did not suspect that it was satire.

I often point out that grammar and geography have one thing in common, besides the fact that I like them both: both were shortchanged by being included in larger subjects in our education system; thus many Americans today are weak in both. My students, by the way, have no problem with past tense; they have it pretty much down pat, but can't, for the life of them, produce a present perfect. More about that later.

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