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A nation of morons? 

Hellenism, the way of intelligence and conscience, is dead.

According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 11 million Americans are illiterate. The report concluded that one in 20 American adults lack the literacy skills to perform everyday tasks. In 2003, college proficiency tests revealed that 31 percent of college graduates have a difficult time comprehending classic novels. Even Allan Bloom, author of “The Closing of the American Mind,� would find it hard to believe that the average American college graduate is illiterate.

The illiteracy problem explains why college students are dropping out. In a Reuters article, “More College Students Drop Out Than Graduate,� the Council for Aid to Education (CAE) reported that less than 50 percent of students entering four-year colleges or universities actually graduate. “And that's a conservative estimate,� said Richard Hersh, who co-authored the report on the quality of higher education for the National Governors Association. The report includes high dropouts among Hispanics and blacks.

Cal Poly averages a 67 percent graduation rate. At Cuesta College, according to the latest chancellor's report, only 7 percent, out of the 13,472 total credited students, are “transfer prepared.� These figures are subject to change, and to the faculty's credit, Cuesta held impressive state and national student university transfer records in the past. Currently, enrollment is high at the beginning of each semester, but retention levels are moderately low by mid-semester.

In my introduction to philosophy class at Cuesta, a high percentage of white, middle-class students are illiterate. There is, of course, a difference of academic standing between Cuesta and Cal Poly students. Academic standards are not required at Cuesta. Nevertheless, the latest national statistics illustrate that illiteracy and high college dropout rates are significant at universities.

The object of this assessment is to examine the possible causes or trends associated with illiteracy and the high college dropout rate. Cuesta College's faculty has taken important measures to rectify these problems by offering remedial English courses and excellent tutorial services.

The foremost reason why college students drop out is because they're academically unprepared for college. In high school, they managed to skip through multiple choice tests and CliffsNotes summaries, but they're neither intellectually nor emotionally prepared for rigorous academic demands at college.

There are several explanations for the academic shortcomings and the high college dropout rate:

Students don't read

“There are worse crimes than burning books,� wrote Joseph Brodsky. “One of them is not reading them.�

Students have poor reading and writing skills essentially because they don't read books. Reading and writing are limited to brief Internet and e-mail texts. Studies have shown that without language development skills, children do poorly in analytic and mathematical skills. They also have a difficult time solving problems in imaginative and rational ways. Conversely, studies show that children and teenagers who read books excel at their studies.


Teenagers today are raised in a cultural vacuum of distractions. They are subjected to mindless TV shows, violent video games, and degrading music that glorifies promiscuous behavior. Computers have replaced books. U.S. corporations in targeting the youth have succeeded in producing a nation of morons. As a result of these corporate influences, teenagers' emotional and intellectual faculties are severely underdeveloped.

Students don't study

Given their immature attitudes, students have poor study habits and poor attendance records. In a word, American students are lazy, which leads to deficiencies in critical thinking skills. Worse still, they are not motivated or challenged by books or reading assignments. They're neither disciplined nor conscientious. They want to do the least amount of work for a passing grade.

For example, a number of students will take classes without buying the required books because they believe they can pass the course without reading the books. This would all be quite amusing if it were Monty Python's Flying Circus. But it's not. It's the typical reality of American college life. In the past, students wrote letters in correct English. With the advent of computers, correspondence is reduced to illiterate e-code: “will u be their? tnx.� Translation: “Will you be there? Thanks.� Strangely enough, they don't use the computer's spelling and grammar check for term papers. Another common example of laziness is when students believe that they can make up for excessive absences and insufficient work by making a grand appearance for the final exam, which they inevitably fail.

Party life

Late-night drinking, barhopping, and drugs factor into the high dropout rate.

Gloomy future

In addition to being academically unprepared, students are confronting a dark future. They've been told that they'll have to attend college for higher paying jobs. But now, computer engineering, scientific research, and corporate positions are outsourced to India and China. Graduates from China and India excel at math and computer engineering skills. Bill Gates recently discussed his decision for turning to India for several reasons: They're highly motivated, excel at tech skills, and they'll work gratefully for $200 a month. It's a depressing picture for American graduates. If they don't quite understand the “global-corporate economy,� of wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, they feel its weight and believe that a college degree is futile.

Money problems

Under the Bush administration, federal grants and scholarships have been severely cut in order to pay for the invasion of Iraq, which is costing American taxpayers billions of dollars. Without Pell grants and an accommodating job that allows schedule time for classes, it will be financially difficult for students to succeed. As a last resort, they may join the military. When the nation's government invests the people's treasury into weapon industries instead of schools and hospitals, expect a high college dropout rate. The upshot: If students don't have parental support, it's a real struggle to attend college.

There are solutions.

Home schooling

If parents hold degrees and can afford the time, home-schooling may be a wise alternative to the public high school system. The sooner parents introduce the great classic books, in addition to math and science lessons, the better prepared they'll be for meeting university standards. Trust me, your children will not learn about Homer, Plato, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Euclid, the Bill of Rights, or anything closely resembling college prep at public high schools.

Corporate responsibility and vocational schools

Gates prefers to hire grads from India. He's not alone. It's time for that to change. Since corporations contributed to the illiteracy problems, they should be responsible for funding public educational programs and student college grants. True, academia is not for everyone. We need to provide vocational training at the start: K-12. This training should include hands-on experience in nursing-medical programs, auto mechanics and computer engineering, electronics, secretarial and office skills, forestry and conservation programs, and so forth. Why can't we reinvent Roosevelt's New Deal at our high schools?

The biggest obstacle for students is lack of motivation. Teachers can perform Herculean somersaults and it won't do a damned bit of good if they're lazy and apathetic. Motivation encompasses a passion for learning, a sense of wonder and engagement. Why are students so indifferent to learning?

Corporate America promotes the material life at the expense of the educated life. Our children are living in a superficial society that turns them into automatons by the time they're 18. The media is also a corrupting force. The assault on Baghdad was largely a matter of marketing. Politicians are seen as corrupt and greedy. The lesson of today is cheating and lying pays and people in high positions are indeed above the law. T.S. Eliot symbolically coined the predictable fate of a hollow age that lives by commercial jingles and empty social conventions: “The Wasteland.�

Are we really surprised by the high illiteracy problems and college dropout numbers in this country? It certainly paves the way for a military state. ∆

Jacqueline Marcus teaches philosophy at Cuesta College and is the editor of She can be reached at [email protected].
Readers Poll

Do you think the SLO County Board of Supervisors should have gone against their policy that states funding for independent special districts should not result in a net fiscal loss to the county?

  • A. Yes, the housing and job opportunity the Dana Reserve is bringing is important
  • B. No, it's giving special privileges to the Nipomo Community Services District
  • C. I trust them, they know what's best for the county
  • D. What's going on?

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