The MLA’s outspoken Russell Berman on college kids: “a hard time with sentences, vocabulary, and following an argument”


"A big shift from a century ago." (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Russell Berman is the current president of the Modern Language Association.  He also directs Stanford’s “Introduction to Humanities” program.  He’s a fierce advocate of foreign language study – I’ve written about his views here – but boy, he’s more determined and optimistic than I am about education.  He says he’s “not going to say if you’re going to be an educated man or woman, you have to have read Hamlet” (I would say exactly that), but he insists that even top-notch universities today must be “oriented towards skills acquisition” in reading. “That’s a big shift from a century ago,” he said without a hint of judgment, but with a serious desire to get down to business.

A few quotes from the video:

  • “What I hear from current [teaching] fellows is that students … have a hard time with sentences, they have a hard time with vocabulary, they have a hard time following an argument over several pages.” We need to “take them by the hand metaphorically and lead them through the clauses, lead them through the thickets of paragraphs.”
  • “Students can’t get to Sentence 2 because their reading habits are, with all respect, Harry Potter.  The toughest thing they read in high school is To Kill a Mockingbird, and they can’t get through those complex sentences. Not sentences from high literature, but from a scholarly article.”
  • “We haven’t done a census of this at Stanford, but I believe that students who don’t major in humanities don’t read after freshman year. They do something else, or read very minimally.” It’s not that we’re sending the wrong kids to college: “It’s about government policy, ‘No Child Left Behind,’ amplified by ‘Race to the Top,’ common core state standards.  They diminish the capacity for critical reading taught in high school.”
  • “I have big doubts about whether students entering college can read – and this is at Stanford as much as anywhere else.”
  • “Too many of our peer institutions, too many of the selective schools,  blind themselves by generating narratives about the excellence of their students. This is the marketing narrative that serves multiple purposes that have deleterious consequences.”  Among them, it causes us to neglect giving students the “scaffolding” to reading texts.
  • “I could make argument that this is essential to humanities and humanism. It’s all about reading.”
  • “No one was ever hired from one institution to another because he or she was a great teacher … This is not argument against research – but it’s a call to a recalibration between research and teaching” because of “the neediness of students.”

You can watch the bad news here (and more of his remarks in the comment section below):

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2 Responses to “The MLA’s outspoken Russell Berman on college kids: “a hard time with sentences, vocabulary, and following an argument””

  1. Max Taylor Says:

    I have no doubt it’s as bad as he describes. I suspect it was equally bad twenty-five years ago. It was certainly bad in 1988 when I tutored colege freshmen who needed help meeting rudimentary writing standards, and that was before No Child Left Behind. The proposition that non-humanities majors don’t read after freshman year is unsurprising, but a general decline in struggling with challenging texts by those who are not meeting external obligations (course requirements) is also unsurprising in the current personal-media-saturated cultural circumstrance.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Hello Max,

    From another part of the video: “I fear many faculty, far away from undergraduate education, imagine today’s students to be as good as they imagine themselves to have been 20, 30, 40 years ago. There are multiple levels of delusion here.”

    Nonetheless, he says that we are living in a “post-canonic environment,” where there’s not a commonly accepted body of work that needs to be digested to be considered an educated person – whether Hamlet or Hardy or Dante – and that we must shift to teaching skills.

    In my own humble opinion, I think that’s part of the problem, but that train left the station years ago.

    More from Russ: “What you get is not full mastery of the book, by any means, but what you do get is give students the equipment to read on their own eventually. It’s almost like a driving lesson, like driving school.”

    “I think that’s an important thing, particularly because of the diminished literacy skills that students are bringing to college today from K-12 as it really exists in the United States.”