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From Bone-head English to Noam Chomsky

From Bone-head English to Noam Chomsky     Chomsky in his office

I was listening to music last night and drinking a beer when an ironic thought occurred to me. Back when I was 19 years old & first took the English placement test at a community college in L.A., I scored so low on it that I was placed in what we used to call a “bone-head” English class. I sat at a desk with headphones on and listened to a cassette. The lessons went something like “see Dick and Jane, see Spot, etc.” I think I put up with this for about a week and then said to myself ‘the hell with this.’ I couldn’t take any of the English classes or the literature classes I was interested in because of my low score. A couple of years later, I went on my first trip to Europe and met one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. His name was Ruedi and he knew more about American literature, politics, history, etc. than I did. We spent a week on the Costa Brava of Spain and I started picking Ruedi’s brain so-to-speak. He started recommending authors to me and I became a voracious reader from then on. I started with Hemingway’s last book, Islands in the Stream & read just about everything he’d ever written. Also got into Dostoyevsky, Hesse, Sartre, Camus, etc. etc. etc.

I bring this up not to brag but to highlight the ineffectiveness of not only the English placement test but testing in general. When I was in the sixth grade, they told me that I was reading at the eleventh grade, sixth month level but never once in the six years of my secondary level public schooling, did a counselor call me in and encourage me to take more challenging courses. In fact, they didn’t even offer classes like physics, trigonometry, calculus, etc. at the school I attended. I interviewed the principal of my high school several years after graduating. I was a cub reporter for the local newspaper and used the opportunity to ask him why there weren’t higher level courses at Paramount High and he said matter of fact like, “ this is a vocational track high school.” I believe that because Paramount is a poor, industrially zoned city, they write off all the students unfortunate enough to live there?
To continue, I also found it odd that when I took the battery of tests the Army required in my first week of basic training, they had me and a few other guys go to these meetings with some high ranking officers who tried to convince us to “re-up” i.e. sign up for more time in the army and go to officer candidate school. They promised us the moon e.g. we’ll station you wherever you want and we’ll train you in whatever m.o.s. (Military Occupational Specialty) you want. I declined because I hated my military experience from the first day.

Furthermore, several years later, I was in Portland, Oregon and was tired of asking people if I could sleep on their couch until I found work and could get a place of my own so even though I had received an Undesirable Discharge from the army for going AWOL because I didn’t think Vietnam was a very good idea and I had a 50/50 chance of being sent there. I decided I’d see if I could join the navy figuring I’d at least get to do a bit of traveling and have a place to sleep and three meals a day. I didn’t tell the recruiter of my “bad” discharge figuring that once he saw my test scores, he might go to bat for me. After taking their tests, they said “we’re not accusing you of cheating but would you mind taking the vocabulary section over, we’ve never seen such a high score?” I didn’t mind and re-took the vocabulary test. But because it had been seven years since my discharge from the army, they said they couldn’t let me join. I think if I’d applied within four years, it would’ve been okay. Oh well, was probably for the best and I couldn’t believe I was ready to give up my freedom again after my horrible experience in the army.

I attended several junior colleges in the L.A./Orange County areas for several years, dropping out several times & sometimes half way or better through a semester. I majored in business administration, oceanography, liberal arts, etc. but nothing really grabbed me until I stumbled upon philosophy. It was like a light turned on in my head and I thought, ‘now this is something I can really sink my teeth into.’ The two or three introductory courses I took in philosophy at Long Beach City College were very stimulating and I met my future wife at this time, and she was a teacher. Her love for me gave me confidence in myself like I’d never known and I promised myself that I wasn’t going to drop out of another class ever again. I transferred to California State College at Long Beach and majored in philosophy but was soon disappointed with the caliber of teachers in the philosophy department so the next semester I changed my major to English Literature figuring even if the teachers were lousy, I could at least enjoy the reading. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that while attending Long Beach City College, I took the English placement test again and this time they said I scored in the top ten percent and I was free to take any English course I wanted. The only thing I can think of that makes sense of this phenomenon was the fact that I had become such an avid reader of great authors in the intervening years? I’ve heard it said that you sort of acquire a higher level of thinking skills through reading top notch authors. Though I still feel my grammar skills are lacking.

Winding up, I also received some very flattering letters of reference from a couple of my professors in the English dept. at Cal State Long Beach. One was from a professor of a senior level English composition class I took. She said something to the effect that her course studied the way language is used to manipulate people in the advertising & political realms and that I was already very well informed about the ways it was used and that my essays made for very informative and interesting reading. And my favorite teacher for all time, Dora Polk, a little, old lady from Wales, said “Our course involved research in several disciplines which helps shed light on the novels we studied and Robert chose to give background in philosophy, one of the most difficult disciplines, and he was very diligent and thorough in presenting the philosophical background for each novel we read and his insights were of great assistance to the other students in our class and was much appreciated by his fellow students.” I hope this doesn’t all come across as an egotistical excursion but my intent was to illustrate from personal experience, how our public education system has betrayed me and probably the vast majority of students across America.
Somewhere along the way in my intellectual odyssey, I stumbled upon Noam Chomsky and he blew my mind like no other author. Although it’s his political writing that I most admire, he’s most well-known for his revolutionary impact on the field of linguistics in the 1960s. Chomsky is a world class intellectual and several years ago, I came across his e-mail address and had the temerity to write to him. And to my great amazement and delight, he wrote back to me in just a couple of days. I’ve also written “snail mail” letters to him to which he has also responded. His responses are usually no more than four or five sentences and right to the point. When I told him of the major writing project I am working on, he said something like “wow, that’s quite a project but nonetheless, a worthwhile project.” So, I went from ‘bone-head English,’ to corresponding with an intellectual giant and earning a B.A. in English Lit. So what does this say about the Bushwhacker’s focus on testing “No Child Left Behind” law (which resulted from his lies & distortions as governor of Texas)? All teachers are now forced to focus the majority of their time and energy on teaching students how to take these asinine tests and neglect what I believe should be the core of public education, content and critical & analytical thinking. By the way, the Bush family is profiting from this gross injustice “No Child Left Behind,” because they own a lot of stock in some software being pushed in public schools that is suppose to help children with test taking. As a bumper sticker I have says, “The Bush Legacy: Leave No Child A Dime.” It’s up to us as concerned citizens, to raise hell with our local school boards and demand a repeal of this ignorant law and the creation of a truly progressive & enlightened public education system. It occurred to me somewhere in my twenties that all we need to do is teach all children what the kids of wealth & privilege study if we are to be a nation of true equality of opportunity and not just pay lip-service to it.
Rob DeLoss, July 10, 2010 (Arcata, CA)

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