The New Alchemy

by Louie Crew

First appeared in College English 38.1 (1977): 701-711.

© 1977 by College English; © 2004 by Louie Crew

Writing samples provide only equivocal evaluation of students who write intelligently in non standard dialects.   Consider the evidence of the following composition from the files of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia:

Essay Topic 8
"People who know too much are confused by their knowledge.  It's the people who are not so smart who really understand what's going on."  Take and defend a position for or against this statement."

    Corse it be true that people who knows too much gets konfused by there nolidge.  Take me, far instunce.  Wunst I had grate clarite, lots of since.  I'd tell you quicker than a hors can shake flies jist how to churn butter, cook greens, or skimy sorgum to mak strong swete likker.  That wuz all I knode, like, see.  I had little nolidge but lots of since.
    Now that I been to college, thangs done changed radly, all fo the worz.  Now I knows the cekund law of thermodinamiks, the uncertainty principal, and even bout greaning America.  I kan play Barthovan's moonlite sunata, recite poems

    --fer instance
    Black, go back
    Brown, stick around
                (Honkey slaver)

make my one asid, and prey in two more languizes (mon dieu!  Das is gut); yet now I be konfused.  Here I sit a smar black sissy sister in centrl Georgia and I don't know whar Ize cuming from or what I be goin too.

I remember my gradyatun at high school.  Thar sat moma and swete Sally proud as peas that I was gradyaten, gwine to colege.  Like been simpl all the time, simpl and joyful like.  Now moma resints my colidge talkn, specly don't want me gwin into misuk, and Sally done found her new gal.  Ain't nobody yhear understands and Ise confuzed about others.  As the good book say, much larnin is vexetatious of the spirt.  Lady sing the blues.

Let me lay on you a really kinchin kase.  2 X 2 be simple.   2 X 2 X 2 be more difficult.  2 X 2½ starts meddlin.  (2p/÷22l)2  is ruind, ruind to the cosine of the twentieth decibel.

Cary me bak to easier tims.

But don't you misunderstand me.  I don want no cotton pickn, sweapn after Miss Anns durty toilet, or gwine to the bak of the bus.  I be bornd frist class. Is gwine to first class heaven.  I just want a first class life without all these here vexetations.  Ain't that so!

I've done talk to you for 20 minutes tellin you whats reely gwine on, but I wonder what you be doing whether you be listnin.

On a scale of 1 to 4, this paper received three grads, a 1 (failing), a 2 (barely passing), and a 4 (outstanding), surely showing thereby more about the confusion of the three English professors who graded the paper than about the "literacy" of the writer.

Part of the magic of translating a complex linguistic response into a simplistic score is the inaccessibility of the mental processes of the scorer.  From a purely subjective, non-scientific point of view, it is easy to justify each of the three grades this composition received, even granting the graders to be sympathetic to the whole person of the writer.  For example, having read in any one week page after page of lifeless academic administrative jargon, I could readily give this paper a 4, in a wholesome response to its charm, its forceful organization, its imaginative development of the unpopular side of the thesis, its varied and controlled syntax, its thorough engagement of the reader, its keen eye for specific detail, its demonstrated knowledge, and certainly its delightful sense of humor.

Just as easily I could flunk the paper.  As one well aware of the culture barons in the "real world" waiting to magnify the smallest blemish of the dispossessed so as to keep them dispossessed, I am genuinely alarmed by the vulnerability of this student.  She is almost too honest, too sensitive, and lacks the lip-biting fakiness to say "I'm strong!" when she feels weak.  Should a sensitive teacher not use any excuse (the bad spelling, the nonstandard very forms, or whatever) to keep this student safely at the starting point until she manifests enough ability to compromise so that she will not drown in still deeper water?

Of could I maybe sound the same warning by giving a 2 and praying that the child won't go home feeling exonerated?  2 is the most widely used of the four grades by the Regents' graders.

Since there contradictory grades are conceivable even from sympathetic persons, what of the less sympathetic, who would not read beyond the fourth misspelling or the second punctuation error?  Also, what has happened in the collective unconscious of all the great-grandchildren of slave owners who in grading have detected the alien idiom and still secretly want to save Georgia and the nation from the Great Unwashed, especially from   one who is clearly "uppity"?    What will be decided by those educated at the Testing, Evaluation, and Career Counciling Center at the University of Georgia, who director recently wrote to the Saturday Review:

...I hope I can be forgiven for referring to one state university where an increase of 1 percent in black enrollment is accompanied by a decline in mean total SATs by four or five points.  I also suspect that the decline in SAT scores is not unrelated to the policy of the College Board of the last few years to waive fees for disadvantaged students.   The policy encourages many marginally qualified students to sit for the test and thus lowers mean SAT scores.

The sad thing about this . . . is that for political reasons college admissions officers, the College Board president, and ETS experts cannot admit publicly t hat both Jensen and Shockley are right.   (April 6, 1974, pp. 8 and 11)

Is there a logarithm to indicate the power to which prejudice is raised as one gasses a Jew or a gay person, or as one flunks blacks and rednecks?

In the case of the composition which I have quoted, since two out of the three graders awarded a 2 or better, the writer actually passed -- barely, but a pass is a pass -- so I can with no more delay own up to having authored the composition anonymously, when the faculty at my college were invited to familiarize ourselves with our students' problems by sitting the same examination with them.  I tried to bring my intelligence to bear while conspicuously writing in an alien spelling and idiom.  My students could point out many impossible mixtures of poor white Southern diction and black diction in the passage, but I doubt that those who would give this paper a 1 or a 2 would be influenced by such subtleties.  Clearly those who would flunk it would do so because it is nonstandard, not because of any intelligence it fails to reveal.  What troubles me is the institutionalization  of a grading system with so large a measure of caprice.  I suspect that the test's utility is the justification most people really want, and that most couldn't care less about the niceties of what is actually being tested.

My simulation of the students' plight was by no means exact.  I had the distinct advantage of knowing that nothing was at stake for me whatever I scored, whereas the students taking the test with me knew that without a  pass they could not take seriously any of their other course work no matter how high the marks that they might earn from teachers daily in contact with them, since the Regents require a passing grade on the Regents Test as a prerequisite for graduation from any of the thirty-two units in the University System of Georgia.

My argument is against the attempts to quantify writing quality, but not against writing quality itself.  I believe in rigorous criticism, but criticism in a warmly human context of the student-to-teacher or student-to-editor relationship, where there are ample opportunities to  explain reactions and to mearusre the elusive qualities of communication.  For example, a sensitive teacher can  recommend almost any changes in a paper so long as she does not thereby impose them as genuinely improved with the spelling regularized, tough some specific words would remain negotiable, depending on the anticipated audience.  Certainly I would urge retaining anomalies which carry good weight, such as the repeated use of like as a stalker tanamount to uh, such as the peculiarly Black English use of be as a finite verb with universal aspect (in the first sentence, in the formula, and throughout), and such as the psychologically right neologism in "these here vexetations!"  All alterations risk violating the writer's wholeness, and surely respect for that wholeness would demand words about what the writer has achieved before suggested alterations.  Perhaps the least important and possibly the most devastating thing ever done to any writing is to assign it a grade.  A better response always is simply another challenging assignment.

If illiteracy is to have meaning, surely those responding negatively to "errors" in compositions of this sort are the illiterates, i.e., they are those who are unable to function knowledgeably as communicators and receives in the world as it really is, with all of its pluralistic intelligence.  English teachers who by the thousands have never noticed Prufrock's anomalous use of case in perhaps two of the most memorized lines of modern poetry (which should "properly" be read "Let us go then, you and me....") are intellectually inconsistent if not downright dishonest when they go into paroxysms over other anomalies of case, such as the familiar phrase from poorer whites "he gave it to you and I" and the highly common Black English possessive in "that is they book."  Snobbery, not grammar, is the real issue here.  It is perfectly all right to violate grammar as long as you do it in socially approved ways, as in "aren't I?"  Surely colleges have more important tasks than enforcing the linguistic etiquette of the leisure classes.

Only the linguistically naive or the politically vicious would even begin to reduce so complex a matter as language to a set of quantifiable integers.  What the Regents' mathematicians count is in no way objective of scientific, but is rather a collection of subjective responses, the wise mingled indiscriminately with the foolish, which by way of a number have been reduced to their lowest denominator of possible evaluative significance.  The test lacks any kind of validation because it makes no predictions which can be proved true or false.   The testers do not even maintain that the results of any one testing could be replicated.  The mathematicians who record the scores are repeatedly careful to note that they take no responsibility for the actual content of the examination, for which they depend on writers, in conjunction wit the English professors who supply the topics and assign the grades.  Few of the English teachers have been so bold as to challenge the scores which so marvelously make scientists out of them for a season.  The Regents are thereby provided with a useful device for eliminating a sizable portion of the population while also saving money and establishing an arbitrary system for prestige.  Who's to question what is actually being discriminated?  The test works, and that's all most want to know about it.  Since the only way to test the test is to compare its results with those of still more tests t hat can't really be tested, we are left the option of choosing not between the true and the false, but between believing and disbelieving.  Since a vast majority pass anyway, there's much group pressure to believe, though again, we are not able to say in what we actually believe, unless it's the testers themselves.

What is rarely spoken about such tests is perhaps the only genuine scientific fact about them, name the fact that they predictably identify and penalize those already disenfranchised.  The passing rate in the University System of Georgia is consistenly dramatically lower in the three predominantly black colleges (only 37 percent passed in 1974-75) than the passing rate of the System as a whole (71.4 percent in the same period).  Similarly, schools which draw larger numbers of poorer white students have consistently lower scores than do schools with standard middle-class white and clack clientele.  Lo and behold, like modern alchemists, the testers have turned the literacy tests used to disenfranchise these same people at the polls two decades ago into a sophisticated collegiate instrument with the same results in the 1970s.  College registrars, like the sheriffs of old, oversee the process quietly, with a loaded gun.

The major defense of such tests is the claim that they do accurately reflect the linguistic expectations of colleges and employers.  I do not  question this claim, and I even agree that so long as colleges and employers expect minority students to conform to the myriad of linguistic patterns peculiar to the majority, the minority students deserve to have those expectations specified.  But do let those expectations be identified as the  linguistic prejudice they are, rather than allow them to be identified as a measure of literacy or of intelligence.

More important:  I question the wisdom of thus legislating linguistic conformity.  That very conformity makes it very likely that we will not discover and nurture the hundreds of otherwise talentd minority students who happen to have minimal facility with a linguistic skill we never require of the majority, viz., the ability to master an alien dialect as a condition of being taken seriously.  Hopefully the worlds towards which we are leading (educare) will be one in which mental prowess is much more important than the dialect of the money which one inherits.  Meanwhile, our petty linguistic prejudices seem to be successful in diverting most of us, but particularly the economically disenfranchised, from discovering the mind's revolutionary possibilities.  Yet, corse it be true that people who knows too much gets konfused by there nolidge. . . .

In 2004, passing The Regents Test is still a requirement in the University System of Georgia.


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