Monday, October 3, 2005

Why Can't PVT Johnny Write?

In my current employment, I receive e-mails from a large number of young soldiers. Under current recruiting rules, they either graduated from high school or successfully completed a GED program. They were then screened for aptitude for a highly technical field. They have completed intensive training for that technical specialty to a level that would probably rate at least three separate industry certifications and around 10 semester hours of college credit. These are not stupid people. Why can’t they write?

It is rare for me to go an entire day without receiving an e-mail that completely lacks punctuation, capitalization, spelling and other grammatical rules. I’m not referring to a missing comma and a few misspelled words – I mean no punctuation whatsoever. I mean more than half of the words longer than five letters spelled wrong. They cannot correctly spell the abbreviation for my rank, even though it is shown on the web page where they get my e-mail address. In some cases, they cannot correctly abbreviate their own rank! Lesser examples of such ignorance are even more common, and are not exclusive to the younger soldiers.

We now call it Elementary School, but the first few grades were once called Grammar School. You were expected to learn basic grammar by the time you left the sixth grade. That, in fact, should have been enough to get by and avoid embarrassment throughout adult life. The next six years were supposed to extend the depth and expand the breadth of your knowledge of the English language. So how did these people complete that last six years without being competent? And if they could not manage at least some level of competence in English, what are we to assume about all the other subjects they were supposedly taught?

In the book Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein postulates a society in which the vote is given only to veterans of national service. The theory is that people who have voluntarily risked their lives to support their county will, on average, vote for what is best for the country, rather than what is best for them personally. It worked well in the book. I even agree with the theory behind it. If we tried it in real life, though, there would be a very dangerous transition period, because the people we have in national service right now are not up to the intellectual challenge.

There are three points, though, that make it even more frightening. One, in Starship Troopers, you had to complete your service to earn the vote – these soldiers already have it, and are already affecting our elections. Two, the soldiers are a reflection of our society at large, so you can assume there are other people out there equally ignorant. They still have the vote. Three, there are people out there that were turned down because they fell below our enlistment standards. And they still have the vote.

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