Many of my students, even those from “good” school districts, are unfamiliar with the basics of English grammar. Terms such as “subject,” “verb,” “predicate” elicit blank stares from freshman whose teachers never reached that chapter or quite possibly themselves never learned grammar. In a reckless mode, I recently asked one class, as it struggled with an assigned reading in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, what a “gerund” is, and how it differs from a “participle.” I might as well have asked for the difference between a gendarme and a popsicle.
I am rather surprised, however, by the extent to which problems with grammar and reading comprehension seem to extend far beyond college classrooms, to areas one would not ordinarily expect to be burdened with these limitations. Let’s take state boards of social work examiners, for example, the agencies which license and regulate professional social workers. We wrote to all 50 of them last year in reference to the findings of our widely noted study, The Scandal of Social Work Education. Recall that this work documents the heavily politicized accreditation standards of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which enjoys a near-monopoly in certifying schools of social work: 48 of 50 states have granted the organization an exclusive licensure. This means that anyone hoping to be approved as a professional social worker in those 48 states must present an MSW degree from a program accredited by CSWE, no exceptions and no alternatives. And if your own intellectual or ethical convictions happen to run counter to CSWE’s criteria, effectively imposed by a state agency, well, you should probably consider moving to some other line work.
Now, I didn’t think that the letter we sent in reference to this unsatisfactory situation was complicated or ambiguous: it certainly wasn’t stylistically akin to Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and we did not ask anyone to explain to us what a “gerund” is. Most of our recipients, however, apparently were as baffled by our brief missive as my students have been by Gibbon: we received a grand total of six responses and uncomprehending silence from all the rest – at least, I’m assuming that they’re not deliberately ignoring us, so it must simply be the case that our letter was beyond them, eh?
As a result, we’re going to try again, perhaps with an offer of instruction in remedial grammar and reading comprehension, but definitely with a copy of The Scandal of Social Work Education included. To be even more helpful, we’ll also be sending copies of all correspondence and a copy of the report to major press outlets in each of the unresponsive states. Writing follow-up letters, we hope will be more informative and productive. In case anyone is interested, by the way, the first word of the previous sentence is an authentic gerund. We’ll take up participles in a future posting, lest social work education boards become confused again.