The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Friday, February 24, 2006
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The good is:

Overall, the average literacy of college students is significantly higher than that of adults across the nation. Study leaders said that was encouraging but not surprising, given that the spectrum of adults includes those with much less education.

Also, compared with all adults with similar levels of education, college students had superior skills in searching and using information from texts and documents.

The bad is:

Nearing a diploma, most college students cannot handle many complex but common tasks, from understanding credit card offers to comparing the cost per ounce of food.

Those are the sobering findings of a study of literacy on college campuses, the first to target the skills of students as they approach the start of their careers.

More than 50% of students at four-year schools and more than 75% at two-year colleges lacked the skills to perform complex literacy tasks.

That means they could not interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, compare credit card offers with different interest rates and annual fees or summarize results of a survey about parental involvement in school.

The results cut across three types of literacy: analyzing news stories and other prose, understanding documents and having math skills needed for checkbooks or restaurant tips.

The ugly is:

I witness this every day–in public, in the workplace, in grad school, and elsewhere. Perhaps the most obvious thing going is the lack of literacy. The ability to read simple, dumbed-down, magazine-type articles. People with college degrees wade through easy magazine articles like they are wading through wet cement in fairy boots. Only occasionally do I recieve an email in the workplace that passes my sniff test for detecting semi-literacy. My sniff test is not hard, for I only ask for complete sentences, no run-ons, proper use of colons and semi-colons, and a question mark to follow a question–tough one, I know.

Bad emails are the halitosis of the workplace. It’s the static that interrupts the communication necessary to getting the job done. People with MBAs STILL don’t understand that which makes a sentence a run-on. The most famous of all workplace halitosis is the run-on sentence. Here’s a typical workday email, from an MBA Manager nonetheless: “We’d like to schedule a meeting at 2pm, can you make it on time I hope you can be there.” Somehow I detect (3) independent clauses, a comma splice, and I even spot a question lurking therein. However, to the brilliant MBA-educated mind, there is somehow never an occasion for a subordinating conjunction let alone periods or semi-colons.

Workplace emails are full of comma slpices and fragments and run-ons to the point of absolute shame and embarrassment. Perhaps that’s why they all enjoy and take seriously that fish book.

It’s even better when HR people make egregious grammar and/or factual errors. Where I once worked, we had an HR announcement for a new CFO that noted he was a “CPA (Certified Professional Accountant).” Uh, to those of us in the business that’s Certified Public Accountant. Definitely important to people who are hiring CPAs. Look at Monster.com–the job boards–and feast your eyes upon one poorly written sentence after another in the job descriptions. And these poeple are making the determination whether or not to hire YOU.

Close your eyes and hold on tight. Literacy ain’t gonna pass the crash test.

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