About a year ago, I made a phone call to Bernice Fedestin, at the time a high school student in Boston we were considering for inclusion in our first Daring Dozen list of exceptional people in education. We were intrigued with her accomplishments in creating a documentary about the inequities between inner-city and suburban schools, but what struck me during our first conversation was how articulate Fedestin is.
I'll admit I'm old school: I believe that if you can speak clearly, you're probably thinking clearly. And vice versa: The more precise your words, the more lucid your thoughts.
As our conversation revealed, Fedestin is definitely lucid. Without an "um" or an "uh,"with none of the interjections typical of her generation ("like,""whatever"), she spoke about what she was doing and the ideas that motivated her. From that moment on I was her fan, and she made our final list (see "The Daring Dozen 2004").
The cover story in this issue is about literacy, and articulateness and literacy are always intertwined. When I was a seventh grader, my parents began recommending novels to me. The books they wanted me to read are not what might today be considered literature for young readers. They are serious, demanding, adult works such as How Green Was My Valley and Wuthering Heights. Along with these books, I received Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary with the instruction that each time I encountered an unfamiliar word, I should look it up. By the time I had moved on to the formidable fiction of Vladimir Nabokov (during my senior year in high school), I seemed to be studying the dictionary as much as I was reading the novel. But I ended up knowing what tessellated and quotidian mean, and I still use these and other Nabokov favorites.
Much is said in our video-saturated era about the rise of visual intelligence (some of it in the pages of Edutopia magazine), and there's no doubt that this is a healthy rebalancing of the way kids understand the world. But it's hard not to perceive a concurrent verbal degradation. The vocabulary television newsreaders, sports commentators, and the writers of such teen-oriented TV dramas as The OC use is far more limited than the lexicon even of the Harry Potter books (themselves less rich than, say, J. R. R. Tolkien's tales). Meanwhile, especially articulate sitcom characters such as Frasier Crane and his brother Niles are seen as faintly ridiculous. If television is the main source for learning language, subtle shadings of meaning are not likely to be the wave of the future.
We are warned about functional illiteracy, a person's inability to read the instructions on a medicine bottle or the basic elements of a cell phone contract. What is more widespread, and thus more worrisome, is what might be called unfunctional literacy, a total lack of interest in reading despite the ability to do so. Because we learn to speak as much by reading as by hearing, a decline of literacy will lead inevitably to a loss of articulate speaking and sophisticated thinking. Those students, like Bernice Fedestin, who speak well and think effectively because they are readers will rise in life. Those who don't will risk being left behind.