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One Woman's Opinion

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Real Equal Opportunity

Mary Wakefield Buxton

by Mary Wakefield Buxton

Urbanna, Va.— America likes to boast “equal opportunity.” But is there really such a thing? If not, what can be done to achieve it?

Perhaps we should first reflect on the great socialist Irish philosopher and playwright, George Bernard Shaw. In his famous work, “Pygmalion” (which later became known as “My Fair Lady”), he stressed there was no equality in this world simply because of differences in speech. Only after the memorable Professor Higgins was able to educate Eliza Doolittle, was she finally able to break out of her Cockney chains.

It’s time Americans come to grips with Shaw’s universal thesis because language skills do have an effect on opportunities in life. And quit pretending society provides equal playing fields to all Americans, because it doesn’t.

Here’s my definition of real equal opportunity . . . being raised by my mother. If everyone had been raised by my mother, everyone would enjoy equal opportunity.

Okay, just some humor for the day to start off the discussion, but seriously, my mother was an ace grammarian. Her duty in life was to raise her three daughters to speak and write correctly. She didn’t worry about sewing, housekeeping or cooking, but we girls had better know that we don’t split infinitives, a sentence never ever ends in a preposition, and an adjective never modifies a verb.

Was Mother right in her devotion to teaching her offspring grammar? No matter, Mother corrected every word that came out of my mouth for the first 18 years of my life. Even after I left home for college and marriage, if I ever made a grammatical slip in her presence right up to the end, I was corrected.

She did this because she wanted me to master the King’s English and she would accomplish this feat if it killed her (it almost did). It was an exhausting experience for both Mother and me.

If only we could bottle Mother’s devotion to grammar and hand it out to every American child for a good dose every day. But the truth is there are many mothers of every race and ethnic group that do this for their children. They are dedicated to ensuring their children learn how to speak properly and they don’t stop at grammar. They also instill values and good manners in their children. I say hurrah for them.

But what about children who have no one at home to teach them grammar? What can be done to emphasize that they must learn to speak and write well if they are going to get a good job? This includes immigrants who absolutely must learn English if they wish to succeed.

Now I’m not talking about “stars” that make touchdowns or slam dunk basketballs while using double negatives, or sing hit songs for American teens shamelessly using four-letter words. I’m talking about the rest of the nation that work in more mundane jobs in business and the professions. The one common denominator they all share is they learned to speak and write English properly.

Now my well-educated readers know that I occasionally make grammatical errors. A friend even recently pulled me aside at a cocktail party and offered to edit my column each week. Unfortunately, very few writers are good editors. Mistakes happen in this column, but that’s beside the point. Grammar is still important to success.

Is this fair? Well, no, but what’s fair in life? Sitting around discussing whether things are fair or not fair is a complete waste of time. The bottom line is not everyone learns grammar at home, and thus our schools must do a better job with teaching grammar to those who need it if there is ever to be real equality in America.

Let’s be honest. I’ve taught in some schools where language skills were so poor my ears burned. Mother would have dropped dead. I tried my best to meet Mother’s standards by correcting every grammatical error I heard, but I soon discovered that if I concentrated solely on grammatical errors, there was no time to teach other subjects.

Do we need to change the way we teach grammar in our schools? When I was a student, grammar was taught as “language arts” through the 8th grade. But if correct speech isn’t learned at home, is it too late to change speech patterns after children enter school? 

Some may argue that grammar is no longer necessary, that high-tech society will allow communication without rules. Some schools have already shockingly dropped teaching cursive writing, the idea being it’s no longer needed. Will we also ditch grammar?

Yet no matter how society may change in future years, successful people will always be those who speak and write masterfully. The simple truth is without the basic tools of language skills, there will never be real equal opportunity in America. We must finally face up to this painful reality.


posted 11.19.2014

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