Often times, the ranting of so-called “grammar Nazis,” a term I’m not especially thrilled about, but nonetheless use (cognitive dissonance is a source of personal fuel), is academic, by which I mean that their declarations, while often correct, are equally often irrelevant. There are times, however, when such subtle analyses are painfully important.
A classic example is the deliberate use of the passive voice to escape blame:
“Um, yes, we admit that, um, mistakes were made.” (By whom, now? Oh, by you, Mr. or Mrs. President/Senator/Governor/Chairman…? Okay, I gotcha – a nod’s as good as a wink to a blind man.)But there’s one that has really been sticking in my craw lately, and that is the inability of educators and education pundits to distinguish and differentiate between intransitive and transitive verbs. Specifically, the difference between saying that more students need to graduate from high school and saying that our high schools need to graduate more students.
A transitive verb, simply put, is one that requires a direct object:
“Eagles fly at high altitudes.” (intransitive)When the verb “graduate” is used as a transitive verb, it suggests that the “agent” of graduation is the school, and that “graduation” is that which is imparted unto the student, whereas if “graduate” is used intransitively, it suggests that the onus is upon the student to comply with requirements and rise to achieve and meet them, thus earning graduation. The impact on pedagogy is significant; sentences like the following serve to shift the responsibility of an education away from the student (the direct object) and onto the institution (the subject):
“The children fly their kites on windy days.” (transitive)
“High schools aren’t graduating enough students.”This thinking began when “[g]raduation rates stagnated in the 1970s, despite a major cultural shift to thinking about completing high school as part of the normal life course and dropping out as deviance from that normative path” (American Journal of Education) . Sadly, the response to this thinking has not been to tweak education so it is more functional, but to tweak it in a series of artificial attempts to boost stagnating graduation rates. Why? What is so bad about 70-80% graduation?
“We must graduate a higher percentage of our students.”
Must every student go to college, and falling short of that is “failing” somehow? Are all students created equal? How condescending and insulting is that insinuation to the blue collar workers and laborers who built, and continue to support, this nation? Race to the Top OF WHAT?
Make no mistake, it is the job of K-12 educators to help students be successful, to facilitate their success, and to connect, communicate, and inspire (or at least motivate). And perhaps, in a perfect nation, all students would finish high school college-ready, so that they had the maximum number of opportunities open to them. But it simply cannot be expected of educators “to graduate” (transitive verb) our students. A diploma is a reward, not an entitlement, nor a gift. These students are old enough to drive, vote, serve in the military, enter into legal contracts, marry, engage in consensual sex and be tried for crimes as adults. It is a curious paradox that we confer upon teenagers this level of independence and then at the same time lower standards and cheat in other ways (for that is what it amounts to) to artificially coax them through the system.
Oh, I Googled lots of websites and tried to find examples of “graduate” as a transitive verb in published policy and punditry; I found none. But at school sites, and out of the mouths of administrators – state-level, district-level, and site-level – the reality is that the directives being handed down generally take exactly this form. Typically, it is explicit, but even when it is not, it is implied in the emphasis on graduation rates, on final grades; it is implied every time a teacher is disciplined for his or her students’ standardized test passing rate; it is suggested every time teachers are fingered as the scapegoats for the woes of society; it is reinforced every time two schools whose graduation rates differ by a scant 2% receive different treatment by the State, one punished for being a “failing school,” the other not – the emphasis is on the final data and not the process. As I have said before:
“Popular myth and the standardized-test culture of American public education would have one think that education is about the massive and rapid accumulation of content, the purpose of which is to succeed on a state test; the error of this thinking is that it relegates the education process itself to a secondary status, making the test score the “prize” of education. Nothing could be more removed from the truth. We have become a nation of pure data, of test scores and dropout rates, ciphers which are at best simplified abstractions of critically important ideas – but raw numbers do not tell the whole story. Any educational process or notion that has at its heart the notion that it is the data that needs to be treated, and not the students, is fundamentally flawed.”A review of transitive versus intransitive verbs, then:
We teachers must teach our students. (transitive)
We teachers need to nurture our students. (transitive)
We teachers ought to inspire our students. (transitive)
We teachers have to engage our students. (transitive)
We teachers should challenge our students. (transitive)
We, as teachers, help our students to graduate. (intransitive)Class dismissed. I’m not A.S.K.ing today… I’m TELLing.