From time to time I pass along the results of some student tests that show how little our dear ones seem to be learning.
The tortured grammar, the mangled spellings, the malapropisms, the garbled facts are highly comical, on the one hand, but they are also depressing. One wonders if there is any point in education at all.
In a piece for Verbatim, the language quarterly, Richard Lederer summarizes world history in an amalgam of bloopers actually written, he swears, by students throughout the United States.
One paragraph, taken at random, reads as follows:
"The government of England was a limited mockery. Henry VIII found walking difficult because he had an abbess on his knee. Queen Elizabeth was the 'Virgin Queen.' As a queen she was a success. When Elizabeth exposed herself before her troops, they all shouted, 'Hurrah.' Then her navy went out and defeated the Spanish Armadillo. . . . "
Skip to the 19th Century:
"The 19th Century was a time of many great inventions and thoughts. The invention of the steamboat caused a network of rivers to spring up. Cyrus McCormick invented the McCormick raper, which did the work of a hundred men. Samuel Morse invented a code of telepathy. Louis Pasteur discovered a cure for rabbis. Charles Darwin was a naturalist who wrote 'The Organ of the Species.' Madman Curie discovered radium. And Karl Marx became one of the Marx brothers."
And so on until "the First World War, which was caused by the assignation of the Arch-Duck by a surf," and which "ushered in a new error in the anals of human history. . . . "
I have recently received a copy of Inside English, journal of the English Council of California Two-Year Colleges, in which William Hill, who teaches the history of art at Santa Monica College, expresses his joys and frustrations in "A Letter to My Students."
It was written on the morning after the Academy Awards ceremonies, which Prof. Hill spent grading papers. The next morning he decided to make his own Academic Awards for extraordinary performance in the history of art.
Prof. Hill gave the Canter's Delicatessen Sandwich Award to a student who identified the artist Rubens as Reubens, which is the name, of course, of a succulent sandwich made of corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut.
The Oldest Shipwreck in the World Award he gave to a student who identified Gericault's "Raft of the Medusa" as the "Wrath of the Methusala."
The Egyptian Edifice Award went to the student who identified Manet's "Olympia" as the "Grand Obelisk," evidently confusing obelisk (a four-sided stone pillar tapering to a pyramidal top) with odalisque (or odalisk), a painting of a reclining nude in a harem.
The Somewhat Confused Award went to the several students who misspelled "The Conversion of St. Paul" as "The Conversation of St. Paul," "The Conservation of St. Paul" or "The Condensation of St. Paul."
Prof. Hill gave the Execution by Lamplight Award to those who identified Goya's "The Third of May" as "The Night Cafe," and the Near Beer Award to those who identified Degas' "Absinthe Drinker" as "The Absent Drinker."
The Grand Prix of Chronology Award was given to a student who identified "Michael Angelo" as an Impressionist.
Though they stretch credulity, Prof. Hill insists that the winners of his Creative Spelling Awards actually spelled Cezanne as Says Anne, Seurat as Sewer Rat, Gauguin as Gogan, Van Gogh as Van Gouge, Watteau as What-Ho, and Salvador Dali as Stevedore Dooley.
Undaunted, Prof. Hill gave the Infant Cereal Award to a student who identified Pablo Picasso as Pablum Picasso.
The I Don't Speak French Award was given to a student who identified the Moulin Rouge as the Lowman Rouge, and the But I Do Speak Italian Award to one who identified Renoir's "Moulin de la Galette" as "The Limon Gelate."
The Most Misspelled Artist in the World Award went to all who grappled unsuccessfully with Toulouse-Lautrec. They rendered it variously as To Lose a Truck, Too Loose-Low Treck, and Tolicke-a-Truce.
"Honestly," Hill avowed, "I have not invented any of these; indeed there were more."
In a message to his students, he wrote:
"While it is amusing, it is also distressing. They show an inattention to detail that is alarming."
Hill noted that Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" had recently fetched a price of nearly $40 million in an auction, while Van Gogh had died a suicide in 1890, leaving a note apologizing for his suicide. In his lifetime he had sold but one painting, for $35.
"Van Gogh was not mad," Hill told his students, "he was ill to the point that he could no longer stand the pain. I have read his letters written in English, French and Dutch. There is not a spelling error or faulty construction anywhere. He even uses idioms correctly.
"I write this to you on his birthday. . . . If he could speak to you, I feel that he would say to you what he said to his artist friends:
" 'You have the world in the palm of your hands. Make something of it. Live! Learn! Use your intelligence, your intuition, your unique abilities. Be yourself. Be!' "
Van Gogh must have been ahead of his time. That exhortation to live, to be yourself, to be, sounds more like Leo Buscaglia than a 19th-Century painter.
But many of Van Gogh's contemporaries did live according to their inner urgings. They were themselves. And sometimes the tracks they followed led to trainwreck.
Perhaps it was often a case of too loose le track.