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Illustration by Penny Van Horn AFTERWORD Confusing: Please Proofread BY JAMES MCWILLIAMS I’ve just finished grading 124 essays from my U.S. history survey course and I’m fairly certain that the fall of American civilization is upon us. Forget the sad reality that my students’ assessment of the colonies’ place in the English empire has all the sophistication of a “Schoolhouse Rock” jingle. Forget that they seem to have written their papers while watching The Patriot, utterly convinced that American liberty was created alongside Adam and Eve. Forget their self-imposed obligation to hash out cliches confirming their loyalty to an American nation “under siege.” Forget that, becauseif my students are any indicationthere’s another, more insidious disease poisoning America’s intellectual soul: Nobody can write. The jingoistic, hamhanded, post-September 11 historical interpretations evident in these essays pale next to the stark lege freshmen could compose a coherent memo stating, for example, that the employee bathroom will be out of order until noon, thanks for your patience. I’m contemplating the stack of essays in front of mea stack bleeding with perfunctory comments like “awkward,” “stilted,” and “rephrase, please”and I’m aware that what I should really be writing in the margin is something along the lines of this: “You have been cheated by a substandard high school education that somehow allowed you to graduate without learning rules like subject-verb agreement, pronoun references, or the difference between a sentence fragment and a modifying clause. I would advise you to write a letter to your representative on the matter, but chances are you would probably butcher your point beyond recognition. I weep for the future.” Of course, then I might do damage to somebody’s self-esteem, risk losing my day job, or, at the least, become popularly known among the 24,000 undergraduates at my university as “that insensitive asshole history professor.” Hence my dilemma. I have no choice but to pass students 30 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 4/26/02