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First Things readers who hire recent graduates are probably well aware of the error these young workers make at the end of their four-year and two-year college careers. It shows up strikingly in a 2015 survey of college students sponsored by the Association of American Colleges & Universities. The report includes findings on two key factors: how students rate their skills, and how employers rate students’ skills. The difference between the two appraisals is sometimes as wide at the Grand Canyon.

For instance, when the researchers asked near-graduates how they assessed their “Ethical judgment and decision making,” 62 percent described themselves as “well prepared” (8-10 on a ten-point scale). But the same question put to employers lowered that rating by more than half, with only 30 percent giving recent grads high marks for ethics.

Similarly absurd discrepancies showed up in the following areas:

  • Oral communication: 62 percent are well-prepared, according to the kids themselves; 28 percent, according to employers
  • Written communication: 65 percent versus 27 percent
  • Critical thinking: 66 percent versus 26 percent
  • Problem solving: 59 percent versus 24 percent

There are several more points of divergence, as you can see on page 12 of the report.

One of them is no surprise, however, even to people who don't work as college teachers. When it comes to oral communication, educated millennials talk as if speech were no more than the registration of a dozen or so pat impressions that everyone has in the course of an ordinary day. The poverty of the millennial lexicon is a trial for anyone who gets stuck on a bus or airplane and can't help being privy to their converse. The narrow range of expression, the same words over and over, the tics common to them all and repeated as if they were a mark of authenticity, not conformity—it's depressing.

But they don't realize it. They talk to one another so much—one hundred or more text messages per day—and earn so much reinforcement from their peers, that it never occurs to them that “LOL” signals an empty imagination, not a hip discernment.

And so the elders have to intervene. I made one suggestion a few months back, but let me expand it to this: All of you who are parents must institute a list of proscribed words in the home. The idiom of adolescence must go. Start with six words:

  • like
  • awesome
  • cool
  • whatever
  • stuff
  • basically

When the “likes” pop up, as they do in nearly every thought some youths utter (“. . . and I was just like . . . and he was like . . .”), hold up your hand and start counting them. When the “awesome” comes, stop your child and say, “Hey, give me five synonyms for it,” and help him with “marvelous, wonderful, astounding … .” When a sentence gets punctuated by stuff (“Yeah, I had to go to the library and do some homework ‘n stuff”), ask for details.

As you train the young in better speech, you should justify your efforts, as I do with my students when the juvenile banter fills the room:

“Guys and gals, you may think you live in a non-judgmental, tolerant, free-spirit society that takes you as you are and appreciates your individuality. That's certainly what your friends and social media lead you to believe. But when you go out into the big world, you're going to be judged all the time. People will judge you on how you dress and how you stand and sit. They will judge you by your words. They will judge you even when they say nothing, but only look at you and listen to you. If you insert a like into every sentence, nobody is ever going to take you seriously.”

These are hard truths, but explaining them is a parent's duty.

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.

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