The present study was inspired by some admittedly naive but profound questions that arose when I was in graduate school and teaching developmental courses including college reading and ESL in various colleges in City University of New York. My students had not only placed into these classes, but many also had great trouble working their way out of what was officially considered at best a semi-college sequence. While I was teaching them, I began to wonder what exactly separated them from their peers, sometimes of identical socioeconomic status, who were considered proficient. Precisely what was it that other students could do that mine had so much trouble with? Was it what they knew, in the sense of content? Well, many did seem to be shockingly ignorant in some matters that seem commonly assumed to be known by educated people. Some did not know the components of the solar system, while others thought that Los Angeles was a state, and a few could not spell words like “would” or “people.” But the mere lack of such knowledge only begs the question of why had they not picked up those “basic” facts to begin with.
Was it that they had difficulty learning generally? A few may have had this kind of systematic problem, but most had learned a lot of things that I did not know, sometimes complex ones, even if they did not count academically. Some could tell me subtle differences between Bachata, Merengue, Salsa, and Son, together with corresponding dance steps at a high level of intricacy. Others knew the Bible backward and forward. Still others had an impressive knowledge of sports trivia, of romance novels, of fashion, or of the