The Failure of Writing Education

Aug 17, 2014 | Good ol' fashioned rant

Perhaps the main reason students struggle to write conversationally is they’ve been told since kindergarten that it’s not acceptable—even though it’s perfectly appropriate for the vast majority of the writing they’ll be doing throughout their lives.

…from a nice article titled The Case for Conversational Writing by Rob Jenkins at Chronicle Vitae.

In contemplating this piece by Mr. Jenkins, I place my emphasis on “nice article.” A great place to begin a much-needed dialogue about how we teach writing. Personally, however, I would take the argument much, much further. Let me see if I can articulate my own thoughts, because this is after all a classic rant I tend to unleash without provocation.

Whenever we discuss how we teach writing in Western education, the argument tends to lean toward a navel-gazing justification of “academic writing.” It’s often as if those who work in academia are unwilling to contemplate that other forms of writing exist, or at least, matter. Which is fine – we’re all allegedly entitled to our own perspective on the world as we experience it. This observation largely pertains to academics working in the humanities and sciences, excludes those in the fine arts, and wholeheartedly includes literary academics (or anyone who can name more than one school of criticism). An issue arises here, however – the standards for taught writing are devised in an environment patterned for (almost purely) academic achievement. Writing equals academic writing.

Teaching writing from this perspective is actually a pretty fantastic idea…to a point. In the standard American high school curriculum, we like to lump all of these concepts of “writing” together. Students may enjoy a single semester of learning the craft of short fiction. They may take a newspaper writing or poetry course. Yet by and large, they begin at 13 with the basics of the five-paragraph essay and slowly progress toward the more complex essay forms that constitute the bulk of their undergraduate writing work. I’ll stand on Christopher Hitchens’ coffee table and claim that this is wonderful (Hitchens, by the way, was a horrific writer). It’s wonderful because the five-paragraph expository essay is so much more than the foundation of academic writing. It’s the foundation for clear, logical, articulate thinking. It’s the foundation for argumentation. With enough practice it’s internalized much the way a chess grandmaster internalizes chunks of the game board, and becomes the foundation for how we respond to the world. For that reason alone, it’s necessary.

The point at which it becomes a waste is probably somewhere between 11th and 12th grade in the standard American curriculum, when we assume that the next logical step on the learning curve is collegiate academic writing. We add in complexity. We add citations from multiple sources and preemptive counterargument paragraphs. We emphasize that style is a mistake (or we should, at least). Again, this is fantastic, because it teaches young thinkers to think better. The problem is in assuming that this next logical step is the only logical step forward.

I like to make fun of the cliches of writing taught at the high school level. It’s likely not too far off to assume that most educated westerners once had a high school English teacher who proclaimed that “When you’re professional writer, you can write however you want, but for now you have to follow the rules.” It seems to me that very, very few of these teachers understand why these rules even exist. And why should they? They’re high school English teachers. I myself had only one university teacher who understood why these rules exist. They exist because of the structure of academia itself. Academia is a game designed by its own winners – professors. Starting with kindergarten, a student who performs better than all her peers, who tips every grading scale and pushes education as far as it can go, becomes a PhD, a researcher, and then, teaches undergraduate coursework. Excelling in education thus means mastering the art of professorial work. It means mastering academic writing, a form that, by necessity, employs no style, an internal/structural mapping system, and at its highest level is only useful as a complement to research. All education in academic writing builds toward this task – articulating research discoveries to other researchers (knowledge isn’t knowledge until it’s peer-reviewed in a journal, you know). That’s the point of it all – conveying new information. Is there anything wrong with this? Absolutely not. It’s what makes our education system the greatest in history. Is there anything wrong with forcing all students in all institutions along that progression of skill development? Absolutely.

When a student has learned how to clearly argue a basic point, whether academic or opinion-based, whether on notions of existentialism in Camus, Justin Bieber’s viability as a musical artist or Lebron’s (flimsy) candidacy as the greatest basketball player ever, then academic writing is only one available path before them. We teach college freshman how to write academic essays because (thanks to the primarily liberal-arts format of the university system) that’s what our stodgy professors need, choose, or want to grade. The winners they choose are the students most like themselves. In this way, their limitations aren’t that different from our myopic high school teachers. Despite these honorable professors, however, and all the wonderful things they do for the world (I’m not being sarcastic), I suggest a new system. What we should teach college freshmen isn’t academic writing, but instead, how to argue your thoughts in more complex ways.

Introduction to Creative Nonfiction. Introduction to Journalistic Writing. Introduction to Narrative Essays. Descriptive Essays. Personal Essays. Introduction to Blog Writing and Advertising Slogans (I’d take those classes). Personally I would argue that all of these writing forms are infinitely more important for the young thinking adult. Such modes teach young people how to convey the thoughts in their head, which is really the evolutionary purpose of language itself. What is writing if not just a clearer and more purposeful form of communication than speaking?

It seems to me a great crime that so many college graduates know the rules of MLA formatting and citation, but so few can write with the clarity, urgency, and, well…ability to convey information…of a writer like Malcolm Gladwell (who Jenkins chose as an example in the article above). Gladwell himself isn’t even that great a writer. He seems a very capable writer to me, one whose unique talent is actually good thinking. He’s a man with brilliant thoughts and the technical ability to present those thoughts in a magnificently understandable way. As far as writing is concerned, he’s little more than an extremely accomplished technician. He doesn’t create language; he creates fantastic ideas and presents them in the most effective of ways. It’s not surprising that he was a self-described poor student (as a History major who didn’t go to graduate school) with a background in journalism and advertising. He’s a thinker with the ability to express thoughts, even if not particularly accomplished in academic research writing. To systemically hamper our students with the same inefficiencies of human expression that Malcom Gladwell surmounted, to enlist academic writing as an intellectual idol to be worshiped, is akin to gifting our students with a psychological stammer, to tie up their tongues, to teach them the accent of a foreign culture without giving them the vocabulary.  It denies that most basic, vain, and desperately important human desire: the desire to be heard.

Yet what about those creative young people who only seem to find their voice through fiction, poetry, beautiful prose? Should they master MFA citation? Should they master the dialectic essay? Sure – why not? If they want to. If doing so allows them to further self-actualize. If they want to teach in academia or write for Harpers or The Atlantic. If doing so is necessary, at some point, for articulating their thoughts. What about the musicians, the painters, the playwrights, the animators? Do we require them to master academic writing? Do we devalue the creative work of a video-game designer if she can’t compare it’s gender modes to those of Grand Theft Auto 4 (with a three-page list of citations)? Of course not. We wouldn’t think of it.

When employing language, one can strive to convey information (through clarity), or create art (through style). These are the purposes of language, which are really the same thing – taking what exists in our heads and manifesting it as something that can rest comfortably in someone else’s head. The medium with which we choose to do so is likely only an indicator of the audience we hope to address. Academic writing is for academics – not studio guitarists. Poetry is for poets and readers of poetry – not aerospace engineers. Xs and Os are for football coaches and players – not cheerleaders.

In this way, we’d do well to remember that writing…is for readers. Talking is for listeners. And teaching, good ol’ teaching, is for students. Not all of whom will become professors, but all of whom, hopefully, will have ideas they want to express, however they can.