Phi Beta Cons

The Failure to Teach Students to Write

One of the signal failings of American education — throughout K-12 and college — is to teach students how to write English well. Back during my teaching career, I kept a file of the most atrocious examples of writing by students. Many of them made writing mistakes that you wouldn’t expect to see from fourth graders back when teachers still insisted on correcting errors. Those days are gone because few teachers want to bother with rigorous line-by-line editing of student writing. They don’t have to do it and most don’t want to do it. Some are themselves such poor writers that they couldn’t do it.

All of that is the subject of my Pope Center piece today, inspired by two sources. One is old — Richard Mitchell’s 1979 book Less Than Words Can Say and one is very recent — Professor Gerald Graff’s essay “Why Johnny and Joanie Can’t Write, Revisited.” Both observe that sloppy writing is evidence of sloppy thinking and that the country pays a price for that.

Graff wants to see college professors get away from assigning vague, feelings-oriented papers and instead assign argumentative “they say/I say” pieces. That would help, but we would still have the problem of professors who don’t want to take the time (and often grief) to rigorously critique papers. As former Indiana University English professor Murray Sperber points out, it’s far easier just to make a few general, encouraging comments than to really go through a paper and highlight the errors and weaknesses.

Since writing ability has considerable marketplace worth, perhaps a few colleges will decide that it’s worth their while to make that a selling point with prospective students, and then insist that the faculty work accordingly.

 

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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