Phi Beta Cons

Why Many College Grads Can’t Write

One of the amazing things about our education system is that large numbers of students no longer learn basic things, so we often hear complaints that college grads can’t do simple math, can’t understand easy documents, and can’t write clearly. The problems start early and lots of students never catch up. (The main reason, I believe, is that many educators now think it’s more important for students to “be creative” and not oppressed with fuddy-duddy old rules about right and wrong ways of doing things.)

In today’s Pope Center piece, writing professor John Maguire examines the last problem I mentioned above — that students can’t write decently. He explains that they are not taught well in their earlier years, largely due to the malign influence of educationist theories that have emanated from the ed schools (in particular, Teachers College at Columbia). They don’t learn sentence grammar. Nevertheless, students graduate from high school under the impression that they are good writers since they’ve been given high grades for their creativity. As Maguire writes, this faddish method “cheat everyone through its rigid insistence that expressiveness is all that matters, and the skills in the basics of capitalization and periods don’t matter.”

It used to be that teachers in grade school drilled writing basics into students and high school teachers refined their abilities. Now, thanks to “progressive” education theories, it’s year after year of banalities, with never a red mark to be seen.

And what happens in college? Students must go through a writing course where the professor (usually a harried adjunct) is supposed to “brush up” their long-neglected grammar. That’s too little, too late, but college officials pretend that one course is adequate. After freshman year, students usually encounter no further serious attention to their writing. Rigorous evaluation of papers is just something that few professors are willing to do.

Maguire sums up this way: “Today’s college writing is a big, knotted mess, decades in the making, and I don’t know for sure how to untangle it or what sword will cut through it. Still, if you can’t write a sentence, you can’t write, and too many of today’s students just can’t write sentences. Many graduate without that fundamental skill.”

Oh, but let’s ignore that minor point and get on with the Obama administration’s goal of “producing” way more college graduates!

 

George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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