Phi Beta Cons

Writing and Thinking

In the May 4 issue of the Chronicle, Rachel Toor, who teaches writing at Eastern Washington University, has a fine essay entitled “Why We Can’t Farm Out the Teaching of Writing.” Her key point is that many college professors these days dodge the work of evaluating student writing because they aren’t very good at writing themselves.

This is a problem that has been growing for decades. In his marvelous 1979 book Less than Words Can Say (re-released in 2004), Richard Mitchell, an English professor at Glassboro State College who was once known as “the underground grammarian,” argued that clear writing is evidence of clear thinking and that sloppy writing is evidence of sloppy thinking.

He wrote:

The logic of writing is simply logic; it is not some system of arbitrary conventions interesting only to those who write a lot. All logical thought goes on in the form of statements and statements about statements. We can make those statements only in language, even if that language be a different symbol system like mathematics. If we cannot make those statements and statements about statements logically, clearly, and coherently, then we cannot think and make knowledge. People who cannot put strings of sentences together in good order cannot think. An educational system that does not teach the technology of writing is preventing thought.

Although the U.S. spends more and more on “education,” great numbers of young (and now, middle-aged) citizens can’t do what used to be easy for most grade-schoolers — writing clear, well-thought-out sentences. They’ve never been taught to do that and with each passing year, there are fewer teachers who might teach them how.

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

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