George Leef: How Much Writing Did You Do In Those Four (or Five Years )
Michael F. Shaughnessy
- George, you have a recent article in Forbes- what brought this about?
My recent Forbes article (which is available here) was inspired by the poor writing skills of American students. I first noticed that back in my own college teaching days in the 80s. Many students had such weak writing ability that they repeatedly made mistakes you’d have been surprised to see a fourth grader make in the 50s. When I started working for the Pope Center, I discovered that poor writing was a national problem, as I kept reading pieces by professors at all sorts of colleges, complaining that their students couldn’t write even a single clear sentence.
2) You have made the point that parents invest ( and often students invest ) and our government invests…..a great deal of money in terms of college education- but some college graduates can’t seem to write. Who is to blame ?
The root of this problem is in that amalgamation of fuzzy notions we generally label “progressive education theory.” Those ideas spread outward from the education schools in the 60s and 70s – ideas such as that it’s always crucial to build up a student’s self-esteem. You don’t accomplish that, however, with lots of language rules that make kids feel bad when they see red ink, and which stifle their creativity. So teachers who were “with it” abandoned the old, oppressive teaching that drilled good writing into students.
3) The past few years have seen this tremendous push toward standardized tests and teachers preparing their students for these high stakes tests. Your thoughts?
4) Many college instructors blame the high schools, and the highs schools blame the elementary schools. Is there any accountability at all?
There is very little accountability from top to bottom. Except at a small number of schools, largely private, teachers are not required to engage much with student writing. Most of our K-12 teachers have been imbued with those “progressive” theories at least to some extent, and, truth be told, most of them are not very good writers themselves. Therefore, students coast through their K-12 years being told that they’re “good writers” over and over when in fact they are anything but. Then they go to college. Few professors want to bother with the hard work of grading student writing, and there is no reward for those who do. In fact, grading student writing can lead to trouble, as in the recent case (discussed in the article) where a UCLA professor was accused of “micro-aggression” for having the temerity to correct writing mistakes in dissertation proposals.
5) Let me throw out a few courses- ENGLISH 102, 104, 108- is there any research as to how much writing goes on in any one class?
I’m not aware of any quantitative research on the amount of writing that is assigned. It varies enormously, I’m sure. A few years ago, we published an article by an UNC student whose writing class consisted mostly of blogging. On the other hand, we have also published pieces by professors who still insist on serious papers, and go to the trouble to guard against the current plague of merely copying material from websites. But the problem isn’t so much the low quantity of written work required, but the low quality of faculty engagement with what is required. Often professors merely jot down a nice comment or two; hardly ever do they take the time for line-by-line editing.
6) Going down another realm- teachers continually complain about the child with autism, the child with intellectual deficiency, the child with depression in their regular education class and they claim these kids take time away from the regular writing curriculum. Could this be a factor?
That sounds like an excuse to me. Certainly a few students have those problems, but they don’t prevent a teacher who is determined to carefully critique student papers from doing so.
7) Writing IS somewhat subjective- yet you and I recognize good grammar, syntax, spelling, sentence structure and punctuation when we see it. Is the rest of the world oblivious?
No, the rest of the world is not oblivious. Many people in business are expressing dismay at the inability of college grads they consider hiring (and sometimes do hire) to write anything that’s coherent. My article links to some recent evidence on that. The problem has even reached into law firms. I have an old friend who was a partner in a big firm and interviewed many law students from top schools for positions. He told me that most of them wrote poorly. Sure, they knew how to do legal citations, but as far as their ability to write clear prose, they were very disappointing.
8) We hear about English Language Learners in the schools- and the time it takes to prepare them. Do we need smaller class sizes? Or a longer school year?
Those are the kinds of “solutions” proposed by the education establishment. The only thing that will lead to better writing by students is to hire teachers who know how to teach writing and reward them on how well they do, which includes terminating them if they shirk that responsibility. One huge obstacle is that few of the individuals who are capable of doing a good job teaching writing have the necessary credentials to teach in public schools.
9) Focusing on college and university classes- who teaches some of the basic writing classes, and what goes on there? Any ideas?
Sadly, university writing programs have largely been colonized by professors who accept those “progressive” ideas and tend to use their classes not to make sure students can write clearly, but rather to make them write about ideological topics the professors are zealous about. So, instead of learning to write well, students learn to hector others about a litany of leftist ideas about social justice, environmentalism, and so on.
10) Is there any way a parent can make sure that their son/daughter will be able to write a coherent sentence, or even a question upon graduation?
Yes, but that requires them to ignore the good grades their children get in school and actually read their written assignments themselves. Assuming that the parents are able to detect poor writing (and we have to keep in mind that many parents are themselves the products of lousy writing education), they will then have to either work with the kids themselves or hire someone who can take out the red pen and carefully critique their writing. That is the way to get accountability – pay a competent person only if he does a good job.
11) Your main thoughts about writing in college?
It’s badly neglected, and, among other serious problems, many students cheat, either by just copying material, or paying for others to write papers for them. Here’s a piece I wrote last year about the book The Shadow Scholar, a confession by one guy who made a living for years by contracting with students to write their papers. The most distressing thing is that his efforts were mostly given decent grades.
12) What have I neglected to ask?
I think we’ve covered all the main points. Thanks.