Commentaries
Why Colleges Churn Out Poor Writers and Poor Thinkers

By George Leef

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August 28, 2015

People in and out of the academic world have been pointing to a glaring defect in our education system for many years. That defect is the failure to teach students to write competently.

The first time I encountered that lament was in a 1979 book, Less Than Words Can Say, by the late Professor Richard Mitchell. (Those of sufficiently advanced years might remember Mitchell, who taught English at Glassboro State, as “the Underground Grammarian.”) He wrote, “An education that does not teach clear, coherent writing cannot provide our world with thoughtful adults; it gives us at best clever children of all ages.”

As Mitchell saw matters back in the 1970s, teachers and professors were letting students get away with sloppy, careless writing and thus facilitating sloppy, careless thinking.

Mitchell continued, “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…. 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.”

Less Than Words Can Say was filled with examples of bad writing—not by students, but by college grads, including teachers, college professors, and government officials.

More than 35 years later, Professor Gerald Graff sees the same problem that Mitchell did. Graff, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has contributed a superb essay entitled “Why Johnny and Joanie Can’t Write, Revisited” to The State of the American Mind edited by Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow. 

Graff states, “Bad writing means lower productivity in the workplace, and it also spells deteriorating discourse in the civic sphere. Since the quality of our writing reflects the quality of our thinking, slovenly writing breeds weak citizens—people who are slow to see through propaganda and nonsense…. Show me a student writer who by page five of an essay has forgotten the claim he made on page one (and won’t bother to go back and check), and I’ll show you someone who will probably bring that mental laziness into the workplace and the civic arena.”

Like Mitchell, Graff understands that poor writing in college is rooted in weak instruction during the student’s early years, where many teachers try using formulas for writing, such as “Six Traits of Writing.” Such models do not work well because they overwhelm the student with rules instead of giving them lots of practice. Graff analogizes that approach to having students learn golf just by reading about how to play golf.

There is another reason that Graff doesn’t mention but I will: Many teachers are themselves products of the weakest part of our higher education system (education schools) and they don’t write competently themselves. They’re glad to rely on a system and can’t tell whether their students are writing well or not.

When students who haven’t been taught how to write well arrive in college, they desperately need help. They don’t know how to use English well and have trouble formulating clear thoughts. Unfortunately, few of them get that help. Too often, college writing is about feelings or political activism than about crafting good sentences and assembling them into a coherent whole.

Graff writes that students are often confused by conflicting instructions from their college professors. While some of them insist on that old staple of college work, the argumentative essay, others now turn thumbs down on that kind of writing. “Some college teachers,” he writes, “view argument as central to academic writing while others either don’t’ mention it at all or soft-pedal it, warning students not to be too argumentative, perhaps because argument is allegedly ‘binary,’ male, or a reflection of hegemonic Western rationality.”

To Graff, that’s humbug, and he advocates that college professors focus on teaching students how to write in the argumentative academic style he calls the “they say/I say” essay. That certainly would be an improvement over the rambling, feelings-oriented sort of writing that now often passes as academic work. For one thing, that would clue students into one of the key aspects of higher education—that it’s about the clash of ideas (or at least ought to be).

I agree entirely with Professor Graff’s conclusion: “Young people who learn ‘they say/I say’ and thus get in the habit of summarizing the views of others will recognize that their opinions properly exist in a marketplace of opinions, and they will in turn be apt to look upon fellow citizens as interlocutors rather than as foes….”

In formulating the sort of writing assignments Graff favors, it would be best to avoid hot current topics, as Professor Steven Combs observed in this recent Pope Center piece. With controversial topics and professors who think their job is to turn students into “change agents,” the natural tendency will be for students to worry more about what they write than how they write it. Ditto for the professors.

But even if we could get college professors to accept Graff’s idea and Combs’ proviso, we would still have a serious problem. Few professors are willing to devote the great amount of time that’s required to grade student papers. Students need a lot of feedback from faculty and that calls for line by line editing to show all the errors: spelling, punctuation, usage, structure, logic, and so on. 

Unfortunately, as Professor Murray Sperber pointed out in this 2011 Pope Center article, most faculty members don’t want to take the time that such editing requires. They’re busy with other things, so critiques of student papers are often limited to banal statements that are little more than smiley face stickers.

Besides, when professors do take the time for careful editing, they might regret it. UCLA professor Val Rust brought on a full-fledged protest complete with accusations of racism simply because he had the gall to note writing errors in his students’ dissertation proposals. As the indignant students declared, Rust had corrected “perceived grammatical choices that in actuality reflect ideologies.” 

Terrible, just terrible. Moreover, those insensitive grammar lessons allegedly “contributed to a hostile class climate.” 

Why would a professor risk that? 

Rarely is there any reward for undertaking the thankless and potentially risky chore of criticizing student writing and rarely is there any penalty for shirking it. That being generally the case, those students who actually want to learn to write well might want to consider the path chosen by David Bass.

David explained in this piece that he knew he wanted to become a writer and concluded that the best way to learn the craft was to do it. So he enrolled in an online degree program that didn’t cost too much money or, more importantly, too much of his time. He put his time into writing for the John Locke Foundation under the supervision of veteran journalists and policy experts.

Of course, not everyone can get such excellent on-the-job-training, but the key point is that students should not assume that going to college will turn them into good writers. It’s much more likely that professors will neglect their poor writing, while perhaps even encouraging them to believe that they are good, if not excellent writers. For the faculty, that’s the path of least resistance.

It’s hard to see how colleges will break their bad habit of allowing students to coast through with miserable writing skills. Despite the presence of a few traditionalists and reformers such as Graff, Combs, and Rust, academic writing instruction still seems to be heading in the wrong direction.

 


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