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Worry in the summertime; teaching writin' ain't easy

Published Oct. 4, 2005

Summertime, and the living is easy. Schools are empty, so the damage has stopped. During this seasonal respite from the education system's subtraction from national literacy, consider why America may be graduating from its high schools its first generation worse educated than the generation that came before. Particularly, why is it common for high school graduates to be functionally illiterate, uncertain when reading, and incapable of writing even a moderately complicated paragraph?

Heather Mac Donald knows one reason: More and more schools refuse, on the basis of various political and ethical and intellectual theories, to teach writing. Her essay, "Why Johnny can't write," in the current issue of The Public Interest quarterly, is a hair-raising peek into what she calls "one overlooked corner of the academic madhouse."

Mac Donald, a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal, explains how the teaching of writing has been shaped by "an indigestible stew of 1960s liberationist zeal, 1970s deconstructionist nihilism, and 1980s multicultural proselytizing." Indeed many teachers now consider the traditional idea of teaching to be intellectually suspect and morally offensive because it is tainted by the authoritarian idea that there are defensible standards and by the inegalitarian idea that some people do things better than others.

At a 1966 conference organized by the Modern Language Association and the National Conference of Teachers of English, the "transmission model" of teaching composition was rejected in favor of the "growth model." The idea of transmitting skills and standards was inherently threatening to the values of that decade _ spontaneity, authenticity, sincerity, equality and self-esteem.

The "growth model" was, Mac Donald notes, impeccably liberationist: Who was to judge anyone else's "growth"? And that model "celebrated inarticulateness and error as proof of authenticity." This was convenient for evolving racial policies. In 1966 the City University of New York began the first academic affirmative action program. Open admissions would soon follow, as would the idea that it is cultural imperialism to deny full legitimacy to anything called "Black English." Simultaneously came the idea that demands for literacy oppress the masses and condition them to accept the coercion of capitalism.

"Process" became more important than content in composition. Students would "build community" as they taught each other. A reactionary emphasis on the individual was replaced by a progressive emphasis on the collectivity. But, says Mac Donald, there have been difficulties: "Students who have been told in their writing class to let their deepest selves loose on the page and not worry about syntax, logic or form have trouble adjusting to other classes." Thus a student at St. Anselm's College complains that in her humanities class, "I have to remember a certain format and I have to back up every general statement with specific examples."

Academic fads have followed hard upon one another, all supplying reasons why it is unnecessary _ no, anti-social _ to teach grammar and style. Mac Donald says, "The multiculturalist writing classroom is a workshop on racial and sexual oppression. Rather than studying possessive pronouns, students are learning how language silences women and blacks."

As student writing grows worse, Mac Donald notes, the academic jargon used to rationalize the decline grows more pompous. For example a professor explains that "post-process, post-cognitive theory . . . represents literacy as an ideological arena and composing as a cultural activity by which writers position and reposition themselves in relation to their own and others' subjectivities, discourses, practices and institutions."

Nowadays the mere mention of "remedial" courses is coming to be considered insensitive about "diversity," and especially insulting and unfair to students from American "cultures" where "orality" is dominant. So at some colleges remedial courses are now called ESD courses _ English as a Second Dialect.

The smugly self-absorbed professoriate that perpetrates all this academic malpractice is often tenured and always comfortable. The students on the receiving end are always cheated and often unemployable. It is summertime, and the nation is rightly uneasy about autumn.

Washington Post Writers Group