Does Our Education System Overemphasize Literature at the Expense of Writing?

Let me start by saying that I’m posing this as a question based on my own experience. If there’s research that flies in the face of what I’m going to suggest, please post it in the comments.

Frequently I hear professors lament that students come to Baruch College with inadequate writing skills. This sentiment is not bound by discipline, as I’ve heard it from faculty members in the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences as well as the Zicklin School of Business. The latter even felt compelled to create a pair of zero credit Business Communication courses that all MBA students are required to take. This is a Communication Across the Curriculum blog, so it seems as good a venue as any to consider what causes this issue.

The natural inclination is to blame it on Baruch’s high percentage of non-native English speakers. However, I’ve found that the bulk of students who were born and raised in the U.S. come into my classes without knowing the most basic rules of writing, like those found in Strunk & White’s Elements of Style.

Elements of Style

Was I supposed to read this?

The first time I taught Journalistic Writing, I was shocked to receive the first set of papers and find that I had to go over some of the most commonsense stylistic rules with junior and senior journalism majors. These are students who, presumably, decided they liked writing enough to pursue it as a career — or at least enough to occupy 24 credits of their undergraduate education. But as I prepared my lesson on what I thought were the most basic concepts, I realized something embarrassing: I had never formally learned the lessons taught in Elements of Style.

Oh, I owned a copy. I had to buy it along with an AP Stylebook for one of the first journalism classes I took as an undergrad. But we never actually did anything with it because it was assigned as a tool to brush up on concepts we should have learned long before. So as I thumbed through the book and scribbled down Strunk & White’s rules to then teach hours later as though I were an expert, I felt like a hypocrite. I was about to go preach the importance of writing rules when I had earned my own journalism degree simply by using one I made up for myself: If it sounds right, it probably is right. That’s not very scientific.

So why didn’t I ever get these lessons? Probably because my English classes in grades 7 through 12 were taught as literature classes with writing as a secondary focus, if that.

I understand the idea behind forming writing assignments around classic works of literature to kill two birds with one stone, but I always felt like I was graded much more on what themes and allusions I could pluck from a work and not on how well I could actually explain my reasoning. This totally ignores writing for daily life — the kind of writing that you’ll actually be judged upon outside of an academic sitting. Explain what your problem is. Explain why I need to know what you’re telling me. Convince me of something.

Clearly educators agree that this type of writing needs to be taught beyond elementary school, because we require college students to take composition classes. So why do students go from age 12 to 18 without having to do any of it? Instead, classes reward the use of big words and convoluted sentences, and reaching page minimums instead of working within page maximums.

It’s widely and rightly accepted now that you don’t teach writing by drilling students with grammar rules, and I’m not saying we should. I’m also not suggesting we scrap literature from the K-12 curriculum in favor of more practical forms of writing. But can’t we have both? Shouldn’t we have both?

Comments

  1. Ryan says:

    Great post, important issue.

    My experience as a middle schooler in the late-1980s and as a teacher of both college and HS students leads me to this conclusion: we SHOULD drill students with grammar rules when they are young. Also kids actually need to read more SWE and write less about how they feel, etc.

    The kids I see in the Bronx are quite smart but too often barely literate in English. Their reading and writing skills are on an elementary school level, and it’s not their fault. We’re doing them a huge disservice.

    I don’t know the academic research, so maybe I’m wrong and what we need is not a return to something abandoned but a completely new approach. All I know is that whatever has replaced the boring old school methods really, really has not worked at all.

  2. Whatever we do differently, it shouldn’t be make people learn the rules of SWE through drills. Grammar drills don’t help people learn to write well. They teach the rules of formal grammar but not how to assimilate and apply them in a meaningful way in an essay or a conversation or a memo or whatever else. See Patrick Hartwell’s famous article that makes the case convincingly that grammar is best taught in the context of a student’s own writing and not via skills and drills. We learn to write by writing and by listening and responding to constructive feedback and within that feedback is where the rules can become important. They don’t stick when abstracted from actual contexts.

    Here’s the full cite:

    Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar
    Patrick Hartwell
    College English , Vol. 47, No. 2 (Feb., 1985), pp. 105-127
    Published by: National Council of Teachers of English
    Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/376562

    I see big questions here: what is English supposed to do? and where should literacy instruction be located? I’m not really ready to tangle with the first one here, but I do think that students at all levels would be more likely to learn to write across contexts with fluency, confidence and style if they were to read and write substantively in all disciplines and not only (or predominantly) in English. We at the post-secondary level are starting to get this thanks to Writing Across the Curriculum and Writing in the Disciplines (WAC/WID) initiatives over the last 30 or so years. I don’t know whether this sort of thinking about writing as a way of learning has had any traction in elementary or secondary curricula.

  3. Craig says:

    I agree completely, Mikhail. Thanks for posting the link.

    In my classes I’ve really focused on detailed feedback and revisions rather than lecturing in grammar rules, because I think the only way the students improve is if they see the corrections, understand them, AND are forced to implement them. When I first started teaching I tried to pack the semester with unique assignments (my sports writing class had to do 13 articles in 16 weeks!), but since then I’ve noticed much more improvement by drastically reducing the number of assignments and spending more time on each so that I can give more individualized instruction. Granted, I’m not sure if that would be possible if I were teaching four comp classes in a semester.

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