My profession, like the title of this blog, is that of compositionist, one who teaches and researches writing, so I was understandably excited to find Kim Brooks' “Death to High School English” as the lead story on Salon this morning. But that excitement wore off as soon as I got into the article, which is, by-and-large, another diatribe on the familiar theme of literacy crisis. My discipline of composition owes its existence, in part, to the cries of student deficiency that arose at Harvard in the late 1890s. All of the sudden, everyone in education was howling that students couldn't write. Courses in composition were created to remediate student writing. As with most things, Harvard's model was adopted throughout the country.
So, none of this is new. Articles like Brooks' pop up from time to time, but the theme is always the same: Students can't write. After reading this piece a couple of times, I think Brooks' argument can be broken down like this:
Students can’t write because they don’t learn grammar in high school.
Students can’t write because they are forced to read so-called “canonical” texts in high school.
And a sort of sub-argument is: Students can’t write because they are subjected to standardized testing in high school.
Brooks pieces together those arguments based on talks with students. I, too, over the course of my career, have canvassed students about what they did in high school, and my students’ answers have some overlap with Brooks.
First of all, perhaps it is true that in the Chicago area, where Brooks teaches, grammar instruction isn’t done, but in Mississippi, my base of operations, a traditional English class paradigm continues to dominate the curriculum, meaning English classes tend to emphasize grammar, often in the form of hand-outs (circle the verb) and tests, and the avoidance of error. Grammar is the focus of much state standardized testing, and much of high school English instruction is aimed at students passing those tests.
The problem with grammar instruction is that it doesn't work. It does very little to improve student writing because, well, circling the verb is not writing. It is entirely possible for students to be able to avoid the comma splice and still turn in boring, bland, lifeless prose. Good grammar and good writing are not the same thing. We know that if we want students to become better writers, they must write.
Brooks’ second argument, that students write poorly because they are forced to read canonical texts, has certainly garnered its share of attention in composition studies. The “canon” is criticized for being disproportionately represented by dead white males. The “canon” is old, stuffy, pretentious, and it fails to address contemporary problems. And while I understand those concerns, I fail to understand how reading canonized literature can be a scape-goat for poor writing.
Brooks misses the real problem. When I’ve canvassed my students about what they did in high school, many told me they didn't read at all. Nothing. It is entirely possible, perhaps common, to graduate from high school without having read a book cover to cover. Instead of reading, for many of my students, almost every literary text was taught as a film. In high school, my students watched a lot of movies.
And though Brooks touches on that, noting that some of her students enacted dramatizations of the Scarlet Letter, she doesn't criticise the fact that they were playing rather than reading. For Brooks, the problem is the Scarlet Letter. My view, again, is straightforward: If we want students to improve their writing, we must require them to write, and we must require them to read. I think it matters very little if they read Hamlet or the back of a shampoo bottle. Students must read because they need models of good writing. How can we expect them to write well if they have no idea what good writing looks like?
Another problem is standardized testing, which Brooks mentions and then glances over. How in the world can students be expected to write well if they come from an educational culture of the big test? All that matters is the test, which teaches nothing, and teachers, under continual pressure to improve their numbers, teach the big test, which means they teach for mediocrity. Why waste time with anything else when that one test supersedes all other educational objectives? Critical thinking? Expression? Argumentation? No. Circle the verb. Root out the main idea. Memorize the rhyme scheme of iambic pentameter. Select A, B, C, or D (none of the above).
There is no magic formula. Writing requires work. Writing is hard. It is a messy process that forces one to struggle with his or her ideas. But practically anyone who dedicates himself or herself to reading and writing will grow into a better writer. If high schools are failing to turn out capable writers, it is because students are taught the big test instead of reading and writing. In some sense, it really is as simple as that.
By the time I get those students as college freshman, they have long since decided that they hate their native language, or at least the version of the language they are given in classrooms. All the pleasure of the language, the beauty and vitality and wonder, has been beaten out of them. They believe that language is about avoiding error instead of self-expression. Their scowls and moans leave no doubt they'd rather be anywhere but in the classroom.
My job is to undo all of the damage that was done to them in high school. My job is to rekindle the love of language that I believe is innate in every human being. I tell them, when you were four years old, you loved all language and learning. You soaked up every word you heard. You were fascinated by language. It took school to make learning drudgery.
So we work on expression, word play, and narrative. Grammar instruction rarely enters the conversation. Instead, I teach my students that they have something to say, and I give them the freedom to say it. The prose is seldom perfect, but who sits down at the computer desk and churns out perfect prose? That's what editing and editors are for. The primary concern is writing with vigor and verve. To write, one has to forget about error. Just write. Brooks seems to believe one can “master” the language, but I suspect she knows better. I suspect she knows that if she writes every day for 500 years, she will continue to learn about writing.
Forget grammar. Forget mastery. Just write.
Add to that formula an instructor who will read and offer thoughtful responses, who will treat his or her students’ as people who have something to say instead of as deficient morons, and students will grow. Give them an instructor who responds to errors in the context of writing, never divorced from it (as in the grammar instruction that Brooks seems to be implicitly endorsing) and you have the makings of a very fine course in English composition. Students will flourish.
Brooks, in the concluding paragraph, is right about one thing: Teaching composition is hard work. No, it isn't digging ditches or smelting iron ore, but it is hard work. We push the boulder up the hill for fifteen weeks, only to see it roll back down again once the next term begins. Instructors of composition read sometimes hundreds of boring, bland, grammatically challenged essays, and many respond to each of them in a personalized way. It requires dedication to students, the ability to recognize that all of them have the ability to write, and to write well, and to recognize their struggles to express themselves. It also requires nurture, perhaps even love. We have to genuinely care about our students, assume a pedagogical attitude toward them, and strive to guide each one to better expression. None of the above is easy. I grant that. But it is noble. It is an opportunity to change the world, one student at a time.