In an excellent Wall Street Journal piece, Andrew Ferguson, author of Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College writes about his visit to one of the schools where his son was accepted. It's a warts-and-all portrait of college life, heavy on the amenities and light on the academics. What little attention was given to academics is troubling: "The professor boasted of his history course, which had transformed merely curious students into 'social activists.' Under his guidance the young scholars read books by Sally Belfrage, author of the Cold War memoir 'UnAmerican Activities' and the socialist historian Howard Zinn, author of 'A People's History of the United States,' and they emerged 'ready to change the world.' So we have that to look forward to. "The professor's speech was just a hint of what was to come: Later my son told me that he had three choices for a mandatory writing class: 'History of the 1960s,' 'TV's Mad men,' and 'Intro to Queer Theory.'" I hope young Mr. Ferguson already knows how to write.
In this week’s Pope Center Clarion Call, Professor David Clemens discusses the general failure to teach college students critical thinking — despite the fact that many schools trumpet that as one of their goals — and then explains how he gets his students to learn it. He gives them a capstone assignment that requires them to write a lengthy essay on the question whether Holocaust deniers should be included in the curriculum. That compels the students to analyze evidence and arguments as most have never had to do before.
The NAS has published a long-buried study on the state of the history research paper in American high schools. The 2002 study sponsored by The Concord Review (TCR) went unpublished when its benefactor, the Albert Shanker Institute, found the results unflattering to high school teachers. Why aren't high schools doing a better job of teaching students to write? The suppressed study finds that 95% of high school teachers think research papers are important, but 62% never assign them. According to the report, the biggest barriers to teachers are time and class size. Most teachers said that grading papers took too much personal time, and that not enough time was provided for this in the school day. Teachers surveyed taught an average of 80 students each. Assigning a 20-page paper then means having 1,600 pages to grade. The Concord Review urged high schools to support teachers by providing more time for them to grade papers. Click here to read the press release.
Most college composition courses teach students "next to nothing" writes Troy Camplin in today's Pope Center piece. The problem is that most students have great deficits in their understanding of English thanks to their K-12 years and the small amount of time college profs have to cover the fundamentals of grammar is not nearly enough. Many people in the business world lament that the ability to write decently is a skill that is badly lacking among college graduates. This piece helps explain why. I also give Camplin three cheers for his advocacy of putting logic into the college curriculum.
That is the question Professor Robert V. Young of North Carolina State answers in this Pope Center piece we released last week. Back when he taught the course in the 1970s, it was like boot camp for college students who needed to improve their writing. There was a lot of work and it was rigorously graded -- tough on both the student and the professor. Unfortunately, the course metamorphosed over the years into one dominated by "composition theory" and like so many academic theories, that one has proven to be a dismal failure. More incoming students than ever need to improve their writing, but the way freshman comp is now taught, it's mostly a waste of time -- or worse.
We hear a lot of chatter about how it's so vital that we get more young Americans through college because college teaches them the "higher skills" that the globalized "knowledge economy" demands. I think that's baloney. For many students, college doesn't even teach the most basic skill of all, namely the ability to write clear English. In this video of a talk presented at the John Locke Foundation, North Carolina State English professor Robert V. Young explains what has happened to freshman comp over the decades. It used to be a lot of hard work (for students and professor), but now.....
Most good teachers had a model. Robert Pinsky had Francis Ferguson; Mark Edmundson had Frank Lears. I was lucky; I had two. My Freshman Comp. teacher was Dr. Idelle Sullens, a Stanford-trained medievalist specializing in 14th century literature. But I was mystified to learn that she had also been a naval officer in World War II and Korea. And rumor had it that she was something called a “Daughter of Bilitis.” But what really fractured my high school brain was seeing Dr. Sullens pull up in her brand new `64 Mustang. That I understood, and it elevated her beyond cool. My disturbing discovery was that one could seem professorial but also be startlingly complicated. Two years later, it was the Lincolnesque Beat Generation scholar Tom Parkinson. One drowsy afternoon in Berkeley’s Wheeler Auditorium, Parkinson recited Ezra Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”with tears streaming down his partially-paralyzed cheeks (he had been shot in the face by a student). I was embarrassed but also feared that this moment was profound in a way I might never understand. How could he so reveal himself? It took years to learn that throughout one’s life, good literature deepens and grows, accumulating, preserving, and incorporating intense personal associations. Now there are poems I can’t read aloud without leaking tears. Both are gone now, but the spirits of Sullens and Parkinson still gently remind me to be unexpected, singular, complicated, and exposed so that my students will see that one day they can do the same.
The following column on George Orwell's advice to free students from bad academic writing is worth reading:
In two decades of teaching, I've worked with exceptionally bright undergraduates. Once they enter graduate school, however, they conform to the "smelly little orthodoxies" of theory and the jargon-ridden writing of their discipline. I've always despised jargon that deadens prose and will be passé by the time these young conformists hit old age. Future generations will have to decipher why words and phrases such as "subaltern," "post-structuralist," "late capitalism" meant to the scribbling class of early 21st century academics. The advice Orwell gives is very similar to advice Winston Churchill gave on good writing. This passage says it best (from Orwell, "Politics and the English Language"):
"Orwell leaves us with a list of simple rules: * Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. * Never use a long word where a short one will do. * If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. * Never use the passive where you can use the active. * Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. * Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
I am posting this for my own students and as a reminder to myself (fallen creature that I am).
A charming blog on our blogroll, Quiddity - created by the Center for Independent Research on Classical Education (CiRCE) - has an excellent post on the beauty of formally-taught grammar. Author Andrew Kern, CiRCE president and developer of a classical composition program called The Lost Tools of Writing, reasons:
When you teach grammar for her own sake, you keep the benefits and also gain her blessings, many of which are simply unpredictable. When a child learns formal grammar, he becomes her intimate acquaintance and they flourish in a symbiotic relationship like a cherished governess or mother. She forms his mind to its own nature. She empowers the child to think. Form itself becomes a mental habit – if the soil is ready. You come to realize that things have structures. You start looking for the structures of things like language, poetry, literature, natural objects (e.g. trees, bodies, the cosmos), and knowledge itself. By recognizing structure and order you come to perceive the relationships between things and you realize that the life of the thing is embodied in its structure. You come to love order. But you don’t make it the end of your observations. It is always a foundation, a skeleton, and never the spirit. [...] And when a young child learns the form of grammar, he develops two habits of mind that are essential to self-governance and freedom:
- He learns to limit what he is saying to what he is trying to say – he learns to think with limits and therefore to think about something
- And he learns to insist that others mean something when they speak and limit themselves when they rule
Kern's article is worth reading in its entirety.
At Critical Mass, Erin O’Connor has an excellent take on a professor’s recent article justifying her use of the classroom for political activism. Professor Gemma Puglisi, who teaches a writing course at the American University in Washington, wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education:
the entire experience has made me re-examine my own teaching. What role do we as professors have in our classrooms? Is it appropriate for us to use politics as a pedagogical tool? Do we have the right to use our classrooms for activism?
Puglisi thinks so, but O'Connor disagrees:
There is much to be said for fighting to ensure due process and to defend those we believe have been falsely accused. But Puglisi should have done it on her own time. The fact that she might have been on the side of the angels on this one doesn't justify her abuse of pedagogical privilege.
We couldn't have said it better.