Students Want to Write Well; We Don’t Let Them

By Ryan Boyd for lareviewofbooks.org

THINK OVER YOUR MEMORIES from school: middle school, high school, college, graduate studies, it doesn’t really matter. A history class, a course for machinists, freshman English, a Greek philosophy seminar, Drawing 101, whatever. Think about what you enjoyed. Chances are it involved freedom to explore your curiosity about things that mattered to you. It is likely that you had the range to pursue legitimate, deeper long-term interests while also trying out short-term activities. You probably got to play around some (or a lot) and were able to fail sometimes because you had teachers who supported you and helped you see that freedom and failure are intertwined parts of learning. Chances are you actually had fun in the classroom — not a frivolous kind but the sort that arises from having your mind engaged, from intrinsic motivation and not external pressures. You didn’t know it, but you were in agreement with John Dewey, in that you realized how “education […] is a process of living, and not a preparation for future living.”

Here is the bad news: since the 1980s, American elites have engineered environments that produce the opposite of these feelings and motivations. Indeed, there is a good chance, especially if you are under 40, that the sentiments described above are thin on the ground. They might even be nonexistent, wiped out or never there in the first place.

This reality is central to John Warner’s urgent new book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. There is a crisis in how we teach young people, and for Warner this is especially salient in American writing classes. But it’s not the crisis you hear policymakers in Washington or your statehouse talk about, nor is it the sort of narrative that attracts New York Times columnists. The problem is not smartphone addiction, or oversensitive campus activists, or a lack of rigor on the part of professors who only care about their research, or unscrupulous teachers unions protecting bad apples, or millennials getting too many participation trophies, or helicopter parents, or whatever else bothers pundits at The Atlantic this week. It has, instead, a lot more to do with how we have tried to industrialize and centralize education since the Reagan era while simultaneously withdrawing the resources that allow teachers to create environments where students can thrive. A bad thing happened when the standardized test met the austerity budget coming down the road.

Read more here.

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