Bad Student Writing? Not So Fast!

It would be good for the blood pressure of everyone involved in criticizing education—state legislators, education policy professionals, professors, school administrators, parents—to take a deep breath. Put aside the statistics, the studies, the anecdotes, and take a look at the big picture.

Here’s what Edith Hamilton had to say about education, in The Echo of Greece (1957), one of her many trenchant books on the subject of the ancient Greeks: 

“If people feel that things are going from bad to worse and look at the new generation to see if they can be trusted to take charge among such dangers, they invariably conclude that they cannot and that these irresponsible young people have not been trained properly. Then the cry goes up, ‘What is wrong with our education?’ and many answers are always forthcoming.”

Note the droll and ironic, “and many answers are always forthcoming.” Perhaps studying people who lived so long ago—people who invented the very idea of education as a route to genuine freedom, and understood freedom to be worthwhile only when coupled with self-control—gave Hamilton one of those calm, stoical uber-minds that comprehends  competing pronouncements about education never to be more than opinion.

While the rest of us thrash about interpreting the parade of studies and tests demonstrating that students can no longer think, read, write, do math, know the dates of the Civil War or the fall of Byzantium, or identify a water molecule when it’s softly floating on a glass slide, Hamilton calmly sees ’twas ever thus. In an interesting aside, she also observes that there’s an increase in “educational fervor” whenever there’s a lack of confidence in the state.

I’d go further. The problem of “control freaks” applies to generations as well as to individuals. Older generations never voluntarily let go. They embrace new ideas only grudgingly, and often won’t even try to understand the younger generation they themselves spawned. One of the many tragedies of existence is that the only species that’s equipped by nature to have back-and-forth conversations between generations resists such conversations with all its might.

Clive Thompson’s article on the “new literacy” (Wired Magazine, 24 August) urges those of us who are fretting about the decline in writing, in particular, to buck up. Unlike Hamilton, who points to the eternal past for comfort, Thompson points to the present and the future. He reports on a large, ongoing study at Stanford—the Stanford Study of Writing—directed by Andrea Lunsford, a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University. Her conclusion?  “I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization.”

Thompson writes, “Technology isn’t killing our ability to write. It’s reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.” The Stanford study, although incomplete, already shows that young people today write far, far more than any previous generation, and a lot of it they do outside the classroom (!).

While the older generation worries endlessly (frequently employing pretentious prose in the process) over the quality of the writing on Facebook, blogs and Twitter, the younger generation enthusiastically probes new ways to express themselves clearly and concisely (texting and Twitter), to exchange open opinions about every matter under the sun (Twitter and Facebook), and to do all these things in clever, inventive ways. Lunsford sees a link between the modern world of online writing—feisty, conversational, out in public, and concise—and the ancient Greek tradition of argument.

What if the younger generation ends up better writers than their parents–and their professors? Perish the thought!

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