How peculiar it is that the very people most entrusted with passing on our cultural gems of literature and language and writing are occasionally the people most hostile to that very job. And we do, I assume, want to give someone that job: to read these sentences today is to be the benefactor of thousands of years of accumulated literacy and part of a tradition that includes our most exalted poets and playwrights and authors. Teaching literacy can be considered a social responsibility, it serves both student and society, and you must have noticed that nearly everyone believes that we’re failing—just try to find somebody who says the children write so well today or that reading letters from Civil War soldiers makes me thankful for contemporary education. What is truly baffling about the typical loathing of contemporary writing quality, however, is that it is a choice.
Because the truth is that business owners and politicians and nearly every grandparent believes it undeniable that children are unequipped to form coherent sentences—yet this overwhelming and near-hysterical complaint doesn’t always reach the one place in all of society that’s primed to fix the problem. And this disconnect between what the average person expects English teachers to care about and what some English teachers do care about is difficult to reconcile. Perhaps there’s even an interesting market failure here: if most people complain about the general quality of writing today, why doesn’t the English Department take advantage of these complaints? Why are they uninterested in selling a product that nearly everyone wants to buy?
Although the reasons we ended up here are complicated, two documents from last year have lingered in my mind, with both of them from the National Council of Teachers of English, an organization “devoted to improving the teaching and learning of English and the language arts at all levels of education.” The first document arrived as a position statement last April and is titled Media Education in English Language Arts; the second document arrived in time for the fall semester and is titled Position Statement on Writing Instruction in School. Essentially, both documents are fairly bland, as anodyne as any committee report, and you’ll need an espresso to slog through the dull prose, but, if you do end up snoozing, you’ll miss what are truly remarkable statements:
The time has come to decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacles of English language arts education.
Now you might be distracted by the bizarre choice of decenter—which is a perfectly serviceable word when you’re discussing where to plant a garden—but you shouldn’t overlook the spectacle of English teachers shifting away from reading and writing. Obviously this doesn’t represent all English teachers, but it is striking that any committee of professionals dedicated to literacy could promote this position. In the latter statement, one section does highlight the ‘importance’ of writing, before moving in an ominous direction:
…in school settings, writing is often perceived and enacted as a gatekeeping device, which contributes to achievement gaps and other inequities. This happens when writing instruction and assessments focus on the writing—the products that are ultimately assessed and evaluated—rather than on the writers themselves.
In its bureaucratized form, this is a tad tricky to parse, but here’s the structure of the first sentence: students are evaluated based on writing and there’s a discrepancy in outcomes. That’s a perfectly reasonable statement for an organization of English teachers. I would expect the next sentence, therefore, to declare a commitment to ensuring that all students are taught the skills they need to succeed, rather than the abrupt and utterly strange decision to start measuring students and not papers. If you keep reading beyond what I’ve quoted, the paragraph veers into some political assumptions about what writing well “perpetuates” in the world, but that catastrophe of logic isn’t necessary for my argument: what I hear from these sentences is that the children who’ve learned to write will continue to succeed and that we’re giving up on those children who can’t write. This should rightly be called condescension, and seems particularly cruel for the worst performing students. We’ll judge the writers rather than the writing—which will ensure that those students who can’t write today won’t be able to write tomorrow.
Here’s another example of a position that can lead to particularly cruel consequences:
‘Good’ or ‘legitimate’ writing is equated almost exclusively with so-called ‘academic’ forms of writing (e.g., analytical essays, research papers), which perpetuates harmful ideas about what kinds of writing are useful and valued in the world and delegitimizes the writing that children and youth engage in outside of school spaces.
What’s curious about that ridiculous use of the word harmful is that it is exactly backwards: the child who doesn’t learn analytical writing today and then struggles to form coherent arguments throughout life is the one harmed. It is not kind to pretend that this child won’t someday enter a world where “good” writing skills are valued.
Even though our culture isn’t exactly facing a surplus of eloquence, the people we entrust to teach writing are busy creating position statements that center—let’s say, just once—everything but writing sentences and reading books:
…the creative work of effective speakers and writers can be found in a wide array of media genres and forms, including journalism, blog posts, advertising, political campaigns, YouTube videos, social media, Buzzfeed-style listicles, photo essays, podcasts, infographics, and many other forms. Many students are more familiar with these forms than they are with traditional academic writing genres.
Nothing about these sentences is wrong—except for, well, the point about listicles—and there are effective speakers and writers in countless mediums. But that doesn’t mean that students are best equipped to excel in those mediums when their English class ignores what has previously been considered fundamental. There’s nothing particularly wrong with having students “compose in a genre that they are familiar with” except that it guarantees that they will never examine what’s unfamiliar. Missing from these documents is any notion of composition, of instructing students in how to present an argument, in the shaping of a logical paragraph, or the simple creation of a clear sentence.
Yet you can probably detect a tendency to chase what’s trendy underneath both documents—it is the meretricious desire to feel relevant, to make the classroom more modern, to connect English instruction to contemporary society. But that tendency comes with the flawed assumption that core aspects of language instruction—writing, reading—are insufficient for our contemporary world:
The ability to represent one’s ideas using images and multimedia is now a valued competency in a wide variety of professional careers in the knowledge economy.
Although this is true, it doesn’t imply that English teachers are best positioned to teach these skills, nor does it imply that more traditional aspects of English education aren’t, in fact, the most useful skills to learn for the contemporary world. For all the concerns about artificial intelligence and a more precarious, variable job market, the teaching of classic texts and writing skills are even more vital today: a student who learns how to sit down and digest a complex text is more prepared for a world that’s automating so many tasks. But an English class that’s focused on images and video and multimedia is one that’s not spent on learning to write coherent sentences, and I’m fairly certain that learning to write coherent sentences can assist you in communicating through any medium but that the reverse is not true.
It is worth asking what we want our English Departments to do. My impression is that the typical internal answer differs greatly from the typical external answer. If you ask the average business owner what skills they want prospective employees to learn in English class, the desire for basic composition skills might sound old-fashioned or too traditional to some teachers, but that doesn’t make the desire any less true. I don’t have any concern whatsoever that students will fail to discover images and videos and countless other mediums—but who, I do wonder, is best positioned to show them great books? Who else is more prepared to teach writing? Is there another class where students have this opportunity?
Although I am certain that the overwhelming majority of English teachers still want to convey a passion for language, it should be troubling when an organization devoted to literacy pushes against those instincts—it just makes it that much harder for individual teachers to focus on writing. And teaching fundamental skills shouldn’t be a burden—the English language has a history that’s dynamic and fascinating and the very notion that those entrusted to teach it run away from its history should be shocking. To not reveal the passion and intellect and wisdom of literature to young students seems more than a bit cruel. It is to keep the museum doors of our most prized cultural artifacts locked, and how strange it is when some English teachers, of all people, aren’t even interested in using the key.
I can present some degree of optimism, though I wonder if optimism is the right word depending on what one might think of the quality of my books. My young adult novel gets taught in hundreds of high schools across the USA and in schools worldwide. I've Zoom-visited over 100 classrooms during the pandemic because of English teachers who very much favor the book itself—or should I say that they "center" my book. And I've noticed that, along with my contemporary books, these teachers also present many of the classics—Beloved, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Great Gatsby being among the most common. I've also visited classrooms where Austen and Dickens are on the syllabus. And these schools I've visited have ranged from elite private to at-risk public. I believe there are English teachers (how many?) who don't necessarily follow their parent organizations' condescending philosophies.
I appreciate what you have written, and share your concerns. Reading this reminded me of my 7th grade English teacher in a public school in rural South Louisiana. I am afraid I cannot remember her name. But after an initial writing assignment she met with me and asked if I had ever heard of a Thesaurus. Of course, I had not, and she presented me with one. I enthusiastically received her help and my next paper was filled with the extravagance of language that brought about another meeting. This time, she thought I might tone it down a bit. But she cared, made an effort to help me write better, and at that young age I am certain paved the way through the later years of education. That same year I also had a math teacher who tried her best, but I am a hopeless case there. So, I feel very blessed to have had teachers that cared in a public school system that didn't have the greatest of resources. They wanted me to write. And I did.