At the Times, Stanley Fish argues that college writing courses need to focus more on grammar, syntax, and rhetoric, and less on discussing, debating, and imitating popular writing on hot-button issues. I agree, but don't think higher education can solve the problem of poor writing ability.
Far and away, the most useful class I took in college was called "Seminar in the Teaching of Writing." It was a required training course for my part-time job working as a peer writing tutor. It was also the only class I ever took -- in all my years of school -- that taught me methods for effectively structuring a persuasive essay, how to properly use a comma, and the difference between "that" and "which."
The movement away from teaching grammar and rhetoric and toward "whole language" has deprived a lot of students of this kind of practical education. Grammar and syntax need to be part of the K-12 curriculum; for most people who aren't obsessive professional writers, university is way too late to instill these lessons. But there's something else at play: a lack of serious reading in American high schools. Engaged, experienced readers are simply much better writers. But according to a report by Renaissance Learning, the average American high school senior reads only four books each academic year, including the books he or she is assigned at school. That is a remarkably unambitious number for a full-time student. Beginning in about fifth grade, American kids start reading the Harry Potter series -- and then they remain the most-read books through high school, even though they are written for an elementary and middle school audience.
Even more disastrous for students' lifetime writing skills is that serious nonfiction is so very rarely read in American high schools and middle schools. With the exception of Elie Wiesel's Holocaust memoir Night, there is not a single non-fiction book among the top 20 books read by American high school students. Of course, compared to fiction, there is much less agreement on what non-fiction is crucial reading. But it's not fair to deprive children of exposure to historical writing, political argument, or academic treatments of great literature, and then expect them to write like adults when they get to college. Most young adults have such rudimentary writing skills that they can't even craft a decent, professional cover letter. We need to focus on basics first, and do so at an early age.
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