What’s Wrong With College English?

copyright © Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner, 1996

Writing programs are a major industry in American colleges and universities. Publishers sell handbooks and manuals by the truckload every year. The days are gone when freshman composition was taught by newly-minted PhDs who had just finished dissertations on Wordsworth or Milton and who had no special preparation for teaching writing. Today, there are writing directors and specialists in writing, writing centers and “composition studies.” There is also wide agreement that the general level of American prose is worse than ever.

The deep thinkers of the profession have been engaged for some time in explaining why all “discourse” is radically incoherent and have paid little attention to what are often looked upon as sub-intellectual “skills,” such as writing expository prose. They have paid even less attention to the way these sub-intellectual skills are taught. Those who teach writing today include many who attempt to teach some version of “the rules” and others who want to “politicize” such instruction because they think that teaching ideology is teaching writing. Neither of these strategies seems to work very well.

How can learning to write be so difficult when learning to talk is so easy? With little or no formal instruction just about everybody born with a full natural endowment learns to talk. Writing seems to present a curious contrast. Years of formal education leave a majority of us incompetent at writing. Watching a child learn to talk, however, points to the main reason that writing courses succeed so poorly. Talking is a coherent activity to children, and it is an activity they want to master. They make lots of mistakes and may not be able to deal with pronouns, or tenses, or the approved social forms of address and request for some time, but these are refinements that they can work out because they do not attempt to learn them as isolated “rules.” They have a map of the whole activity into which these details can be fitted, so they can subsume great ranges of lower-level detail into what is conceptually a single and globally coherent activity. They do not start by learning details and end up with a coherent activity. They start with a coherent activity and then add details and refinements.

Writing courses that are centered around “rules” fail because they tacitly assume that by learning a lot of separate verbal skills and conventions, people can learn to write. But the activity “writing” is not the total of subject-verb agreement, pronoun reference, the building of lexical strings, consistent paragraphing, organization according to introduction, body, conclusion, and so on. For most students, there is no coherent activity into which these details fit. So while it is possible to get students to learn a lot of rules, these rules do not generally become an unconscious part of a coherent activity. They remain isolated, arbitrary, useless. Naturally, the isolated rules are easily forgotten once the course is over.

Writing courses that avoid this problem by treating only “topics” or “themes” almost always concentrate on what beginning undergraduates are least equipped to do: engage in adversarial dispute. Should capital punishment be abolished? Should term limits be imposed on members of Congress? Should women be given combat commands in the U. S. Armed Forces? These are typical “themes” in freshman composition courses. The teacher tries to select a “theme” that will engage the emotions of at least some of the students; the students who can emote articulately, or fake it convincingly, and who can give some simulacrum of sequence to their assertions get high grades. These themes almost always require knowledge of subject matter and knowledge about the mentality of real-world readers that almost no freshman student can reasonably be expected to have. The atmosphere of these courses quickly acquires an aura of fraud. In many cases, the teacher is corrupted by his own opinions, so the student learns which unargued assertions will go down without resistance. If the teacher is bent on shaping social policy instead of teaching rhetoric, you know which answer he likes to the question about whether women should be given combat commands; you just fill in the appropriate sentiments, available either from the class reader or from what the teacher has said in the “class discussion” that is supposed to stimulate the required paper.

The weakness of this strategy for teaching writing is obvious if we consider that the topics or themes are almost always current. If the object actually were to teach methods of argument, it would make sense to propose a question that requires something more than emotional involvement or acquaintance with current clichés to answer. Offering a question that is enveloped with received opinion—like “Should Affirmative Action be Eliminated?” “Should the Federal Budget Be Balanced?”—distracts most students from thinking about argument. Yet these are typical College English topics. The topic is never going to be: Are people who want to forbid the use of icons in Christian worship heretics? Although this was the central question of the Second Council of Nicea, no freshman has strong feelings on this question, knows anything about the subject, or has a clue about how to structure an argument on one side or the other of such a question. Except for the possibility of “strong feelings,” this is also true about any subject: from whether dropping atomic bombs on Japan was wrong to whether condoms should be distributed in high schools.

Freshmen can do a lot of things, but probably the thing they are least equipped to handle in a mature manner is adversarial dispute. Later, when they know something about what they are talking about, they can have an idea of what the specific good moves might be; they can know what bad arguments they can get away with because the discipline is mesmerized by them; they can know how to cite people and how to structure their introductions for their disciplines. But when they are freshmen, they don’t know any of these things.

As a group, what are freshmen equipped to handle? What kind of writing can they do that avoids the fraud inherent in sham adversarial dispute? What can they conceive as a coherent form of writing? There is no doubt in our minds that the answer is presentation—the act of placing before the reader something the writer has already recognized. In presentation, the writer has recognized something he finds engaging and places the reader in a position to recognize it, too. Presentation does not require, as competent adversarial dispute does, knowledge of the complex system of assertions and evidence that give structure to a domain—like public policy, constitutional law, or institutional culture. Presentation begins with whatever a student can recognize. It then requires the student to learn to turn that recognition into a written expression. It does not require the student either to acquire or to pretend to have acquired substantive knowledge. Everybody is competent in something, but almost nobody is competent to present what they recognize to a general audience, and this is what freshman can reasonably be asked to learn.

Every specific field has its characteristic special styles of presentation. That’s why lawyers don’t sound like computer analysts, and why mathematicians don’t sound like anthropologists. Students will learn the special styles of whatever discipline they enter, but what they need to learn in College English is a style of presentation suitable for a general audience. The most fundamental and useful such general style of presentation is classic style. Classic style—used by highly successful writers from Thucydides to Jane Austen, Thomas Jefferson to Mark Twain—adopts the classic stand that its purpose is presentation and its motive is disinterested truth; that successful presentation consists of aligning language with truth, and the test of this alignment is clarity and simplicity.

The stand that defines classic style is not a creed; it is a set of enabling conventions. Any consistent style rests on a stand that answers questions about truth, presentation, writer, reader, thought, language, and their relationships. The questions are the intellectual core of writing. Answers to them make writing in a style possible. The writer of the following passage about shrikes takes the classic stand that language can align with truth; that truth can be known; that truth needs no argument but only accurate presentation; that the reader is competent to recognize truth; that the symmetry between writer and reader allows the presentation to follow the model of conversation; that a natural language is sufficient to express truth; and that the writer knows the truth before he puts it into language. “Unusual among songbirds, shrikes prey on small birds and rodents, catching them with the bill and sometimes impaling them on thorns or barbed wire for storage.”

To the freshman student, there is all the difference in the world between presenting shrikes and pretending to know enough about ornithology and ecology to engage in adversarial dispute over managing the environment.

Trying to teach writing by teaching rules obviously ignores the intellectual core of writing. But so does treating only topics. It substitutes the topic—capital punishment, birth control, habitat destruction—for the intellectual core of writing. Ignoring the intellectual core of writing has always been what’s wrong with College English.

Thinking About Writing