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Published in Print: March 27, 1991, as 'Good Speech, Like Good Writing, Is a Form of Civility'


'Good Speech, Like Good Writing, Is a Form of Civility'

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The respected teacher, writer, and scholar Jacques Barzun issues in his latest book a broad-based "call for action" in education. To be published in May, Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning probes through essays, speeches, and new writings issues that range from teacher education and multiple-choice testing to curricular revision and the bureaucratization of reform.

In the following excerpt, the Columbia University professor emeritus offers new insights for the teacher on a subject long dear to his heart, the "endless chain" of thought, word, and utterance.

By Jacques Barzun

The screening committee had to interview 150 young people--three top students from each state--and award to 10 of them full college scholarships, each worth $60,000. One member of the committee asked every candidate this question: "Did you, during the past year, read a book that was not assigned? If so, please tell us a little about that book." Only one student out of the 150 was able to comply.

From evidence of this sort many have concluded that Americans do not read. The prophets of a generation ago must have been right when they said that hereafter all communication would be by broadcast picture and voice. Let us bury Gutenberg and his movable type.

That cheerful vision is contrary to fact. People read more than ever. They have to read, because both the tasks and the pleasures of life require more and more information, and that information is in manuals, catalogues, reports, fact sheets, newsletters, and magazines. Though the editor of the Harvard Business Review defined her journal as "written by people who can't write for people who won't read," specialist magazines multiply incessantly, while print remains a medium for local news, domestic advice, and advertising.

Is the truth then that Americans do not read books? No, not that either. They read tons of books--again of the informative kind--travel books, for example, and the many others that rehash current events or give "the story behind." What they rarely read is real books. As the 149 students showed, schooling does not give them the habit.

How is "real book" defined? Quite simply: it is a book one wants to reread. It can stand rereading because it is very full--of ideas and feelings, of scenes and persons real or imagined, of strange accidents and situations and judgments of behavior: it is a world in itself, like and unlike the world already in our heads. For this reason, this fullness, it may well be "hard to get into." But it somehow compels one to keep turning the page, and at the end the wish to reread is clear and strong: one senses that the work contains more than met the eye the first time round.

Now the point of reading books habitually is that it affords lasting pleasure, so the school should at least give every child a chance of contracting the habit. But it is not the adult citizen's duty to read good books, even if Mark Twain did point out that "the man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.''

Meanwhile, everybody agrees that it is desirable, indeed profitable in a business sense, to write acceptably; and this the school cannot teach without making the child read real books. For the main difficulty in teaching writing is to make the student conscious of words. In reading everyday prose, just as in listening to others speaking, the mind is wholly employed in absorbing the sense. The means by which sense is conveyed escape notice entirely. Writing reverses the situation: the mind must find words-as-such and fit them to the desired sense. How awkward this struggle is can be heard in common talk; it is full of "hm's" and "er's" and backtracking and muddled phrases that require a "What do you mean?" In every corner of life, trouble is accounted for by this ever-present "failure of communication." The root cause: clear utterance has never been made conscious and easy by practice--and that same lack makes for bad listening.

In books by great writers, it is the very difficulty they present, the remoteness from jargon and cliches, that do the work of waking up the student to the role of words. Once made alive to the work and ways of words singly and in groups, the student begins to find writing possible. This awareness presupposes that the exact use of terms and the adroit management of syntax found in well-written books has been discussed in detail by the teacher.

These verbal elements become interesting by simple comparison. It is a fact of experience that once alerted to such things, anybody will grow curious about language: Why does this mean thus-and-so here and something else there? What if the sentence read this way? Why would it sound funny if it were turned around, with the last clause first? How is it we can often tell formal from colloquial but not always? And so on. The language columns in newspapers and in The Reader's Digest show that the interest is not a rarity.

The first gain for writing in well-taught reading is an enlarged vocabulary. The second is the perception that arrangement controls meaning. The third comes from familiarity with correct idiom and connotation. Both speech and writing are ultimately copy-cat performances--wordings get in through the ear or the eye and come out at the tongue or the end of a pencil. So it is sensible to make the source of unconscious expression the best available.

The conscious effort aims at self-criticism. Since nobody can write an acceptable first draft, good writing is always rewriting. And to rewrite or revise, one must have, on top of word consciousness, a bag of tricks for making repairs. Some may wonder: "If the books read for 'composition' are these good books that are read for 'literature,' isn't the writing going to be stilted, old-fashioned, ridiculous? Today, no good writer writes like Lincoln or Thoreau or even Mark Twain. Better take more recent models." This usually means Catcher in the Rye, with which the boys and girls so readily "identify."

That is just the trouble. It takes no imagination to feel at home in contemporary books, hence the language they use re- mains transparent--not there as such. As for students writing sentences like the classic models, never fear! They do not think like Lincoln or Thoreau; they do not become poets after reading Shakespeare. What they absorb and make use of are the good strong words and idioms, the clear structures, and the ways to link ideas. These are the eternal elements of good writing.

The real danger, on the contrary, is that teachers will make war on simplicity and plainness and require essays that sound like what they read in that language of education which is all their own. Some years ago, a member of the English department at the University of Chicago made a survey of writing done at the local high schools. He found that the good marks were given to students who wrote like the educationist models handed out to them, while the low marks went to those who wrote the true vernacular, often with lapses of grammar and tone, but surely with a better instinct for what prose should be.

Correcting the weekly essays is of course a taxing duty. It is not enough to mark errors; their nature and cause must be indicated, either in the marginal note or in class, orally. Ways to avoid faults, too, have to be shown, since mistakes come in typical forms. In short, there are principles to be stated that will serve as preventive medicine. All this teaching demands writing ability, and one is not surprised to read that one recent and successful effort begins by making teachers also write. If from now on they are to write, as well as read student work, the class must be of manageable size. At present, the student-teacher ratio averages 17.6, the highest being 22.9. Neither precludes the desirable degree of individual attention.

There remains the difficulty of getting the pupils to write at all. Telling them how useful proficiency will be is wasted breath; writing's a nuisance now, the future will take care of itself. What of the urge to self-expression? It moves only a few; the rest take it out in shouting during playtime. No doubt about it, writing is an artificial endeavor. No boy wants to describe his visit to Aunt Sally, no girl feels eager to pretend "I am the Mississippi. I am at first a small stream flowing amid ..." There are no congenial subjects, whether assigned or left to choice, that will regularly yield the wanted page-and-a-half.

The best way out is to turn the student mind from substance to technique. One great void in writing instruction everywhere is that it does not show how one begins. The assumption is that given a topic, the child will quickly summon up ideas, after which the words flow. Not so: he or she desperately casts about for a first sentence and then hopes for the best. If told to begin by making outline, the pupil is even more bewildered as to what to make it with.

The teacher should start out by getting the whole class to suggest ideas bearing on the writing topic, no matter how far-fetched; for that is how the writer's mind works. Next, show how they are sorted out, rejected, grouped, and subordinated according to some scheme. Outlining, if wanted, thus becomes a rational act instead of a helpless groping in the dark. Finally, the teacher asks for the best idea with which to start the essay, and the best one to end it. This exercise may be repeated many times without in the least delaying achievement in actual writing. In fact, it may create a desire to get down on paper the fruits of this administrative preparation.

To reinforce results, the teacher of writing should also see to it that students speak as far as possible in complete and grammatical sentences. Not only is this helpful in business and the White House, it is a powerful aid to writing well with the least amount of revision: habit, habit, habit born of practice is the key to clear expression; and it is obviously absurd to demand "simple and direct" on paper and neglect the same in speech. That both demands are spurs to clear thinking is a free dividend.

But just as the teacher needs writing practice, so he or she may need the same in speaking. No use preaching and then giving a poor example. Here is a transcript from life: "The Boston Massacre, now--it wasn't a massacre, a riot, not even that--O.K.? There was this crowd around the customhouse and the British sent soldiers--O.K.? to see--a captain along was supposed to tell them--O.K.? The crowd shouted 'Lobster!'--you don't see? That was on account of the soldiers' red coats--O.K.? Well, the captain said 'Don't fire'--O.K.? but they were scared maybe and fired. They killed five--O.K.?" By no means O.K..

At the same time as the monitoring of speech goes on, firmly but kindly, so as not to hurt young sensibilities, enunciation can be attended to--clear vowels as well as clear thoughts. The value of this incidental training is not small. The modern world calls for tens of thousands of people whose job is to make announcements at microphones all day long. Very few do it well. They mumble or drop their voice at the end of the sentence, which carries the important information; they call out an unusual name as briskly as if it were plain Jones or Smith; they speak at the same rate of speed as in face-to-face conversation, never suspecting that a crowd of people cannot hear properly unless "addressed," and not merely spoken to. As in bad writing, these faults betray thoughtless disregard of the party at the receiving end. Good speech, like good writing, is a form of civility.

Plainly, to read, and what to read, are questions that take one pretty far. This is due to the nature of the mind, where thought, word, and utterance form an endless chain. The school has apparently forgotten the connection and dropped the last link. The result is a second set of illiterates--the no-writers. For although in one sense Americans read a great deal, they have delegated writing to specialists--the professionals whom we call Writers and those others, in advertising and public relations, who have come to be known, not surprisingly, as the "creative department."

Restructuring the Principalship

Education Week
Volume 10, Issue 27, March 27, 1991, pp 31-32

Copyright 1991, Editorial Projects in Education, Inc.

Restructuring the Principalship

By: Sharon Cohen

The education community, in its frenetic search for the new and the innovative, is sometimes guilty of overlooking the obvious. And its attention span can be short.

Over the past decade, plenty has been written and said about the critical role of the principal in school improvement. The late Ron Edmonds and the effective-schools movement made this terribly apparent to us, providing as the centerpiece of what became a quiet revolution the concept of a "strong instructional leader."

Chester E. Finn Jr., the oft-quoted former assistant secretary of education, once said, when asked to name the single most important reform we could institute, that it would be to "hire the best principals ... and give them wide authority and responsibility."

And for those to whom "wide authority" sounds out of sync with the move toward site-based governance, there is the psychiatrist and social analyst William Glasser, whose recent book The Quality School celebrates management on a totally non-coercive model. For him, "The school principal is the crucial element in educational reform."

Evidently we aren't convinced, or we've run out of energy for a battle eminently worth fighting: the battle for better management, of which the school principalship--even at sites where shared decisionmaking prevails--remains the linchpin.

The principal's roles and duties in this era of rapid reform changes still represent that unfortunate dichotomy of what we know we should do and what we do. They are as retrograde as anything we would want to restructure in education. According to one study, the principal still exists primarily as a "building manager"--someone who is "simply not encouraged to reflect on instructional matters," but instead attends to "buses, buildings, and budgets." This view has not changed significantly in the last decade.

Yet anyone whose work affords them the time to read and reflect on educational matters knows how important that reflection is, how intrusive it would be if the more urgent nuts-and-bolts business of "running a school" consumed all time and energy. This is precisely the situation that, with few exceptions, faces most principals. And because it runs counter to some basic tenets of good management, it is a situation we should know will preclude any real improvement in our schools.

Good management--meaning management that promotes high-quality work and productivity, ongoing improvement, and employee satisfaction--has to be active, reflective, and close to the action. Its influence has to be felt. The management wizard Tom Peters, in his bestselling In Search of Excellence, suggests that managers ought to spend about two-thirds of their time with those they manage: talking, listening to, following up, sharing ideas with groups and individuals as a matter of routine.

Yet we persist in overwhelming principals with far too many non-academic concerns that distract them from their most important duties, while saddling them with supervisory ratios that favor the worst kind of management--if it can be called management at all.

Even allowing for the differences that exist between the profit-making world of business and the nonprofit learning enterprise, we must ask ourselves if principals can afford not to spend time "walking the shop floor," observing, talking with, and examining the work of their employees and the results of that work. Can they be sufficiently aware and have a real influence on what goes on in a school through less direct means?

There is abundant evidence to indicate that they can't, that the typically harried principal in too many cases lacks a meaningful grasp of the academic concerns that matter most. A recent and damning case in point for me were last summer's results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading. Naep found that for all the proliferation of reading and writing initiatives that followed the publication of A Nation at Risk, surprisingly little--indeed, shockingly little--reading and writing is being done in American classrooms. Students, as a rule, aren't analyzing or writing about even the minimal amount of reading they're doing. They're doing almost anything but actual reading and writing.

I served on an English faculty that, as a department, devoted perhaps one day to letting students write their own short stories--with no time or opportunity for rewriting. This was followed by almost two weeks given over to "publishing" the work by making an elaborate cover and binding for it. These activities, in turn, were followed by a three-week mythology unit that consisted of students' watching Hercules movies, making and wearing their own togas and garlands, and then making a fruit-salad version of the gods' "ambrosia."

The students wrote about two brief paragraphs during this time, filled out a few worksheets, were lectured to, but read nothing. Is this the way to promote literacy? But, more to the point, could anyone in a position to influence instruction have thought that it did? If these kinds of abuses of academic common sense could occur--and they manifestly continue to--what else might be happening in our schools?

For all the sound and fury, the conventions, the new reading and writing programs, it took a nationally-conducted survey to tell us what we wish principals could have known--and thus prevented: the abysmal level to which language-arts instruction was sinking, despite an outward semblance of improvement.

Would anyone argue that the least we should expect from management is a high level of awareness? Whether the management is top-down or site-based or participatory in the extreme, shouldn't it be well-acquainted with the process or the results of teachers' efforts?

You can't fight what you can't see. And even Tracy Kidder, in his bestseller Among Schoolchildren, noticed that "teachers work in curiously insular circumstances." We educators have probably become blind to what even the most uninformed in the general public might find a glaring deficiency in our schools: the fact that, in many, no one is actively evaluating teacher performance; the principal, as often as not, isn't expected to make a real difference in the quality of instruction. My hunch is that the average person would never guess that instructional supervision comes down to a comfortable, if usually meaningless regimen of two or three annual evaluations per year.

Why is this the case? Wilma Smith and Richard Andrews, in Instructional Leadership, their 1989 study of what principals do, point out that a principal's academic priorities suffer under "fragmented expectations and diverse roles." It is this that accounts, they say, for the fact that "the average classroom is an island unto itself, rarely intruded upon by a school administrator for evaluative or improvement purposes."

This is worse than startling. There is deep cynicism implicit in our neglect, not only of those employees we know need help, but of the majority of good teachers for whom isolation is no compliment. It is more often for them an indication that their performance and their contribution is not worth acknowledging--or developing. This may account for those research findings that suggest good teachers do their best work during their first seven years. Ignored, under-appreciated, and alone, they begin to lose that vision and motivation needed to forge a career.

For most people, recognition, interaction, and feedback are essential spurs to innovation and improvement. All our talk in education about professional trust and autonomy will sound pretty thin until we provide school management that can assure these essentials to classroom teachers.

We are seeing a new emphasis today on collegiality and teacher empowerment, which has exciting potential. This may in fact relieve the instructional leader from having to be the one all-knowing instructional expert in every subject area. But the trend toward site-based governance and the inevitable flowering of the outcomes-based paradigm will require real management and consensus-building skills.

The belief that the principal's importance in this new era will be diminished is a myth. Ask principals what these innovations have meant to their schedules. Every successful case of site-based governance, of successful implementation of site-based leadership and outcome-based education usually attests to the absolute necessity for strong, active leadership. The chief responsibility for sustaining a sense of vision and a desire for constant improvement will be the principal's, and will demand considerable time and intellectual energy.

The demand for responsibility and accountability that these movements are a response to will require not less, but more work from everyone involved. A spirited and informed leadership will be required. Every principal will have to devote considerably more time to measurement, assessment, and constructive evaluation. They will have to find far more time for communicating, both with individuals and with groups, so that they can build consensus around the best research and information available as well as the often disparate contributions of faculties in ferment.

I would put my money on management that wisely relies on teacher participation and empowerment without being silly enough to think that leadership, in this paradigm-busting era, is a part-time job.

Still, the public perception that schools are "top-heavy" in administration persists, and it may be the chief obstacle to change. An articu4late spokesman for an anti-tax group, an attorney, was famous for talking during a recent tax-override referendum in my city about "administrative excesses" in the schools. When I told him how busy building administrators are kept, that they supervise between 30 and 40 employees, he simply told me he had "never seen a school administrator who was overworked." People buy this rhetoric, and are slow to discriminate between real excesses and the desperate need for more, not less, management.

Simply put, more thought and energy--which translates into time,and probably into money--will be required of today's principals than ever before. And the chief impediment facing them is the traditional belief that they can and should "do it all." It is time for us to find ways to free up some hours in principals' overburdened days, to reevaluate all the duties we've assumed they "must" attend to, and to more carefully consider their central significance as catalysts for change and improvement. Currently, they have the least amount of time for what's most important.

What education needs is an unrelenting, rather than glancing, examination of the principalship--one that will result in what may seem a contradiction: more leadership from the bottom as well as the top. Because up until now, schooling has been characterized less by poor management than by a near-absence of it.

We can no longer afford to be bashful about our need for more "administrators." We either need additional people or different arrangements that will protect the principal from at least some of those tasks that distract him or her from the academic matters that should take priority.

We already know that where active, academically-oriented management prevails, schools succeed: the teacher's perception of the principal as an instructional leader is a chief determinant in academic growth--especially among low-achieving students. Should this surprise us?

If districts, communities, and the site-based teams that are springing up across the country are serious about doing more, a lot more, for students, then better management is an issue we need to return to, parents, teachers, and public alike. Without it, we will continue to talk, just talk, about ideas and improvement and innovations.

Educational improvement is about more than good ideas. It is about energizing people to see those ideas through to their successful implementation. That is a management concern, and until we attend to it, we will continue to be the fractious and inert institution, the "elephantine blob," our detractors see us as.

Vol. 10, Issue 27, Page 30, 32

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