What Passes Today for Student Academic Writing
A senior at Harvard College recently told the story of her first expository writing class in college. As a high school student in California, she had never written anything longer than a five-paragraph essay. When her instructor at Harvard announced the first paper and said it would be "five to eight," she said, "Paragraphs?" and everyone in the class, including the instructor, laughed at her.
But her experience is not that unusual. A study done in 2002 for The Concord Review found that the majority of U.S. high school students no longer write history research papers. In fact, the head of the history department at Boston Latin School, an exam high school which is the oldest public school in the country, told us that teachers there had not assigned the "traditional history term paper" for more than a decade.
What sort of writing are our students doing instead? In the case of many, if not most, it amounts to diary entries, creative writing, and personal essays, including the sorts of expressions of opinion that require no reading and not much thought. The SAT, starting in 2005, will include an essay component that will account for 800 points of the possible 2400 points on the revised exam. This essay test is much the same as the old SAT II writing test, which thousands of students in Boston have managed in the past to "beat" by spending six to eight hours with a tutoring service. There they are taught to write an essay, memorize it, and then reproduce it to the College Board’s "novel" prompt. According to a report last year in The Boston Globe, students tutored at one such service averaged a score of 747.
In addition to these short opinion pieces, many college admissions offices ask applicants for 500-word accounts of their personal lives, struggles, encounters, reflections, and so on—again, the sort of writing that requires no knowledge of anything beyond the applicant, and no reading. The damage that these sorts of writing expectations do to the amount of nonfiction reading students undertake in high schools is the subject for another article. But let me note here what Willard M. Dix, a college counselor at the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School, discovered recently, when he asked a panel of Illinois admissions counselors what they thought the new SAT writing test’s impact would be on the teaching of writing in high schools. Mr. Dix, who had been advising the counselors on the test, wanted to see if they’d talked among themselves or with other educators about its possible influence on their students or their classroom practice. "I might as well have been speaking in tongues," he reported. "After a long silence, someone said, ‘Why would we do that?’"
Many high schools have literary magazines, or similar kinds of publications in which their students’ short poems, photographs, drawings, and the like can be displayed to demonstrate creativity. Yet, I have found only three or four high schools with magazines that publish the academic nonfiction of students. While we may, of course, need more Hemingways, Updikes, and Stephen Kings, where will we find the next James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, or David McCullough if we don’t encourage, teach, and recognize serious academic writing by students while they are still in school? As The Economist recently noted, "The only thing worse than having an elite is not having one."
The College Board’s National Commission on Writing in the Schools last year called for more attention to writing, and, in its report, provided an example of the sort of student writing that commission members thought admirable. They said, for example, that the following passage from Michael, a high school student, showed "how powerfully children can express their emotions":
"The time has come to fight back and we are. By supporting our leaders and each other, we are stronger than ever. We will never forget those who died, nor will we forgive those who took them from us."
I suppose this is the kind of writing that, expanded for 25 minutes, would earn an 800 on the new SAT? From my job as editor of The Concord Review, I have accumulated more examples of the kind of creative/personal writing students are led to believe is worth publishing in a journal. The following entry by a 9th grader, entitled "My Reflection," was received in July:
I stare at my reflection,
Yet I don’t see me.
I thought it was you.
Second glance ...
Wait ... that’s ... me?
That’s me and,
My sky blue eyes,
My blond hair.
I stare at my reflection,
Yet I don’t see me.
At first it was you.
Then it appeared
To be me.
Some people I sent this submission to thought it was a joke, but they don’t realize how much writing in the schools has become a dumbed-down, self-centered, and not even very creative enterprise. Creative writing in general is held to no standard. How, after all, can one grade, or even criticize, someone else’s feelings about himself?
Ironically, the same colleges that ask applicants for brief autobiographical statements as essays are also home to professors who routinely observe that not only do their new students seem to have difficulty reading the nonfiction books they assign, but they also appear to have had little or no experience writing term papers. And meanwhile, the number of corporations and law firms with remedial writing classes for new employees continues to grow, as does the amount of money spent nationally to make up for the lack of academic expository writing in high schools, colleges, and even graduate education.
Our Romantic commitment to poetry, personal journals, and the like perhaps does credit to our love of student fiction and our pleasure in having something to put up on the refrigerator door. But if we don’t ask our students to read nonfiction and to write academic research papers before they leave school, we not only dumb down their opportunities, but also deprive our society of the kind of clear, thoughtful writing it needs to maintain a democracy, power an economy, and enhance the daily lives of its citizens. And we could also find that the decline in the reading of fiction, recorded in a recent National Endowment of Arts study, would be echoed in future findings from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Vol. 24, Issue 3, Page 35Published in Print: September 15, 2004, as Romantic Fiction