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The Core Standards for Writing: Another Failure of Imagination?

By Edgar H. Schuster — February 01, 2010 6 min read
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When the 9/11 Commission reviewed factors that made our country vulnerable to the 2001 terrorist attacks, it found that “the most important failure was one of imagination.”

Imagination, defined by one dictionary as “the ability to confront and deal with reality by using the creative power of the mind,” is a critical faculty in our world. And where better for it to be nurtured and to flower forth than in the writing classroom?

Yet, if we examine the draft standards for English language arts from the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a project led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, we find imagination mentioned nowhere. In fact, most of the 18 proposed writing standards are singularly unimaginative. They are also woefully out of balance, in the direction of relatively noncreative forms of writing.

It comes as no surprise that many of these standards are already reflected in state documents. Who would quarrel with students’ need to establish a topic, sustain focus, represent data accurately, revise their own writing “when necessary,” or use technology as a tool?

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Or, consider the proposed 9th standard: Students are expected to “demonstrate command of the conventions of standard written English, including grammar, usage, and mechanics.” English teachers have been asking students to demonstrate such command ever since standard English arose.

Yet what is “standard written English”? If it is the English of our best essayists, then we will find that sentence fragments are not uncommon. In fact, many of the “rules” of the grammar classroom—never end a sentence with a preposition or split an infinitive, for instance—simply are not rules here and never have been. Moreover, when standard and rhetorically effective English clash, imaginative writers of both fiction and nonfiction typically opt for the latter. Even the great usage expert H.W. Fowler preferred “idiom” to grammar when the two were in conflict.

This is not to say that such standards should be scrapped. But they badly need to be leavened by fresher, more imaginative ingredients.

Despite their unoriginal, even pedestrian, view of writing instruction, there is one respect in which the NGA-CCSSO standards-makers have veered far from the ordinary. Of the 18 proposed core writing standards, eight, or nearly half, refer explicitly to writing arguments or explanations: the second and fourth, and standards 13 through 18.

Do these two modes of writing deserve this much attention? And, for that matter, do those who write in these modes follow the standards of the core-standards-makers? To be sure, the standards-makers know that other modes exist. They even devote a sidebar in the draft to narrative writing and concede its importance. But in their initial sentence, they note that narrative is “a component of making an argument and writing to inform or explain.”

When standard and rhetorically effective English clash, imaginative writers of both fiction and nonfiction typically opt for the latter."

To see what good, real-world writing is really like, let’s look at some of the selections from Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan’s anthology, The Best American Essays of the Century.

It is not easy to find essays that are purely explanatory or argumentative, but Zora Neale Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” is clearly an attempt to explain. In doing this type of writing, the proposed core standards say, students “must do” the following:

“Synthesize information from multiple relevant sources ... to provide an accurate picture of that information.” (Standard 13)

“Convey complex information clearly and coherently ... through purposeful selection and organization of content.” (Standard 14)

“Demonstrate understanding of content by reporting facts accurately and anticipating reader misconceptions.” (Standard 15)

Hurston seems blithely unaware of these standards. She opens her essay:

I am colored but I offer nothing in the way of extenuating circumstances except the fact that I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother’s side was not an Indian chief.

I remember the very day that I became colored. …

Her penultimate paragraph reads:

Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company! It’s beyond me.

Hurston follows none of the standards above, for “writing to inform or explain.” She doesn’t need “multiple sources,” her explanation is not “complex,” and the reader is not likely to have misconceptions in the first place. What she does do in this essay, however, is remind us in the grim, gray world of writing standards that there is also humor in the world.

The following are additional standards, for “writing arguments”:

“Establish a substantive claim, distinguishing it from alternate or opposing claims.” (Standard 16)

“Link claims and evidence with clear reasons, and ensure that the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims.” (Standard 17)

“Acknowledge competing arguments or information, defending or qualifying the initial claim as appropriate.” (Standard 18)

Are we in high school or law school? And again, are these standards that real writers follow?

Some do follow them. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” does, for example. But another brilliant essay, H.L. Mencken’s “The Hills of Zion,” a passionate argument against evangelical Christianity and anti-intellectualism, does not. Like Hurston, Mencken chooses, with good effect, to do none of the things that students “must do.” He attends a revival meeting, and essentially lets the facts speak for themselves.

I don’t want to argue that these standards are not worthwhile. But I do maintain that they are not a realistic reflection of arguments in everyday life (letters to newspaper editors, for example, are often limited to 150 words). And I am convinced that, were they to be adopted, the dropout rates among students bound for the working world would make our current rates tidings of comfort and joy.

I offer one more standards-breaking illustration from the Oates-Atwan anthology: William Manchester’s “Okinawa: The Bloodiest Battle of All,” one of the best essays of the lot. It has everything: humor, passion, pathos, information, description, narration, argument, and more broken rules than a Rabelaisian convent.

The essay does not “establish and refine a topic or thesis” (Standard 1), it establishes several. It does not “sustain focus on a specific” anything (Standard 3). It does not even “create a logical progression of ideas or events” (Standard 5). And as for the “conventions of standard written English” (Standard 9), most English teachers I’ve known would not approve of starting 12 sentences with “but” and 11 others with “and,” “yet,” or “so.” Or with using a total of 30 sets of dashes in one essay, not to mention using “I” 12 times in 20 lines. They might also question using a colon after “said” to introduce a quotation, or having single-sentence paragraphs such as this: “And now it is time to set down what this modern battlefield was like.”

Last fall, the National Council of Teachers of English issued the following call to everyone for submissions to the National Day on Writing (Oct. 20, 2009):

“We invite letters, memoirs, lists, poems, podcasts, essays, short stories, instructions, reports, editorials, video clips, biographical sketches, speeches, invitations, hopes and dreams—writing that matters most to you.”

“Writing that matters most to you”—that’s the spirit that animates all good writing, from William Manchester’s essay, to kids’ kindergarten attempts. I urge the core-standards-makers to reconsider the excessively narrow and unrealistic standards they have proposed. Were those standards to be implemented K through 12, they would kill that spirit and diminish the role of imagination, which the poet Wallace Stevens once aptly described as “one of the forces of nature” in the world of words.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 03, 2010 edition of Education Week as The Core Standards for Writing: Another Failure of Imagination?

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