Friday, October 24, 2008

Teaching writing

I had a call from an old friend the other day who wanted me to write about the question, Why can't kids write about history? This teacher believes that students today have better and more sophisticated ideas about societies and the way they work and interact than the students she met earlier in her career, but she sees more and more of these bright, inquisitive, and creative students struggling to write well about history. Where are the facts, the evidence, she asks, that support all these good ideas? Aren't schools teaching old-fashioned analytical and expository writing any more?

These are great questions, and they are probably as old as formal education; one can imagine Roman tutors and medieval monks wringing their hands over the poor writing of their students.

I suppose there are a couple of millennia worth of good answers, but I think part of my friend's concern is that her school, like so many others, has long embraced progressive principles. Unspoken in her question is a century-old critique of progressive education in general: the idea that somehow "progressive" writing instruction focuses on narrative or on the experience and opinions of the writer far more than it does on the construction of classically defined and structured argument.

For what it's worth, I really dislike this issue, in no small part because I think there is some truth to the critique; the last three or four decades have been very much about helping young writers to discover their "voices" and to reflect on and write about their own experience, to the detriment, in some quarters, of solid expository writing. In addition, the essays that were once familiar reading in schools as models of the expository form (think Bacon or even Montaigne, for example) have died the cultural death that has come, often appropriately, to so many dead white males. Thoughtful, tightly written non-fiction has drifted out of our schools as textbooks and test-prep have wedged their way in. An AP Biology student doesn't have time to read the reflections of Lewis Thomas, for example, en route to scoring a 5 on the examination.

I like to believe that the New Progressivism offers some help here, by reminding teachers that there is nothing un-progressive or anti-child about high standards. If good formal writing involves the generation of a strong thesis, the amassing of supporting evidence, and then the use of that evidence to build a connected, internally consistent argument, students need to learn how to do this.

It's actually countercultural, for those who like to think of themselves as that. Pay even the slightest attention to the current presidential campaign and see how the discourse has been reduced to sound bites, unsupported assertions, and statements of opinion. A couple of years ago Stephen Colbert and his writers created the word "truthiness" to describe the idea that something must be true merely because someone says and repeats it emphatically enough. In his little tome On Bullshit, Harry Frankfurt speaks to the unfortunate power of lies, including the Big Lie, to embed themselves in cultural consciousness enough to pass as truth, and of the increasing willingness of purveyors of ideas to depend on truthiness, or bullshit, to make their cases. I'm a big fan of Jon Stewart, but some nights I just want to deconstruct the program and derive and then lay out, with actual evidence, the points that The Daily Show makes and "proves" to its audience by implication, ironic reference, and even innuendo.

Therefore, it seems to me, there is something important and even urgent in teaching our students the classical structures of good expository writing and the paramount importance of supporting assertions not with more assertions but with actual facts. It's not hard to do this, although it may not be as much fun as assigning students the chance to probe their own psyches or to write deep short stories about dysfunctional families (that might resemble they way they view their own, as the families of bright adolescents so often do).

New models of great expository writing abound, and the pages of the New Yorker, The Atlantic, Seed, Slate, Orion, and a host of other fine print and online magazines are filled with it every week or month. Go back a couple of decades to the best work of John McPhee or Annie Dillard or the more recent writing of Seymour Hersh for more examples; politics, culture, and the environment continue to inspire some of the best expository writing of our day.

But I want students to be able to write compellingly and extremely well about history, and literature, and injustice in their own community, and the state of the environment. In part I want them to acquire this skill because it is satisfying, and because their college professors and future employers will appreciate it. I even want them to learn it because good writing reflects well on the schools and teachers--New Progressivist and otherwise--that foster its mastery.

Mostly, however, I want students to be able to write well because of the good ideas to which my friend referred. We are a world sorely in need of good ideas, but to prevail, theses ideas will need to be presented with strength and substance--the Age of Truthiness must end some day soon, and then we will be desperate for alternatives that are authentic and above all, supported by the facts. Someone is going to have to save the world, and I think it's going to have to be people who think cleverly and who are able to convery their ideas as well as they think.


Anonymous said...

I agree completely. The challenge, of course, is putting this into practice. Your essay brings to mind a favorite carpenter friend of mine: He builds low cost and environmentally sound homes. His building plan and intentions are progressive in the extreme. But in the service of those ends, he frequently swings a hammer that is nicked with age, using a fluid motion he learned from his grandfather. ... To what new uses will we encourage students to apply the ancient tool of expository writing?

Mike Albritton

Jed Sorokin-Altmann said...

I agree that it is important to teach students to use facts to support their arguments. Personally, though, I believe that the best way to teach good writing is not to necessary focus on the classical structures of good expository writing on its own, but instead, to look at the broader classic topic of rhetoric. Rhetoric, the strategic use of communication, written or oral, to achieve specificable goals, includes expository writing, as well as communication at large. Whether writing (or speech) is intendeed to be persuasive or informative, studying rhetoric instructs students to look at their audience, to use evidence (logos), to consider the types of sources they are looking at (Encylopedia Britanica versus Wikipedia versus First-hand source? Ethos!), and how to appeal to the emotions of their audience using metaphors, similes, powerful claims, etc. (Pathos).

Teaching the Aristotelian proofs, couped with further instruction in the art of rhetoric, will achieve the same aims as teaching the more limited subject of expository writing. It will also be far more useful-rhetoric is a way of writing, a way of speaking, and a way of thinking.

Guerita said...

I would like to argue that the essay portion of the AP US History exam -- particularly the DBQ -- demands the best teaching of critical thinking, historical analysis, and writing that a formal History course can offer. The multiple choice section lends itself to traditional "drill and kill" methods, but the free response section of this exam requires evidential defense of an arguable thesis statement in an organized structure. It's not a bad guideline, and structuring a US History course around essential questions that are potential AP free response questions -- teaching the components of good writing with examples, analysis of primary source documents, extensive knowledge of 8-10 major eras/themes in American history, and critical thinking around compelling questions -- well, I like to think I had some examples of great historical thinking and writing from some of my students. Then again, maybe I am being smug.

~Rebecca Yacono~

Peter said...

To Jed--I absolutely agree in the largest sense. Rhetoric and Aristotelian structures are the way to go in teaching any kind of communication; remember amusing colleagues a few years back when I had them look at logos-ethos-pathos when we were doing a workshop on teaching students effective presentation skills. I was probably overfocused on my friend's near-despair on the matter of expository writing in history--the old, "it's my opinion, and in a student-centered school, isn't that enough?" dilemma. Thanks for broadening the discussion here.

To Guerita--No doubt true, and the DBQ format is exquisite in its way, but I assume that you weren't limiting this kind of instruction just to teaching to a test, were you? (Okay, that was mean, because I know you weren't.) Even the AP has to have a few shining aspects, and you have pointed out one of them. Thanks!

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