Liberate Literacy

'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.' ~ John 1:1

The New York Times ('All the News That's Cleared to Print') reported last week on the findings of the National Commission on Writing in America 's Schools and Colleges, a group of 18 'educators' organized by the College Board. They were, in the immortal words of Louis in Casablanca , shocked ' shocked! ' to learn that the teaching of writing 'is now woefully ignored in most American schools.' It recommended that 'the amount of time students spend on writing be doubled, that writing be taught in all subjects and at all grade levels and that every school district adopt a writing plan.'

If any of those 'educators' had spent any time over the last twelve years teaching writing in a college classroom, perhaps he would have known this without the need to consult the 17 others. I know people write badly because, for the last twelve years, I have held three to four college writing classes a semester. Until this January, I also spent 10-15 hours a week tutoring at the college's writing center. I know first-hand how badly 'students' write and how poorly they think. I know, too, how badly 'educators' want to avoid having writing classes. I also know that, if these laughable recommendations are put into play, the ability of 'students' to write will only get worse.

This inability of people to write is not really surprising, given the state of American culture. Writing takes time, which people don't believe they have. While our technology has given us more time on the one hand, it has in many respects more than taken it away from us by filling this increasingly rare, extremely precious, and potentially useful time with television, movies, video games, and other mindless distractions. It takes effort, which people refuse to give to it. We've become acculturated to avoiding effort of any kind. We'll flick switches and push buttons, but that's about it. We don't even have to get off our butts to change the television channel anymore (hasn't that word 'channel' ever bothered you? It means, after all, 'to direct or guide along some desired course.' But just what is that course? And 'desired' by whom, and for what reason and to what purpose?).

Writing requires quiet and reflection, and that's something that quite scares most people anymore. They'll do almost anything to avoid being alone with their own thoughts.

It also takes a familiarity, a facility, with the written language which many people lack because they've never learned to read very well, if at all. I'm constantly amazed, for instance, at how many people in my classes have no idea that a sentence has a discernable, identifiable structure. In fact, their conditioning is such that, even after I've objectively demonstrated that meaning disappears if you eliminate either the subject or verb of an independent clause and that therefore some words in a sentence bear more meaning than others and are more important than others, I've had people protest that 'it's just wrong' to say that some words are more important than others. When they can't (or refuse to) discern the structure of a sentence, how can they discern the structure of what they might read? And if they can't discern the structure of what they read, how can they structure their own words, their own thoughts, whether on paper or in their own minds? How can they then make connections and establish relationships between the words and phrases and clauses and sentences, the concepts and ideas, in their minds? Indeed, how can they then even begin to understand life?

So people come to college ' at least to the one where I work ' practically illiterate. And many 'educators' there are, by and large, either unwilling or unable to help them learn. Several of the tenured men in the college's English department have never in the twelve years I've been there held even one section of freshman writing. One of them recently received a promotion to dean, which means, of course, even more money and no classes whatsoever. Another complained during a 'professional development meeting' that he was overworked and underpaid.

Professors, generally speaking, do not want to have writing classes. Such classes represent, to them, the depths of academic drudgery. Teaching writing is not what they went to graduate school to do. They by and large consider it boring and, perhaps, beneath them ' it's something, after all, that students should already have learned ' which is why they assign it to adjunct. In fact, 60% of the college's English department are adjunct instructors, and that's primarily to cover all the required writing classes. Full-time professors want to teach literature. This fall, for example, 23 of the 26 literature courses will be taught by full-time tenure track faculty, while 49 of 74 sections of freshman writing I, and 22 of 24 sections of writing II, will be conducted by adjuncts.

If this writing commission's recommendations were put in place, a similar situation would play itself out in schools and colleges all over America . Taxes would go up to fund this new emphasis on writing and the equivalent of adjuncts would be hired to do the grunt work while the equivalent of tenured faculty would be hired to make even more money supervising (this would be necessary because, after all, if these adjuncts were any good, they'd have gotten a better job by now and gotten out of the dreary drudgery of teaching writing!).

But this would do absolutely no good ' at least, not as far as the ability of 'students' to write ' because, while writing can certainly be learned, it just as certainly cannot be taught.

We'll ignore for the moment the fact that the term 'public school' only hides the reality that it's a government indoctrination center. We'll ignore for the moment what John Taylor Gatto (The Underground History of American Education), Charles Sykes (Dumbing Down Our Kids), B. K. Eakman (Cloning of the American Mind), Paolo Lionni (The Leipzig Connection), and Charlotte Thomson Iserbyt (The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America) have told us about 'public education.' Let's just think for a moment about how one learns to write.

Some of you worry about credentials. I actually have some small ones in this area. For what little it's worth, I was an 'all but dissertation' doctoral student who finally came, at least partially, to his senses. I have a master's degree in English, and as a graduate student I specialized in 'teaching' writing. As I mentioned, I've held college writing classes at a number of colleges in upstate New York and northern Pennsylvania since 1991, and until this winter I also tutored writing. I also tutored writing at a state college in the Eighties for almost five years and at a law school in the Nineties for one. I have some experience at this, then, and I've developed some idea of what I'm doing. And, believe me, you cannot teach writing.

This, I think, goes to the heart of writing and to why these recommendations will fail. That they are a way for state-supported schools to extract more money from the public is another, lesser, matter.

Certainly you can try to teach it. There are some discernable, definable rules and regulations you can insist on. Certainly you can lecture and browbeat and circle every little 'mistake' in red ink and tell yourself you're a 'gatekeeper' in education, that you must make sure each student conforms to what the school and society expect. And certainly some people will learn to do it. Some will indeed conform, especially when the rewards of conforming can be financially rewarding.

But true writing, true thinking, true understanding, is not conformity. These things cannot be forced upon a person. True writing goes to the very soul. A writer exposes his thoughts to himself and to others, and this can be a very scary and intimidating experience. It's frightening to learn how illiterate you are, how incapable you are of expressing yourself. There are always things you left out, things you didn't say very well, things you screwed up, things you just got wrong. Some people will always complain about and criticize what you've done. It's hard enough to write. Trying to force someone to do it only makes things worse. It must be freely chosen. It's not a matter of doubling the amount of time a student spends writing. It's not a matter of insisting that a student write at every grade level or for every course or of having each school district draw up a writing plan. If anything, these tactics will only make people hate and resist writing even more than they already do (perhaps, of course, this is exactly what the State wants). It is, instead, a matter of telling a person simply and honestly (two qualities often lacking in academia) the truth about language and about its overwhelming importance in life, how words and thoughts and concepts determine your understanding, your actions, your reactions ' how, as St. John wrote so long ago, the Word is indeed God. If you can get that through to people, many then become eager to learn how to structure and thus master their own language. If you don't, they simply continue to resist. People don't learn to write because they have to. They only learn this if they want to.

This leads us to only one conclusion: We must liberate literacy from the vast and powerful American government indoctrination system. As long as it remains in the clutches of the State, national commissions will always be shocked at the State's inevitable failure, more of the People's money will always be needed to rectify an un-rectifiable situation, and the People themselves will remain the dull, stupid, illiterate, TV-fed fools the State wants them to be. As long as it remains in the clutches of the State, the young will never learn the true power of the Word.

As long as literacy remains in the clutches of the State, we are doomed.

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Craig Russell's picture
Columns on STR: 35

Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.