The Writing Class

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Yesterday R.V. Young wrote in the Pope Center’s Clarion Call that freshman composition courses—the three-credit, one semester course in writing virtually every first-year student in every American college is required to take—seems to have become crappier. As he writes, back in the good old days,

almost all of those institutions, and certainly the most ambitious, usually sought to offer young men and women something beyond mere technical expertise. At least some acquaintance with the humanities was thought to prepare students for leadership or at least furnish the materials for better citizenship and a more fulfilling life.

During the last three decades, this generally humanistic, even literary, understanding of freshman composition has been almost wholly displaced in the vast majority of state university campuses, along with many other institutions as well. The old vision of freshman composition has been pushed aside by a theoretical approach more in tune with the social sciences and the public education establishment.

College freshmen today don’t learn proper grammar and usage, don’t learn how to read literature, and don’t really learn to do anything correctly, what with all that “peer-reviewing” and other vagaries.

Young isn’t the first person to complain about this problem. In 2005 American literary theorist Stanley Fish grumbled in the New York Times that,

Most composition courses that American students take today emphasize content rather than form, on the theory that if you chew over big ideas long enough, the ability to write about them will (mysteriously) follow. The theory is wrong.

But wait, did the writing get worse?

Interesting enough, Young and Fish. The theory underlying the new methods of teaching English composition may well be weak, but what’s really happening here?

If it’s really true that freshmen English composition classes are bad, wouldn’t that ruin everything? If it’s true that English composition courses from 30 or 40 years ago were rigorous and produced competent, confident writers, I would expect the average writing quality of the entire country to be in decline. Is that true? I’ll keep waiting for evidence. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer