Monday, April 28, 2003

The Death Of English: More Narrow-Mindedness in Education

Writing teachers everywhere are extolling the merits of this New York Times article about how writing is under-taught and under-valued in US education; my own colleagues are no exception. But I submit that the state of writing instruction is no surprise and, in and of itself, no reason for concern. Instead, I propose that the motives behind English teachers' use and dissemination of this article are suspect and narrow, and, further, may in fact be the reason writing instruction writhes painfully as it slowly leeches out of the education system. Consider this:

“If students are to make knowledge their own, they must struggle with the details, wrestle with the facts and rework raw information and dimly understood concepts into language they can communicate to someone else,” the report said. “In short, if students are to learn, they must write.”

The problem of defending one's discipline is evident: the above quote makes plenty of sense until the last word. Why WRITING? Do not the other myriad forms of knowledge-sharing and knowledge-creation which our students are expected to develop for an increasingly digital age fit this model equally well? Maybe it's my bias as a media literacy pedagogue, but to me, the report does not show why writing itself must be the best and primary way to reach the stated goals. It merely assumes it -- and that assumption is going to be the death of writing, a horror story for public discourse, if we're not careful.

Although the field of Computers and Communication was one of the first to address the rhetorical and epistemological ramifications of our new media tools, its members remain a misunderstood subset of the vast curricular behemoth that is English. Instead, what most writing teachers cannot see beyond their pencils is this: writing is but one technology, and the technology which one uses to make knowledge one's own is moot. So why are we teaching one technology when we claim to be teaching communication? We should instead begin focusing more on rhetorics and literacies, which are symptomatically different for all modes of communication, but which, taken together, are fundamentally a single and most powerful field of study. Where writing teaches a student to write about fishing, the epistemological approach allows a student to comment upon, instruct about, or merely share ideas on fishing anywhere, at any time, in any medium. Where writing instruction does indeed reach the stated goals, albeit in a limited way, the study of knowledge-sharing and knowledge-creation skills writ much larger creates a medium-independent study of and explicit development in exactly those goals stated above.

In other words, for most teachers most of the time, writing instruction fails because, to turn a phrase on its ear, it puts the art before the course: it seems to imply, with no proof that I can see, that WRITING IS COMMUNICATION. This is close to true (and, to their credit, a few McLuhanesque writing teachers do actually and consciously teach communication, rather than just writing, although such an approach is sadly rare at the secondary school level). But, significantly, it is not true enough. Moreso, it is dangerous to be this close to the truth and still be in error, as the writing lobby can happily defend their position from a position of curricular power with an almost-truth much easier than with an obviously flawed And the stakes are high: to pretend it is true may well continue to alienate real adolescent communication, and thus real adolescents, from a study increasingly esoteric to their real life needs.

The report fails no more and no less than English is beginning to fail, and for the same reasons. It's a shame someone put it in the New York Times, though -- its high-culture vantagepoint is seen as vanguard, which fools so many of us into seeing its underlying assumptions as valid that the truth becomes that much harder to explain and defend.

posted by boyhowdy | 12:28 AM |

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