A Long Process: Reading, Writing, and How to “Fix” Education

Last month, Forbes.com ran yet another article in that now-tedious sub-genre of “how to fix education” pieces, and not surprisingly, its title declared, “To Fix College, We Need to Fix the Mistakes We’re Making in K-12.” There are only two subjects that pop up in modern media that really get my goat: criticisms of Generation X and criticisms of K-12 teachers— in part because I’m both. However, I do enter into these education-related articles with something of an open mind . . . and with a genuine but cautious optimism that maybe something fair or productive will be proposed or shared.

This time my optimism was rewarded and some of my admittedly self-righteous notions affirmed. Writer Natalie Wexler shared this in the early portions of the article:

Increasingly, undergraduates are turning away from majors like English and philosophy: In 1967, 17% chose to major in the humanities, but by 2013 the proportion was only 8%. Colleges are replacing those majors with other more popular ones that are presumed to lead more directly to employment, like data analytics. That’s partly the result of economic pressure.

Of course, I was miffed to read that decisions about education and university-level programs are being based on what’s “popular,” rather than what’s best. (Maybe we should create degree programs in Cardi B and Fortnite, I hear that they’re popular these days.)

Then, this somewhat disturbing bombshell came a few paragraphs down:

One survey of American undergraduates at typical four-year colleges revealed that half hadn’t taken a single course in the prior semester that required them to write 20 pages or more; 35% said they studied five hours per week or less; and one third hadn’t taken a course that required even 40 pages of reading per week. Not surprisingly, these students didn’t seem to be learning much: after two years, 45% showed no significant improvement in their ability to think critically, reason, or write well.  It’s not clear why professors are assigning so little work, but one possibility is that they realize many students aren’t equipped to do more.

When I read that, I thought, what colleges and major fields did they survey, so I know never to send my children there? One-in-three of these undergrads claim to be reading less than forty pages per week. (These must be the ones so ensconced in their smartphones that they walk into lightpoles.)

Yet, Wexler did proffer a solution to these conundrums that revived my hope:

Still, all is not lost for today’s high school and college students. If they’re motivated and if teachers understand what is needed to help them learn—including breaking down complex problems into manageable steps and providing explicit instruction in how to write [italics mine] about the content of their courses—it’s not too late to build knowledge and the analytical skills that can only develop in tandem with it.

Tying it all together – the passages that I’ve block-quoted here – it is no surprise that the number of English and philosophy majors has declined if we have young people who don’t read much in school, who aren’t assigned intensive amounts of reading, and who aren’t challenged to read difficult works and to write to prove that they understood those works. A person can’t be an English or philosophy major if that person can’t read in a sustained and critical way. A student can’t gain the same intellectual ground from watching YouTube videos, commenting on message boards, and creating Google Slides presentations that he or she could from reading and writing. And, as an assessment method, nothing can replace writing.

The problem here is simple, if you ask me: from the beginning of recorded history in Western culture, adults have transferred knowledge and skills to the young in two main ways, through personal instruction and hands-on learning, and through reading and writing— and computer programs, apps, and other learn-quick schemes have never succeeded in surpassing those historically tried-and-true methods. I know that students complain about long, heavy reading assignments, and that they sometimes avoid them completely by not reading, but that’s no excuse for teachers and professors not to give them!

In 1991 and ’92, I wrote my required senior thesis in twelfth grade proving that the character of Satan in John Milton’s 17th-century epic poem “Paradise Lost” fit the model of an Aristotelian tragic hero. I chose that topic, and the thesis was an independent project where the teacher offered guidance. For that year-long assignment, I had to read the whole epic poem on my own, in a world without internet-based summaries and explanation. I had to read and understand elevated language that didn’t resemble my everyday Alabama speech patterns. I had to choose passages and gather thematic statements that supported my assertion. And I had to organize them into a coherent discussion that made my point. Moreover, for the senior thesis, our teacher gave herself the right to “fail” the paper and hand it back for a revisions, and to keep “failing” it until it was acceptable. I “failed” twice, and had to go back home – in the spring of my senior year, all angsty and excited and ready to graduate – and sit down at my typewriter to rewrite that twenty-plus page paper (because we didn’t have word-processing software to make edits and re-print it). When she accepted it that third time, I felt like I had gotten out of jail. What is most important: twenty-seven years later, I still remember what I learned from that assignment.

While I may agree with Wexler on the one hand, I have a few comments of my own, on the other. First, even if one-third of undergrads aren’t reading at least forty pages per week, two-thirds are. That means that most professors are assigning substantial reading loads. Personally, I’d be curious to know the ages (and generations) of professors who are assigning less reading, and I’d bet that it’s the younger professors who aren’t giving enough. Second, it is not the job of K-12 teachers to send students into college knowing fully how to read, reason, and write flawlessly and without the need for further instruction. This fact should be apparent since the seminal college course in American post-secondary education has always been Freshman Composition. In fact, most of the academics who I know admit that they didn’t really know how to write until they got to graduate school. Teaching a young person to read, think, and write is a long process: elementary teachers have a role, middle school teachers build on that foundation, high school teachers build further on it— and college professors have their working role in the process, too. Let’s not forget that, while we’re talking about how to “fix” the problems in education.

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