Why college grads can’t write

College graduates can’t write because Freshman Comp doesn’t teach them, writes R.V. Young, an English professor at North Carolina State, on the Pope Center’s Clarion Call.

When the GI Bill opened college doors to many more students after World War II, freshman comp “became the foundation for liberal education of a broad swath of American students who were often encountering for the first time the liberating effect of intellectual cultivation – the mental excitement of mastering intellectually difficult books, handling ideas with discernment, and realizing their thoughts in clear, coherent language,” Young writes.

. . . 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.

In the last 30 years, freshman comp has been taken over by “the social sciences and the public education establishment.” Researchers write up their theories; adjuncts do the teaching.

Since theorists believe reading and writing are different skills, literature has been banished from composition classes.

Theorists believe grammar and usage conventions are unimportant, unteachable and “may even be damaging to minorities.” They tell adjuncts not to mark errors on student papers:  Students “best learn to write from one another by breaking up into little groups in class and ‘peer-reviewing’ their work, since it is their own generational cohort for whom they should be writing.”

In the 1970’s, when Young started at North Carolina State, English professors taught freshman comp.

The “theory” of composition that guided the course was that students learned to write by writing a great deal and having their papers marked thoroughly and severely by the professor, who would often reinforce the lesson in individual conferences.  The first semester of this two-semester course required 14 short papers, the second semester 11 plus a short research paper.  It was the academic equivalent of boot camp.

Asking students to write essays about works of literature gave them a common topic,  which they approached with few preconceptions, Young writes. Freshman find it easier to assess the role of faith in Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, than to “give thoughtful, unself-conscious account of their views on abortion or global warming — the kind of topic that is typical nowadays.”

Young no longer teaches writing. As a literature professor with no “composition theory” training, he’s considered unqualified.

How well is this new approach working? An increasingly common complaint among employers is that college graduates can’t even write a short memo that’s clear. The melancholy results of the now prevalent approach to composition are plain to see in the pitiable level of reading and writing skills possessed by most college graduates.

Frisky blogger Jessica Wakeman wishes she’d learned more about literature, history and politics and taken fewer gender studies courses. “There’s a difference between what I thought was “cool” to learn about at the time and what has actually proved useful in life,” she writes.