A Century of Re-gress

This last century has been remarkable in many ways. It sprouted a whole new range of Dewey-inspired disciplines in the Social Sciences, it hurled us from the first tentative definition of the electron in l904 to an electronic world which nobody living then could have imagined. It gave us the tools and techniques we now consider absolutely necessary for civilized life, but it also gave us a long list of regrets, often verging on a wish for the simplicity of the "old days", which of course never really existed except in our imagination.

Two losses, which we began to feel acutely when the century was two thirds gone, were the disappearing ability of most people to do arithmetic mentally or even with a pencil, but the calculator made it all right for us after a fashion. The other loss is serious and there is no device or program to set it right again. I am speaking about the loss of the ability to write clear and understandable English. I would like to trace in very rough outline the course of the century in regard to this unforeseen situation:

It was back in l895 that Dean Briggs at Harvard decided that American education, which was based on the intensive study of Greek and Latin as core materials, was insufficient for a Harvard education, and he introduced a radical new course required of all Freshman. This involved reading examples of well wrought English along with regular writing of papers or "themes". This was listed in the Harvard course catalog as "English A" and the course swept the country like wildfire, thus opening the gates for the undergraduate study of English Literature as both a reading and writing discipline.

Anno 1925.       The new emphasis on the Social Studies involved a great deal of discussion and consideration of the many radical and innovative concepts. Whether it was Economics, Sociology or Psychology, there were new opinions to be voiced, and the student was expected to write coherent accounts of thinking and reading in well manicured, typed papers with detailed footnotes. Typing lessons were given everywhere and "student papers" began to look like serious publishable articles, which many of them became as students proceeded through college into graduate school and entered the world of education.

1950.        By mid-century the rule of the "red pencil" was firmly established, papers were marked up by teachers with such energy that often the original text was at times hardly visible. This could summit in the rigorous system of "Outlining the Sentence", or it could be merely crossing out words and phrases and waiting for the student to submit acceptable copy. Small writing in the margins covered matters of content, while the red pencil went to the heart of the matter.

l970.        Here a new spirit entered the world of high school education, one which we have not yet identified as the enemy within. "Educators" with at times questionable degrees and little experience in the field, decided that "Rote Learning was the Death of the Mind", and urged teachers to stress learning about things, rather than learning actual things. These few words are so simple but insidious, that I had better go back and make them clearer: "LEARNING ABOUT THINGS, vs. learning things."

l975.       Teachers began to read their student papers in terms of "content", which is laudable, but they decided that correcting mistakes in the writing might damp the student's enthusiasm, even make writing a frightening experience. So they stopped "correcting" papers, with an educational excuse first, but with the net effect of saving the teacher a lot of time and work with the red pencil. I have known cases where a student asked his teacher to correct his writing in detail, but the teacher said he could not do this for him or he would have to do for everybody! I know from my college teaching that reading papers for "content" only had become common by l980, actually standard by l985, and the only detailed corrections offered were in college Freshman "remedial" writing seminars, which were of course far too late to correct the basic writing deficiencies.

l980.        The new wave of educational reform which fears that DRILL would KILL student interest, ignored the fact that arithmetic must be learned by rote and if you don't learn it early, you will be unable to count your change at the supermarket. And what about the number of days in the months......? Let alone being ignorant of the end of the Civil War, and whether if came before 1776 or later. Look at a History SAT exam now, and you see the result: The study of history is a now game of guessing likelihoods, ruling out worst-answers to find the right one by subtraction. We know all about the SAT's now, their tests and the ETS-Biz are being scrutinized at last. But in the rush to the new style of education, we applied anti-rote thinking to the writing of English, so grammar and spelling by the rule went out the window, with results which we at last begin to deplore.

1985.       With the appearance of Spell Checks along with rather questionable Grammar Checkers, on the new wave of computers, some people felt that the worst of the writing problem was being faced and the situation was now well in hand. But writing didn't get better. It is true that gross spelling errors did get caught, but there is no way to make up for years of inattention with a quick course, or with a snappy new computer program. You have to "learn" how to write well, and that takes time, like the learning curve from arithmetic through geometry into algebra with all firmly in hand before you can hope to get through the calculus.

l990+        Some years ago, I and another teacher did a course in writing for just four senior students who had all done well enough in college, but knew their writing skills were weak. By intensive labor we re-did some of the work which should have been done over the course of many years, tearing apart their written papers word by word, often spending an hour on a page and tracking down word and phrase for the best clarity, style and conveying of meaning. When the students took apart some of our own printed papers, we knew they were on the right track. At the end they assured us that although they hadn't learned everything they needed to know, they had learned how to look at their writing critically, and felt from there on they would be able to float alone.       Q.E.D.

Looking backward for moment to l950 !       In my first teaching position in a small college in the West, I had one section of Freshman English along with my other coursework. I assigned a one or two page paper to be brought in Tuesday and Thursday with no excuses, and spent my Sunday afternoons with the pencil correcting some sixty pages of student writing. Few typed back then, so each student had to write out a new corrected copy to give me along with the new piece. Of course some of the students complained about the unnecessary workload to the Dean and the Chairman of English, who never corrected anything himself and probably hoped to get me reprimanded. I persisted and everyone realized how well my students were writing after two terms on this regimen. I would have said then that there was no other way to get the job done than the red-pencil routine.

Now back to 2000+ again!       But now there are some ways to get it done, with the aid of new technologies which we all have at our hands. There is little excuse anymore to ignore spelling since spell checks are built into every word-processing program, with grammar checks helping if not marking all errors quite yet. If Typing was the invention of the l930's in the schools, the use of the computer Keyboard is even more a necessity in the new century, not only for writing notes and themes, but for most jobs. The handwritten "paper" is now gone, writing is composed on a computer , and in this format it can be reviewed by the teacher with far more accuracy in much less time. But many teachers will still like the feel of a paper printout, which gives those wide margins so suitable for the traditional cramped and snippy little remarks which most students will never read. "Good idea here....but have you read Tyler's new book?" "I like this but you could have gone further..." "Good idea but no reference...?" Or the traditional: "I like this......." which merely indicates that the Prof. has read through the paper rather than rubber-stamping the grade at the top.

The New Century

It is now time to go back to the rigorous days of the last generation of high school and college teachers, the "Wielders of the Red Pencil" and the eagle-eyed searchers for micro- discrepant detail. But we can now do it much more effectively than they did, with the aid of our new computer technology. I have several suggestions:

First, the teacher should require a 3 page paper each week, due Friday with no lame excuses about a grandmother's recurrent death. This theme is submitted in electronic format, inserted in a folder which contains the student's writing with that week's writing from the class. Unless there is an objection, all students should be able to see each others writing, in the first draft and especially in the corrected versions. Isn't learning from your peers part of the American system of education?

Second, the teacher pulls up the student's paper on screen, and start to edit. I have used the following system and find it easy and effective with standard KB keystrokes:

a)     For a word misspelled or wrongly used in the context, highlight it and make it bold.

b) For bad grammar, in any of its infinite varieties, make it      underlined .

c)     For something which is stylistically inept or just plain unclear without being technically wrong, use the italics

d)Then draw a line across the page ---------------------- belo    w which you can write a note about the corrections, and ideas about improving style, suggests of all sorts. I think that a computer "mini e-mail" of this sort is more personal than a penciled word or two of advice, since it can be easily expanded if there is something pertinent to be said.

e)     But then the student must correct the paper and turn it in as a new copy, which is so easy to do electronically that there is no excuse for ignoring this stage. If the corrections are minor and local, the page can be corrected on screen just as it stands by deleting and substituting. But if there are more corrections, it would be a good practice to Copy/Paste the corrected paper down to a place right below the original, and then go about the corrections and improvements on a new copy. When that copy is brought up the best that the student thinks possible, it can be selected and reformatted to BOLD, as a way of signaling that the correction is done and this is the new copy for the teacher to read. For the teacher this is not only a sign for WorkDone, but also faster to read in bold font.

A Last Thought

We have been complaining and now whining about the deplorable state of our students' writing abilities. Enough if this, we haven't been making much headway with our complaints. But there is one very valuable trait in the American character which can be summed up in the words :       NEVER GIVE UP!

We have been through fires, earthquakes, Depressions and more wars than we like to count, but we have never lost sight of the idea of things getting fixed. Improvement is part of what we are about nationally, we have been successful in almost every area we have committed ourselves to, and I am sure the "Crisis of Writing" is the next item on the firing-line. Something has to be done, and the people who have to get it done are you the teachers who are reading this paper on your computer screen. There are three components involved in getting things fixed, all lie completely within your power:

1) Get rigorous with student writing assignments, have the students flow out several pages a week, and do this without fail.

2) Get rigorous with your electronic substitute for the red pencil. It will take time to get the computer connections made and also to get sufficiently familiar with the new way of correcting papers, but you can now do that arduous correcting work in a quarter of the time it used to take. No more long Sunday afternoons and evenings with piles of paper to be carried back and forth from home to office. If you and your students don't have computers available and network connections, this is the time to go out and get them. The schools do have money if you speak out and make your needs clear. And there is a plethora of older working computers which can be set up for word-processing at school of lent out to students for work at home. These older computers go for scrap, for word-processing they do the same work as a new unit.

3) Set a standard for each student in terms of what you believe that student's ultimate capacity can be. Press on hard for excellence, for the kind of writing which will later make the student a desirable employee, a literate and coherent scientist, and perhaps even a teacher like yourself sitting before a computer passing on to the next generation the lessons which your students are now learning from you.

William Harris Prof. Em. Middlebury College

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College