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why johnny can’t write or argue continued | Debi Martin, B.J., M.A.

why johnny can’t write or argue continued



from: the washingtonpost.com

Why is our political discourse so lousy? A provocative education explanation

Why is our political discourse so lousy? Here’s one provocative explanation, from Donald Lazere, professor emeritus of English at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, who also taught part-time at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is the author of  “Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy: The Critical Citizen’s Guide to Argumentative Rhetoric” and “The Unique Creation of Albert Camus,” and editor of “American Media and Mass Culture: Left Perspectives” This post is a spinoff from his new book, “Political Literacy in Composition and Rhetoric,” just published by Southern Illinois University Press.

By Donald Lazere

One reason American political discourse has sunk to its present dismal level is that few students in either K-12 or college take basic courses that teach them to analyze political rhetoric critically and engage in it intelligently themselves.  Unfortunately, the discipline that has the most potential for teaching this subject, my own of English composition, has not been widely identified with the mission but has been reduced to the common conception of those who, on meeting an English professor, groan, “Oh oh, I better watch my grammar.” Worse yet, composition itself has become yet another victim of partisan polarization and invective, as conservative culture warriors have turned their guns against college writing courses as hotbeds of liberal bias. One of the better-informed conservative critics, Heather MacDonald, wrote several years ago in the National Interest:

The only thing composition teachers are not talking and writing about these days is how to teach students to compose clear, logical prose . . . .  Composition has abandoned correctness because grammatical errors signify the author is politically engaged.

Snarky charges like MacDonald’s contain a grain of truth and raise valid questions about the ill-defined identity of college writing courses, though such charges tend to be overblown and simplistic. Her last sentence may be true of some crude-minded teachers, but a more sensible notion is that intellectual engagement in debating current political and social issues is a more mature aim for student writers than just grammatical correctness — although the two can and should be taught together. I do agree that many students at most American colleges have not learned how to write clearly and coherently, or for that matter to read at the level of liberal education or serious journalism  — one consequence of which, I argue, is widespread political illiteracy.  Politics aside, though, this problem stems largely from inadequate instruction in K-12 education, even in privileged schools, back to what used to be called “Grammar School,” as well as from the frequent failure of other academic disciplines to foster good student (or faculty!) writing.

Support for this point came from the surprising source of Jacques Derrida, the late French guru of arcane deconstructionist theory, who in an interview in the Journal of Advanced Composition disapproved of his ideas being applied to basic levels of education and affirmed that instruction in clear, correct writing in all academic fields was standard practice in European K-12 and college education, eliminating the need for college writing courses altogether.

To clarify one source of confusion here, the main divisions in modern college English are literature, composition, and creative writing (which I won’t discuss here). Both literature and composition are taught at different undergraduate levels, with the lower levels typically being general education-and-breadth requirements for students in majors other than English. One reason to clarify this point is that when conservatives ridicule literature or composition courses with outlandish-sounding titles or heavily political content, they often neglect to verify whether these courses are basic ones required for GE&B or, as is more often the case, upper-division electives mainly for English majors. Such courses are still fair game for criticism, but many critics are too quick to assume that students are forced into them. Criticism is also best undertaken on an informed, individual course basis, not through hearsay evidence and cherry-picked generalizations.  In my judgment, fair evaluation of such courses reveals about the same range from worthless to superb as in any other segment of the curriculum.

Another source of confusion about college composition, largely within the discipline itself, is the nationwide failure to articulate a clear sequence of writing courses and what each should address, from Basic Writing (the course formerly known as Remedial Writing or “Bonehead English”), to First-Year Writing (the course formerly known as Freshman English), typically an inadequate, one-term catch-all, to more advanced courses in critical thinking (also known as informal logic), argumentative rhetoric, and evaluating research resources and other informational reading.

Ideally, required college study in English should begin with these “advanced” topics, which provide a vital introduction to all further college education and to critical citizenship beyond college. This could only come about through vastly increasing opportunity in college preparation for students of all socioeconomic or cultural backgrounds, but we have been going in the opposite direction, in which budget cuts for K-12 and soaring college tuition are destroying such opportunity.

I pose a dilemma in all earnestness to conservatives and liberals alike: If K-12 schools have failed to prepare students for college-level reading and writing, should it be the responsibility of English Ph.D’s to teach at a grammar-school level or to uphold the standards of higher education?  One wholly misbegotten way out of this dilemma has been staffing of introductory writing courses not by professors but by grad students and adjuncts in assembly-line multiversities who are often under-paid, under-prepared, and over-worked, with no guaranteed continuity of employment and with no consistent guidelines for course goals. (Many small liberal arts colleges do have a tradition of professors teaching composition, integrated with academic study, as it should be.)

This pernicious trend has been compounded by decades of budget cuts for public higher education, which almost always are applied to reducing funds for teaching at the lower levels of instruction like first-year- composition, not the higher ones of specialized scholarship and research, let alone that of the lavishly paid administrators who dictate where cuts will fall. In historical perspective, our current model of college composition only developed in the twentieth century. Prior to that, going back to ancient Greece and Rome, study of composition was incorporated into the discipline of rhetoric (sometimes called “Rhetoric and Moral Philosophy”), centered in study of reasoning, argumentation, and debate—preeminently about politics. In an important article, “From Rhetoric to Composition: The Teaching of Writing in America to 1900,” educational historian Michael Halloran affirmed that the goal of the rhetorical curriculum was “to address students as political beings, as members of a body politic in which they have a responsibility to form judgments and influence the judgment of others on public issues.” Halloran cites a list of questions provided by professors for student debate in the leading colleges at the time of the Revolution, such as, “Is an absolute and arbitrary monarchy contrary to right reason?” That and similarly loaded questions must have provoked Royalist conservatives to scream about left-wing faculty bias. So if we are to restore argumentative rhetoric to its traditional place in English studies, shouldn’t we foster clear and logical (as well as grammatical) prose in students’ writing about political controversies and teach them to criticize abuses of clear language or logic by politicians and the media? If students expressing their political opinions in papers or class discussion display factual ignorance, lack of evidence, illogical or prejudiced reasoning, shouldn’t they be corrected — in the sense of logical and factual, not political, correctness? (A common instance of illogical causal analysis is white students’ papers that blame blacks solely for their current problems of poverty and crime, in ignorance of the unbroken historical chain of evasion of responsibility by white society from slavery to the present.) In sum, politics has a perfectly legitimate role in college writing courses, not through excluding complementary study of grammar and clear, logical prose, or through being imposed in a one-sided manner by doctrinaire teachers (which does too often occur), but as the subject of even-handed rhetorical study and debate. TheCommon Core State Standards in 2010 (which were otherwise flawed in many ways) bravely gave primacy to instruction to “demonstrate the cogent reasoning and use of evidence that is essential to . . . responsible citizenship in a democratic republic.” No discipline is better suited, and positioned in required courses, to fulfill that mission than composition. Faulty reasoning of course occurs on both the political (and student) left and right, although in my three decades teaching in conservative locales, it was most blatant in students parroting conservative dogmas from Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter. I regularly assigned Limbaugh’s books as subjects for fact-checking and study of coherent reasoning; even most hardcore “dittoheads” quickly learned to look elsewhere for substantial conservative sources. I cherished those conservative students who based their views on serious study and were able to engage with liberal ideas on a reasoned level; many of them said in anonymous evaluations that my course was one of their favorites because I challenged them—as well as liberals–to support and refine their views against opposing ones and graded them “up” for skill in doing so.

However, some conservatives were unable or unwilling to submit their beliefs to extensive contrast with opposing viewpoints, and just interpreted my insistence that they do so as imposition of “liberal PC.” Such responses have led me to wonder how many of the complaints trumpeted by conservatives about faculty bias might stem from students (or their parents or political pundits) who simply do not understand the traditional, Socratic mission of college education and of humanistic philosophy, to submit dogmatic beliefs and cultural assumptions to critical questioning. Many conservative organizations have forthrightly opposed education that asks students to question parental, religious, and other authority. Many liberals can be equally dogmatic in practice, and should be called on this inconsistency.


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