Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Supple prose, lazy thinking: B-

Writing in the American Conservative, Reid Buckley bemoans the inability of college-educated young people to express themselves in prose:

"The art of writing is the soul of reason, from which all civilization has spun. If one cannot give expression to one’s thoughts, one is reduced to grunts. These young men and women were to be graduated in two months’ time. Yet they were functionally illiterate, as the saying goes—a hideous euphemism for being thrust into the adult world intellectually crippled. Several other students who crowded around me now claimed that never had they had their written work reviewed. I was incredulous. “Never?” “Not once!” came their reply. Two or three then claimed that in nearly four years of college they had never been required to write an essay. Examinations were multiple choice.

I had no answer for them. The laziness of the faculty disgusted me."

He was disgusted, after teaching a public speaking course for two semesters, to find that so many professors had abdicated their duty to teach students how to write essays, essentially giving up on the students. He bristled at this sort of resignation and apathy. So he quit.

Okay, that's a bit of a cheap gag. He did found a public speaking school.

Anyway, I can relate to much of what he says there, having toiled in the trenches battling subliterate undergraduate prose. I have, in fact, reviewed their essays, written page after page of notes for students, composed a manual on how to write exemplary essays, and in one case, made the students rewrite their final essay over and over until they wrote something to be proud of. So, I suppose Buckley and I are allies in that sense.

And, yes, the painful moment comes when one realizes the depth of the problem:
"The dimensions of his doom and that of these other young people hit me with full force. Not once in their educational lives had they been taught to impose order on chaos, that being contrary to the central dogma of liberal-arts education in our country today. There is no such thing as choosing, as distinguishing between the false and the real, discriminating between good and bad. The cost of this heresy to our nation is beyond calculating: for two generations our businesses, professions, universities, and politics have been populated by moral illiterates who reject reason."
The funny thing about this central dogma is that it's never actually been expressed to me in the last decade I've spent in higher education. I mean, it's the friggin' central dogma! And nobody could tell me about it?! Basically, Buckley's diagnosis of the educational crisis boils down to "moral and intellectual relativism" on the part of educators, spreading outwards.

It's funny though because I bitch a lot to my colleagues about students getting out of high school and college still unable to read or write well, and I have never had a professor say to me, "Well, it doesn't bother me, because there's no such thing as 'good' or 'bad' in my book!" How plausible is it to assume that people who have dedicated their lives to reading, writing, and critiquing books are also opposed to maintaining standards of reading and writing? As for "choosing"- yep, I've also been made to distinguish between the false and the real since coming to college. And I still haven't met these "moral relativists" I hear so much about.

But, when Buckley made his students rewrite their papers, he says they were indignant and threatened to complain to the administration. This might suggest that students and administrators are also a significant force in lowering academic standards. Then we might ask if treating a traditional cultural institution, such as the university, as if it were a big busisness might have resulted in different needs and interests working at odds with one another. In fact, we might even ask if the needs of consumer capitalism aren't fundamentally opposed to those of cultural conservatism. But, then we'd be Daniel Bell.

Instead, Buckley talks about a vaguer "cultural decadence", what horrible people academics can be, and how academic prose is unreadable. All of which are true, but not nearly the whole story. His assumption here seems to be that, if academics were better people, the entire society around them would follow suit because they're just that influential. I'm not even convinced they're influential within the academy anymore. However, it seems to me that another problem here is that American education really is the pits, and that it hardly matters what factor we point to in order to explain that, since they're all valid to some extent. But, if we're going to think seriously about fixing things, we need to think about all the problems at once.

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