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Students can’t write (or read)

Stephen Tollefson, former lecturer, College Writing Programs | December 5, 2011

That’s what Berkeley faculty have been saying since 1884, when a Professor Bradley reported that fifteen students failed the entrance exam in writing, and that he spent the next day in “ceaseless interviews with the unfortunate, the lazy, and the feeble-minded.”

I gleaned this quotation from an excellent  book, The Rhetoric of Remediation: Negotiating Entitlement and Access of Higher Education (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010), by my colleague, Jane Stanley, Associate Director of the College Writing Programs.

Throughout my nearly forty-year career teaching writing (among other things) at Berkeley, I’ve heard from faculty and the public the same refrain: Students can’t write.  And of course, it’s always implied that this is a new phenomenon, something brought on by the ‘60s, by drugs, by our steadily worsening high schools, by immigrants, by Facebook, texting, and Twitter.  All I can think of is Paul Lynde (look him up if you’re too young to remember) singing “What’s the Matter with Kids Today?” in Bye-Bye Birdie.  Or maybe a song from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld – I think it’s something like “We’re all going to hell together.”

So students’ writing (and reading skills) have been going downhill since there was first a hill to go down. Here’s a little chronology I’ve put together from Stanley’s book and other sources:

1896—“By the time he is a Junior or Senior, he has lost all interest in the ‘literary’ courses.  The ‘themes’ must be written, however, and the best way is the easiest…He knows just where he can lay his hands upon some fifty to a hundred ‘themes’ written by the members of past classes, that have been carefully collected and preserved by enterprising students.”  Frank Norris

1904—“The most common form of deficiency of students who apply to the university — and not a few of them who actually get in—is that they can neither read nor write.” Professors Gayley and Bradley, in their pamphlet “Suggestions for Teachers of English in Secondary Schools”

1930—“Some of our students are as brilliant and as ambitious as any scholar of medieval times. Some have the mind but little desire to use it.  Some are beautiful but dumb, and some are not even beautiful.”  Robert Gordon Sproul to the Commonwealth Club

1946—“It is regrettable that we permit so many students to secure a degree from this institution when their ability to use their native language is as poor as it often is.” A.R. Gordon, Committee on Educational Policy

1955—”Dissatisfaction over undergraduates’ incorrect and incompetent use of English in their written exercises is both widespread and perennial.  The facts are not in doubt, nor can we doubt the sincerity of those of the University faculty who express their concern at the situation.  The problem is assign responsibility.”  Committee on Educational Policy

1955—“Why Johnny Can’t Read,” Time Magazine Cover Story

1971—“Why read at all, when all you need are “huh” and “far out” and “right on” to get you through the business of the day?  When paragraphs have become grunts, what’s the goal of searching out the pleasures of Lamb or Hazlitt?”  San Francisco Chronicle

2003—“Why Johnny Can’t Write Even Though He Went to Princeton,” a revealing article by Thomas Bartlett in the Chronicle of Higher Education

Stanley echoes a point made by Mike Rose of UCLA: We all seem to think that there was a Golden Age of writing and reading, one when we were young, or our parents were, or our grandparents, and that THINGS ARE VERY BAD.

I’m not going to pretend all of our students write as well as we’d like. On the other hand, more often than not, our students produce great writing.  Here’s the opening to a paper on gold-mania by Jeff Totten, a student in my College Writing 110 class last year:

“Gold is soft, so you can use it to fill cavities. It is conductive and malleable, so you can use it to make wires and pretty things. It is shiny and rare, so you can use it to buy your wife’s love.

Other than that, gold is pretty much useless.

You can’t build shelter out of it unless you’re a dictator in the Middle East, and edible gold has failed to catch on, despite having zero calories per serving. That’s right, our digestive system is unaffected by gold, so you can buy a gram of edible gold flakes to garnish martinis and desserts for about the same price as an equal amount of cocaine. You won’t get high, but it will make your cocktail party the talk of the suburbs.

Despite gold’s limited uses, whenever markets go awry, investors pile into gold funds, gold bars, and gold coins­­­­ like cokeheads fighting over the last line.”

That’s good stuff.

I want to end with a final plug for Stanley’s book.  It’s not just about student writing at Berkeley, but much about the history of our university, and it reads like the best histories, filled with intrigue and wacky characters.  Did you know that J. Edgar Hoover investigated one of the questions on the old Subject A exam because he thought it was seditious?  Or that Benjamin Ide Wheeler (Wheeler Hall is the home of the Department of English) thought studying literature was something you could do on your own?

Comments to “Students can’t write (or read)

  1. Hi Professor Bradley, a few days I read your article it’s really enjoyed and very helpful for student. Not much can be done as the younger generation slowly graduates into adulthood, they carry forward the manner of their communication, which makes them feel connected and understood by their friends and peers. One might even say that it is the evolution of language. Thank for sharing this kind article.

  2. Thank you, professor. I needed this as I am presently grading midterm exams of high school sophomores. I don’t feel as dejected as I did a few moments ago!

  3. Great article, Prof. I really enjoyed this! Our students get the idea that professional engineers do not do a lot of writing, which is absolutely wrong.

  4. I am a writer by profession. The more experienced I become with the art and craft of writing, the more I come to recognize it for what it is: a complex skill that, for almost all, develops slowly, with effort and practice, and instruction. Additionally, good writing requires, naturally but perhaps not obviously, sound thinking. Writing can be taught, but ultimately writing well develops in sync with learning to think clearly, and to translate thought into language.

    Sounds easy, right? Hardly!

    Isaac Babel, a Russian master of the short story, famously described himself as working ‘like a pack mule’ on his stories, line by line, word by word, comma by comma. This wasn’t hyperbole; the best writers edit, edit again, and again and again…So, in addition to the qualities mentioned above for producing a well-written piece, I’d like to add one more: tenacious stick-to-it-ness.

    Why do not more students write well? Should be obvious.

  5. Thanks to all who have responded to this post. It’s gratifying to see that there is so much interest in the quality of student writing.

    Since I posted the original piece, Jane Stanley’s book “The Rhetoric of Remediation: Negotiating Entitlement and Access to Higher Education” has won the Mina P. Shaughnessy Prize from the Modern Language Association. “The prize is awarded for an outstanding work in the fields of language, culture, literacy, and literature with strong applications to the teaching of English.”

    Congratulations to Jane on the award, and thanks for enlightening us all.

  6. ha. this reminded me of the refrain in some song: “why can’t they be like we were — perfect in every way? oh, what’s the matter with kids today?” did i punctuate correctly?

  7. Nice piece, Steve. Maybe, just maybe, the issue is that writing well is both an art and a skill that can be taught, and we all somehow expect that 18 year olds will have mastered both the art and the skill. And maybe, just maybe, part of the problem is that those of us outside of the CWP haven’t a clue how to help teach our students some of the skill and the art. Sounds like a topic for a workshop, eh?

  8. Students at Cambridge Coll. (UK) write the best in the world, but lack logic, and critical thinking. I’ll take a poor writer any day over propoganda and lies, muddled thinking. I like articles like these though. insightfull.

  9. I enjoyed this essay and agree with its central point: adults never tire of finding fault with their offspring. However, I was startled to find a composition error in it. In the second paragraph after the one headed 2003, the author evidently intends to set up a rhetorical double negative, beginning with “I am not going to pretend…”. Fine so far, but then he forgets to close the deal, leaving us with the impression that his students are flawless. Yoiks

    Perhaps it’s just as well. All of us, even those who struggle to make a living by scribbling, are imperfect writers. What we’ve lost is the commitment to an independent, prepublication scrutiny of prose. I mean to say, Johnny may be able to read and write about as well as ever, but he sure as hell cannot edit!

    Clay Farris Naff

  10. Yes! Thanks for the insightful article (and always nice to see Mike Rose cited!). So my question is, do you think we can (or ought) to try and get everyone to the point where they can write like your student?

    • Frank Kotsianas — Thanks for your question. As a writing teacher of 40 years, I can only answer your question with “Yes.” That is, yes we ought to try to get everyone to be able to write as well as my student. If I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t have been able to teach writing all these years. On the other hand, no we can’t get everyone to that level, but the student whose paper I quoted is not some freakish exception. In my College Writing 110 class, the majority of students turn out to be graceful, intelligent writers. Writing and critical thinking go hand in hand. That’s why teaching writing is so important.

  11. Quite upsetting article.
    I am a Berkeley alumna that, aware of my writing limitations, literally begged to be helped by the writing program and was turned down. The justification? Grad students should know how to write. Of course, I was offered the option of borrowing some books and learn by myself.

  12. Pretty much matches my 45 years experience with students in my (mostly engineering) classes. They can write, and each year’s students write better. The high schools are doing a good job. We engineers do them a disservice by not requiring much writing as part of our courses. Our students get the idea that professional engineers do not do a lot of writing, which is absolutely wrong.

  13. I remember Thom Gunn saying, in the creative writing class I took from him in 1977, “Once you leave English 1A you see that sentence fragments can be quite effective as you try to write poetry.”

    One of Leonard Michaels’ short stories begins with a recollection of a composition course he taught in the 50s (maybe the early 60s). One of the essays he received began: “Karl Marx, for that was his name.”

  14. i had an english 101 teacher tell us that he was going to fail a portion of the students taking his class because we couldn’t read. i worked hard and he gave me f’s. i dropped his class, which he said he wouldn’t allow.
    the year before i made an A at a junior college in a writing class.
    confusing to say the least.

    and as far as gold goes…. short it! 😉

    • i guess i really can’t write…. the last word of the first sentence should be “write” not “read.” perhaps porfreading should be done before you hit the “submit comment” button.

      what i really can’t do is type or spell. now that’s a problem!

  15. Great article, Prof. It’s nice to see that SOMEBODY knows what the hell they are talking about. And dare I say, God Bless UC Berk.

  16. Don’t forget Montesquieu’s quote from the early 1700’s, “Horace and Aristotle told us about the virtues of their fathers, and the vices of their own time. And authors throughout the centuries have done the same. If all of them were right, men would now be bears.”

  17. Apparently, Mr. Tollefson, your point is that Berkeley students have always been poor writers, and readers, right from the start 100 years ago. So does that make it okay? Because that’s the way it’s always been? I think you could better spend your time trying to rectify this sad state of affairs, rather than laughing about it. Talk about a hollow laugh, meaning nothing.

    • Isn’t it more the point that it’s probably connected to development? We now know that our brains are still myelinating into our early twenties, and that until the frontal cortex is fully online that we have a penchant for making bad decisions, we’re more easily distracted, etc. Thus, many/most in their late teens and early twenties will not yet have fully developed abilities that they will have when they’re thirty.

      There’s also the issue of statistics, even amongst Berkeley undergrads. Some will simply be better than the mean, others worse than the mean. Ultimately it’s all a matter of comparison. (If someone were able to teach a chimp to write it would rather miss the point to chastise the creature for bad grammar. At the end of the day that chimp is still a statistical outlier at the very far right-hand side of the distribution!)

  18. Jane Stanley’s book also contributes to histories of the American West and California. It’s a wonderful resource.

  19. Thanks, Stephen. Wonderful little piece, quite persuasive, even when I am a skeptic of the thesis. Persuasive enough, in fact, that I will get my hands on Jane’s book. I remember both of you, though you may not remember me, your former union representative. Glad to see the Berkeley Writing Program hanging in there. – R. Seyman

  20. I really enjoyed this! I’m a Visiting Scholar from University of Oslo, Norway, and see that our comments about students’ reading and writing capabilities are not only timeless, but global as well.

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