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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?