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The Lost Art of Writing
by Jake Highton
Feb 20, 2011 | 720 views | 1 1 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Dumbest Generation cares little for history books, civic principles, foreign affairs,    comparative religions and serious media and art — a brazen disregard of books and reading.

— Mark Bauerlein  in “The Dumbest Generation”

Few things are more depressing for a professor than the inability of students to write well.

Their writing is murky, repetitious, ungrammatical, irrelevant, inaccurate and too long. They have no idea what it means to get to the point.

All of those “sins” are displayed in student forays into essays on historical figures, mini-opinions on legal cases or news and feature stories.

The wisdom that Ben Franklin urged 275 years ago for good writing eludes them: “It should be smooth, clear and short.”

A writing professor today would add: curt, relevant and attention-


How often students start an essay: “Thomas Paine was born in England in 1737.” Or: “This essay is about Thomas Paine.”

An arresting opening is beyond most students. Something like this: “Thomas Paine was  one of the greatest men in history, a revolutionary and radical writer in three countries.” Back up that beginning with the names of the countries and what Paine did in each. Then follow with facts, quotations and anecdotes.

The reasons for bad writing are varied. But the chief culprit is the Digital Age.

Text messaging, certainly. But because of the ever-new technology fewer people than ever are reading. Instead,  people waste countless hours on social media and video games. They also fritter away numerous hours pressing iPods and iPads, iPhones and smart phones.

Another culprit is secondary education schools where kids have to be entertained rather than do something as difficult as writing. They at least ought to be ordered to write in their notebooks once a week these sentences:

• “Jesus wept.” From John 11:35 in the Bible (which no one, alas, reads anymore.)

• “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Julius Caesar describing one of his victories (Plutarch).

High school teachers who are serious about having their students write often and well are overcome by a Herculean task: too many students and far too many papers to read. The result: too many kids show up as college freshmen with  horrible writing skills.

Still another villain: college English departments.

Andrew Lingwall,  communications professor at Clarion University in Pennsylvania, noted in a recent article that basic English writing classes in college are called “post-modern,” taught by “composition theorists” who are more concerned with individual expression than with felicitous writing. Such courses eschew classic literary works.

Moreover, Lingwall points out that English departments often offer “strange literary theories, Marxism, feminism, deconstruction and other oddities in the guise of writing courses.” Some other oddities: chick lit and queer theory.

Writing is too low-brow to be taught in exalted English departments.

Journalism schools are not guiltless. They give too many A’s and B’s to students whose writing merits C’s.

Censoring Huck

One of the great crimes committed in the name of political correctness is banning, bowdlerizing and bleeping literary classics.

The latest felon is Alan Gribben, English professor at Auburn University. He has come out with a new edition of “Huck Finn” that replaces nigger with slave.

As Michiko Kakutani, New York Times book critic, writes: “To censor or redact books on school reading lists is a form of denial, whitewashing harsh historical realities.”

In a world of political correctness Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is now “The Bellringer of Notre Dame.”

Shakespeare’s bawdy line in “Othello,” “Your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs,” is bowdlerized to the ridiculous “your daughter and the Moor are now together.”

Thomas Bowdler and his sister did not invent prudishness in 1818 when they published an expurgated Shakespeare in England. But their 10-

volume work, omitting “those words and expressions which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family,” became a laughingstock.

Music critic

It’s a sad turn of events when I know better than the New York Times music critic. The critic, Anthony Tommasini, picked Bach over Beethoven as the all-time best composer.

Tommasini is a classically trained musician. I am a mere music lover. But even this amateur knows that Beethoven is the best ever.

Certainly Bach was great. But the “Sturm und Drang” (storm and stress) of Beethoven is beyond compare. He wrote the most profound music ever written.

Beethoven is the Shakespeare of music. Both will never be equaled.

Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada,  Reno.
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February 20, 2011
It would also help if the students could speak english.
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