Why Can’t They Speak and Write Clearly?

Suppose you sent your daughter to a music camp—an expensive camp lasting months. She had said that she wanted to learn the violin, so you bought a nice one and sent her off to camp.

Upon her return, you ask how the camp was and she replies, “Great! We studied lots of stuff about music and the violin.” Then you ask her to play something.

“Well, we didn’t play much and I still don’t know how to tune my instrument. But it was still a terrific experience.”

You would probably think that a music camp ought to concentrate on essentials first—tuning, scales, simple pieces—before moving on to music theory, music history, the need for more diversity in opera companies and so on. 

For many American students, college is like that music camp. They take lots of courses and study (or at least seem to) lots of stuff, but don’t even learn how to use the English language well. You might think that would be a top priority, but actually it’s not a priority at all.

A recent article, “Why Johnny Can’t Write, and Why Employers are Mad,” puts a spotlight on this remarkable omission. Companies are trying to fill many job openings but find that hard, even with lots of un- and under-employed college graduates looking for work. “Often,” writes author Kelley Holland, ”the mismatch results from applicants’ inadequate communication skills. In survey after survey, employers are complaining about job candidates’ inability to speak and write clearly.”

She quotes Brandeis University professor William Ellet, who notes that the neglect of writing starts early in school and often continues straight through college: “Nobody takes responsibility for writing instruction.” 

From personal experience, I can attest that he’s correct. Many students enter college with amazingly poor writing ability, owing to the fact that no one paid much attention to their writing while they were in their K-12 years. Once I had a student come to my office with her test in hand, a test on which she had scored very poorly on all three of the essay questions. “But I never had to write essay answers before,” she complained. Throughout her previous years of schooling, she had taken almost nothing but true-false and multiple-choice tests.

In his 2011 book In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, the author (who chose to remain anonymous, calling himself “Professor X”) observes that good writers have read a lot of quality writing over many years, but unfortunately few high school graduates have read much. Thus, they enter college with very poorly developed writing skills. That creates jobs for adjunct writing instructors like him, but it is extremely difficult to make much progress in a short time with students who have suffered from years of educational neglect and malpractice. 

At least some instructors really try to teach students the rudiments of good writing, such as that they should build clear sentences around active verbs. John Maguire, for example, accidentally stumbled across that tactic, which is similar to teaching beginner violinists to tune their instruments. Surprisingly, the most commonly used manual in college writing classes doesn’t get to using active verbs until two-thirds of the way through the semester.

Maguire’s students might fare pretty well in the competition for jobs. But many other college students won’t because they never have an instructor like him.

Teaching students to write is an onerous task and many professors don’t do it because they don’t have to. They’re happy to enter into what Professor Murray Sperber dubs “the faculty/student non-aggression pact,” which entails the professor making the course not-too-demanding on the students, but in return not putting very much effort into the course. That means, among other things, assigning few papers and certainly not devoting a lot of time to rigorously critiquing them. 

In this article Sperber wrote for the Pope Center in 2011, he lamented that the writing demands on students has fallen considerably. More important, however, than the decline in the quantity of writing, is the decline in the quality of the work professors do with their students’ papers. 

Many faculty members are content merely to jot down a brief comment or two about a paper and hardly any go through a paper line by line to correct writing mistakes. Sperber explains that they “justify their indifference to dreadful student writing by saying that when reading a paper, they mainly want to ascertain whether the student understands the ideas in the course…. Content alone matters, not how well the student has expressed it.”

Yes, but that approach is also much easier than line-by-line editing.

Besides that, diligence in evaluating student papers leads to unpleasant conflicts with students who take umbrage at having their work corrected. Most of them have been told by previous teachers that they’re good writers (often by teachers who themselves can’t write well) and they’re disdainful of any opinion to the contrary. 

Sometimes, things go even further when a professor has the temerity to correct a student’s writing. At UCLA recently, Professor Val Rust was accused of engaging in “micro-aggression” when he deigned to correct spelling and grammar mistakes in some minority students’ dissertation proposals. The result was a sit-in by students who denounced Rust for creating a “toxic racial climate.”

That incident will probably deter some of the remaining professors who might think about looking carefully at the competence of student writing.

It’s bad enough that professors whose job isn’t really supposed to be teaching students how to write avoid doing so, but far worse is that many of those who are expected to teach writing have spent years in the opium den of “compositionism.” An article by Jeffrey Zorn, who teaches English at Santa Clara University, “English Compositionism as Fraud and Failure,” explains exactly how academic “experts” turned the straightforward business of demonstrating to students how to write English into a laughingstock.

In the bad old days, Zorn reports, writing professors used “stifling pedagogy” that called for them to “slash away at mechanical errors and less than elegant wordings.” Doing that was bad. It shut down their students’creativity and individuality, while wasting time on fuddy-duddy rules. But in the 60s and 70s, composition theorists led a revolution that threw out the harsh, oppressive ideas of the past and replaced them with fresh new ideas, such as that students have a “right to their own language.”

If employers wonder why many of the students they consider for employment are incompetent in communications, the reason is that teaching good, clear writing is no longer thought important by the professors who are charged with writing instruction. Zorn writes, “Even as weaker student-writers were entering college needing as much no-nonsense instruction as we could give them, the profession was losing itself in blathering on the shameful level of Janice Lauer’s ‘Lyotardian discontinuous, catastrophic, nonrectifiable and paradoxical paralogy.’”

In sum, college graduates can’t write decently because their instructors are so full of enthusiasm over silly academic fads that their students never learn how to write a coherent paragraph. For every John Maguire or Jeff Zorn who works with students to help them use English clearly, there are dozens of composition professors who believe that is merely “stifling pedagogy” to do that.

Given the importance that employers attach to good communication skills, this situation appears to open up a good opportunity for an “edupreneur”—to come up with a program that’s guaranteed to leave students with those skills.