The Peculiar & Conspicuous Lack of Writing Pedagogy

This book is an easy, fun, and engaging way to introduce high school students to some of the ways of language. Add this to the state syllabus and I can't help but feel that the world would be a better place. Or at least more interesting.

It suddenly occurs to me that, as a country and culture, we spend shockingly little time teaching — or learning — about language. We teach 14 year olds how to do algebra; we make them memorize Newton's First Law; we sometimes give them a basketball to play with. But we don't teach them about the performative nature of language, the role of rhythm in communication, the manifold ways a piece of writing can be structured. Nor do we teach them how to reckon such things, how to be critical readers of their environment or themselves. These kids might learn some arbitrary grammatical rules and some ludicrous technique for doing a "report." But they are never exposed in any concerted way to the joy, complexity, and mechanics of language — which they use all day every day! But they'll know how to "do" negative exponents (without understanding why)? Really?

My son, a freshman in public high school in San Francisco — a rich and "enlightened" city, we think — does not have one class called, "How the Fuck to Write." He has an "English" class in which they discuss race and citizenship — good topics, no doubt. But this English class never discusses the ways of language and how students can relate it to it in this thing what we call writing — which said students have to do all the time (in texts and emails, if nowhere else).

We seem to consider critical thinking  when we talk about race. But how can we talk critically and richly about anything, not to mention race, when we don't teach any way to make sense of communication — of the books, tweets, movies, news programs, art we're teaching in the first place? My son's class read a book called The Hate U Give and then discussed how the heroine became a good citizen. But the class never discussed anything about the book itself — its structure, the play of perspectives, its rhythms. And this was the closest he came to being taught how to work with words. Certainly, his algebra and physics classes never discussed language. So I don't want to blame the English class. It's a failing of the entire state mandated syllabus. It's a conspicuous, glaring, painful failing of our entire pedagogy which is itself a failure of our presumed civilization. None of his classes offer any critical framework, any tool or concepts or tactics to make different kinds of sense. And none of them, certainly not his English class, offer any pedagogy of language, of writing or interpretation.

How is this madness possible? There is surely some screwy ideology at work. If you want a docile crowd that perpetuates the prevailing machine, don't teach its constituents to be critical. Don't teach them how to think across disciplines, to understand that the medium is the message, to disrupt the means of communication and information dissemination, to undo or scramble the very structures of sense-making. Make them parse grammar and take all information at its word. Get them to debate on the terms of content, not the mechanics of structure. Then the structures — of experience and social relations — will remain untouched, free to continue their insidious forms of enslavement. 

But we can't just blame ideology or "the System" as that gets us nowhere. The fact is any pedagogic system perpetuates itself as it teaches its way of doing things as the right way of doing things. This insight — that a system teaches its own ways — comes from my understanding of what I'm calling the performative. That is, our school system doesn't come out and say: "This is our structure; repeat it." Rather, it never puts its own way of going to analysis, to critique. It's simply the way things are done: Read this book. Write your "report" in this way. And so that's what students believe is the way things are done. So the next generation of teachers teach the same way. Hurt people hurt people.

For sixth through eight grades, my son attended a private school — an experimental, makers' school of a sort. No academic subjects per se: these kids would learn through doing, through projects they'd concoct on their own and enact throughout the year. But even here, even this school that fancies itself hands-on and experimental, there is a conspicuous lack of writing pedagogy. Yes, they participate in NanoWriMo and so, for most of them, they write concertedly for a month. But there is little to zero discussion of how language works; different kinds of structure; the role of style, tone and rhythm; the way performativity inflects all writing. They don't even read different kinds of texts to explore different modes of writing. How hard is it to have them read some Walt Whitman, Marshall McLuhan, Clarice Lispector, Junot Diaz, or any number of writers who play with language in interesting ways? Like public schools, they read books for the content, never for the structure. At this school of all schools, there are still no tools of critique, of conceptual play, or critical writing. They believe tinkering and making must involve drills and objects, not words and ideas. It's as maddening as it is baffling.

(After the school shooting in Florida, this school decided to join the ranks of schools nationwide and walkout at the same time. My kid asked: Why? They had no answer. So he didn't walk out; he stayed behind and goofed with his friends. I couldn't have been prouder! Not because I didn't support the walkout. But because he questions everything and his school had no answer; it just toed the party line. Which both he and I found so very disappointing.)

I now understand why people can't write. They can't even really write emails or texts with any grace or nuance. And they surely can't write college papers or business presentations. We are a nation of functioning illiterates. Those who think themselves literate call themselves, with peculiar pride, "grammar nazis." Eeesh! And oy! Grammar is not a set of arbitrary rules — don't end sentences in prepositions; don't begin sentences with and or but; don't use fragments. All of that is nonsense. Grammar is not about following rules! Grammar is anything you can get away with! I think of Yeats: The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Those who defend writing defend the death of writing by adhering to 19th century grammar and its enforced rules rather than expressive, poetic play. This drives me ape shit.

But I'm starting to think that if there was a syllabus for teaching critical writing (as distinct from, say, fiction) to high school students, perhaps the mere availability of material and the introduction of tools and concepts could shift the way this is all done. A matter of praxis, not theory. Keep it simple. Hand teachers a curriculum.

No doubt, our entire approach to education needs to change. We still have 7 year olds, 12 year olds, 16 year olds sitting in chairs memorizing formulas and facts. It's so 19th century industrial age, training us for the assembly line. And, of course, it's aggressively repressive of youth's will to play, to scramble categories, to be poetic. What gets me is that the so-called alternative schools that talk of play don't understand youth and how to work with it beautiful unwieldiness.

But, in the meantime, it seems we can teach basic literacy to our state-enslaved students without overhauling the entire system (which would entail overhauling more than our curricula). And that means teaching them not just to decipher letters and symbols but to grapple and frolic with language, with communication, to try to read and write in a way that is expressive, engaged, playful. 

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