The Spectacle Blog

Poulos Is Right; Kids Must Write

By on 4.18.06 | 11:35AM

James has been onto something important for quite a while here. But first, a caveat: Education in math and science IS very important. I don't think anybody should advocate an emphasis on other things to the detriment of math and science. That said, it truly is foolish to concentrate so young on math and science to the detriment of other, more basic educational goals -- such as the transmission of a common culture and of basic civics, and, even more importantly, the ability to communicate, especially in writing, and to use reason and logic while doing so. In recent years I have been appalled at the inability even of supposedly well-educated students to write worth a spit.

For example, just a few years ago I was asked to judge the op-ed portion of the student journalism award at one of the top universities in the nation. Mind you, these weren't just ANY students at this university; these were the ones who had self-selected themselves to be students journalists; i.e., to be writers. Yet the entries were pathetic -- so bad that I didn't really think ANY of the entries deserved first prize, and I ended up awarding first place to one that barely deserved an "Honorable Mention," while leaving the Second Place and Honorable Mention awards unfilled.

Why were the entries so bad? Well, in addition to showing (often) a mediocre grasp of basics such as subject-verb agreement and the proper structure of parallel clauses, the entries almost universally failed to actually build a case. It's as if nobody has taught these kids that an opinion piece requires more than the mere spouting of opinions. Rank assertion followed rank assertion, as if to say: THIS IS MY OPINION AND IS VALUABLE BECAUSE, WELL, IT'S MINE! The essays contained very little attempt to persuade, to cite evidence and build on it, to actually develop an argument rather than to merely shout from the rooftops.

In the end, the op-ed piece to which I gave First Place was full of all sorts of leftish claptrap -- but at least the columnist made an attempt to build his case, to cite respected neutral authorities -- in short, to persuade. A couple of columnists, on the other hand, albeit not many, were conservatives. I agreed with virtually every word they wrote. But they made no attempt to defend or advance their causes based on anything other than their own God-given right to spout off. In short, their columns were full of opinion without reason. And not very well-expressed opinions, at that.

It was most depressing.

Scientists as well as politicians need to be able to explain themselves to an outside world, to put their discoveries into context, to engage others and to meld their sciences with the broader world of learning and practice so that their discoveries can be understood, valued, and best utilized. When even the writers can't write well, is it really a time to be teaching middle schoolers that a mono-focus on science and math is so highly valuable that communication skills and broader liberal learning go by the wayside?

All of which is to say that James Poulos is right. A great college professor of mine, Diane Yeager of Georgetown University, once wrote an essay for me whose argument was that education should inculcate "wonder, wisdom, and serendipitous knowledge." Hear, hear!

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