Can writing be taught? This question was recently debated in the “Bookends” section of The New York Times Book Review (8/24/14). Both Rivka Galchen and Zoe Heller agreed that, yes, it can be taught. How well or why the teaching of writing is so debated when we accept that we can teach biology, chemistry, history, ethics, music, painting–these are the issues raised by Galchen and Heller.
Since I am an old English teacher, who spent the better part of her life trying to teach writing, or composition as we sometimes called it, to college freshmen, I do believe that writing can be taught. But over the years, I must say I struggled with the way it was taught–and I frequently doubted my ability to teach people to write.
The Comp 101 classes, still required in most colleges and universities, grew out of the old rhetorical tradition dating back to Aristotle and Socrates. During the Greek and Roman times, rhetoric was a part of public discourse. How do we convince people to see our side of the argument? It grew into a detailed study of sometimes formulaic methods of argumentation and debate. A quick check of the definition of the word rhetoric reveals the inherent problem with the rhetorical approach to teaching writing:
1 : the art of speaking or writing effectively
2 : the study or use of the principles and rules of composition
3 a : skill in the effective use of speech b : language that is not honest, sincere, or meaningful
Note that this definition begins with the word art, but ends with the more current association with rhetoric: “language that is not honest, sincere, or meaningful” as in “cut the rhetoric and get to the issue.” In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the word appears in this sentence: “No speech could have been more thoroughly honest in its intention: the frigid rhetoric at the end was as sincere as the bark of a dog, or the cawing of an amorous rook.”
This passage occurs early in the novel and refers to a long speech in which Dorothea’s pedantic future husband, Mr. Casaubon, has attempted to express his ardor for Dorothea. But his rhetoric is frigid. This is a foreshadowing of Dorothea’s and Casaubon’s disastrous marriage. Mr. Casaubon wants to tell Dorothea how he feels, but his brain has become so tangled up with rhetoric that what comes out, while sounding good, is really a mess. Unfortunately, Dorothea is blinded by her idealized notions of love and her own lofty ambitions.
With the classical, rhetorical approach to writing, people often learn the techniques of effective argumentation as a substitute for truth and honesty and real thinking. It is much easier to teach the structure of the five-paragraph essay (or theme as it was called by my ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. Murphy) than it is to teach how to write clearly and truthfully with insight and even a dash of creativity. All you need is an introduction with a thesis statement that includes three points that you must develop in three body paragraphs and finally a conclusion to re-state or summarize the three points. And so can begin the death march to disastrous writing.
Dorothea, because she is young and wants to be in love, makes Casaubon’s speech mean what she wants it to mean. Mr. Casaubon’s life work is to write the great book, which never gets written. No wonder. He can not be true to himself. How to teach a person like Casaubon to write? There is no easy, fill-in-the-blanks formula. That is why we can keep telling budding writers to read, read, read great writing. But it is deeper than that. Thus the dilemma of teaching writing.
Still I bow down to my English teachers–especially the great ones, who tried their best to help us see the light. How can I ever forget thin, waif-like Miss Walsh, my eleventh grade high school English teacher. Or my ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. Murphy, who was sturdy as a fire plug, and a formidable opponent to those in her classes who could not, or would not, learn all the comma rules or how to diagram sentences. My brother did not have the same high regard as I for dear Mrs. Murphy. “She ruined my ninth grade year,” he said recently. There again the predicament of teaching writing–how not to kill off any love for the written word that might be trying desperately to blossom. I know too many people who hated their English classes and can only remember their red-penciled essays.
That’s why I never used red pens: only blue ones.
This image was from a home-school teacher, who teaches the “Five-Paragraph Theme” as a monster. Truly scary! Oh, well.
Writing Challenge: What do you have to say about your English or writing teachers? Go for ten minutes in your writer’s notebook. Can writing be taught?
In my next blog, I’ll talk about my recent visit to Ireland–and my emotional moment with William Butler Yeats. Also I still want to tell you about the workshop I attended this summer with Rebecca McClanahan and what Rebecca, a master, taught me about writing.
In the meantime, let me hear from you. I always enjoy your comments and e-mail.