The school where I began my teaching career required all 9th-graders to be able to write a five-paragraph essay and all 11th-graders to write a successful research paper under the dual guidance of their English teachers and one other-subject teacher. I am not a great fan of the five-paragraph essay because I hold with Barzun that ‘all systematic devices for generating good writing are a mistake.’ Even so, I see the need for some students to start with training-wheels, as it were, before the unaided bike ride actually begins.
I was therefore deeply shocked to hear about a new-teacher orientation at a state university in which the following exchange took place. One new teacher asked the Director of Academic Technology what to do with students who ‘struggle with the five-paragraph essay’ and do not like writing at all. The director replied that the teacher might make an alternative assignment ‘like a poster’. (No advice on buying crayons and scissors was given.)
The principal of my first high school would have had a better answer to that question. It would have been to advise the teacher to help the students learn the five-paragraph essay. If a student had been foolish enough to assert to that principal that he did not like writing at all, the answer would have been very clear: If you want to be a sophomore, you will learn how to write a five-paragraph essay whether you like it or not.
If students at this university can avoid learning to write because they ‘don’t like it at all,’ what do they have to look forward to? The university’s president said at the same convocation that he wants students to ‘own their own minds.’ What a statement! Fan away the misty cliché about ownership and it becomes perfectly meaningless and unintelligible. If a student doesn’t like writing and therefore doesn’t have to do it, if he doesn’t like reading more than a few pages a day, if he doesn’t like demanding teachers and savages them in the course evaluation, if he likes computing but not counting, and if he can’t hold up for thirty seconds in a Socratic discussion, what kind of mind will he ‘own’?