Why Can't America Teach Writing?
A blogger's lament
I gulped as I took back the booklet with shaking hands. I put it in my fraying purple folder, where it sits unopened to this day. This wasn’t a booklet forced into your hands by an intimidating yet freakishly friendly man on the street—it was the final project for my high school senior year creative nonfiction class.
The booklet was relegated to collecting dust not because high school was ending (I couldn’t wait to be free of all responsibility), but because I had written about something I legitimately cared about: my journey through veganism.
Only when I reflected on this, years later, I realized how absurd it was that I almost started college without ever writing about an actual passion of mine. Nowadays, writing my blog is one of my favorite things to do. What can explain the disparity?
My fundamental rule for good writing is “have something to say.” Trying to drag something out of yourself just because you feel obligated to write about a topic is infinitely more challenging than writing when you know your “why”.
Unfortunately, the American writing education philosophy directly contradicts this with its singular focus on literature. No matter how much you think, “Kids these days don’t appreciate good writing like we did,” the bottom line is that the vast majority do not care an ounce about color symbolism in The Great Gatsby.
The modern classics do have their place in the writing curriculum, but they shouldn’t consume it to the point where it’s all we teach. Most of the curriculum should be topics that excite children and make them want to write — typically nonfiction centered around their passions or hobbies. When something is a significant part of your life, it’s relatively easy to put the thoughts that have been swirling around your mind for years on paper. (When I first discovered journaling, I wrote of my own volition for three hours in a single sitting until my hand was too sore to write anymore!)
We should teach writing proportionally to its use cases. If business writing, blogging, research papers, and journalism dominate written content in the real world, why are we poring over the writing of the minority?
Low Educational Bar
Paul Graham has an excellent essay on the history of teaching writing and why the status quo is so fixated on outdated literary analysis. He argues that in the 1100s, Europe started to rev its intellectual engine after being freed from centuries of chaos, and in doing so, re-discovered the classics. Since then, we no longer need to look back to ancient civilizations to glean knowledge, but the nature of education means the world has been slow to move on.
His essay is worth a read, but there’s one line I take issue with:
At sixteen I was about as observant as a lump of rock
Paul Graham suggests that as you age you see more of the world, becoming more observant. I agree. However, the education system severely exacerbates our teenage myopia.
Given the freedom to explore, kids would be much more observant. That’s what happens in college — they have more discretion in what courses they take, enabling them to find their true passions. They join friend groups that don’t consist of merely eating lunch at the cafeteria and participating in the same clubs every middle school has.
Of course, in the name of standardization, the American school system doesn’t treat kids as actual humans with their own personalities, feelings, and desires. Instead, every child is monocropped on the same curriculum. I was lucky enough to go to a high school where toward junior year I could pick a few electives (such as CS classes beyond AP CS), but even then, those were only a fraction of my total course load. Many students are not so lucky. Even if they are, they still spend their first ten years in the K-12 system on a steady drip of English, history, science, and “math”.
I don’t see an easy solution to personalize and accelerate curricula, especially because many of the problems stem from a lack of funding. It does seem to me that there’s a conspicuous lack of educational experimentation within and across schools — why aren’t there nationwide randomized controlled trials hell-bent on figuring out the best teaching method?
Everyone complains that grades are a horrible way to motivate students and discourage actual learning.
But grades, or metrics more generally, can be extremely powerful tools when used correctly. Though to use them correctly, they have to actually map closely to the “true” end goal you want. When you’re writing in the real world, your #1 goal is for your writing to be read by people. You want people to come back to your writing. (Maybe subscribe to your Substack 😉.) You want to be viewed as a good writer, maybe as an authority figure in your field. You want people to buy your book, write a good review, and recommend it to friends and family. There is a constant loop in your head evaluating your writing, thinking about how to make it clearer, more concise, and more engaging until you’ve stretched your ability to its max.
This incentive structure is in direct contrast to writing in the classroom. In America, your teacher always reads your work (unless it’s really bad). Your goal is to check every box in the rubric so that when you get a lower grade than expected, you can whine about it and maybe boost your grade by 5%.
Introduction. Three body paragraphs with a topic sentence and three supporting details. Conclusion. Check, check, and check. It’s even more absurd to me as I write this; have I ever used this structure outside of school? Has any writer? Surely at some point the curriculum should explore different formats.
As a side note, why don’t we read books on how to write well? Or do copy work? Why are we not following the steps actual writers employ to write better?
Granted, it’s a hard problem to solve; the more creative freedom you give students the harder it is to grade them objectively. And as much as people knock on grades, they genuinely do motivate students to work; if we loosen grading requirements students will inevitably slack off, but this is due in part to subject apathy — if they were writing about a topic they cared about, students wouldn’t need grades to motivate them (as much).
Lack of Socialization
In the real world, writing involves caring about what other people think, because other people read your writing. Personally, I find writing for other people very motivating — social validation drives me more than I’d like to admit. But aside from getting likes on Twitter, I want to genuinely engage with the community. When a post of mine goes viral, it’s not the number of likes keeping me glued to the screen, spamming F5 — it’s the comments. I’m curious what other people think about my ideas and writing.
In school, only your teacher reads your writing. Maybe once a month you’ll have some sort of peer review where you scan your classmates’ essays for typos and awkward sentences. There’s no discussion around the merits of your piece, whether they agree or disagree with your argument, or how it makes them feel.
Outside school, writing is significantly more collaborative. San Francisco has too many writing clubs to count. People commiserate in knowing writing is hard but valuable and form groups to support each other. Aside from neighborhood accountability groups, the internet also facilitates niche communities where you can write about a specific topic, people respond to you, and you respond back, facilitating some semblance of social interaction. But because in school you write for your teacher, it doesn’t matter that hundreds of thousands of people could be interested in your writing; it only matters if it’s interesting to your teacher.
How Do We Fix This Mess?
First, a disclaimer: I’m not a teacher, and I don’t know the intricacies of the American education system. I don’t know what the current regulation allows and disallows. But at the same time, I can’t help but notice what seems to be complacency and a total lack of experimentation. Given that education is a crucial factor in the health of a nation, we should strive to create the best schooling system possible.
If I had to prescribe a solution based on what made me return to writing, for students with similar interests to mine, I would opt for a solution that blends writing with exploration. Keeping them motivated and avoiding subject apathy should be the primary goal. We have to play the long game — students are in the school system for over a decade — a bad writing experience can put them off writing for years.
Ben Kuhn has a good piece on surfacing ideas you’d be excited to write about. In summary, try:
writing about something you said in a conversation with a friend that surprised them
documenting a project you did recently — what went well, what went poorly
explaining how to do something you do
explaining how something works
reviewing a book
writing a rant
refuting something internet commenters/public intellectuals frequently say that seems wrong
Students would work on a piece for two weeks each, spending equal writing and researching. Once or twice a week there would be a feedback session where peers review each other’s writing, noting sections that could be trimmed, elaborated upon, or restructured. Once a week there would be a workshop that would teach a writing technique, where students would work on writing exercises and then apply it to the piece they’re working on.
One thing to note: this requires students to go out and do things outside of the classroom (as inspiration for their writing), but that seems like a desirable property of a curriculum!
Maybe this would cause our schools to churn out an endless supply of Substack “thought leaders”. But maybe, just maybe, we might produce a generation of students whose eyes glimmer at the chance to explore the world and share their findings with fervent articulation.