On Teaching Writing in High School – Or, Why Anthony Esolen is Wrong

Anthony Esolen is a teacher and writer whom I profoundly respect and admire, and with whom I find myself almost constantly in disagreement. (Except for most of his stuff in the Magnificat publication. That’s usually great.)

This is a piece he wrote a year ago in Crisis Magazine that continutes to nettle me. You will basically get the gist of his argument from the title: “The Common Core’s Substandard Writing Standards.”

I’m not going to tackle the whole thing here. Rather I’m going to obnoxiously excerpt two particular passages that make me roll my eyes whenever I think about them.

Esolen writes:

So, when I don my robe as the Unteacher, I never say to my students, “Follow these steps and you will be a great writer,” as if I were imparting the secret ingredients of an infallible potion.  I say, “Never pretend to know what you do not really know.  Never pretend to believe what you do not believe.  Never affect a certainty you cannot reasonably claim.  Never affect uncertainty so as not to offend the muddled.  Never use a word whose meaning and usage you are unclear about.  Never open a thesaurus unless you are looking for a word you know quite well but cannot at the moment remember.  Never put on airs.” (Esolen)

And, poof! With a few more inspiring speeches, he teaches them how to write about the true, the good and the beautiful.

Ahem.

Besides snarkily commenting on the “airs” he may or may not be “putting on” in this very passage, I would also like to point out that Esolen lives in the blissful ivory tower of academia, where of course following formulaic “steps” to writing is considered exceptionally mundane and lowly. In his Crisis Magazine bio, we learn that he “teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College.”

Thus I suppose many of the college students Esolen teaches already know, at least partially, how to write coherently. Otherwise, they probably wouldn’t be going to Providence College.

But the Common Core standards are not written for college students. They are also not written for college professors who seldom see the miserable sludge the passes for thinking in high school essays. Indeed, these standards were not written with you in mind at all, Professor Esolen, and so you cannot really fault them for not ringing true to your experience of pedagogy.

The Common Core Standards (imperfect as they may be) are written for high school educators who are still trying to get their kids to write in complete sentences.

I sympathize with how Esolen feels. The Common Core seems to be a dumbing-down of the mysterious art of writing. It talks a lot about using evidence and not very often about telling the truth–which is, in the long run, far more important. Esolen is right about that and I wrestle with that valid point here: “Language, Truth and Power in the Classroom”.

But Esolen believes the authors of the Common Core

do not read poems at all, really.  They read texts, or, as they put it with the air of technicians, text.  When you read a passage by Dostoyevsky, or a poem by Donne, or the maunderings of a politically correct doyen, you are reading text, and reading text requires the same techniques, always and ever, just as there is a correct way to dissect a dead cat on the laboratory table. (Ibid)

You know, he has a point. The Common Core does treat pretty much every work as a “text” you can approach in a systematic, perhaps even coldly scientific way.

As a high school student myself, I would have hated this. Writing always came naturally to me, and I glanced snobbishly at the formulaic outlines my silly high school teachers made me write and ignored them because I didn’t need them (or think I did). I was too busy, with Esolen, contemplating the true, the good and the beautiful.

But what I did not see then, and what Esolen does not see now, is that the “steps” and “secret ingredients” he so easily dismisses are very necessary to 90% of high school students.

Nobly, he professes his writing creed:

But I and my comrades believe that rhetoric is subordinate to the humanities.  We attend to Keats’ words and metaphors so that we will better see what he is saying to us about what it means to be human.  We do not invert the order of ends.  We care ultimately about the good, the true, and the beautiful, and what vision of those that Keats was granted to see.  We read poetry as poetry, and we rejoice in its truth and its beauty, nor do we presume to know all about it. (Ibid)

This is very noble, and even very UD of him–but as far as most of my high school kids are concerned, it’s also a bunch of crap. They don’t rejoice in poetry because they do not know how. They don’t “care” about “the good, the true and the beautiful” because most of them don’t know (yet) what those are. They ignore the “vision” of Keats because they have too much obstructing their own vision right now.

It is my goal to help them improve their vision so they can see and travel the road ahead, but unless you give them specific tasks and directions to hold onto, most of them will wander and get hopelessly lost in the jungles of adolescent thinking.

High school students don’t need a preacher. They need a teacher– a fellow-learner–who is willing to see how complicated and crazy it all looks, and try to help them make sense of it.

Esolen would probably cringe at the lessons I’m teaching my kids right now on writing: the 4 methods for incorporating a quote, quote sandwiches, the thesis formula (A is B because of 1, 2, 3!), the 3 parts of an intro paragraph, the 4 parts of a body paragraph, how to use textual(!) evidence…

I am offering my kids “secret ingredients.” I am giving them “steps.”

Because you know what? They work.

And I hope learning these steps will help my kids eventually make the long journey toward the True, the Good and the Beautiful.

But you can’t run until you can walk.

And if we have to start with crawling, then so be it.

 

 

More on the Core:

Language, Truth and Power in the Classroom – Part II

Getting to the Core

If I Could Teach One Thing About Writing…

 

 

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2 Comments

Filed under Catholicism, Christ, Education, Literature, Poetry, Teaching

2 responses to “On Teaching Writing in High School – Or, Why Anthony Esolen is Wrong

  1. Pingback: Why Anthony Esolen is Wrong, Part II | Mysteries and Manners

  2. CJ Wolfe

    Even from a UD liberal arts perspective, you should be able to see why what Esolen says is partially misguided. The liberal arts originally consisted of a course of learning that included the Trivium (logic, GRAMMAR, and rhetoric) and Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music).

    You simply had to know grammar before you read the great classical works. And the rhetoric portion of the trivium included learning set essay styles such as “the Quintilian,” a framework very similar to the ones you describe (it consisted more or less of a thesis, evidence, objections, replies to objections, conclusion).

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