“It is commonly noted that young people today don't write as well as older generations.”
That's the first sentence in a gton Post story by an English teacher. It’s true to a point: Young people do struggle to write… but adults do too. A survey of America’s blue-chip corporations once found that a third of employees are bad writers — and the companies were spending $3 billion a year to fix the problem.
Clearly, we have a problem with writing. But who is to blame? And how do we solve it?
That’s where it gets interesting.
I explored this question on my latest podcast episode, where I discovered a fascinating, unexpected, and entirely fixable problem. People are bad writers because, for roughly 150 years, we’ve been teaching writing all wrong. And it all dates back to a fateful decision made in 1875.
There’s a lesson for us all in here: If we want to fix a problem, we need to dig into the foundation upon which the problem rests.
Let’s take a look.
And if you rewind to the 1800s, you’ll find the same complaint — kids can’t write! — attributed to a different set of villains: street slang, the bad writing in newspapers, and even popular novels. "The better the novel, the more evil its influence," claimed E.L. Godkin, the editor in chief of the New York Evening Post from 1883 to 1899.
But none of this is correct. Want to know what really ruined writing?
Around the year 1875, the American economy diversified. People required more specialized education to work more specialized jobs. Institutions of higher education had to respond. Until then, institutions like Harvard University were largely practicing an oral tradition — teaching their (white, male) students how to be gentlemen scholars, often through verbal philosophizing.
But this new economy required writing. So the schools instituted entrance exams, which included a written component. That’s when they discovered that their students were terrible writers.
So what happened next?
“Instead of saying, “Gosh, we should teach them,’ they said, ‘They're lazy. They're stupid. They don't know how to do this. Somebody has failed them. It's definitely not us,’” Wardle says. “And so they totally missed an opportunity and we have never recovered from that.”
Instead of truly investing in writing education, Harvard set up a remedial composition class, taught by the lowest-value teachers at the university, and basically called it a day. Then all other colleges and universities followed. This class is still with us. We know it now as first-year composition, or freshman comp.
Schools (both K-12 and higher ed) also began to treat the five-paragraph essay as a foundational writing concept. Why? Because it’s easy to grade, Wardle says. But that means we end up teaching structure, not content. And content is the beautiful, exciting thing about writing! Why do we write at all? To communicate. And communicating can take many forms, for many purposes, most of which school does not reward.
(To be clear, Elizabeth doesn’t blame teachers for this. She blames the system that they must adhere to.)
But there is a better way, Wardle says.
Many students grow up thinking of “writing” as an essay that is produced in English class. They may hate writing those essays. Therefore, they come to hate writing and believe they are bad at it. They may write in other ways — writing songs, writing fan fiction, writing anything — but they do not think of that as writing, because school does not recognize it as writing.
This is central to the problem, Wardle says. Students become afraid of writing.
“I had a student say once, "I've never written to an audience before. I've only written to a rubric.’” she says. “That's horrible.”
Wardle’s work is part of a national movement called writing across the curriculum, which helps students and professors think of writing differently. They show that writing isn’t for one kind of class, and it doesn’t take one form. “Writing mediates activity,” Wardle says — which is to say, writing is something that drives action. Full stop.
How do you open people’s minds to this? In all sorts of ways. Wardle has her students take inventory of everything they write (songs, fan fiction, etc), which they may not think of as writing. She wants to open their minds to the reality that they already write, and that those skills are transferrable to other kinds of writing that they just haven't learned yet.
“We teach them that you can always improve, because writing is not something you're just born able to do,” she says.
She also works with professors in different disciplines, to help them appreciate the importance of writing in their own fields — and how valuable it is for them to take ownership of that.
By way of example, Wardle told me about a colleague who’s teaching a world religion class. He was bored with all his students’ essays. “Well, where in the world do people actually write about these issues?” Wardle asked him. He showed her an issue of a magazine called Christianity Today. “Do we need to talk about this anymore?” she asked.
“No, no, I know what to do,” he replied. Then he had his class create their own magazine, where they were writing about real issues for real reasons — helping engage his students in writing on subjects they will find meaningful and purposeful, and expanding their ability to see themselves as “writers”.
“There is no reason that we can't be doing that,” Wardle says, “but it's not how we're trained to think. We just assign what was assigned to us.”
There’s a lot more to this, which you can hear in my podcast episode. But here’s the big point I want to make here:
If we believe that bad writing is caused by Twitter and text messages, we’d essentially be throwing our hands up in the air and saying, "Well, I guess that can't be fixed!" Because we cannot stop tweeting and texting. But also, we’d be fools: By oversimplifying the problem, we'd have inhibited our ability to create a meaningful solution.
By contrast, work like Wardle’s is the kind of forward momentum you get when you look to the root of a problem. No boogeymen, no lost generation of idiotic students — just sweeping opportunity.
I hope we’re all taking notes.