As a Comp I professor, I am regularly surprised and disheartened every semester by the quality of writing I get from my students. These are high-school graduates who scored high enough on a placement test to enter freshman English, and yet, I would estimate at least 25 percent of them use words like “thru” and “till” in their essays. They don’t understand how to write a complete sentence. They think one uses a comma “wherever there’s a pause in the sentence.”
And that’s just their writing skills. Many of them (again, I’ll estimate it at about a third) can’t understand reading assignments if they are “too long” or “use too many big words.” Bear in mind, these are essays in a freshman English textbook. It’s so bad that my college recently opened a new tutoring center called the Reading Center to – you guessed it – help students with their reading skills.
Don’t even get me started on critical thinking skills. In both my English and journalism classes, there are always several students who not only don’t know how to tell the difference between a fact and an opinion, they don’t even know there is a difference. I always dread the day I give this lesson, because when I see this, I just want to stab myself in the eyes with a fork.
So I gird my loins and try to teach them these skills – skills I learned in upper elementary and junior high school. They groan and (the ones who actually do the assignments, anyway) trudge through it, no doubt ready to forget it all as soon as the semester is over.
Lest you think this is just another “kids-these-days” screed, I assure you, I have a point. As recent articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Time show, employers overwhelmingly say they need employees with communication and critical thinking skills, but that most college grads lack them. These are exactly the kinds of skills that liberal-arts courses like English literature and composition teach, and that students (and increasingly, administrators) disdain. As public schools push out “fluffy” courses like art and literature to make room for “back to the basics,” “skill-and-drill” curricula – the kind easily evaluated with mulitple-choice tests – these higher-level skills either don’t get taught or get such a cursory treatment they are easily forgotten.
However, I think we are getting invaluable feedback on the efficacy of our education system here. Administrators and politicians can blather about test scores and accountability all they want, but what really matters is the end result: are we preparing our children to take their places as the workers, entrepreneurs, healers, leaders, athletes and artists of American society? Apparently, the answer is “no.”
You may ask what all this has to do with reading and/or writing. The answer is this: good writing is a communication skill that requires critical thinking (what do I want to say? how is the best way to say it?). While knowing the minutae of grammar and punctuation might not seem that important, writing is the primary way the business world communicates, and incorrect grammar or punctuation can make your writing harder to understand (or even alter your meaning).
In addition, reading literature – any literature, really – requires some level of critical thinking; literature courses are designed to stimulate critical thinking even further. Reading literature has also been shown to increase empathy, which is a core component of the “soft skills” so valued by employers.
Which is my very roundabout way of saying that those core English courses, the ones so derided by students, might actually some of the most valuable courses they can take.